After all the hype and boastful marketing claims that have come and gone, are the Nothing Ear (1) really more than just another pair of true wireless earbuds equipped with ANC while featuring a $99 price tag? Not really, but is that necessarily a bad thing after all? The answer lies in my full review.
- A correct and neutral sound
- Compact size and the neat design
- Wireless charging
- Fairly efficient ANC
- Limited app and touch controls
- No HD codec
- Trying too hard to be cool
- Average battery life
My brief opinion about the Nothing Ear (1)
The Nothing Ear (1) is the maiden product of the new company founded by Carl Pei, the former prodigal son of OnePlus. First announced on July 27, the Nothing Ear (1) has been available globally since August 17, 2021, with an asking price of $99.
The fact is, these earbuds must have sold very well since they are currently out of stock on the official store and continue to remain unobtainable. The official website offers a "Notify me when available" option.
This is not astounding at all, since at just under $100, the Nothing Ear (1) offers ANC capability, wireless charging, IPX4 certification, and touch controls. On paper and even in reality, the quality-to-price ratio is impressive.
However, the pseudo-philosophical marketing with tirades on ambient computing and the supposedly revolutionary, disruptive design of these earbuds frankly left me hungry for more. And that's where Nothing shot itself in the foot somewhat. The Nothing Ear (1) are good mid-range true wireless earbuds, but they remain as that – offering nothing more.
And when you push the hype this far and create so much expectation, delivering a product that's decent enough is still pretty disappointing in my books. In other words, Nothing might have flogged the hype machine a wee bit too much prior to the Nothing Ear (1)'s release.
Design: I'm looking through you
The Nothing Ear (1) is almost all about design. It's the most dominant element in their marketing and perhaps also the most disappointing.
What I liked:
- The semi-transparent form factor that is compact and light
- A cool magnetic case
- Nice, minimalist packaging
What I disliked:
- It resembles a transparent Airpods Pro
- The case hinge does feel a little loose
The Nothing Ear (1) earbuds really go to great lengths to look cool. That's what Nothing is all about anyway, a company that's so cool that it doesn't even need a proper name or worry about its horrible "googleability".
And frankly, on the surface, it seemed to have worked out pretty well. We already began with the packaging on which Nothing seemed to have concentrated a fair amount of attention on. The box is very compact, measuring roughly the size of a Yu-Gi-Oh! card deck (sorry for the reference) or 1.5 times bigger than a pack of cigarettes (again, apologies!).
You open it by tearing a tab just like a pack of Hollywood gum (which somewhat reduces the resale value a bit). It almost feels like unwrapping a toy or a gift, I'm sure there are entire training sessions in the psychology department of every communication box on this.
The transparent case mixes different materials with metal elements hinge and inner compartment, while a white plastic body emulates the dimpled surface of a golf ball. All of this is crammed into a transparent casing.
Apart from a slight feeling of looseness at the hinge, the case seemed solid enough. There is an adequate feeling of resistance each time I opened and closed it. The magnetic anchors to fix the earphones are not the most ergonomic in nature, but they ensure a rather stable maintenance.
But it's the design of the Nothing Ear (1) earbuds themselves that disappointed me. The open-fit format is comfortable enough with the earbuds being very light, at just 4.7 grams apiece. But honestly, what more is there than the transparent plastic that covers the stems? Apply a white opaque coating leaves you with nothing but another AirPods Pro clone.
For a brand that claims to be a pioneer in design and has rightly mocked its competitors for looking the same, this design does not seem to follow its own mantra. Especially since market leaders like Sony and its WF-1000XM4 or Samsung with its Galaxy Buds Live offer a far more original look.
There are some nice details added, of course: the colored dots that distinguish the left earpiece from the right one, or the engraved product name that reminds me of LED signs. You can see that the interior has been thought to be pretty enough and Nothing didn't just use transparent plastic without changing anything else. But is this look really that game-changing? Not in my eyes.
It's probably partly my fault anyway for getting so excited about these headphones, but the Nothing Ear (1) pushes so hard on their "cool factor" that it is starting to get annoying.
I'm telling you this while being fully aware of the hypocrisy of the matter. After all, I do buy sneakers that probably cost way much more than what they are worth, and manufactured under less-than-ideal working conditions, just because they're "cool". Also, I use the word "sneaker" because it's cool when I could very well say "basketball shoes" or simply "shoes".
Where was I again? Oh yes, the Nothing Ear (1) sports a design that was meant to be perceived as cool. Wow, they're transparent! And apparently, they've pushed the envelope so hard in terms of manufacturing quality and choice of materials that they've had trouble finding suppliers and subcontractors for some parts.
