Mini-LED Made Affordable
Sound & Vision|April - May 2021
IN LATE 2019, TCL flew me to the company’s U.S. offices in California to spend an afternoon with its new flagship, the 75Q825 8-Series Roku LCD Ultra HDTV, a 75-inch 4K model.
Thomas J. Norton

Not all of that particular set’s firmware was complete at the time, but Sound & Vision took advantage of the opportunity to give our readers a sneak preview. The 75Q825’s signature feature was TCL’s use of mini-LEDs for backlighting, and at its then price of $3,000, it was something of an outlier for a brand typically associated with budget TVs.

Fast forward one year and we have the 65R635 6-Series Roku LCD Ultra HDTV, a 65-inch model that the company shipped us for review. Like their 8-Series siblings, the latest 6-Series models feature a mini-LED backlight, but at $1,000, the 65R635 represents a considerably more affordable option. (Don’t confuse mini-LED with the MicroLED technology that’s currently available only at nosebleed prices. As with any LED/ LCD set, the TLC’s mini-LEDs are used as the backlighting for an LCD imaging panel.)

Since mini-LEDs are much smaller than conventional LEDs, thousands of them can be squeezed into a display. This creates more uniform backlighting than conventional LEDs are capable of, but due to cost considerations, current sets lack the processing power needed to let each mini- LED act as its own local dimming zone. Instead, the mini-LEDs are arranged into clusters, with each cluster acting as an independently controlled zone. TCL claims a maximum of 240 local dimming zones for the 6-Series, with “maximum” likely referring to the largest, 75-inch model. For the 65-inch 6-Series set I measured 160 zones—still an impressive number.

TCL won’t be alone in offering mini-LED for long since sets using the backlight technology were announced from other manufacturers, including Samsung and LG, at the 2021 CES. TCL itself has announced that the upcoming 6-Series for 2021 will be exclusively 8K. No word, as I write, as to how that might impact set prices.

The 6-Series employs quantum dots for wide color performance and is compatible with most HDR formats, including HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HLG (but not HDR10+). TCL doesn’t claim to provide dynamic tone mapping for HDR, but instead uses whatever tone mapping metadata is present in the source: dynamic for Dolby Vision, static for HDR10.

TCL calls the central processor in 6-Series sets the AiPQ Engine, which, in addition to the usual chores a CPU performs in a TV, supports a unique feature: iPQ Mobile Calibration. This taps the camera in your smartphone to capture onscreen images and uses the results to perform a color calibration. So far only two types of phones feature cameras consistent enough to meet the requirements for iPQ Mobile Calibration: Google Pixel phones and Apple iPhones. (Calibrations for this review were done manually, the oldfashioned way.)

The 65R635 is almost inseparable from its Roku Smart TV platform, which includes the most familiar streaming apps— HBO Max, Disney+, and Apple TV+ included—along with many obscure ones, some free, and others requiring a subscription. TCL’s non-backlit remote control is small but adequate and offers a useful voice search feature. The set can also be controlled using voice commands and supports voice assistants including Alexa, Siri, and Hey Google.

The set’s four HDMI inputs aren’t fully HDMI 2.1, but they do offer two game-related 2.1 features: VRR (Variable Refresh Rate) and ALLM (Auto Low Latency Mode). Its Game picture mode is also the first to be THX-certified. The 65R635 is also capable of displaying 4K/120Hz video at full frame rate, though not in combination with HDR. Using a Bodnar input lag meter (at 1080p), input lag was measured at 17.7ms in both the set’s Game and Movie modes, making the TCL a solid option for gaming.

The 65R635’s HDMI 4 port offers eARC (Enhanced Audio Return Channel), which can pass multi-channel audio (including lossless formats) to an external AVR or HDMIequipped soundbar. When using the apps on the set’s Roku interface, eARC worked well, though the results varied with the app. For example, Netflix worked flawlessly up to and including multichannel Dolby Atmos, but with YouTube I never experienced anything other than lossy 2.0 audio.

With my cable box connected to one of the TCL’s HDMI inputs, eARC offered full 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, but things were not as reliable with an Oppo UDP-203 disc player routed through the TV to a Denon A/V receiver. The initial results were so erratic as to be unusable, ranging from full surround to no sound at all. But a TCL rep recommended that I change the set's S/PDIF and eARC setting from its default Auto detect mode to Autopassthrough, and after that change it functioned perfectly. The TCL can also pass both 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks to an AVR via its optical digital audio output, though you'll first need to change the default audio settings to the SP/DIF and eARC (Dolby Digital Plus/DTS) option. There’s no lip-sync adjustment for the set’s built-in audio, which I occasionally found to be an issue when watching cable TV channels. Overall, the TCL’s sound was respectable and fine for casual listening, but I wouldn’t expect sonic miracles.

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