Nothing is the latest London-based tech startup to try to break the stranglehold that AirPods have on Bluetooth earbuds, and is offering good sound and interesting design at a budget price.
The Ear 1 cost £99 ($99) and are the first product of Carl Pei’s new company after he left the popular smartphone brand OnePlus, which he co-founded, to strike out on his own.
The new earbuds don’t break the mould on form, being AirPods Pro-like, with stalks and silicone tips. But they stand out from the crowd by being partly transparent, allowing you to see some of the inner workings.
They are some of the most comfortable stalk-based earbuds I’ve worn. The case looks fancy but is a little larger than the best in the business – it is very pocketable but it wouldn’t fit in the money pocket of a pair of jeans. The earbuds last up to four hours of playback with noise cancelling, while the case can charge them up to six times. It charges via USB-C or Qi wireless charging.
Water resistance: IPX4 (splash resistant)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2, SBC, AAC
Battery life: four hours with noise cancelling (24 hours with case)
Earbud dimensions: 28.9 x 21.5 x 23.5mm
Earbud weight: 4.7g each
Driver size: 11.6mm
Charging case dimensions: 58.66 x 58.6 x 23.7mm
Charging case weight: 57.4g
Case charging: USB-C, Qi wireless charging
Tap and swipe controls
The Ear 1 are standard Bluetooth 5.2 earbuds supporting the universal SBC and AAC audio standards used by most devices. They only connect to one device at a time, but seamlessly switch between them, while each earbud can be used on its own.
They support Google’s Fast Pair with Android for one-tap pairing and battery levels display. The connection to a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro was rock solid, although they could not be tested in congested areas because of the Covid-19 situation in the UK.
A good set of gesture controls include double tap for pause/play and triple tap for track skip. Press and hold to switch noise cancelling modes, and slide your finger up and down the stalk to adjust volume. The music will also pause/play when you remove and reinsert an earbud.
Sound and noise cancelling
The earbuds have a pleasing, everyday listening sound that’s full of energy. It is fairly rounded with good highs and treble, while the bass is deep and well controlled. Most music genres sound good, but they can struggle a little bit with separation in really complex tracks and can occasionally be a little shrill with some overly emphasised treble. They won’t trouble the best in the business, but the Ear 1s are an enjoyable listen and sound good for the money.
They also have active noise cancelling, which was capable of reducing rumble and low notes when set to maximum, but struggled to suppress higher tones and voices. They could take the edge off road noise, but are not as effective as slightly more expensive rivals. They also have a fairly natural-sounding ambient awareness mode, which was good enough for holding conversations or listening for traffic.
Nothing estimates that the batteries in the earbuds and case last for at least 500 cycles while maintaining at least 80% of their original capacity, but they are not replaceable, ultimately making the earbuds disposable.
The earbuds are replaceable through service but not repairable. Nothing does not offer trade-in or recycling schemes in the UK, nor does it use recycled material in the product or publish environmental impact assessments.
The earbuds sounded better with improved bass response with noise cancelling active, which is not what you’d normally expect.
Call quality was very clear, if a little quiet indoors, and was even better outside, effectively isolating my voice from the noise of city streets and coming through loud and clear.
I found multiple issues with the fit of the earbuds in the case and the Bluetooth connection with a pair of early pre-release units, which were all fixed in the retail versions as tested.
The Nothing Ear 1 cost £99 ($99).
For comparison, Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro have an RRP of £129.99, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro cost £189, the Jabra Elite 85t cost £219.99, the Bose QC Earbuds cost £249.95, the Sony WF-1000XM4 cost £250 and the Apple AirPods Pro cost £249.
There are no end of true wireless earbuds available, but Nothing’s transparent design helps the Ear 1 stand out.
They are super-comfortable, sound good for general listening and have excellent controls and great call quality. The noise cancelling works for reducing rumbles but is fairly limited otherwise, and battery life of about four hours is short of the best. But these niggles are fairly easy to overlook given there are few really good earbuds costing less than £100 that aren’t discounted.
The battery in the earbuds or case cannot be replaced, however, ultimately making them disposable and losing a star.
Pros: look great, good sound, good value, comfortable fit, great call quality, good controls, Bluetooth 5.2, Fast Pair and support seamless switching, wireless charging.
Cons: case a little bigger than ideal, can’t connect to two devices at once, no higher quality audio standards, only splash resistant, disposable.
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