On top of that, there's a little recess on the lid of the case that allows you to turn it into a fidget spinner. That's so cool, guys. It's all great but it's still nothing but trash talking in my opinion. The English language an expression for that: try hard. Nothing does too much and doesn't deliver enough.
Audio Quality: Good, balanced sound
When it comes to sound quality, the Nothing Ear (1) is equipped with 11.6mm drivers and an audio signature that is meant to be as neutral as possible.
What I liked:
- Precise sound
- Flat, neutral audio signature
- Bluetooth 5.2 support
What I disliked:
- No HD codecs supported (but forgivable at this price point)
- Bass is a bit too weak
Well, I'm not going to be a hipster and start telling you the frequency range of my favourite songs on Deezer. Yes, it's nice when a reviewer shares his impressions using examples of songs or even specific segments in a tune. But between you and me, that is somewhat a bit of an audiophile snob. It excludes the masses, it doesn't speak to everyone, and it's especially superfluous for a pair of non-audiophile earbuds that costs just under $100.
Let's get straight to the point. I used the Nothing Ear (1) with my Spotify account and streamed the songs in the Ogg Vorbis format at 320 kbps (already considered "high quality"). And the Nothing Ear (1) is not exceptional in this aspect. The quality is better than what we find in entry-level earbuds, but in essence, it's like the AirPods Pro. It is consumer-quality sound and nothing more.
- Also read: The best music streaming apps for Android
The audio signature is balanced so that no frequency range (bass-midrange-high) receives more attention than the other. This is the opposite of what almost all of Nothing's competitors in this price range do, which often stress more on the bass.
Here, we have a more subtle sound signature. The bass is quite dynamic but is not present enough for my taste. The mediums (voices, instruments) are precise even if the earphones have difficulty with more acoustic-heavy pieces mixing several voices and instruments simultaneously. And the highs do influence sibilance on the sounds somewhat, where it saturated my ears when the volume level is cranked up.
On the other hand, the stereo performance is good enough and does well to let you feel immersed in the song, or whenever you are viewing a movie, or when listening to songs in Audio 360. I will not dwell on the unique SBC and AAC codecs to which the Nothing Ear (1) is limited to. At this price range, it is a 100% forgivable flaw.
For 99 US-Dollars, the Nothing Ear (1) offers better sound than what we could expect in this price range. However, it remains a rather average performer. Yes, while it's good for this price, but in absolute terms, these earbuds are not revolutionary either.
ANC and microphones: Mixed active noise cancellation performance
The Nothing Ear (1) offer active noise cancellation (ANC) with three microphones built into each earpiece, allowing you to apply ANC to your own voice during calls.
What I liked:
- Fairly effective ANC at maximum level
- Good passive isolation
What I disliked:
- Disappointing microphone quality
- Voice ANC is not very effective
The Nothing Ear (1) sport a semi-open fit design. They are therefore not totally in-ear, but the passive noise isolation (which is based on the materials and the ergonomics of the design) is quite good.
Its noise reduction is said to be of a "hybrid" nature and relies on three microphones per earphone, including one positioned on the side of the speaker to correct the audio processing in real-time. According to the manufacturer, the headphones are capable of reducing ambient noise by up to 40 dB.
The ANC is not adaptive, so you can either turn it on or off. It does however offer two levels of intensity, a Light mode and a Max mode. It was only with Max mode turned on that I found it to be quite effective. Light, sudden noises and background noises (the whirring fan, vehicles passing by) were overall drowned out well.
There is also a transparency mode that does what all other transparency modes of all other earbuds do: amplify ambient noise.
For voice and/or video calls, I found the quality of the microphones to be rather disappointing. The noise reduction feature to isolate your voice from your sound environment never seemed useful to me, or at least its effects are not noticeable enough. Even when I was indoors without any sound pollution, my voice still sounded muffled and the "definition" leaves something to be desired.
Overall, the Nothing Ear (1)'s ANC performance is effective enough for most situations. However, the performance of its microphones is frankly disappointing, especially since the manufacturer did stress a lot on its voice ANC technology and its famous trio of microphones.
Features: A nice but limited application
The Nothing Ear (1) offer touch controls as well as a companion app that has a fairly comprehensive range of features.
