Tushar BurmanSep 23, 2021 11:21:55 IST
Even with only a passing interest in tech, by now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Nothing Ear (1) true wireless earbuds. Founded by ex-OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei, Nothing is easily one of the most hyped product companies of 2021. It’s interesting that it chose a TWS as its debut product, and in retrospect, perhaps the hype has been a little counterproductive.
What you may have heard
With the sheer barrage of content across the internet about the Nothing Ear (1) buds, including from top-tier YouTubers, influencers, tech journalists and the like, expectations were sky-high. Unfortunately, much like the OnePlus products we review every six months, the Nothing buds looked and felt beautiful on first use but were a bit half-baked in terms of experience.
At Tech2, we’re on our second set of buds. While there’s nothing wrong with the first or the second set, there have been software glitches reported across the internet. Some tests have even shown egregious performance issues in noise cancelling. Our sense is the combination of early hardware and software has caused issues, some of which we have experienced in our testing as well. As of now, the Nothing Ear (1) buds are stable.
Design: Low-key flex
There’s no way to not put this subhead right up top. The Nothing Ear (1) buds look beautiful with their transparent/black/white colour scheme. The little stems are clear plastic, allowing the clean, black interior to show through. The bulbous bits and silicone that go into your ears are white. There’s a red dot on the right bud and a white one on the left, to distinguish the sides. It’s understated, yet striking, and those in the know, know. I’ve had a few people come up to me and ask if these are indeed the Nothing buds. Especially in the early days, when they weren’t publicly available, it was quite a flex.
The case is also transparent/white, and a bit large for my taste. It’s a rounded square, fairly thick and holds the buds in an odd, flipped-onto-their-sides position. It’s also not obvious which direction you’re supposed to lift the top from, but I’m nit-picking. There were concerns about the clear plastic getting scuffed and dull over time, but this has not been my experience. Both our review units look quite fresh; perhaps we’re just careful with our units. The case has a single pairing button, a USB-C port for charging and supports wireless charging as well. Perhaps one side-effect of the relatively large case is that it’s easier to locate on a wireless charger. I’m able to place it down on a SanDisk charger or stand it up against a OnePlus charger just fine. Smaller cases such as the Jabra Elite 85t can’t be stood up against anything.
Companion app: Covers the basics
The Nothing Ear (1) companion app is available for both iOS and Android devices and provides a clean UI to access the features that the buds make available. It’s par for the course, but I appreciate the simple UI and clean design. While other companion apps manage similar tasks, they always look like an afterthought.
The Nothing companion app allowed me to configure the triple-tap gesture (previous track, next track, the long-press gesture (noise cancelling mode, or no action), as well as set some equaliser presets (Balanced, More Treble, More Bass, Voice). I’ve also updated the buds’ firmware via the app, and it has been a smooth affair.
The noise cancellation can be tailored to suit one’s needs from the app. You get two choices: ‘Light’ and ‘Medium’. You can also switch between noise cancelling, transparency and ‘off’ modes for the buds. Switching to ‘off’ surprised me in the amount of passive noise cancellation that’s possible with the buds in your ears.
Performance: Excellent, with occasional hiccups
At the outset, let me say that I am not a fan of Bluetooth. It’s a glitchy, horrible protocol that’s just a pain to use, unless you’re in the Apple ecosystem, and use AirPods. Then, Bluetooth magically works. Everywhere else, there are problems pairing, problems when you get back to a device, switch a device, etc. It’s just par for the course, and I’m not going to blame the Ear (1)s for any of those familiar bugs. In my experience, the Nothing Ear (1) buds paired easily with my iPhone 12 Pro and snapped back to the connection every time I put them on. No delays. I would have preferred multi-device connectivity, but I’m afraid the Nothings are monogamous.
In terms of features, the Ear (1)s are well-equipped with active noise cancellation (ANC), in-ear detection and touch controls with volume adjustment. The latter feature tends to be rare on TWS, since they’re rather hard to implement successfully. Happily, the Ear (1)s get this right: slide your finger up or down the stem of either bud to raise or lower volume. In my experience, it worked most of the time, though a lack of tactile or auditory feedback is confusing.
