(Pocket-lint) - When Nothing first launched, it said its aim was to build an ecosystem of products that all blended seamlessly into the background. Stuff that worked well, but didn't get in your way. While we're nowhere near seeing that dream fully realised yet, Nothing has launched its first product to give us a tiny glimpse at what the future might look like in reality: the Ear 1 wireless earbuds.
With an emphasis on their transparent design, convenient features and good sound, can they stand out from the ever-busying crowd? Given their attractive price point, Nothing might well be onto Something here...
At this price point, it's rare to find a pair of earbuds as accomplised as the Nothing Ear 1.
These 'buds look unique, which is their big sell, but they also sound great, and even feature active noise-cancelling (ANC) for cutting out external ambient noise.
They do somehow feel a little unfinished at time of review though. A few features - like Android Fast Pair and double-touch gestures - aren't yet active. On the positive side, that means future improvements will only make things even better.
Still, what they do, they do well. The Ear 1 delivers a lot of what you'd find in Apple AirPods Pro, except they won't cost you anywhere near as much, and they don't look the same either.
Nothing Ear 1
- Unique transparent design stands out
- Comfortable to wear for long periods
- Great sound
- Wireless/fast charging
- Reliable for video and voice calls
- Battery life could be improved
- Lots of competition
- Touch gestures limited (at time of review)
- Dimensions (earbuds): 28.9 x 21.5 x 23.5mm
- IPX4 water resistance (splash proof)
- Transparent case
We've heard a lot about Nothing's approach to design since it first became a proper company early in 2021. Having looked at how many Apple AirPods lookalikes featured in the more affordable segment of the market, a visual identity was core to the company's plans - and it has one to match its name. Whether you're looking at the case for the earbuds or the Ear 1 earbuds themselves, transparency plays a huge role in the appearance.
The outer shell of the charging case - on both the cover and the base - is completely see-through. It's not to the point where you can see all of the internal components of the case though. Those are mostly hidden behind a matte white section inside, keeping the lines minimal and clean, but still managing a subtle fabric-like texture to add a little depth.
It does mean you can see the cuboid magnet that holds the lid shut and the silver hinge on the other side. But more importantly, you can see your 'buds as they're charging. And because Nothing wanted to make more of a show of it, the 'buds aren't half-hidden inside a shaft - they're proudly on display as they're cradled.
To hold them in place, there are two more visible magnets inside each 'bud cradle, plus three dimples in the case lid. The larger of the three dimples sits in between the two and is the perfect groove for a thumb to hold. If you want, and like to fidget, it's ideal for just spinning them around in your hand.
As for the 'buds themselves, the key transparent element is the stem. The chamber that holds the drivers and the ear tips is a solid, glossy white plastic. It's a relatively large oval chamber, designed to help the sound breathe a bit more than it might if the driver was packed in a smaller space.
The transparent stem has a minimalist look, but it's purposeful: it covers a simple, black interior and features a red dot on the right ear, white dot on the left, and the dot-matrix-style Nothing Ear 1 logo printed on it. On the inside, you can see the internal circuit board which is quite neat, but hidden when in use or charging in the case.
It's safe to say that there isn't another pair of earbuds out there that look like the Nothing Ear 1. The company has done what it set out to do from a visual standpoint: the Ear 1 stands out from the market, while simultaneously dissolving into the background.
To wear, the earbuds are comfortable for long periods. That's partly down to the comfy soft ear tips that come with them, partly down to their inherent lightness. We didn't feel the 'buds shift or need adjusting once they were positioned correctly. They're effortless to wear and didn't give us any sensitivity within the ear canal - even after long stints of listening to music.
Features, performance and noise cancelling
- Active noise-cancelling (ANC) and transparency mode
- 5.7 hours playback with ANC off (34 hours total)
- 4 hours playback with ANC on (23 hours total)
- Qi Wireless charging, 10min fast-charging
There are a few things you expect from a modern pair of 'buds, features-wise, and - for the most part - the Ear 1 has them. The presence of active noise-cancelling (ANC), given the affordable price point, is actually a bit of a pleasant surprise.
