Benjamin Levin/CNN
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TCL has been all over the earbuds arena with releases like the TCL SOCL500TWS, which fit the “budget” description to a T, as well as the TCL S150 and TCL S200. And now the company is back with the $100 TCL MoveAudio S600, budget buds that pack active noise cancellation (ANC) despite the relatively low price.

The TCL MoveAudio S600 offered a mixed experience at times but came out swinging in many respects. They certainly give some of the best budget earbuds a run for their money. But where do they shine the most, and where do they fall short? See how these TCL buds stacked up after almost a week of testing.

Affordable earbuds with ANC

These TCL earbuds provide good overall sound and and the ANC is as effective as you can hope for at the $100 price tag. They're not best in class or best in budget though.

The who, what and how

Who these are for: The $100 TCL MoveAudio S600 are a decent choice for Android users looking for a budget pair of buds that, despite the low price, come with ANC capability. They work well on iOS too but lean more toward Android devices with a fast pairing feature for the latter OS.

What you need to know: The TCL MoveAudio S600 provide quality playback and strong battery life but fall short on bass. That being said, they sport earbud essentials that are underrepresented in their price range, such as decent ANC and fast pairing.

How they compare: When it comes to affordable earbuds, a category we’ve thoroughly explored, the TCL MoveAudio S600 give and take. The buds feature decent sound quality but poor bass. They simply lack the kick of the $50 EarFun Air, our best budget earbuds of 2021. However, unlike the EarFun Air buds, the MoveAudio S600 support advanced features like ANC, transparency mode and fast pairing.

A design that doesn’t push the envelope

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TCL wasn’t taking many risks in the physical design of the TCL MoveAudio S600, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The ear tips protrude from a bulbous top end, with rigid cylindrical stems melded into the back. We can’t complain — it’s a tried-and-true format.

For color options, you have three choices: white, black and gray. The white option is like polished plastic, while black has a dusted appearance. The gray option takes on a metallic appearance, reminding us of Apple’s Space Gray.

It’s easy to forget these earbuds are in your ears. They weigh next to nothing, and they don’t put any undue pressure on your ears. Our pair fit right away, but if you find they’re falling out or not snug in your ear, TCL includes four pairs of different sized ear tips. This is a great addition that we tend to see in more expensive pairs, like the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, which come with three swappable tips.

The touch controls are also pretty standard, with one quirk that left us a little confused. The right earbud controls music playback, calls and ANC/transparency mode, while the left earbud gives you access to phone notifications and built-in Google Assistant. However, there are no volume controls programmed in these buds out of the box. You actually have to install the TCL Connect app and customize the touch controls to add volume.

If you’re caught in the rain or just have a particularly vigorous workout, you don’t have to worry about your earbuds. The TCL MoveAudio S600 are IP54 rated, meaning they’re splash- and sweat-resistant. We put the earbuds through about 10 splashes of water and went on a run with them on, and they held up fine. However, when water splashed directly into one of the ear tips, the affected earbud sounded a little glitchy. We’d recommend keeping your buds in your ears if it rains or packing them away if a downpour is looming.

Noticeable noise cancellation

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We weren’t anticipating groundbreaking ANC on a pair of $100 earbuds. In fact, at this price point, we were worried the feature would be too minimal to make a difference. This was not so with the TCL MoveAudio S600. Though it pales in comparison to buds like Apple AirPods Pro or the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, it’ll still help tune out some background distractions.

Our first test consisted of wearing the MoveAudio S600 in a busy retail store. Admittedly, we had to toggle ANC off and on a few times in the app. But as we kept listening, we began to appreciate the effects. The chatter of fellow customers became a little harder to understand, and the distant droning of carts and commotion was minutely dampened. However, these buds struggled to affect louder and more abrupt distractions, like a squeaky cart or a disgruntled shopper we brushed past.

We then took a listen while playing a stadium crowd soundtrack. This more consistent, droning track was muffled minorly in the higher-pitched range, which helped us focus a little more on our music. We had a similar experience listening to rain — the pitter-patter of the gentler drops was less pronounced, but the more intense thrum of the storm remained. We also took them on a run, where we encountered wind, traffic and all sorts of other ambient noise. The ANC took just enough of the edge off the sounds of wheels on pavement and the voices of passersby to improve our experience.

Finally, we put the ANC to the test in earshot of a noisy washing machine. Most of the sloshing and deep humming was too much for the buds, resulting in almost imperceptible improvements that could well have been our imagination as the machine rumbled on inconsistently.

What was perhaps more impressive was the TCL MoveAudio S600’s transparency mode. This is a setting that amplifies the sound around you rather than dampening it. With the mode enabled, we found it much easier to hear people in the room, near and far. And when listening to it in the rain, it sounded more like we were playing a rain ambiance soundtrack, a sensation that ended up being very relaxing.

