If there ever was a pair of true wireless earbuds that was marketed with plenty of hype in 2021, the Nothing ear (1) would take the top spot. A lot of the hype had to do with Carl Pei, the person who founded OnePlus, where there was rabid anticipation that his latest startup, Nothing, would be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat just like how the OnePlus One smartphone was the original flagship killer. The world ended up with the Nothing ear (1) true wireless earbuds that boast ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) and IPX4 certification. Just how does it fare in a mid-range market that is starting to get a little too crowded with very few differentiating factors? Let’s find out in Manatau’s review!
How much does it cost?
Malaysians are very price-sensitive lot, and even more so during such times of economic hardship. The Nothing ear (1) will retail for RM499 a pop, where it carries a US$99/£99/€99/INR 5,999 sticker price in other markets. I did wish that the Nothing ear (1) would be sold for RM350 if we were to follow India’s pricing structure, and I was accurate in my earlier prediction where the Nothing ear (1) would be priced closer to the Beats Studio Buds range, hitting the RM500 mark.
What the Nothing ear (1) offers
- Ultra-light at 4.7g per earbud
- Powerful 11.6mm speaker driver
- 3 microphones
- Touch controls
- IPX4 certification (resistant against water splashes)
- Sound tuned by Teenage Engineering
- Active Noise Cancellation (Light and Max modes)
- Up to 34 hours of listening (including the charging case)
Design: Transparency is the best policy
I would say that the Nothing ear (1) lived up to its hype in terms of design. It is definitely something special, and I will not be surprised to see that other manufacturers might follow suit in the near future. Unboxing the Nothing ear (1) proved to be a very interesting experience. There is a tab for you to remove the external plastic film, of which a tiny perforated segment lets you rip open the box neatly at the top. Kiss goodbye to the box after that!
Measuring a wee bit larger than your average cigarette pack, you will find a silver coloured box inside. The Nothing ear (1) will greet you, seated in its transparent case and flanked by both the USB-C cable (approximately 30cm in length when unfurled) and S and L size replacement tips. At the bottom of the box lies the warranty card and other miscellaneous documents that come in thick, square cutouts.
Naturally, one would gravitate to the transparent case that also doubles up as its charger. Metal elements are used for the hinge and at a small segment in front, leading to an intuitive method of opening the case. Within, you will find it easy to differentiate where the left and right earbuds should go based on the red dot that marks the right earbud. Magnetic anchors ensure that both earbuds remain firmly in place within. The white plastic body features a dimpled surface if you were to look closely. Those who tend to fidget will find the case’s tiny recess on the lid an interesting addition as you spin it around. The case does seem rather solid, and should not be an issue to fit into a small pocket or compartment in your bag. Do take note that the plastic is a fingerprint magnet, and is also rather easy to scuff. Then again, this is not a premium product, so I should not have set my expectations so high.
Each earbud weighs 4.7 grams apiece and is powered by a 11.6mm speaker driver that has been tuned by Teenage Engineering. The transparent plastic used on the earbuds cannot disguise the overall look that would make one think of the AirPods Pro. Perhaps the transparent design would have been better served by coming in a different form factor such as a bean-like design in the footsteps of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live.
Needless to say, the objective of Nothing to attract attention worked well with the Nothing ear (1)’s design. Colored dots on the left earbud help distinguish it from the right one, and having the product name engraved is a welcome addition that reminds you of an LED signboard. If only it lighted up in the dark! But that’s a fantasy for another day…
Audio: Average, balanced sound
Come on now, with all the hype and marketing that focused on its design, surely something has to give, right? I’ll say this right from the beginning: the Nothing ear (1) sounds exactly like it should. After all, the US$100 price point gives you plenty of options. In fact, it costs so much less than the AirPods Pro while offering a performance that would leave you happy. On the other hand, there are other earbuds that offer more than what the Nothing ear (1) can (albeit by a little bit) at a fraction of its price, such as the Earfun Air Pro 2.
Powered by 11.6mm drivers, you will be able to enjoy a very neutral audio signature. Do understand that this is not a high-end device, but a mid-range offering that sets out to do its job well. After all, you cannot expect the company to turn a profit while offering out-of-this-world hardware that costs a pittance, can you?
Targeting the mass market who would most probably listen to MP3s or Spotify at 320 kbps, the Nothing ear (1) performs well. While there is no aptX codec supported, both SBC and AAC codecs come into play here, and they are more than sufficient for everyday use.
I enjoyed my sessions on Spotify, and it certainly outperforms entry-level earbuds by an impressive margin. In fact, it is not too far off from the AirPods Pro, and you would really need to have trained ears to be able to tell the minute differences in audio quality. The balanced audio signature means none of the frequency ranges (bass-midrange-high) receive a greater degree of attention than another. This is ideal, instead of manufacturers stressing on bass levels. In fact, the Nothing ear (1) delivers dynamic bass, precise mediums (voices and instruments alike), and decent highs. Of course, sibilance comes into play when the volume level is cranked up.
