We built a budget big-screen TV system to maximise movies while minimising expense

TCL 65C845K TV, Panasonic DP-UB150EB Blu-ray player and Sonos Arc soundbar on a grey background
(Image credit: Future)

This can’t be right, surely? A complete, not to mention high-quality, AV system built around a 65-inch television that comes in comfortably under £2000? Well, it is right. And not only does this system represent uncommonly good value for money, in performance terms it also betters many similar but much more expensive trios of premium equipment from the big names in AV.

The system

TV: TCL 65C845K

TCL 65C845K TV on a grey background

(Image credit: Future)

Most of the credit for this mini economic miracle must go to the television here; TCL’s 65C845K, which is often available for around £950. This would be good value for a modestly specced TV of this size, but TCL hasn’t skimped with the features.

The C845K’s smarts are provided courtesy of Google TV. This means you get bags of content within an attractive and user-friendly interface, although it also means you go without a few UK-specific catch-up TV services. That is why, uniquely, TCL is prepared to provide anyone in the UK who asks for one with a free Roku smart stick that can deliver the services the TV can’t provide itself.

When it comes to panel technology, TCL takes the view that LED – Mini LED in particular – rather than OLED is the future of TV. And if this screen is anything to go by, they may have a point.

The Mini LED format is able to deliver more brightness and greater light control than can be achieved with the larger LEDs, much of the latter being down to local dimming, where multiple ‘zones’ of LEDs can be controlled independently of each other. The TCL also employs Quantum Dot technology to deliver high-volume colours able to capitalise on that extra brightness. It adds support for ‘active’ Dolby Vision and HDR10+, and can adjust its picture output to suit the light conditions in your room.

Yes, it is a bulky affair by modern standards, so not the best for wall-mounting, and the finish lacks the premium feel you might find in pricier sets. But we will live with those (minimal) compromises to get this level of featuring and picture quality.

Talking of picture quality, this TV doesn’t just seem impressive on paper – it actually delivers. Pictures on the 65C845K jump off the screen with an intensity far beyond anything else we have seen around this price. They even leave most other mid-range models – and even a few premium ones – looking dull by comparison. And those local dimming zones ensure, for the most part, that small bright objects retain their intended intensity in the midst of dark backdrops.

Black-level performance, too, is excellent for a screen of this price. There’s plenty of subtlety in dark shading and dark scenes are only minimally affected by any low-contrast greyness.

Add to that a stunningly vibrant and rich colour palette, and an outstanding level of sharpness and clarity – particularly with native 4K sources – and there’s very little here to quibble with.

4K Blu-ray player: Panasonic DP-UB150EB

Panasonic DP-UB150EB Blu-ray player on a grey background

(Image credit: Future)

With so many films available to stream these days, and the price of Blu-ray discs staying stubbornly high, you might wonder if it is really worth investing in a Blu-ray player. But when you can get a fine-quality player for no more than the price of five or six of the discs it is designed to play, the case begins to look a lot stronger. And that is even before you remember those frustrating evenings when you find out that the film you wanted to stream is no longer available on your chosen platform. All of which makes a good case for the Panasonic DP-UB150EB. Or, at least, it would do if the UB150EB hadn’t already made such a compelling case for itself.

In keeping with its £139 price, this player does not provide a wealth of features, and there are no apps or smart features onboard. What it does provide, though – as shown by its ergonomic remote control – is neatly presented and as much as most people will need. You can, for example, play lossless audio files, MP3s and AAC files through its USB 2.0 port, along with standard music CDs and, of course, DVDs.

Dolby Vision isn’t on the menu but HDR10+ and HLG are supported.

Neatly complementing the TCL C845K’s skill with local dimming, the Panasonic is strong on dark detail, as we discover when we watch season one of Game Of Thrones in 4K HDR. Even as the three members of the Night’s Watch head deep into the tunnel, it is still possible to see the rafters and rocks of the tunnel’s sides in the foreground in the growing darkness. And once we’re deep into that tunnel, it really is properly black.

Back out in the daylight, we notice that detail is, on the whole, also good. There is plenty of differentiation in the ice and snow and the bark on the trees looks strikingly real.

We drop down to 1080p with the Jack Reacher movie and are pleased with how well this Panasonic can upscale. Colours are still strong as the camera pans the boldly coloured autumn leaves of the Pittsburgh suburbs. All in all, this is a big step up from streaming.

Soundbar: Sonos Arc

Sonos Arc soundbar on a grey background

(Image credit: Future)

Big screens demand big sound. Ordinarily that would mean pairing our 65-inch TCL with a speaker package of some kind, but we are on a budget here so need to think more creatively. Thankfully, Sonos comes to the rescue with its exceptional Arc soundbar. At £799 this long but elegantly designed piece of kit hits a real sweet spot between price and performance. Yes, there are a few full-size speaker packages out there that cost less, but they invariably involve too many sonic and/or practical compromises.

The key weapon in the Arc’s armoury is upfiring drivers, which make its implementation of Dolby Atmos not just convincing but thrilling. They form part of the soundbar’s overall complement of 11 drivers (eight of which are elliptical woofers), each powered by a Class D digital amplifier.

Playing the bombing run scene from Unbroken, we are immediately transported to within the fuselage of the B-24 Liberator. Our listening room is filled with wind noise and the whirr of the plane’s engines, and the incidental creaks and rattles are placed in specific spots, including right in the top corners of the wall we’re sitting against.

Large dynamic shifts are deftly handled too, and there are vast quantities of deep, well-judged (so never overwhelming) bass. The treble, meanwhile, is clean and sparkling without ever veering into harshness, and dialogue is well projected.

Then, should you want it, there is the Arc’s role as an app- or voice-controlled wireless speaker that has access to virtually every music-streaming service and can work in conjunction with other Sonos speakers.

If it’s the full home cinema experience you want in a soundbar, look no further than the Sonos Arc. We have yet to hear a soundbar that compares to it for the money. And, in a budget system such as this one, that is pure gold.

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