Reality distortion field

Nothing Ear (1) review: Clearly something is wrong here

The reality distortion field around Nothing’s $100 Ear (1) wireless earbuds is strong. They’re designed by Teenage Engineering, but they’re loaded with bugs.

Nothing Ear 1 review: Too buggy and rushed out too soon
Raymond Wong / Input

My experience with Nothing’s Ear (1) wireless earbuds has been a real roller coaster ride.

I’ve got no issue with the sound quality. They’re just a tiny step below AirPods Pro or Galaxy Buds 2. The semi-transparent buds — Carl Pei and the social / marketing team may have gone overboard with the hype — fit comfortably in my ears for extended periods. Battery life is competitive with AirPods Pro or Galaxy Buds 2. And the $99 price undercuts the competition by a good amount.

No, my biggest complaint with Nothing’s Ear (1) is quality control.

I’ve been using three pairs — two pre-release units and one retail version — for about seven weeks and all of them have had different problems. All three are on the latest firmware update and are paired with the latest version of the Ear (1) app for iPhone and Android.

The first Ear (1) unit had a charging issue. The left earbud either wouldn’t charge or wouldn’t charge past 10 percent. The second pair of Ear (1) buds charged fine, but the active noise cancellation kept malfunctioning randomly and the Bluetooth wouldn’t disconnect from my iPhone 12 Pro even after the buds were returned to their charging case and the cover closed. The third pair of Ear (1) buds — the retail version — supposedly “optimized the sound and call performance with a new firmware update and made a small hardware update to the case, which optimizes earbud connectivity and charging” according to a Nothing spokesperson. It has no charging problems and the Bluetooth connects / disconnects properly with my iPhone, but it still has occasional ANC drops and weirdly, some strange software bugs that I can’t reproduce with the other two Ear (1) buds.

I’ve been delaying this review in hopes that Nothing could iron out many of the bugs plaguing the Ear (1). After two months since I received my first review unit and three weeks with the third retail version, and several firmware and app updates post-launch, I think it’s time to call the Ear (1) like it is: They’re buggy and Nothing clearly (no pun intended) rushed them out too soon.

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Sorta clear

I admit, when Nothing first teased its wireless earbuds with the Design Concept 1, I kind of lost it. The almost entirely see-through design and its visible circuitry would have been a breath of fresh air in the stale world of black, silver, and white consumer electronics. Pei and the company were quick to temper expectations and remind everyone the Design Concept 1 was only a concept. The Ear (1) might not actually resemble the DC1.

That turned out to be true. While the Ear (1), designed by Teenage Engineering, certainly delivered on a transparent design — partially at least — the general shape and fit of the wireless earbuds take obvious inspiration from AirPods Pro. The charging case is a different story — for better or worse, it’s quite distinct.

The transparent design is only partial — on the back the backside of the stems.Raymond Wong / Input

The similarity of the buds’ form factor to AirPods Pro isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re going to copy another product, copy the good parts. Nothing certainly does. The Ear (1) are remarkably comfortable to wear all day long thanks to their lightness. I wore them non-stop during a cross-country flight from San Francisco to New York and felt no discomfort whatsoever. No pressure on my head or in my ear like you might get with budget or mid-range wireless earbuds.

While I think we were all hoping the internal components would be more visible — the stems are see-through on the backside where nobody can see the beautiful circuitry — I gotta commend Nothing for at least trying. From using custom magnets that factories refused to produce to making sure the glue isn’t grossly visible, you can’t knock Teenage Engineering for not paying enough attention to the small details. Transparent design is really hard — many components are ugly or the guts are messy, especially adhesives or glue used to hold parts together — and that’s why few companies do it. It’s just not cheap to do.

Checks off (most) boxes

The Nothing Ear 1 last up to 4 hours with ANC, which is 30 minutes less than AirPods Pro.Raymond Wong / Input

I’ll get to the bugginess of the Ear (1) in a moment. From a features standpoint, Nothing’s included a lot for $100. Usually, features like wireless charging or an IP rating are left out on cheaper wireless earbuds. Not so on the Ear (1). Both features are present and there’s as much going on here as buds that cost twice as much.