The user experience deserves some praise. Every tap gesture is registered with some audio feedback within the ears, which is essential for this sort of device. It’s easy to know when you’ve changed a track or activated transparency mode from the sort of beep you hear. The taps themselves are configured for practicality: a single touch or tap does nothing. Double-tap takes or drops calls, triple-tap skips tracks, and a long-press changes ANC mode. The calibration of the surface also appears to be well done, since I can usually get the desired result when I tap. I preferred the larger, round tap surface of the new Google Pixel Buds A Series, but these are just fine, too.
Active noise cancellation on the Nothing Ear (1)s is excellent for buds that cost Rs 6,000. My sense is that they’re at least as good as the AirPods Pro on flights, and I find them to be my buds of choice on my routine Mumbai-Delhi runs. The drone of the airplane engines is mostly gone, while I am still able to hold quiet conversations with ANC on. It’s good enough that I just leave them in whether I have media playing or not. It makes the world feel a lot calmer. This also highlights, for me, that the buds are comfortable over long periods of time. The included silicone tips (three sizes) are great quality and the medium tips worked well for me. The buds are also IPX4 splash-resistant, so sweaty workouts shouldn’t be a problem.
Call quality is good. Voices felt natural coming through when we tested both our units on either side of a phone call. Environmental noise rejection is included but is not great. Our benchmark for ENC remain the original OnePlus Buds, which could drown out a jackhammer with their aggressive algorithm. When walking around the house, Bluetooth range is about average: one wall is fine, two walls obstructing line of sight is a problem.
Sound quality is what originally impressed me about the Nothing Ear (1)s, in that it is crowd-pleasing, inoffensive and generally nice. It is a V-shaped sound signature, so there’s some bass boost and the treble can be shrill on occasion, but it is generally good enough for me to listen to these over as many hours as I can extract from the battery. I kept the equaliser set to ‘balanced’, though I did find the second set of our Ear (1)s to be tuned ‘darker’ than the first; I had to put on the ‘more treble’ equaliser preset to make the second set match the first. I may be mistaken, but they’re generally close otherwise. I’ve tried them on popular music, some classic rock, the occasional jazz performance and it has been pleasant. More expensive on- and over-ear full-size headphones may extract more quality by way of their isolation, but as far as in-ear TWS in this price range are concerned, I think this performance hits the sweet spot. I mostly used these on my iPhone with the AAC codec, but you also have the basic SBC codec for devices that don’t support it. No high-fidelity codecs are available.
Perhaps the one thing I have concerns about is the battery life these buds offer. They’re rated at 34 hours for the buds on a full charge (ANC off) or 24 hours with ANC on. I found that with my use, I got anything between 2.5 to 4 hours of use with music and ANC enabled. This is a wide range, and a bit inconsistent, but perhaps the new software updates have stabilised this. In general, I can now get through a Mumbai-Delhi commute between airports for the most part, until the buds need to be popped back in their case. Around the house, I like to toss them on a wireless charger to keep them topped up.
Most complaints about the Nothing Ear (1)s are likely to revolve around its inconsistent performance over time, which we’ve experienced as well. Initially, we had issues with audio dropouts, strange garbling of audio until disconnected and re-connected, ANC having a mind of its own and turning off randomly. These issues seem to have disappeared over some firmware updates, but it’s worth pointing out. We have not experienced any audio issues in recent testing.
Perhaps the one thing that I would caution of is that fit is key to in-ear buds, and more so for buds that have in-ear detection. I find that the Nothing Ear (1)s will occasionally believe that they’re out of my ears and pause music, then quickly resume. You can turn off in-ear detection and lose the convenience for more consistent performance.
The ANC is adaptive in real-time, and you may notice some strange effects occasionally, such as the silence coming on gradually, or the buds getting loud and silent infrequently. This happens less often now and is not a deal-breaker, but something to consider. I don’t have these problems on competing devices.
Verdict: Easy to recommend, stylish buds
It’s quite evident that the Nothing Ear (1)s have captured imaginations. I get a lot of queries about them, mostly how to buy them. Perhaps that’s the most annoying thing about them: you have to wait for one of their infrequent flash sales on Flipkart and try to get an order in.
For my ears, they sound good, have competent ANC, are comfortable, work well for calls and look great. For Rs 5,999, I’ll gladly recommend them. I think Nothing has been bold, but also strategic in focusing on the Ear (1) design as much as they have. Technology is ramping down in price so rapidly, that it’s mere months before devices like this are supplanted by cheaper competitors. In terms of performance, the Nothing buds have already been equaled for less money (review soon), but as a package — with that unique design — they’re still recommended and are my current buds of choice as my everyday carry.