As most of us are aware by now, the Nothing ear (1) is the first ever product from former OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei’s newly established startup company. Rather than entering the consumer tech market with a smartphone, Nothing decided to make their debut with a pair of true wireless earbuds – and not just any kind of earbuds either.
What is it?
With the likes of Apple Airpods Pro and Samsung Galaxy Buds2 in its sights, the Nothing ear (1) aims to provide consumers with premium-tiered quality and features, but at a far more affordable price point. On that note, it is one of the few earbuds within the sub-RM500 range to offer active noise canceling (ANC) capabilities.
The Nothing ear (1) is intended to be a game changer in the earbuds market. On top of its onboard features and audio quality (which I’ll get to much later), Carl Pei’s startup is also banking on the device’s unique design to offer users something more than just yet another Apple AirPods clone.
Is it any good?
The earbuds does excel in the design department, especially with the whole transparent body which exposes its internal hardware for all to see. This is something that’s rarely featured in other products of its class, which is actually very refreshing and it does well to distinguish itself from the competition.
Interface-wise, the Nothing ear (1) features touch pads along the stems on each side. Naturally, these are used to control functions such as playback, volume control, call answering, and bringing up your mobile device’s voice assistant. The commands are as straightforward as one may expect, where sliding up or down will adjust the volume, a long press to switch between the three ANC options, double tap for play/pause, and triple tap on the left or right side to repeat or forward tracks respectively.
They are very comfortable to wear, and I’ve actually worn them for over an hour without feeling any form of strain. Throughout my testing, I’ve only been using the default ear tips that are already attached to the earbuds, which fits snugly in my ears. But should you find these not up to your personal preference, other ear tip sizes are also included in the box for you to swap with.
The ANC features on the Nothing ear (1) are pretty decent, where the full-on noise cancelling mode does quite well to filter out most external sounds, such as conversations and so on. Meanwhile, awareness mode brings an almost natural ambient listening experience, and there’s also the ANC Off mode if you want neither of the aforementioned noise cancelling features activated.
Included together with the earbuds is a plastic charging case which also sports the same design language, where its transparent upper lid showcases the earbuds when they are stored. Power-wise, the case is claimed to provide the Nothing ear (1) a total of 34 hours of usage with ANC deactivated. On its side is a button which activates an LED light that indicates the case’s energy capacity, and is also used to activate pairing mode.
It’s also worth noting that you’ll need to have both buds in the case for the first time pairing with a mobile device. Once paired, the Nothing ear (1) will automatically connect to the device whenever they are removed from the case.
The sound quality. Talk to me.
Fancy design and tech aside, we’ve reached the point of the review where we talk about what really matters: its audio quality. So is the Nothing ear (1) any good, or is it all just hype?
To answer that question, I can safely say that Nothing’s first ever earbuds are definitely in the upper tiers when it comes to sound delivery. Without a doubt, both Carl Pei’s new brand and its partner, Swedish firm Teenage Engineering, aren’t pulling any stops with the ear (1), and have actually placed a lot of effort into its audio hardware and tuning.
For most that fall under the same price range (or higher), rarely do these audio devices offer high quality sound staging and clarity. This is why the Nothing ear (1) earbuds genuinely surprised me when I first tried them out. While it still might not be able to contend with products from certain audio-specialised brands, the buds are undeniable up there – sitting above a good number of other TWS devices in the market.
On default EQ settings, the Nothing ear (1) delivers balanced frequency for bass, mids, and trebles. Which is a good thing, as the drivers are capable of producing excellent audio clarity and sound staging for both instruments and vocals – giving them a sense of layers and depth, thus enabling listeners to easily distinguish each audio element in a track. Listening to big band music such as Seatbelt’s “Tank!” as well as funk tunes like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Getaway” are a delight on the Nothing ear (1).
Bass isn’t quite thumpy, but enough to have its presence known in a song. Of course, you could amplify it further by switching the equaliser over to the aptly named “More Bass” setting via the companion app, but expect to lose a bit of flavour in trebles and vocals. Other EQ settings include Balanced, More Treble, and Voice.
And while we’re on the subject, I highly recommend you to download and install the Nothing ear (1) companion app, should you decide to pick a unit up for yourself. On top of providing you access to its EQ, touchpad customisation and so on, getting the app will also let you update the earbuds’ firmware which improves and tweaks its overall performance – including audio quality. The app also plays an important role to help you out with one of the earbuds’ flaws, which I will talk about in a bit.
As for call audio quality, the ANC mics work quite well to pick up my voice, while at the same time filter out external noises such as wind and so on. Much like most TWS that are available in the market, the earbuds also come with the ability to easily bring up your device’s voice assistant when required.
The bad stuff. Tell me.
Let’s start with its audio. The Nothing ear (1)’s volume output isn’t the loudest and I found myself pumping it up to 75% in order to appreciate what it is capable of offering. And while it does provide commendable clarity and depth, the audio produced by drivers can sound a bit canned and muffled. This, in particular, is something I often experience when listening to rock music, where several frequencies peak during choruses and such.
Then there’s the dreaded in-ear detection, which I highly recommend you to switch off once you’ve downloaded the app. The reason being is that the feature will sometimes fail to realise that the earbuds are actually being worn and will, in turn, cancel out playback and noise cancelling. As you can tell, this instance would happen randomly and can be very irritating.
The next bunch of flaws are a bit tricky, as it may or may not be exclusive to the Nothing ear (1) unit passed to me for this review. Nevertheless, they are something worth keeping in mind, just in case. And for the record, I am a careful user and never once have I exposed either earbud (or the charging case) to the elements.
The first is the earbuds’ battery life, which actually does last up to the total number of hours it has been advertised to offer. However, after several months of using the device, I’ve noticed that the right earbud sometimes fail to charge properly when placed in the case – leading to frustrating moments of taking both buds out to find out that only one side is fully charged while the other is at 0%. Honestly, I can’t tell for sure if it’s the magnetic charging ports or the internal battery that is causing this issue.
And it doesn’t end there for the seemingly troubled right earbud either. There are also several moments where I encountered its touch panel to not work at all. However, there is a solution to this problem, which is to place both pieces back to their case and take them out in order to be resynced again to your mobile device. Regardless, it is an issue that should not have been present in the first place.
Should I buy it?
Despite featuring some flaws, the Nothing ear (1) still weighs more towards its pros than its cons. At its price point of RM499, it is hard not to recommend these earbuds to consumers, especially the fact that it offers premium-esque audio quality and features that are often found in similar TWS products priced at RM 1K or even more.
For its first ever jab in the TWS scene, Carl Pei’s Nothing has indeed done a commendable job so far with the ear (1). However, it is still far from delivering a near-faultless product – something I hope the company will continue to improve for its upcoming devices.