First and foremost, the Ear (1) support active noise cancellation (ANC) — and not the half-baked kind that’s “hybrid” or “adaptive.” It’s proper active noise cancellation that blocks out a good amount of noise. Setting the ANC to “Maximum” within the app is necessary in my opinion; “Light” doesn’t block out enough noise. The ANC on AirPods Pro, Samsung Galaxy Buds 2, and Sony WF-1000XM4 drown out a few more decibels, but the Ear (1) are plenty capable of blocking ambient sound.

Speaking of ambient sound, the Ear (1) have a “Transparency” mode that works just like it does on other wireless earbuds. This is usually a weak spot for many non-AirPods wireless earbuds. It works, but nobody does Transparency mode as well as Apple. I’ve tested all of the popular ones — Samsung, Amazon, Google, Sony, Bowers & Wilkins, OnePlus, etc. — and none of their ambient modes sound as good.

USB-C!Raymond Wong / Input
The right earbud has a red dot and the left earbud a white one/Raymond Wong / Input
The charging case supports Qi wireless charging.Raymond Wong / Input

The Ear (1)’s overall sound quality is surprisingly good. I’m not sure if I’m hearing things, but the sound quality seemed to get better after a few firmware updates. I recall the bass sounding a little flat out of the box while listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” or anything by Steve Aoki. Whether it’s a placebo or burn-in (I know some people think burning in headphones / earbuds is total BS), the sound quality on the Ear (1) is solid. Like ANC, it’s a step or two behind AirPods Pro and Galaxy Buds 2 and far better than I expected for the price. The Nothing Ear (1) app has three additional sound presets (more treble, more bass, and voice) and nothing more. It’s not too late for Nothing to add an EQ that users can personalize.

The Ear (1)’s overall sound quality is surprisingly good.

Each bud’s stem doubles as playback controls. A double-tap plays / pauses music; a triple-tap skips to the next song; and a long-press can turn ANC on and off. You can also swipe up and down on the stems to adjust volume; it works, but the action really is a quick swipe as opposed to a smooth slide up or down. Some of these controls can be customized using the Nothing Ear (1) app for iOS or Android, but options are limited. You can only change the triple-tap to go to the previous song or disable the ANC long-press switching altogether. Notably absent is any control for activating Siri or the Google Assistant.

Depending on your usage, the battery life is either going to be upsetting or acceptable. With ANC, the Ear (1) last up to 4 hours on a charge — 30 minutes less than AirPods Pro and 1 hour less than Galaxy Buds 2. Without ANC, the buds last up to 5.7 hours — AirPods Pro last 5 hours with ANC off and 7.5 hours on Galaxy Buds 2. The Ear (1)’s battery might not be enough for a long flight (definitely not for many international ones), but it’s more than enough for regular use. Be honest: Are you really listening to music continuously for longer than four hours daily? With the case, the total battery life works out to around 24 hours with ANC and 34 hours with ANC off. A 10-minute charge in the case adds 1.2 hours of use if you ever need a boost.

New day, new bugs

Yes, the transparent case scratches easily, but it only adds to character.Raymond Wong / Input

So about those bugs. There are many and I never know whether some new issue will pop up after an app or firmware update. I mentioned charging problems with my first pair of Ear (1), flaky active noise cancellation connection and Bluetooth connectivity for the second pair, and strange app bugs on the third, retail pair.

I wish I could say Nothing has squashed every single one of them and the Ear (1) now work properly, bug-free, the way they should. But I can’t.

While I’ve experienced more issues with the Ear (1) connected to my iPhone 12 Pro, I’ve seen just as many on several Android phones new and old, including a OnePlus 9 Pro, the Galaxy Z Flip 3, and Pixel 4a.

Sometimes one bud won’t show up in the app. On my original pair, the left bud wouldn’t charge past 10 percent. You never know whether the app will work properly or not.Raymond Wong / Input

I’ve now updated two out of three pairs to the latest firmware (V75) and every day it’s a dice roll as to whether or not I’ll encounter any hardware or software bugs. (I can’t update the first pair because the buds need to be charged to at least 10 percent and since the left bud won’t charge, it’s basically stuck on old firmware.) I’m still experiencing intermittent active noise cancellation where the noise blockage will just stop in one or both buds. I originally thought it might be interference in areas with high wireless or Bluetooth connectivity — an issue AirPods users know all about — but a few times it happened while I was in the middle of a field in a park few people frequent.

