When TCL tossed three pairs of headphones and earbuds into a box and shipped them to my doorstep, I was excited for a Loot Crate-style look at the lineup it hopes will garner respect in the personal audio world. My “haul” consisted of the true wireless SOCL500 earbuds, some on-ears with active noise cancellation in the MTRO200NC, and a pair of Onkyo-branded over-ear headphones with a similar skillset and purporting to deliver hi-res audio.
With a whole pile of spin sessions to churn through, I put all three through the supersonic gauntlet to see whether any deserve the noise TCL wants to drum up. I ultimately ranked them based on audio capabilities and overall feature set, so what lies at the bottom of this article may surprise you. Let’s get into the why.
TCL SOCL500 | $80 | Amazon
I never expected a pair of purple buds to be my favorite of the package TCL sent for review. (They’re also available in black, red, and blue.) While my personal style preferences bar me from rocking the SOCL500TWS daily, there are a couple of things I considered swallowing my pride for. The biggest is comfort: of all the earbuds I’ve tested to date, these fit the absolute best. TCL squared the plastic casing of the outer edges with a sharp finish. With the twist-lock motion, this causes my ears to death grip the buds. They feel incredibly secure in my ear and I could see myself running a marathon (if I weren’t so out of shape) without them falling out.
Sound-wise, the 6.5mm driver nestled inside each pair can get plenty loud, but turn it up too loud and you’ll introduce some eardrum-piercing distortion in the upper frequencies. This is true no matter what type of music or content you’re enjoying. The bass response is plenty tight with a proper ear seal, but between the problematic highs and a somewhat muddy treble, you can overpower a lot of important detail. It’s possible to rectify many of these impurities by turning the volume down a notch or two, but with its oddly placed buttons, I’d adjust it on the playback device to avoid frustrations.
Everything else is lovely. The connection is Bluetooth 5.0. You get IPX4 water resistance (not ideal for heavy showers, but should protect against light rain and sweat). And there’s 26-hour battery life, including 6.5 hours in the buds alone. My favorite thing? The translucent purple case, which shows the buds’ charging status without you having to flip it open. As a bonus, it resembles a cute little alien smiling back at you.
If you want to stand out, these are the buds to buy. Currently, you can find the SOCL500 often dipping about $10 below the $80 MSRP, but that’s still too rich for the total package, especially considering there are true wireless earbuds with noise cancellation and other bells and whistles for $20-30 less. Wait for a sale.
TCL MTRO200NC On-Ear Headphones | $80 | Amazon
This on-ear set is probably the best overall sounding of the lot, but with a strange caveat: they sound better with active noise cancelation off. The MTRO200NC were tuned for a balanced sound signature, though the 32mm drivers inside can’t deliver the kind of head-shaking power I’m used to. That would be just fine without some of the audio issues plaguing this set. The bass response is tighter with ANC on, but the entire sound stage suffers from heavy compression, causing you to lose too much detail in heavily layered and intricate tracks. You’ll restore some fullness by turning ANC off, but that defeats the purpose.
I can’t knock many of its outward features, and that begins with comfortability. At 187g, you could wear these all day without feeling weighed down. The top band doesn’t have any foam padding, though, and that’s a bit disappointing for you tender heads, but you should be able to manage with such little weight bearing down on your crown. I’ve been on a lifelong crusade against on-ears because far too many bruise my earlobes after just a couple hours of wearing. With ample padding and a flexible (but flimsy) build that doesn’t constrict my colossal head like a desk clamp, I could rock these all day long, especially with a rated 25 hours of continuous playback.
At $80, I couldn’t recommend these over comparably priced sets, especially when I can get better overall sound from cheaper studio monitors, albeit lacking the fancy wireless and noise-canceling properties. The point is moot for the latter, anyway.
Onkyo H720NC Headphones | $90 | Amazon | Clip coupon
Alright, here’s where I just have to shed a tear. Many of you may be familiar with Onkyo as a classic, well-respected audio brand. Unfortunately, the corporate sickle known as budget cuts cares not, so while it struggles to sell off its consumer audio business, Onkyo instead opted to license its name out to TCL. You slap on a pair of Onkyos hoping to hear something pleasant, and they’ll appease most casual needs, but they don’t deliver the sound I’d expect from a $130 pair of headphones (currently $90 on sale) marketed under an audio brand so highly revered.
The 40mm drivers sound a tad underpowered, ANC performance is laughable (which only shaves a few hours off its 26-hour max runtime when enabled), and this set has problems separating subtleties in the upper mids, an important area for most tracks. You’ll notice improvement after a lengthy break-in period, but not much. They’re plenty usable if you’re not hunting for instruments, but unless the cost reflects the fairly basic carrying case it ships with (doubt it), these are more comparable to $50 budget cans than the ring it attempts to box in.
And maybe I could forgive those issues if the headset wasn’t so annoying to use, thanks chiefly to the ultra-stiff buttons requiring multiple clicks or seconds-long holds for most actions. Make sure your health insurance is intact because you’ll probably develop carpal tunnel trying to adjust your volume or skip tracks. I applaud TCL for covering all of the usual control essentials—that’s true across the entire line—but if they’re a literal pain to use, what’s the point?
Well, at least they don’t look or feel as cheap as they sound, and your head won’t hurt as much as your hands thanks to thick padding on the ears and just enough on the band. The ear cups also rotate bi-directionally, so you’ll get a perfect fit no matter your head shape, and they’re easily stored for travel. If you can find these closer to $50-70 on sale, that’s the sweet spot to go for.
My thoughts on TCL’s headphones probably read out like the equivalent of a big playground bully making up for lost time, and that’s because I know the company can do better. We’ve witnessed legendary comebacks for the brand in the areas of budget TVs and smartphones, two product categories I’d argue are much harder to nail from an engineering standpoint. These headphones and earbuds are pretty OK for what they are, but TCL overshot the moon with their current price tags, and until they’re willing to come down on that, I can’t in good faith recommend anyone buy them.
Now excuse me while I go pour one out for Onkyo.