A flatter sound experience, but fulfilling core features

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To start on a positive note, these TCL buds provide reasonably crisp audio in the mid range. Listening to “Intrepid” by Brianna Tam, the complex violin and accompanying instruments came out clearly in the mid range. And Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” was easy to rock out to as the Boss’ voice and guitar alike came out strong.

However, when the violin in “Intrepid” or the saxophone in “Born to Run” drew toward the higher notes, we felt these earbuds struggled. Specifically, higher notes felt a little muted, like they weren’t reaching their full potential. Similarly, the bass (the instrument) in “Intrepid” didn’t reach the satisfying depths we’re used to in higher-end buds, or even the comparable, more affordable EarFun Air earbuds. Overall, the audio clarity was high, but it felt restricted at these more extreme ends of the audio spectrum.

Soundstage, or the three-dimensional feel of a musical piece, was subpar on the MoveAudio S600, but not unforgivable. While listening to Sufjan Stevens’ “Mystery of Love,” a song that normally resonates like you’re on a roomy stage with the singer just by your ear, the stage felt small. The audio came out clearly, and we could still get some sense of the positions of instruments, which is satisfactory when it comes to affordable earbuds.

Finally, the TCL MoveAudio S600 delivered very little on bass (not the instrument). The drums of Bruce’s “Born to Run” lacked their characteristic kick. And “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish, known for its thundering, rhythmic bass, just didn’t pack a punch. The bass wasn’t nonexistent; we were once again drawn to a comparison with the EarFun Air, which provided a much punchier experience.

The touch controls on these earbuds weren’t the most responsive, sometimes taking up to just over a second to pause music or pick up a call. And, as is the bane of many touch-controlled earbuds, we found ourselves accidentally pausing and playing music when we went to adjust the earbuds. With that said, we never found ourselves frustrated with the response times.

It’s not all bad, though. For starters, not many budget earbuds attempt noise cancellation and transparency mode. And those that do rarely do it well. Plus, these earbuds are capable of fast pairing with Android phones. In fact, just a few moments after we opened them, our nearby Android device jumped at the chance to pair up. You can also access built-in Google Assistant via the left earbud by default.

Then there’s the TCL Connect app, a companion app for many TCL devices. The main benefit of the app from our perspective is the ability to customize the touch controls on each individual earbud. And from what we can tell, this is the only way to add volume controls to these earbuds, so the app is kind of a must. It’s also worth noting that, though Google Assistant is the default smart assistant, you can set up your touch controls to activate Siri instead.

The other features of the app include toggling ANC, transparency mode and wearing detection, which pauses your music if you take off the earbuds. You can also keep track of each individual earbud’s battery level, as well as that of the case. It isn’t the most comprehensive app, but the features it includes are nice to see.

Strong on battery, weak on calls

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One of the stronger features of these earbuds is the battery life. The TCL MoveAudio S600 promise up to 32 hours of battery life with the charging case, and eight hours at a time between charges. Though our testing fell short at about 28 hours total with ANC off, and seven hours between charges, that is still a respectable life span. This is competitive with the EarFun Air, which achieved very similar results.

With ANC on, the buds lasted between four and a half and six and a half hours, at an average of five and a total of about 21 hours with the case. We were pleased with this result, albeit inconsistent, which rivalled the life of much higher-quality earbuds like the five and a half hours of the Galaxy Buds Pro with ANC on.

Sadly, however, there is no fast charging feature. It takes the MoveAudio S600 about two hours to reach a full charge from a total drain.

After our music tests, we had relatively high hopes for these buds’ call quality. Unfortunately, these hopes were dashed once our recipients picked up. We called a number of friends and family, and each time they sounded muffled, even dropping out for a moment when they spoke too quietly. We received a few complaints about the quality on their end too, including descriptions like an “echoey” or “flattened” voice. It’s not the end of the world if you have to take a call with these earbuds, but we wouldn’t rely on them if the call is, say, a job interview.

Bottom line

The TCL MoveAudio S600 might not have topped our best budget earbuds of 2021, but they would probably come in second place. The sound quality is good overall, and the ANC is as effective as you can hope for at the $100 price tag. They also shine in important areas like battery life and control customization via the companion app.

The TCL MoveAudio S600 ride the middle of the road in many ways. However, if bass is very important to you and you can do without ANC, we’d have to recommend the $50 EarFun Air as a superior option. They pack much more powerful bass while maintaining similar sound quality and battery life. If you’re looking for a cheap pair of buds for yourself or as a gift, we’d call this one a toss-up.