- The Nothing ear (1) TWS earbuds are priced at $99.
- The earbuds feature ANC and transparency modes.
- Nothing has put a lot of emphasis on offering a unique design.
The TWS earbuds are one of the fastest growing categories in hearables. As a result, today we have several brands offering TWS across different price points. Even as the market is already saturated, a London-based start-up, Nothing, set up by ex-OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei, has chosen TWS as a category to launch its first product, Ear (1).
In Q1 2021, TWS sales were up 44% YoY, where more consumers preferred the mid-range and budget TWS under $100 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, priced at $99, Nothing’s first TWS has carefully chosen its target audience.
The ear (1) has a lot to offer on paper, but how does it perform in day-to-day usage? Here is our review, after using the device for over a month now.
Unique semi-transparent design: A key differentiating factor
Nothing’s unique approach to design and experience starts right from the paper packaging. It features a small sleeve at the bottom that needs to be peeled off to reveal the silver box inside. The box includes the charging case and earbuds, a small, braided USB-C charging cable, and two sets of silicon ear tips (small and large). The medium ones are already on the earbuds.
Both the earbuds and charging case feature semi-transparent plastic on the outside, and a black-and-white color scheme. The charging case is a square-shaped box featuring a clear plastic base and lid. The battery and circuitry are contained in a white module with earbuds charging pinpoints on the top. The hinge of the lid is solid and has a strong magnet to snap shut when you close it. There is a small LED on the top which indicates charging and pairing modes.
The transparent, black and white design scheme offers a retro look to the Nothing ear (1).
There is a small dimple on the top of the lid, which adds to the design – just in case you want to hold it like a fidget spinner. On the right, you will find a USB-C port for charging, and a small circular button to put the TWS into pairing mode.
A similar design scheme continues for the earbuds. The stem has transparent plastic that shows off the circuit and ICs inside, whereas the buds that protrude are made from glossy white plastic.
Nothing has gone all out to offer a unique design that makes the ear (1) stand out from the crowd.
The stems also have white and red dots on them to indicate left and right buds, respectively. Another interesting design element is the “Nothing ear (1)” branding that is printed in a dot matrix pattern on the stem of each earbud.
“Nothing broke into the top three brands in the premium TWS segment in India in its debut quarter by capturing a 7% share in the segment. Competitive pricing and differentiated design helped the brand gain good mindshare among consumers. But it remains to be seen how well Nothing manages to work around with the ongoing global supply chain constraints,” said senior analyst Anshika Jain, who tracks India’s TWS market at Counterpoint.
Nothing ear (1) specifications, set-up and companion app
- Driver size:6 mm
- Weight: Each earbud – 4.7 g, charging case with earbuds – 57.8 g
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2, Fast Pair
- Supported Codecs: SBC, AAC
- Charging: USB-C, Qi wireless charging
- Claimed battery life: Up to 34 hours with ANC off, up to 24 hours with ANC on
- Compatibility: Android 5.1 and above, iOS 11 and above
- Water resistance: IPX4 splash resistance
Setting up the ear (1) is very simple. On Fast Pair compatible devices (Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and Z Fold 3 in my case), a pop-up to connect appears within seconds of opening the earbuds case. It first directs you to download the companion app from Play Store, while a prompt to pair also appears at the same time. On iPhones, you will have to go to Settings > Bluetooth and manually pair the earbuds.
While you don’t necessarily need the companion app to connect the Ear (1) with your smartphone, it does unlock certain features. First, the app lets you see the battery level of individual earbuds and the case. Second, you can adjust the ANC level between Light and Medium, and switch between preset equalizers.
The Fast Pair feature enables quick pairing of earbuds with a compatible smartphone, and it worked well for me.
Lastly, you can also configure gesture controls for left and right ears – Triple Tap for the previous or next song, and Tap and Hold for enabling or disabling ANC. The earbuds also support swipe gestures, where you slide your finger up or down on the earbud stem to increase or decrease volume.
“The Ear (1) from Nothing is an eye-catching TWS with a unique transparent and undeniably attractive design. As designs of most TWS gadgets are similar, the Ear (1) is a challenging attempt in the market. With a price of $99 and features like ANC and transparency modes, it is expected to outperform second-tier players in the mid- to high-price segments,” said senior analyst Liz Lee, who tracks the global TWS market at Counterpoint.
Performance: Impressive audio quality, effective ANC
Before getting into performance details, I would want to highlight that the earbuds are quite comfortable to wear for long hours. They snugly fit into the ears. For me, the medium silicon tips worked well to get a tight seal, thus offering good passive noise isolation. This is an important factor for any earbud as it also impacts the audio listening experience.
