These $15 TCL earphones have no right to sound as good as they do

Here are some sensible prejudices I have about earphones: if they’re dressed up in a frilly design or lustrous colors, if the only claim their packaging can make is “party for one,” if they cost less than $20, and if their maker is a company that’s never previously made headphones, I tend to assume they’re going to be bad earphones. TCL’s newly released SOCL earbuds tick every single one of these dubious boxes, and yet… they sound absolutely terrific.

The $14.99 SOCL300 come in a tiny cardboard package that could be mistaken for a packet of pills. They’re so damn disposable, in fact, that TCL was giving them away to attendees of its CES keynote. My colleague Chris Welch brought back a pair from the event and asked me to give them a listen without specifying why. I dutifully did so, and then we both struggled to comprehend how TCL managed to squeeze so much sonic performance into such a tight budget. Seriously, these earbuds sound at least 10 times as good as their price and basic nature would lead you to believe.

The secret to TCL’s success with these earbuds is in striking just the right tonal balance. I’m not going to claim that their sound is pristine or crystalline, but it is coherent, realistic, and faithful to the music. The various elements of any given track come together nicely, and with a warm tuning that favors bass — just as I do — these earphones make the basic act of enjoying music extremely easy. Bass is the most challenging thing for tiny earphones to reproduce correctly, so most companies falter in one of two ways, giving you either overpowering or undernourished low frequencies. TCL serves up an expertly judged amount of bass, and it even throws a respectable bit of sub-bass into the mix.

The microphone on the SOCL300s is also great. In my testing, it did an amazing job of discarding the harsh sound reflections from the walls in my room — a hostile environment for any sort of serious recording — and produced a warm and pleasant sound. It’s so good, in fact, that even if the earphones didn’t sound wonderful, I’d say conference call enthusiasts would be well-served by owning a pair of these earphones just for that mic.

Beside unreasonably good performance for the price, the TCL SOCL300s also have effortless fit. They’re featherlight, snuggle up into your ear without ever causing any discomfort, and provide a reasonable seal and isolation from external noise. As to their aesthetic design, TCL manages to do a fun little color gradient along the wire, with options of orange, blue, purple, and black (which fades to gray). Now, of course, you’re not getting a ton of accessories like Comply foam tips or an especially rugged cable — some strain relief at the earbuds’ base would have been nice — but at $15, can you really quibble about such things?

TCL is only just getting into the headphones business, and its SOCL line was announced at CES alongside MTRO, ACTV, and ELIT ranges that flesh out a full portfolio of products seemingly from out of nowhere. But the company, best known for making good TVs at affordable prices, has clearly taken the time to do headphones right, and the stuff it launched (and gave away) at CES is worthy of respect.

I don’t know how much longer the average consumer will keep buying headphones and earphones with a 3.5mm plug, but I’m entirely confident that we should all have a pair of these surprisingly delightful TCL earbuds.

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Post time: Sep-10-2019