One of the other most convenient features is the auto-pause capability when you remove a 'bud from your ear. Music stops, then plays again when you put it back in.
Because Nothing clearly cared about design, there's no optical proximity sensor to detect when a 'bud comes in contact with the skin. That would have required a black window to be stamped into the otherwise perfect white casing. Instead, the Ear 1 has capacitive sensors that you can't see.
It also features touch gesture support. However, it's currently a little limited. For starters, you can only triple-tap or long-press on the stem of each earbud. This could be to help making accidental touches impossible and - in our experience, if that's the motivation - it works.
By default, a triple-tap skips to the next song, while a long press switches active noise-cancelling (ANC) on or off. You can go into the 'touch' settings in the Ear 1 app to change these, but there aren't many other options to choose from. You can't, for instance, set one of them to play or pause music. At least, not in the pre-release version of the software, so that may change by the time the final release swings around.
Switching ANC on or off makes a considerable difference in cutting out surrounding ambient noise. The passive seal from the tip in combination with the external mic's noise-cancelling ensures that you're near enough locked away in your world of music. It might not quite get rid of every sound - like siblings arguing with each other loudly while you're working from home - but it's effective at cutting out the droning, continuous noises and normal volume chatter.
The only downside of using ANC is the impact on battery life. Without ANC, you can get more than five-and-a-half hours of playback outside of the case. With ANC switched on, you lose about an hour of that. In real-world usage, it's unlikely this will impact your experience too much though. Even with a long two-hour commute (if you travel to work) you'll not even get close to emptying these earbuds' battery.
They tend to drain battery quicker during video and voice calls though. We tested them on a long Google Meet call, and after two hours the battery was at around 20 per cent for the pair. Because the two 'buds work independently, we could pop one back in the case when they were getting low on battery, charge it for 10 minutes, then swap it out for the other one and stay on the call without any interruption.
That means while they're not market-leading in terms of longevity, they're solid enough to not inconvenience you. Plus, with Google Fast Pair support coming, and a 'Find my Earbuds' feature in the app, you get the convenience of quick connection and finding lost earphones.
- 11.6mm dynamic drivers
- 0.34CC chamber
Key to any earphone experience, of course, is the sound quality. Even here, the Nothing Ear 1 shows itself to be a very capable pair of in-ears. They're intensely enjoyable to listen to. The balance of lower frequencies and clarity in the trebles creates a nice distinction between the bass and higher notes.
There's a wide soundstage too, making it feel like there's huge space in-between sounds mixed furthest left and furthest right in stereo. It often feels like you enveloped in sound, rather than just having it blasted into your ear canals.
The song Belong by Sam Fermin is great listen with these 'buds. It starts off with some clean, basic vocals and a low organ/synth note in the background, but is slowly joined by subtle guitar picking and simple percussion, before more layers are added until it swells into a full symphony. The Ear 1 lets you be immersed in full.
Our only criticism is by comparison to other, admittedly more expensive, earphones. The Ear 1 doesn't lift some of the more subtle elements of tracks and make you notice things you maybe didn't notice before, whereas more premium models from the likes of Master & Dynamic or Bose would. But to expect that kind of quality in a pair of budget 'buds would be unrealistic.
If the sound isn't to your liking, there is an EQ setting in the app to adjust equalisation, although it doesn't let you fine-tune the balance. Instead, it offers you some basic presets. One for more bass (which it doesn't need) and one for vocal focus, which drops the immersive bass/mids and just concentrates on the clarity of voices. It's not much fun for music, but can be useful if you're watching movies and want to hear dialogue over blaring sound effects.
It's rare to find a pair of earbuds as accomplised as the Nothing Ear 1 in the affordable market segment. They look unique, sound great, and are reliable enough to use day-in day-out.