Nothing Ear 1 Review: Everything you could want, for just $99
“Fresh and distinctively styled, the Nothing Ear 1 true wireless earbuds enviable spec list with ANC and wireless charging is backed up by high comfort levels, good performance, and a great $99 price.”
- Distinctive design
- Active noise cancelation
- Wireless charging
- Very light and comfortable
- Highly competitive price
- No virtual assistant support
- Bright sound can lack presence
The Nothing Ear 1’s are an exciting product, but are also way more than just a new pair of true wireless earbuds. Nothing is the new company from OnePlus’s co-founder Carl Pei, but it’s is not specifically an audio company. It’s a tech company, and we should expect a wide variety of products spanning a host of different genres from it in the future. What the Ear 1 represents in this context is Nothing’s ethos, showcasing its approach to design, quality, and possibly pricing too. The Ear 1 is genesis for Nothing, and undoubtedly gives us a glimpse of its direction for the future.
Looked at like this, there’s a massive amount of weight on the little Ear 1’s shoulders. They’re also arguably one of the most hyped-up products seen this year, Pei’s considerable fanbase are all waiting for them, and the success of OnePlus has left the rest of the tech community watching the Ear 1 with considerable interest. Expectations are huge.
With all that, are the Ear 1’s nothing, or everything?
When Nothing released images of the Concept 1, it was clear (sorry) transparency would likely feature in its first product, and sure enough, it’s a massive part of the Ear 1’s design and identity. The outer case and molded inner part are made from transparent plastic, while the components and battery are hidden inside a white, irregularly shaped, section. The square case mixes curves and slashes, circular indentations, and rectangular metal shapes to great effect. It’s interesting and different, yet still pocketable and conveniently sized.
The earbuds have a transparent stem, and Nothing has worked hard to make sure everything on display looks pretty. Internal components are rarely attractive or positioned in an aesthetically pleasing manner, but the microphones, magnets, and other parts inside the Ear 1’s stem are ordered and symmetrical. It looks brilliant. The body is white plastic, and there’s a choice of three differently sized silicone ear tips — small, medium, and large — included.
No one is going to mistake the Ear 1’s for any other earbud. While they have a short-stemmed design like the Apple AirPods Pro, they aren’t an exact copy, and the case is definitely unique. There are wonderful little details too, from the use of a single red dot to identify the right-hand earbud, the consistent pixel-art style font used across the case and ‘buds, and the ease with which you take the ‘buds out of the case itself. Little things that make a big difference to use and ownership.
I’ve not had the Ear 1’s long enough to establish durability though. True wireless earbud cases can get some rough treatment and can soon pick up scratches and scuffs. The transparent finish will look a lot worse if it suffers from the same fate. It’s unmarred so far, though. This aside, I really can’t fault the Ear 1’s design and presentation. They’re modern, fresh, distinctive, and suitably different from all the rest.
Effort has been put into the Ear 1’s shape and materials, but has the same attention been paid to the way they feel in your ear? I have been using in-ear and over-ear headphones on a very regular basis for months, have tried multiple different models, and have abandoned those that hurt my ears. The Nothing Ear 1 are easily among the most comfortable in-ear headphones I’ve worn.
They’re very lightweight at 4.7 grams, have very little overhang outside of your ear, and the slightly oval silicone ear tips seal perfectly in my ear. I didn’t need to change from the medium tips fitted in the box, and rarely need to re-seat the Ear 1’s in my ear, even when cleaning the house or washing the car, when my head is constantly moving and often at unusual angles. If anything, the Ear 1’s were easily forgotten. Even after three hours, my ears didn’t ache. I’d place the comfort level as equal to the Apple AirPods Pro, but I’d say they’re perhaps a little more secure.
I’ve been using the Nothing Ear 1 mostly connected to an iPhone 12 Pro with a pre-release version of the app. They use Bluetooth 5.2, and I’ve regularly switched between the iPhone and an iPad Pro (2020) that doesn’t have the app installed without issue. A Fast Pairing feature will be available on Android phones, where opening the case and pressing the Pair button will connect it to a phone with no other actions, but this wasn’t available in my app.
Range is very good, and I’ve been able to move from one end of my modest apartment to the other, about 10 meters without line-of-sight, and not lose connection. Controls are by touch only, and actions can be configured in the app. By default, a double-tap plays and pauses, a triple tap goes to the next track, a long press cycles through the active noise cancelation (ANC) modes, and a swipe up and down alters the volume.
The entire stem responds to touch and because it’s quite small, accuracy is vastly improved as you’re not feeling around for the right spot, plus each earbud has the same controls so there’s nothing much to learn. I’ve found the touch control system intuitive and crucially, accurate and precise. I’ve not become frustrated by it, or felt the need to just pick up my phone and use that instead. A short tone plays to differentiate between the ANC modes, but I’d prefer it if it actually said what mode was active.
The Nothing Ear 1 have easily, comfortably, and very quickly blended into my everyday life
The Ear 1 have AAC and SBC codec compatibility, but there’s no AptX, AptX Adaptive, or AptX HD, no W1 chip for automatic activation of Apple’s Spatial Music feature. The Ear 1 don’t connect to a virtual assistant, so if you want to talk to Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa, you’ll have to use your phone. It’s an unusual omission, and while it’s a feature I personally rarely use, there will be others who will miss it. This aside, for general listening, I’ve found the Nothing Ear 1 have easily, comfortably, and very quickly blended into my everyday life.
The Ear 1’s sound has been tuned by Teenage Engineering, a company with decades of experience in audio hardware. In the app, you can swap between the default Balanced mode and one emphasizing bass or treble. Balanced is by far the best option with its wonderfully flat EQ. For my personal musical preferences, the flat EQ mostly works really well.
