At $149, a brand you’ve never heard of might just offer the best value earphones around. What’s the catch with the Nothing Ear 1?
Truly wireless earphone choices are fairly plentiful, but they tend to arrive in different price brackets depending on what you’re after, and many of them look the same.
If you’re after something with active noise, you’re typically looking above the $200 mark, and if you don’t care about blocking the world out, earphones aplenty can be found for beneath that. That’s just how it goes.
And yet a brand you’ve never heard of appears keen on changing that.
Created by one of the founders of OnePlus, Nothing — yep, that’s what it’s called — is looking to change mobile products. We’re not entirely sure how deep this rabbit hole for Nothing will go, but it starts with a pair of earphones that looks nothing like any other pair you’ve seen and manages to pack in noise cancellation and custom tuning, and for a price that seems impossible.
For $149, Nothing’s Ear 1 may offer something we don’t typically see in budget earphones: a feature set worth talking about for the price. Are these the best value earphones for the year?
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Design and features
Sporting a design aesthetic like no other, Nothing’s Ear 1 stand out. Granted, they also have a name like no other, and whether you call them the “Ear 1” or go by the marketing and read the name in lowercase with parentheses as “ear (1)”, these are clearly a little different, something you can tell just by looking at them.
Upon first glance, you’ll see it and say it under your tongue almost without realising it: they’re clear. And with that, the Ear 1 is also clearly different.
That is the aesthetic choice Nothing is going for, with a transparent approach to product creation that is extended to the product’s existence: an almost totally transparent product that allows you to see the tech underneath. It’s a design choice that stands out, and while is plastic, makes no attempt to hide the hardware, showing off the beauty inside.
This design choice is partly in the case, which kind of looks like the old iPod EarPods earphones, but instead offers a small battery and magnets to hold the earphones in place, resulting in a case that’s a little large by today’s standards, but still nice to carry. It even has a not-too-small indent for your thumb, and holds enough charge for 24 hours with noise cancelling on or 34 with active noise cancellation turned off.
It’s not just the design that comes with some unorthodox choices, because Nothing’s earphone hardware is a little different, as well.
The 11.6mm driver includes a diaphragm coated in graphene, something we’ve not seen on many earphones, and Nothing hasn’t even built the Ear 1 entirely by itself. Rather, it worked with audio specialists Teenage Engineering, which builds some synthesiser gear for making music, and thus gives it an understanding of audio not a lot of brands have. It’s kind of like hearing about Oppo working with Dynaudio or LG working with Meridian Audio, and essentially amounts to the earphone maker going to the sound specialist to make something grand.
There are also three microphones here alongside noise cancellation working from artificial intelligence, as well as IPX4 water resistance for splash-proof design, and some in-ear detection sensors to let the music automatically pause when the earphones are our of your ears.
Pop on a tip that suits your ears, pair the earphones to your phone, and start playing, and you’re good to go, with the Nothing Ear 1 earphones needing no special degree to use them, partly because there aren’t a lot of controls here.
That’s both good and bad; they’re easy to use — double tap for pause and play, swiping up and down for volume which works in segments, and then some functions mapped to triple tap — but the way of customising your options supports a barebones assortment of controls. You can skip tracks and turn noise cancelling modes on and off… and that’s it. You can’t move things about, even if there’s a touch-panel with slide controls, basically limiting you more than probably is necessary.
It’s actually rather surprising, because the app offers more options, including two degrees of noise cancellation, an ambient mode, a find my earphone option, and some equalisers, but the earphones themselves don’t let you change a whole lot at all.
Fortunately there’s more going on than just messing with the controls, because there’s a sound worth checking out. As usual, we’re doing that using the Pickr Sound Test, which you can listen to for yourself, and that starts with Teenage Engineering’s bread and butter: electronic music.
Uncovering a warm sound in both Tycho and Daft Punk, with earthy bass and lovely mids, the highs ever so slightly behind. That’s already a sign that the earphones are going to be more like a pair of speakers, and that bass drop in Tycho’s Glider that kickstarts our sound test feels lovely and deep, even if the detail is a little lacking.
In the pop of Carly Rae Jepsen, the reduction in detail starts to become obvious: sounds start to blend together rather than feel obviously distinct, and the oomph Ariana Grande’s mixing delivers in Into You isn’t as decidedly powerful. The sound is still warm and friendly, but it’s less nuanced than we’d typically like.
Fortunately, we’re good with warmth, and it’s a style of balance that you won’t easily find. Sony uses it in its headphones — the WH-1000XM4 and WF-1000XM4 are great examples — while Bang & Olufsen’s approach to “signature sound” can be like that, so it’s nice to see it in a pair that severely undercuts both brands.
Shifting styles to rock, and we’re not ridiculously surprised to hear the Nothing Ear 1 able to achieve a meaty bottom end in Muse, the Deftones, and Rage Against the Machine, all of which deliver a suitably punchy set of lows, even if it can feel a touch shallow. You’ll hear it all — the guitars, the drums, the vocals, and bass — but it just might come together more cohesively than a pair of earphones twice the price would deliver on.
Older rock is a little lighter on the muddle (we’re looking at you, Paul Simon and The Beatles), and jazz and blues flexes more or less the same sort of approach: the tone is warm, but the sound can be more subtle.
