TCL SOCL500TWS wireless earbuds hands-on: You get what you pay for

TCL SOCL500TWS wireless earbuds hands-on: You get what you pay for

“TCL's first pair of true wireless earbuds offer the performance you'd expect for $80.”
  • Impressive battery life
  • Water resistance
  • Intriguing translucent design
  • Case feels flimsy
  • Paper-thin treble
  • Control buttons difficult to press

When it comes to America’s budding relationship with TCL, it’s all about the company’s value-packed 4K televisions, which offer incredible picture quality for their very low price points. But TCL is more than just a pretty screen. The company has heady ambitions when it comes to other consumer electronics products, including establishing itself in the increasingly competitive audio market.

For CES 2020, that equates to a new lineup of audio gear to follow TCL’s budget soundbars, including (because all audio brands are contractually obligated to do so) true wireless earbuds. First teased at IFA 2019, the SOCL500TWS are the brand’s first pair available in the U.S.

But catching up with the crowd after four years of innovation is no easy task. At just $80, the SOCL come in at a very nice price, but like other audio gear we’ve seen from TCL so far, they feel a bit more like an “also-ran” offering that aren’t likely to turn many heads.

Cool look, flimsy feel

I’m a realist. I know I shouldn’t expect the moon from a low-price pair of earbuds when it comes to build quality or design. But perhaps because TCL offers so much incredible value from its LED TVs, opening the SOCL is something of a letdown.

The paper-thin plastic bed that holsters the buds inside the cardboard packaging is a harbinger for the SOCL’s charging case itself, which is feather-light and feels like it’s one bad fall away from losing its lid. I do like the case’s micro size, and its translucent exterior, which fades in color on its way up, is a nice touch. I also like the fact that you can see the glow of the white LEDs on each earbuds’ exterior with the case closed, looking like beady eyes on a smiling little anime creature.

Inside, the buds are seated on tightly packed magnet charging pads, with just enough room to fit beneath the lid when closed. The buds are also sheathed in translucent casings, allowing you to peek inside at some of the circuitry. The circular housings give way to sharp, angular extensions on the exterior with a TCL logo that also serves as the singular control key for each earbud. It’s honestly surprising there’s a physical button here, as its so unassuming I pegged it for a touch sensor.

Solid specs

A year or two ago, I’d be flabbergasted by a pair of $80 true wireless earbuds that offer solid functionality. And while that’s simply not the case in today’s market thanks to rapid innovation and deep competition, the SOCL still offer some impressive features for their price point. That includes 6.5 hours of battery life per charge and 26 hours total playtime with the charging case (though I’ve not yet been able to test that claim), which tops Apple’s $250 AirPods Pro.

You’ll also get solid water-resistance with an IPX4 rating, and even volume control on the earbuds — again, something Apple’s pods don’t offer.

What’s not here are any extras like ambient sound, sensors to pause playback when you pull the buds out, or active noise cancellation technology. None of that is surprising at this price, though jumping up by $50 to Amazon’s Echo Buds gives you all those things. You can also access your voice assistant with a triple press of either control key.

Speaking of the control keys, I’m not a fan. I’ve been vocally opposed to hard-to-press buttons on fully wireless earbuds in the past due to the pressure they inflict on your ear canal, and the SOCL are a prime example of this. While touch controls are often less accurate than physical keys, I’ll take them any day over a button that makes me constantly shove the buds into my ears.

Jabra’s impressive 65t and 75t earbuds prove control keys don’t have to be stiff (though both are a fair bit more expensive, too), and true wireless upstarts like TCL would do well to take note of that discovery.

Chintzy sound

At $80, you’re not expecting much from the SOCL’s sound, and frankly, that’s about what you get here. Again, unlike TCL’s LED displays, nothing about the SOCL’s sound stands above the crowd or screams out “value pick!”

Let me be clear when I say that sound isn’t outright bad. It’s clear and relatively balanced, with some punchy bass on the low end of the spectrum. But the treble sounds a lot like how the plastic case feels: Flimsy.

The worst offenses come with sharper, brighter instruments like trumpets or percussion, offering a flat bite to the attack and a lack of resonance that tended to grate on my ears over time. Snare drums and cymbals are particularly tinseled, occasionally edging on distortion.

On the bright side, call quality is generally quite good. Callers are clear and present, and on the other end, no one had issues hearing me in my test calls.

Conclusion

While I’ll reserve a full verdict until I’ve spent more time with these earbuds, TCL’s first offering are a decent, if underwhelming addition to the teems of true wireless earbuds already on the market. Their 6.5 hours of battery life and water resistance give them a leg up over many low-priced models, but spending as little as $20 more on value-packed buds like 1More’s Stylish will yield more satisfying results — especially if you hold sound quality in high esteem.

The TCL SOCL500TWS earbuds will be released sometime in January 2020.

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