On iPhone, the Ear (1) buds seem to randomly stay connected or disconnected whenever I pop them back into their case and close them shut. They’re supposed to disconnect when they’re returned to the case and the cover is closed and music should play through the iPhone’s speaker. So many times, hours after I put the buds away, I’d load up a YouTube video on my iPhone only to not hear sound and then discover that they never disconnected from my phone. This might have been the reason for abnormal battery drain in one or both buds, which is weird because the buds should have been charging in the case. On that topic, the left bud from my retail unit drains battery faster than the right bud. I have no idea why that’s the case.

So which one is it?Raymond Wong / Input

The Ear (1) app is riddled with its own bugs. The app will sometimes say it can’t connect to the earbuds even though I confirmed they are connected via Bluetooth and sound is coming through them. Sometimes when the buds can’t connect to the app, I’ll re-pair them only to find the buds and the case are paired separately under two different names. Other weird bugs: The pairing name is sometimes misspelled (see above screenshots) or the battery status for one bud doesn’t display. I’ve also had problems updating the firmware where the software would download up to a certain point only to fail.

The latest firmware, V75, as of this writing supposedly fixes “abnormal battery display in rare cases,” “improved the accuracy of battery display,” “changed the Bluetooth name of earbuds to ‘Nothing Ear (1)’,” “improved the stability of earbuds in complex environment,” to spotlight a few improvements in the changelog. But I’m still experiencing bugs all the time. If Nothing wants me to believe these issues only impact a small portion of produced units, then I’m pretty damn unlucky to have received three units with their own different problems.

It’s not just me, either. The Nothing subreddit and Twitter are filled with complaints about all kinds of bugs. There are also tons of people who are upset that their preorders still haven’t arrived or they’re delayed, though that’s a different problem altogether. (In fairness, supply and shipping constraints aren’t exclusive to Nothing; every company is having trouble getting products shipped because of component shortages.)

Reality distortion field

Roll the dice if you want. But be warned: You’re gonna run into bugs.Raymond Wong / Input

If the Ear (1) feels like déjà vu to you, you’re not alone. Carl Pei is pulling from the same playbook that he used to build OnePlus. The formula for the Ear (1) is unmistakable Pei: release a product in a maturing market with a striking design, pack it with features, and undercut the competition on price. All the while, scheme up a way to initially sell the product exclusively while drumming up hype using social media and influencer marketing.

Pei is a maestro if I’ve ever seen one. He’s proven himself an adept orchestrator at building brands and products, and the desire for them that’s usually reserved for more premium companies, not startups. Think about how many wireless earbuds are released a year now — from audio veterans like Sony and Bowers & Wilkins — and how Nothing, a new and unproven startup, has somehow waltzed in and planted a flag in not just the market, but the mindshare of consumers (especially the impressionable Gen Z who are the new tastemakers sick of the old farts).

No, the Ear (1) earbuds aren’t perfect or revolutionary. But neither was the OnePlus One. Yet, consumers were exceptionally forgiving of its shortcomings. Knowing Pei’s pursuit of excellence, I’m sure if he had a time machine, he’d hop in and give the Ear (1) more time to bake — stamp out the myriad hardware and software bugs before shipping. I see a similar rally of faith amongst customers who received their Ear (1) and are frustrated with the quality control but still show support the underdog.

If the Ear (1) feels like déjà vu to you, you’re not alone.

When everything is working correctly, the Ear (1) buds are almost too good to be true. It hits different. Using them is less about having the best technology than it is making a statement about your technological allegiance. Nothing the brand, its products, and the devils behind it daring to challenge the Establishment, is what silent disruption looks like. It’s a choice to reject the norm.

In hindsight, the Ear (1)’s bugs won’t make or break Nothing and its ambitious mission to make technology as invisible as possible. The products that Nothing launches next will need to speak for themselves and advance towards this vision. We can all see the reality distortion field around the Ear (1), yet we want to believe there’s more coming down the pipe. Something better, something groundbreaking. Maybe Nothing delivers. Maybe it doesn’t.

Should anyone buy the Ear (1)? Sure, if you want to be part of the Nothing rebellion raging against the status quo and can stomach what will surely be some bugs. Otherwise, there are so many options — many of them cost a few more bucks like the Amazon Echo Buds 2, Galaxy Buds 2, or OnePlus Buds Pro — that won’t give you gray hairs.