Nothing ear (1) review: Clearly on the right track

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If you’re numb to the OnePlus-style hype train that precedes every major product launch — as we are — you may not have been following the incessant attention-seeking from Nothing ahead of its hardware debut. Rather than buy into all that, we’ve been waiting to see what they actually come up with, and well, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised.

Despite the obnoxious marketing and pretentious branding, the ear (1) represent a decent first attempt by Carl Pei’s new company. In short, these earbuds sound, look, and feel pretty damn good. They aren’t perfect, but then which first-gen product ever is? If Nothing can build on this fine start — and let’s face it, they have the investment and expertise to do just that — we can expect great things from here on out.

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Design, hardware, and what’s in the box

Once you unbox the Nothing ear (1), the case is immediately striking. Design is subjective, of course, but I’m really fond of this see-through look, if only because it’s different. The case snaps open with a satisfying spring before you get a proper look at the buds for the first time. Aside from the white section that extends into the ear tips, the buds are also transparent, giving you a glimpse of the inner workings. It’s truly impressive what Nothing has managed to achieve here, with no visible glue or anything to ruin the carefully constructed aesthetic. I’ve tested countless pairs of true wireless earbuds, and while some can be attractive (Libratone’s Track Air+ come to mind), most can easily be labeled as AirPods rip-offs or ugly lumps of plastic. The ear (1) are by far the most distinctive I’ve used, and that’s very refreshing.

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The good feeling continues once you put the buds in — the fit is snug and they’re incredibly light, which means they’re very comfortable to wear for long periods. Most earbuds I use start to hurt my delicate ears at around the two-hour mark, but not the ear (1). The shape of the stem makes them easy to maneuver in both the case and your ears, with the square sides setting the touch panel apart to help avoid accidental touches of the controls while you handle them.
After a week or two of use, the case will start to show some scuffs and scratches, somewhat detracting from the aesthetic, but you have to really look closely for it to bother you. It’s also not quite as pocketable as some of its rivals, but it’s relatively flat so it could be worse. For charging, you can either go with USB-C or Qi wireless for ultimate convenience, although neither happens especially fast.

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In the box, there’s a selection of ear tips (S, M, and L), a USB A-to-C cable, and the usual guide booklets.

Sound quality, features, and battery life

I have been genuinely surprised by the audio quality on the Nothing ear (1). The 11.6mm drivers deliver plenty of punch, and the sound is well balanced, suiting a wide variety of music genres. There’s a pleasing clarity to the high end and a broad soundstage that allows your music room to really breathe. Teenage Engineering, a founding partner of Nothing, is apparently responsible for tuning the output of the ear (1), and it seems they’ve done a decent job. If you’re not happy with any aspect of the sound profile, you can easily switch it up with the in-app equalizer. The options are limited to more treble, more bass, or a mode that enhances voices, but each of them works well.
Microphone quality is, unfortunately, less impressive. At home, this is bearable, but friends complain that they can’t hear me if I use them for calls out on the noisy streets of London. If you take a lot of calls while out and about, these might not be the best choice.

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While I’d say the active noise cancellation is competitive at this price, it’s not quite good enough for you to completely forget about your surroundings. The low hum of buses, trains, or desk fans can be drowned out successfully, but chatter from people still comes through and is even slightly amplified against the otherwise quieter backdrop. It may be that better isolation is needed to block out those highs, so that’s something for Nothing to work on for the successor. Ultimately, I’d rather have middling ANC than none at all, so I still think this is a plus point for the ear (1) buds. If ANC is important to you, it might be preferable to spend a little more money on a pair of Sony, Bose, or Sennheiser earbuds. Nothing has also included a transparency mode, which does a good job of letting everything in so you can speak to someone briefly or listen for traffic.

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There is a smidgen of audio latency while watching videos, but it’s not enough to ruin the experience. It would be nice to have aptX or LDAC support, but this isn’t likely to bother most casual listeners. Multipoint Bluetooth is also not on board, but that’s to be expected at this price. Connectivity has been mostly reliable, although there were some occasional hiccups while connecting to my MacBook. The IPX4 rating should just about protect them against sweat or light rain, but you wouldn’t want to drop them in a puddle. This is the same as the Pixel Buds A-Series, but other options in this price range from the likes of Anker Soundcore and JBL beat this with IPX5 or higher.

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According to Nothing, you should get 4 hours of battery life with ANC turned on, and 5.7 hours with it off. This appears to be pretty accurate — it took me around 4.5 hours to completely drain them with ANC on the whole time. This isn’t as good as some rivals, so can be put down as a slight disappointment, but I personally don’t have many situations where I would want to use them for longer than that. The case has plenty of extra juice; up to a total of 34 hours. Charging is a little slow, but the convenience of wired or wireless is rare at this price.

The touch controls are accessible anywhere on the flat part of the stem and they are very consistent. Unfortunately, they are also pretty limited. Swiping up and down for volume is nice to have, but there’s no play/pause with a single tap. You have to take an earbud out and rely on the in/ear detection for that, but there’s a slight delay and it doesn’t always start again when you replace a bud. At least when you take one earbud out, the other automatically enters transparency mode, which is a nice touch. Double-tap is configured to skip tracks — previous on the left bud, next on the right — and a long-press on either toggle between ANC on, transparency mode, and ANC off. Perplexingly, there’s no Google Assistant support whatsoever.

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Should you buy them?

Sure. If you like what you see, you’ll probably like what you hear too. There’s still room for improvement, but Nothing’s first product is promising. If Pei’s fledgling company can build on this with an improved follow-up, we could see it truly disrupt the personal audio category in the same way OnePlus has managed with its smartphones. This also leaves me eager to see what other products Nothing is working on. If the ear (1) are anything to go by, they should be worth the wait.

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Buy if…

  • You’re bored of the current crop of AirPods clones and want something a little different that still sounds good.

Don’t buy if…

  • You need stellar battery life or take a lot of calls on the go.

Where to buy

Available from August 17 directly from Nothing.

 

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