My primary device for testing the Nothing ear (1) was the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 but I also switched the usage between the iPhone Xs and Asus ZenBook laptop for conference calls. Switching between devices was easy – simply open the smartphone app and tap connect. But a multi-point connection that automatically switches between devices, like on the Jabra Elite series TWS, could have been better.
On both the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and iPhone Xs, music was streamed via the Apple Music app. While the songs were downloaded in lossless quality, streaming to earbuds via Bluetooth was in compressed AAC encoding. Not to say that it is bad, but support for high-quality aptX or LDAC could have been better. More recently, Nothing announced a partnership with Qualcomm where it will be using Snapdragon chips for its future products. Hopefully, the next TWS product will be able to take advantage of Snapdragon Sound for high-quality wireless audio streaming.
Talking about performance, Teenage Engineering, which is responsible for the audio tuning, has done a good job. While most earbuds in this price range are tuned to be bass heavy, the Ear (1) offers a well-balanced, V-shape audio signature with plenty of punch. The tuning is well suited for a wide variety of music genres that you would like to listen to. You get good low- and mid-range frequency response, but highs can sometimes be a little sharp. Throughout the testing, my equalizer was always set on “Balanced” while ANC was set to “Maximum”.
The Nothing ear (1) offered good instrument details and clear vocals between both voices when listening to STAY by Kid LAROI & Justin Bieber. Even the reverb at the beginning of the song around 0:20 seconds is clearly audible.
Listening to a little offbeat track like Manike Mage Hithe by Chamath Sangeeth, Yohani and Satheeshan was a pleasing experience. The voice is crisp and clear, and around 0:22 seconds, you get a nice thumping bass. I like how the mid frequencies are slightly amplified to offer balanced audio.
The earbuds also offer a very spacious sound with wide soundstaging, something that you can experience while listening to Cymatics by Nigel Stanford. The Ear (1) perfectly picks up every little detail from the track, such as the drums, piano and the low-frequency vibrations that keep the track quite lively as it gets busy.
Balanced sonic signature offers a good listening experience with slightly punchy bass.
Even movie-watching experience on apps like Netflix was good. You get a nice spatial sound when watching movies like San Andreas or The Day After Tomorrow, which have natural calamities like earthquakes and tsunami.
The latency while gaming was not that good. The delay between walking and hearing the footsteps, or firing a bullet and hearing it, at least had close to one second delay, which may not help you in games like Call of Duty: Mobile or PUBG.
The Nothing ear (1) is also good for watching movies and TV shows but not that great when gaming.
Coming to ANC (Active Noise Cancellation), you get two options to choose from – Light and Maximum. If you are sitting in a quieter environment, like a conference room, the Light setting should be sufficient. But in case of noisy places, Maximum does cut out most of the noise effectively, if not all.
During my testing, the air conditioner and ceiling fan noise got reduced to a great extent. However, as I live closer to the highway, I could still hear the noise from vehicles passing by and their honking.
Battery life and call quality is decent
The charging case can be charged both wired (using Type-C) and wirelessly (using Qi-compatible chargers). It takes about an hour and 20 minutes to fully charge the case. The earbuds also feature fast charging, where 15 minutes of charging takes them from empty to 40%, while offering music listening time of a little over one hour. Wireless charging takes around five hours to fully charge the case.
Fully charged case and earbuds offer up to a total of 20 hours of battery life.
On a full charge, the earbuds would last about three and a half hours with ANC on, and a little over four hours with ANC off. The case offers about four additional full charges (depending on the usage), taking the total battery life to near 20 hours.
The call quality was good, with decent amount of noise cancellation. My voice was audible to the recipient even when walking next to a busy road or in an open windy environment. However, at times, the voice sounds a little hollow when sitting in an enclosed room.
During my usage, I did come across a persistent issue, which will be an area of improvement for Nothing. Most times, the earbuds don’t disconnect after removing them from the ears. They are still connected after being kept back in the case. Possible areas to look for a fix are the in-ear detection and the charging pins in the case, which should detect their removal from the ear and disconnect them automatically.
- Nothing has ensured that its first TWS makes an impact with a differentiated transparent design.
- The Ear (1) offers surprisingly good sound quality and ANC in its price segment.
- Features like Fast Pair and wireless charging make it an attractive option.
- There are some bugs that Nothing needs to remove with the Ear (1) successor.
- In the next version, we would love to see support for high-res audio and multi-point connection to switch between devices quickly and automatically.