I enjoyed watching Squid Game on my smartphone while hooked up to the Nothing ear (1). Sure, this is not the best show to test the audio quality out, but it was more to see (or rather, hear) whether there were any lag or latency issues. Suffice to say, I did not run into any.
ANC and microphone performance
The Nothing ear (1) features ANC in addition to three microphones in each earpiece. The semi-open fit design will definitely need some adjustment on your side to get the passive noise isolation right, as I found out to my chagrin. This is since expected and even the most expensive earbuds will have this issue. Thankfully, there are S and L tips that will hopefully be able to provide a better fit.
Nothing claims that you should be able to experience a reduction in ambient noise by up to 40 dB, which is par for the course for a device at this price point. You can choose from Light and Max mode for the ANC. Frankly, the Light mode is pretty much useless, as it is neither here nor there. Perhaps it would work best in a library where it is already pretty quiet, but you just need that extra bit of silence.
I have worn the Nothing ear (1) on my morning runs, and suffice to say, they work great. I could hear the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet and the chirping of birds with ambient sound enabled, while ANC worked great when I needed to focus and tune the world around me out. Of course, if you are planning to enjoy your workouts outdoors, it would be best to enable ambient sound in order to avoid any untoward incidents.
The microphone was spot on, as it was neither too muted nor too loud. My video calls on Zoom or Microsoft Teams ran flawlessly. I must also note that I did not experience any dropped connections at all so far. Fingers crossed!
Simple touch controls
You cannot veer too far from the tried-and-tested formula for touch controls in earbuds. Double-tapping pauses music playback, while a triple-tap lets you advance one track. Holding down a long tap will allow you to switch between the different ANC profiles, which is indicated by a short sound signature. I would have preferred a voice to indicate whether ANC is enabled or not, though. To adjust the volume, simply slide your finger along the stem.
A basic app
It seems to be the trend these days for true wireless earbuds to feature an app that help you further customise the user experience. The ear (1) app on Android and iOS is lightweight and features a clean interface. The ear (1) app is simple and intuitive, where you can choose from Hear or Touch options. I like how the app informs you of how much charge remains in each individual earbud.
Hear lets you tweak the ANC levels (Light or Max) and the EQ presets (there are four), while Touch lets you optimize touch controls for each earbud. Do not get too excited just yet about the EQ settings, since they have been preset and cannot be adjusted. As for the touch controls, it is slim pickings here as well. Hopefully, future updates will see an adjustable EQ.
There is also a “Find My Earbud” function that will definitely come in handy to locate your Nothing ear (1). If it is in range, you will hear a loud wail for easier locating.
The Nothing ear (1) features Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity and offers support for SBC and AAC codecs. There is no multipoint connectivity, so forget about hooking up your Nothing ear (1) to your laptop and smartphone simultaneously. On another note, each earbud can be used individually, so if one earbud is low on battery, you can always charge that while using the other.
Connecting it to my smartphone was a painless and swift affair. Do take note that the Nothing ear (1) is compatible with Google’s Fast Pair. While other reviewers noted that they had connectivity issues, perhaps they received a lemon, but my review unit had no issues with pairing whatsoever.
Battery life: Could be better
Each Nothing ear (1) earbud packs a 31 mAh battery, with the charging case carrying a 570 mAh battery. You should be able to get up to 4 hours audio playback with ANC enabled, and up to 5.7 hours without ANC. That translates to 24 (with ANC) and 34 hours (without ANC) with the charging case. Obviously, these are not record breaking numbers, but they should be enough for a few days’ use before you charge the charging case.
10 minutes of charging should be able to deliver 1.2 hours of audio playback without ANC or 50 minutes with ANC turned on. Through my experience, the Nothing ear (1) took around 1.5 hours to be fully charged. I’m so used to fast charging on smartphones, it would be petty to wish this feature arrive on earbuds, no?
Last but not least, the charging case relies on a USB Type-C port to charge, or you can go wireless as it also supports the Qi wireless charging standard. Frankly speaking, this is becoming the norm for any self-respecting TWS earbuds in 2021 at this price point, and it is a step in the right direction.
The Nothing ear (1) will retail for RM499 and will go on sale on October 16, 2021 on the official Shopee store and all other Nothing authorised stores.
Is the Nothing ear (1) worth picking up? I rate it as a premium mid-range TWS earbuds based on the RM499 price point. There are better value-for-money propositions out there if you are not too big on brand names, such as the Earfun Air Pro 2 that retails at a fraction of the Nothing ear (1)’s price. While there is nothing wrong in picking up the Nothing ear (1), it is simply too ordinary without anything outstanding, performance-wise, with only its design being the saving grace. Still, it is a commendable maiden effort by Nothing. I hope the sequel, if there is one, will truly be a “flagship killer” offering.
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