Its success is evident in AKB48’s Sustainable, where the strong bass line and orchestral section can easily overpower the cute vocals when listening through headphones with a bass-forward custom EQ. The Ear 1’s mostly flat EQ neatly keeps the vocals centered, and the bass under control. The downside comes when listening to classical music. For example, Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War from The Planets lacked the all-important presence that gives it so much power.
The Ear 1 deliver a bright sound with a tight soundstage, and there’s some harshness at the top end during complex songs. This is noticeable in Curtis Mayfield’s Fall Behind and in Iz*one’s Mise-en-Scéne, where the treble overpowers the mids towards the crescendo at the end of each track. The bass isn’t quite as rounded as the AirPods Pro, and they don’t have the same heavy thump or warmth as the Cambridge Audio Melomania Touch. They definitely aren’t lacking bass, but it’s not a strong point either. Unfortunately, the added bass EQ mode sounds a little artificial, so if you want more it may not satisfy.
For call quality, I used them as a replacement to my usual Samsung Galaxy Buds Live in Teams and WhatsApp video calls. The general opinion was that the audio was good, and at least comparable to my usual choice, and not all that different to the microphone performance on the phone, in this case, a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
I find the Ear 1’s lack of presence more of a problem than the brightness, but it’s not overly noticeable in all listening situations. The flat, natural EQ makes a lot of the music I listen to sound the way I think it should, and I’d much rather have a brighter sound than one with overpowering bass. Despite these points, I’ve never felt I wanted to swap to a different pair of headphones to get the sound I want, which should tell you all you need to know about the Ear 1’s sound.
You can choose between a light and maximum setting for the noise cancelation, and there’s a transparency mode too. I left it either at maximum or with transparency, finding little use for the light mode. I either wanted to hear things or not. On the street the isolation is very effective, matching my AirPods Pro but with a slightly less “airy” feel. You’re certainly encased in the Ear 1’s ANC.
Transparency mode is better than others I’ve used in some situations, with a less artificial feeling, minimal hiss, and no discomfort. Sometimes, transparency modes get confused by air movement or when I move my head, but it didn’t happen as often with the Ear 1. The noise cancelation works very well, particularly considering the price of the Ear 1, as it’s rare to find it at all.
Nothing says the Ear 1’s will last for four hours with ANC on, and a total of 24 hours use with the case. Without ANC, expect 5.7 hours per charge, and a total of 34 hours with the case. Use time can’t match the Sony WF-1000XM4, but it’s broadly similar to the Apple AirPods Pro. Charging is performed with either a USB Type-C or a Qi wireless charger. Pop the earbuds in the case for 10 minutes and you get 50 minutes of playback with ANC. Charge the case for 10 minutes, and there will be enough power inside to enable six hours of ANC listening.
In my experience so far, using the Ear 1’s with a mix of ANC and without, and across two different phones, an iPad, and my Mac Mini, they lasted for about four and a half hours. I’m using the Ear 1’s ahead of release, so the firmware may be updated in the near future, which could improve the battery life further. However, it’s close to Nothing’s claims now, and strong performance, given the size and weight of the earbuds.
The Nothing Ear 1 will be released on August 17 and will be sold through Nothing’s own online store, and retail outlets including Selfridges in the U.K. They cost $99 or 99 British pounds.
I’ve tried to find serious problems with the Nothing Ear 1 earbuds, I really have. I’ve listened to them for hours, tested the ANC as best I can without getting on a plane, and poured over the specs. I’ve looked at the low price and then the product, trying to see where corners have been cut to achieve it. I’ll admit, I’m at a loss. How are they $99 and this good?
I like the carefully balanced sound, the noise cancelation is effective without being uncomfortable, the design is very cool, and they’re certainly one of the most lightweight, comfortable earbuds I’ve put in my ears, ever. I’d have liked more codec support, especially AptX HD or AptX Adaptive, and the bright sound may not be to everyone’s taste. Virtual assistant support is missing too, so you won’t be answering calls verbally or checking the weather. But when they have all the above plus wireless charging and decent battery life for $100, they are small trade-offs I’m prepared to make.
For a first product, the Nothing Ear 1 earbuds are superb. It’s the calling card most company’s dream of, and I can’t wait to see what Nothing comes up with next.
Is there a better alternative?
For $100, with ANC and wireless charging? It’s a challenge to find a competitor for twice that price. Quite how Nothing has added this amount of functionality and sound quality for this price is something of a mystery. For example, Cambridge Audio’s Melomania Touch cost $130 and don’t have ANC or wireless charging, but I do think the sound is considerably more rounded and with a lot more presence. The $100 Google Pixel Buds A lack some bass, and don’t have ANC either.
Where does that leave you? Our top true wireless earbud recommendation, the Sony WF-1000XM4, cost $280, and Apple’s AirPods Pro cost $250. Both have ANC and wireless charging, and excellent sound too. That’s a serious price increase over the Nothing Ear 1. Perhaps the best alternative to the Nothing Ear 1 may be the Sony WF-1000XM3, which is still a current model despite being technically superseded by the WF-1000XM4, with its excellent ANC and superb audio performance. You can find them for around $200 if you shop around.
How long will they last?
The Nothing Ear 1 have an IPX4 splash resistance rating, so they should be fine for use in the rain. Firmware updates are delivered using the app, but it’s not required to use the earbuds, so even if it suddenly stopped being updated years down the line your earbuds would still work. Nothing provides a two-year warranty on the Ear 1. The only question mark is the durability of the transparent finish on the case, otherwise, the Nothing Ear 1’s should last for several years before concerns over battery life may prompt you to upgrade.
Should you buy them?
Yes, you’re unlikely to find a better pair of expertly designed, highly featured true wireless earbuds at this price.