All up, the Nothing Ear 1 delivers a nice warm sound that could be more detailed, but given the price point, actually feels somewhat fitting. We’ve never seen that warm sound in a pair priced this way, so we can make some allowances.
One area that isn’t amazing is the noise cancellation, which is a great included feature for the price point, but one that doesn’t exactly score big points given how basic it is. There’s a choice of high cancellation and low cancellation in the app, plus a hear-through transparency mode, but the cancellation on offer is pretty entry-level, and may not cut back on everything altogether well.
While this reviewer is in lockdown and isn’t taking to flights — thanks, coronavirus — tests with various types of noise showed the Ear 1 could quell some of it, but not cover it off entirely. Likewise, when we went for a walk, outside street noise was lightly quelled, but not cut out entirely.
Given the $149 price point, this isn’t a total surprise, and typically you only get a stronger cancel-all performance from earphones over the $300 mark. At half of that (and quite a bit less in most cases), we think the Nothing Ear 1 still makes a dent, but noise cancellation clearly isn’t the main priority.
Sound quality without a hefty dollar sign may well be, because that warm sound is next to impossible to find at this price point. Hell, even outside of it, few companies even attempt it.
The battery is quite decent, however, with around five hours of charge before you plonk the earphones in the case, and that offering up to around 24 hours of use with noise cancelling switched on, and an extra ten for 34 hours if you decide to switch it off.
That’s not an altogether terrible amount of battery life for a pair of $150 noise cancelling earphones, and one that even offers something few budget models get: wireless charging in the case.
If you have an iPhone from the iPhone 8 or higher — including the iPhone X, iPhone XR, or iPhone 12 (and anything else in between) — or many an Android flagship released since 2015, you may already know that your phone supports wireless charging. And if you didn’t know, we’re glad we could enlighten you.
The Nothing Ear 1 also includes wireless charging in the case, so while you can plug it in over USB Type C to give it a charge, you can also leave it on a wireless charging dock, too. Handy for folks who hate cables, a future we’ll inevitably start making our way to, anyway.
One area you’ll see no complaints from us on is in regards to value, because the Nothing Ear 1 earphones nail it.
Priced at $149 in Australia, the Ear 1 earphones are the new benchmark in noise cancellation value, a category we didn’t even know existed. Nothing has just created a new category, with noise cancellation not only trickling to below the $200 mark, but doing so in a stellar way.
These are not “nothing”. These are something, and they represent true value.
What needs work?
But being the first something out of Nothing, they do come with a few quirks, things we hope Nothing rushes to fix, with two of the problems we found able to be fixed in updates, while the other, less so.
One of those that could be fixed is with regards to synchronisation, with what we can describe as syncing issues in the Ear 1 earphones.
Simply put, we’ve found they could cut in and out when we opened and unlocked the iPhone 12 Pro Max we used for testing, not so much cutting out, but reading more like they were temporarily not talking to the phone for a second, breaking the sound. That’s not strictly the definition of an earphone sync issue, but it’s close, and makes us wonder if the connection between phone and earphone isn’t as strong as it needs to be.
Frustratingly, they happened more often than we’d like, enough that we took off points on performance just because of how frequent they could be. While we saw one update during the time we spent reviewing the Ear 1 earphones, you just know the company would be working on these to fix them. It would have to be.
Customisable controls are another thing Nothing needs to firm up, because while they exist, they’re not that customisable, reading more like the flavoured mineral water of tweaking, giving you a hint of flavour, but not much to work with.
The Nothing app will let you change out some of the features — you can change a triple tap to next song or previous song, and tap and hold to noise cancellation or nothing — but the assortment of choices isn’t large.
There’s not even a pause or play function on the earphones, so you won’t be touching the Ear 1’s little touchpad to do much more than skip tracks or turn cancellation on or off. It’s pretty barebones, much like the lack of aesthetic.
One thing Nothing won’t be able to change until version two — maybe the Ear (2)? — is the case, which is a little on the clunky side and doesn’t always snap the earphones in properly for charging.
It happened a few times through our Ear 1 review period, where we’d go to take both earphones out, and only one would be at full charge. This despite them both sitting in, a problem we can attribute to the magnets not always holding the Nothing earphones.
It’s a small issue, and more becomes a learning process, with you quickly checking whether the green light is on and the earphones delicately snapping into place in the transparent case.
Still, it’s something specific to these earphones, thanks in part to the case which doesn’t have you drop the earphones in like with pretty much every other in-earphone, but rather places them flat on the magnets and contacts. That mightn’t be as effective long term, and could be something Nothing fixes for next time.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
Despite the few flaws, the Nothing Ear 1 is still a pretty impressive first-gen product from a company practically dedicated to building products like no one else.
At $149, there is nothing quite like the Nothing Ear 1, offering quality and value in a meaningful way. This isn’t a pair that’s cheap for the sake of being cheap, but one that is priced just right. These are the Goldilocks of wireless earphones, with a feature set and value proposition that’s hard to deny.
They are the noise cancelling earphones on a budget, and that is a title worth taking.
There noticeable bugs, especially when the earphones cut in and out, and they don’t quite challenge the benchmark wireless in-ears for the best spots. However at the price Nothing is pitching the Ear 1 earphones at, these are definitely worth more than the little the brand name implies, and could just save you money for what is seriously strong value. Easily recommended, especially for the price point.