What I liked:
- Companion app interface
- Limited but responsive touch controls
- Possible single earbud use
What I disliked:
- No multipoint Bluetooth
- Heavy latency
- Touch sensor is too sensitive
The Nothing Ear (1) companion app
The Nothing Ear (1) companion app is available for both Android or iOS. Its interface is neat and very easy to understand. Two buttons are available for selection: Hear or Touch. Hear allows you to manage the ANC and EQ while Touch allows you to customize the touch controls for each earpiece.
Do take note that the customization options are rather limited. The ANC only has two levels of intensity and the EQ is not adjustable. Nothing prefers to provide you with several preset options, while the touch controls don't offer much more. There is also a "Find My Earbud" mode to help you find your lost earbuds whenever they get lost in the home's Bermuda Triangle – namely, in the nooks and crannies of a sofa.
I would also advise you to disable the touch sensor via the settings as it is far too sensitive and pauses the music at the most inconvenient moments.
By default, you have a choice of three gestures on both sides. Double-tap to pause the music. Triple-tap to skip to the next song and long tap to switch between the different noise cancellation modes. Finally, sliding along the stem allows you to adjust the volume.
It's actually quite weird since the volume control via touch control is not for your smartphone but for the earbuds. It's rather counter-intuitive. Thankfully, you can reassign gestures of each earbud according to your preference via the app. Even though the long press serves no purpose other than to activate the ANC, so you can't reassign it otherwise. This greatly reduces the possibilities for customization. However, the touch controls proved to be quite responsive in my review.
The Nothing Ear (1) communicates using the Bluetooth 5.2 standard, but unfortunately, they don't offer multipoint connection that lets you hook up to multiple devices simultaneously.
Each earbud can be used individually if the touch sensor is activated. Stereo signals are then replayed in mono in the only earbud that is lodged in your ear, which is really convenient.
Another drawback is the rather high latency. Even on SVOD platforms, which have software mechanisms to compensate for latency, I perceived a clear lag between sound and image. And it was even more annoying on mobile games that don't have such compensation mechanisms. I didn't time it, but some delays were easily as long as a full second, which is extremely noticeable.
Overall, the Nothing Ear (1) offers more features than most of its competitors in this price range. The touch sensor, even if it is too sensitive, is a very rare feature on a pair of buds under $100. The application is also very neat and, even if the customization options are too limited, the entire setup is adequate.
Battery life: Average, but wireless charging makes up for it
Each Nothing Ear (1) earbud comes equipped with a 31 mAh battery while the charging case incorporates a 570 mAh battery.
According to Nothing, the earbuds have a battery life of 4 hours with active noise cancellation enabled and 5.7 hours without. Battery life is increased to 24 or 34 hours (ANC on or off) with the charging case. These are clearly very average numbers that do not belong to the best performers, even at this price range.
In actual use, I was easily able to last over 4 hours with the ANC permanently activated at max level and with a fairly high degree of use. As for recharging, Nothing promises that 10 minutes of charging will provide 1.2 hours of listening without ANC or 50 minutes with it. The headphones take almost 1.5 hours to fully charge, which I also found to be rather long.
The USB-A to USB-C cable is also too short (about 30 centimeters). On the other hand, I have to salute Nothing for offering Qi wireless charging on earbuds that are priced for less than €100. It's not a killer feature but it's very rare to obtain at this price.
Overall, the battery life of the Nothing Ear (1) is average – including the number of recharges allowed by the case and the charging speed. Only the Qi wireless charging feature makes it stand out.
The technical spefications
|App & EQ||Yes: Android and iOS|
|Dimensions & weight||
So, does the Nothing Ear (1) deserve all this hype? No. But can we say for sure whenever we sniff out a product that is overpriced when it's more than reasonable, and fortunately, that is not the case with the Nothing Ear (1).
I'm one of those people who believe that the marketing of a product is an integral part of the user experience. The importance of keeping the promise and delivering on a product experience that is consistent with the one you are selling is quintessential. When it comes to ambient computing, market disruption, and originality, I think that the Nothing Ear (1) did not live up to its promise.
But in terms of sheer value for money, it's quite a compelling product. If I were to buy a pair of affordable true wireless earbuds and didn't have too many requirements on my list, I'd probably go for the Nothing Ear (1). The ANC is decent enough, while the sound is balanced, offering many features that are usually found in models at a higher price tier.
The Nothing Ear (1) are nothing special but they are by no means a bad product. As a startup, I understand Nothing's choice to launch a common and very low-risk product. But for the lack of being as exceptional as they could or should have been, the Nothing Ear (1) is just another in a long line of wireless earbuds that costs less than $100. If this is Nothing's ambition as a company, it lacks vision.