Nothing ear (1) review: A breath of fresh air
Nothing is a consumer tech brand by OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei
How do you stand out as a new tech startup launching yet another entrant in the sea of sameness that pervades the true wireless earbuds space? If you’re Nothing - a consumer tech brand by OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei that’s backed by heavyweight investors like iPod creator Tony Fadell and Google Ventures - you challenge the status quo by redefining what consumers have come to expect in terms of design and features are a price point…not to mention, hype it up to levels yet unseen outside of new AirPods in this product category. Are Nothing’s inaugural Ear (1) earbuds with their transparent ‘Retro Futuristic’ design and compelling price point actually quite… something, or is it much ado about Nothing? Let’s cut to the chase.
It’s clear design and a pronounced attention to detail was one of the core driving forces behind the Ear (1) earbuds, a fact that is immediately evident from the moment you pick up the compact soap-box sized package in which it arrives. Inside, you get a set of small and large eartips to complement the medium ones that come pre-fitted, a short braided USB-C charging cable, a high-quality quick-start paper booklet and of course, the squircle-shaped, see-through case containing the earbuds. Well, almost see-through – there’s a clear plastic base and lid, with all the electronic components and battery contained in the white section in the middle, but I like that it didn’t forgo sturdiness or features like Qi wireless charging in pursuit of form. Barely there magnets keep the earbuds in place while charging and in transit, as does the pronounced dimple on the lid (which, by the way, turns the case into a quasi fidget spinner too!), and the red dot indicating the right earbud helps visually distinguish which earbud goes in where. The almost-jewel-like case finish does have its compromises in typical Indian conditions, it starts off pristine but picks up its fair share of smudges and scuffs within a week of use, and I suspect a couple of months of tossing into a handbag might leave it far worse for wear.
On to the earbuds themselves. It’s safe to say the Ear (1) buds look different from everything that’s out there, and the see-through aesthetic that we saw on the case makes its way across to the buds’ most distinctive, almost signature feature. The stems of the buds are encased in transparent plastic, showing off the innards in all their glory, from the mics and circuitry to the battery and the visible touch sensors. In the ear, the Ear (1) buds grab your attention with how visually distinct they are, which isn’t a surprise given how much input the folks at Teenage Engineering have in the design. The outside of the earbud stems is flat, allowing for a reliable gesture control area on either bud, and you can assign taps and swipes to control functions (play/pause, next/previous track, change noise cancellation mode and volume control).
That said, given the pre-launch hype, I expected Nothing to push the envelope even further with a fully see-through design. As it stands, I couldn’t help but feel that the driver housings and silicon tips still bear somewhat of a resemblance to the AirPods Pro. Not that there’s anything wrong with the design, but for a brand looking to reimagine the me-too earbuds space, the Ear (1) stopped a few steps short.
Part of what I attribute for the AirPods Pros’ success is their ability to sit in your ear all day and almost become an extension of your body, staying snug and secure without the associated ear fatigue. That comes down to the 5.4g weight, and Nothing’s gone one further, taking the Ear (1) to a featherweight 4.7g that felt light yet secure in my ears even after hours of use. These are among the most comfortable pair of earbuds I’ve ever tested, across all price segments, leave alone the sub-10,000 segment where the Ear (1) operates. The IPX4 rating means that they’re sweat proof, although gym-goers and runners may miss the extra wing tips that help secure more sports-focused earbuds.
The buds connect to your iOS/Android device of choice over Bluetooth 5.2, but you’ll want to get the dedicated Ear (1) app to unlock the complete feature set. Aside from gesture control and firmware updates, this is also where you can change the equalizer settings to bump up the treble or bass (cutely labelled as ‘More Treble’ and ‘More Bass’) or switch between noise cancellation (light or maximum) and transparency modes. Overall, on the software front, the Ear (1) checks all the basic boxes but remains a bit feature light – it’s missing stuff like digital assistant integration or simultaneous dual-device pairing. Nothing that can’t be addressed by a firmware upgrade in the future though.
It could be argued that most folks who are considering this will take a punt on sound quality and decide primarily based on design and pricing and feature set, bases that Nothing has addressed well in the Ear (1). The good news is that the buds punch well above their weight and price class – clearly the audio guys at Teenage Engineering have done their bit to bring out a balanced tuning on the buds’ 11.6mm graphene drivers, and I particularly loved the airiness of the soundstage that the Ear (1) buds delivered - it’s right up there with the Galaxy Buds Pro and the Oppo Enco X, both of which are significantly higher priced. These buds packed in bags of precision and clarity when it came to voices and complex arrangements of instruments, while losing none of the power of energetic bass-heavy numbers and heavy percussion pieces. The bass boost at the lowest end of the spectrum doesn’t spill over into the into the mid-bass and the mids, so there’s none of that boomy bass and muddled vocals that is far too common on budget earbuds. And while you could nitpick about certain tracks sounding better on the competition, know one thing – the Ear (1) buds sound self-assured in the knowledge that they compare very well to far more expensive options out in the market.
Noise cancellation on the Ear (1) lands somewhere in between middling and good, in that it effectively tackles some amount of engine noise in the car and fan noise in the home, but it struggles against louder rumbles and the hums from distant construction. It works well enough to silence some amount of ambient noise to let you enjoy your music, that too at lower volumes than if you had no ANC. The only other downside, if you consider it one, is the lack of high-fidelity codecs – there’s AAC and SBC support, but no LDAC or AptX for high-quality playback. If you’re listening to standard streaming quality on Spotify or Apple Music, you probably wouldn’t even notice. In calls, the three-mic setup is good, particularly when you’re out and there’s some amount of wind noise, but the algorithm tends to make your voice sound slightly ‘electronic tinged’ and robotic.
The focus on shaving off every single milligram in the design has meant that there’s been a bit of a compromise when it comes to battery life. With noise cancellation on, the buds lasted a shade under 3:45 hours (against a claimed 4-hour figure), which is acceptable if a little on the underwhelming side. Fast charging support (10 minutes for 50 minutes of playback) and wireless charging on the case is welcome for this segment.
Priced at Rs. 5,999 for Indian consumers, the Nothing Ear (1) are attractively priced given their 99 dollar-euro-pound pricing, and the balanced sound signature and distinctive design really help it not only stand out in its price segment, but also compare favorably to buds that are retailing at twice to thrice the price. Factor in a usable set of features like active noise cancellation and wireless charging, and you have an easy recommendation for folks hunting for a great pair of sub-10,000 buds. It's undeniable – Nothing is certainly on to something here.
Nothing ear (1)
Pros: Fresh design, good fit, impressive sound for the price, IPX4 rating, Qi wireless charging, good value
Cons: Average ANC, no high-res codec support, no digital assistant integration, case will not age gracefully
Price: Rs. 5,999
Tushar Kanwar is a tech columnist and commentator, and tweets @2shar