Think back, way back to CES 2020. Remember when we tech journalists still travelled (in airplanes!) to trade shows and covered the crap out of them? Those were the days! It all seems like ages ago now. But I digress… Back at CES in January, among the plethora of devices TCL announced -- all the TVs, cool phones, and even prototypes -- were these unassuming true wireless earbuds, the SOCL500TWS (ugh, that name). They gave everyone in the media a pair.

I didn’t think much of them at the time. Sure, I was intrigued by the reasonable $80 price tag and the colorful translucent design, but quickly forgot about them. See, CES is an infernal beast of an event that requires an unwavering focus on the “important news” (TM). So I just tossed them into my pile of CES schwag, as one does. And so for weeks they lay in a corner of my office, sad and lonely, among piles of gaudy PopSockets and dubious USB thumb drives.

Until I rescued them and gave them a greater purpose, that is... I can’t quite remember why (how?) I dug them out, but it’s probably related to the arrival of Samsung’s Galaxy Buds+, and to my need to compare a bunch of true wireless earbuds for my recent Freebuds 3 review. Thanks Huawei! Anyway, I did an unboxing video and tried those funky TCL earbuds out, and you know what? Wow. Like these-shouldn’t-be-this-good-for-the-money-why-didn’t-I-try-them-before-now-I’m-an-idiot wow.

See, ever since Apple had the (BS alert!) “courage” to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone and conveniently (simultaneously) launch the AirPods, everyone and their dog has been jumping on the true wireless earbuds bandwagon with various levels of success. So yeah, ditto TCL. I mean, why not? If you make some of the most popular TVs in the world, why not flex that brand muscle to peddle some true wireless earbuds and keep the voracious profit machine fed?

As you can probably tell by now, this isn’t so much a proper review as me rambling about my experience trying out these TCL earbuds. What you really need to know is that they stuck, and are now a part of my regular true wireless earbuds rotation. And if you’ve read my previous earbuds coverage, you know I’m picky AF about sound quality. I like products that aren’t obnoxiously bass heavy, and deliver accurate imaging and clean mid/highs. Think BeyerDynamic DT990 Pro or Etymotic Research ER 4SR.

So yeah, those TCL earbuds sound nice! They aren’t perfect by any stretch -- let’s get real, here -- but they also don’t suck, especially for $80. I distinctly remember getting lost in Cory Henry’s Korg solo on Snarky Puppy’s “Lingus”. They just sort of dissolve, something that’s rare with cheaper headphones/earbuds. Bass is tight, mids/highs are balanced, and imaging is lovely. These are a lot like Mexican hot chocolate: spicy enough to entice you, and sweet enough to delight you. Yum…

Their look is retro-cool, and obviously inspired by that late 90’s frosted, translucent, color gradient design. Which is fresh again, I guess? The case is simple, with a charging level button and LEDs on the back, plus a USB Type-C connector at the bottom. But, best of all, when the earbuds are stowed away and charging in the case, the LEDs on each earbud shine through the case like robot eyes -- think Eve in “Wall-E”. The whole thing is, dare I say, “kawaii”? Yeah, I went there, and you know it.

As for the earbuds themselves, they are small, light, and comfortable. They come with a selection of interchangeable silicone tips, which provide excellent passive noise isolation. Oh, you want active noise cancellation for $80? Good luck with that... I also like the clicky buttons on each earbud. They provide just the right amount of resistance and feedback, so you’re not gonna shove the earbuds deeper in your ear canal when you want to activate Google Assistant, or god forbid, Siri!

The controls aren’t programmable, and are a bit unusual -- single press for play, pause, take call, hang up (that’s normal so far), double press R or L earbud for volume up or down, press and hold R or L earbud to skip forward or backwards or reject a call, and triple press for your assistant of choice (Celia, right?) And of course there’s no app here. There’s also no aptX or wireless charging, which is fine I guess. What did you expect? These TCL earbuds are basic and proud.

Finally, these earbuds are OK for calls. They don’t sound spectacular by any stretch, but nobody I called complained about voice quality when I asked, so that’s probably a good thing, right? According to TCL, each earbud should last up to 6.5h on a charge, plus 20h extra with the case. I never used them long enough to test this claim, but battery life was never a problem even after multiple short listening sessions (like washing dishes, or walking a few blocks to pick up essential groceries -- exciting, I know).

Look, I’m not saying you should buy these SOCL500TWS instead of fancier, active noise canceling earbuds like Apple’s AirPods Pro, Huawei’s Freebuds 3, or Sony’s wonderful WF-1000XM3! What I’m saying is that if you’re looking for quality, no frills, true wireless earbuds with decent passive noise isolation to keep your sanity in these crazy times, there isn’t much out there that can touch these TCL earbuds. Especially for $80. And that, my friends, is what makes them so damn awesome...