Nothing Ear (1) Review: How Too Much Hype Can Be BAD
Well, it’s been a while since the Nothing Ear (1) launched, but they’re finally here in Singapore. And all I can say is wow.
Don’t get me wrong though, when I said wow, it wasn’t because they’re incredible or surprising. Well, it’s kinda surprising. But more because the Ear (1) is a very good example of how too much hype can be a bad thing.
Before we jump into the design, let’s talk about how we perceive things, especially when it comes to tech. If it’s cheap, but performs well and at a level better than its price suggests, we think “wow, what a deal!”. But what happens when it’s cheap and performs well, but it’s been hyped to insane levels? Then we start thinking “huh, it’s not bad but… Is that it?”
And that was exactly my opinion of the Ear (1) when I first opened the package and took a listen. Is that it? Well, yeah, kinda. But if I hadn’t been subconsciously building these up to be these amazing budget earbuds in my head, my thought process would definitely have been something like “woah these sound great for a pair of US$99 earbuds. And there’s ANC, Bluetooth 5.2, wireless charging… Man, these are super value for money.”
Well, something like that anyway. Point is, I would have been mega impressed. That’s not to say these are bad. Far from it. I just wanted to point out that too much hype usually results in disappointment. So let’s clear out all those high expectations and get into this review with an open mind.
Starting with, design. These look freaking cool. The case itself is clear plastic, which means you can see the earbuds sitting inside. It’s a square case, which is pretty unorthodox in itself, but honestly, I don’t mind. You get the USB-C charging port on the side with a pairing and reset button, and that’s about it for the case. Oh, there’s also a spherical indent on the lid that makes the case perfect as a fidget toy. I’m guilty of doing this a lot, so yeah. It’s probably for a proper reason like taking it out of your pocket easier or whatever, but /shrug.
Anyway, because of the transparent lid, you can see the earbuds sitting inside, along with an LED light that lights up when you’re charging it. It’s definitely nice because I don’t have to guess if it’s charging on my wireless pad, I can just look and confirm it for myself. Open up the lid and you get the earbuds.
The earbuds are very nice. I’m actually really in love with the transparent stem. People can be like, why would you want to see the insides of your earbuds? Well, I don’t know, it just looks nice. If Apple or Samsung came out with a phone one day with a fully transparent back cover letting me see the innards of the phone, I’d probably buy one. Anyway, I digress. You’ll notice there’s a white dot on the left earbud and a red dot on the right earbud. This corresponds to the case, so you don’t accidentally put the wrong earbud in to charge. Red to red, white to… non-red I guess.
Unfortunately, the transparent plastic doesn’t extend all the way to the housing for the driver, which means we don’t get to see the 11.6mm driver that’s inside. The earbuds weigh just 4.7 grams each, and they’re incredibly light in the ear, making for a really comfortable wearing experience even if I was using them for a few hours on end.
You also get an app, the Ear (1) app. It’s pretty nice, continuing on the same aesthetic. You get the battery levels for the individual earbuds, as well as a Hear and Touch button at the bottom. Hear allows you to toggle between ANC and Transparency, as well as between two modes for ANC, light and maximum. There’s also an EQ feature here, sort of. It just allows you to choose between balanced, more treble, more bass or voice.
As for Touch, you can customise what you want to happen for triple taps and tap and holds on either side. There’s also a three-dot menu on the top right, that allows you to toggle in-ear detection, locate the earbuds and update the firmware. The firmware update is a bit finicky, honestly. The app told me to put the earbuds near the phone and not move them, and the moment my wrist accidentally brushed against one earbud, the update failed. It was honestly quite surprising. Anyway, I put them further away from me and left them totally still for the update and it was fine after that.
Regarding touch controls, the triple taps and tap and holds are customisable as mentioned earlier. The uncustomisable ones are a double tap for play/pause and swipe up or down for volume control. There’s no action assigned to a single tap, presumably to avoid false inputs.
These run on Bluetooth 5.2, which is excellent, considering the price, and there’s SBC and AAC, but no aptX. Didn’t really expect it at this price point anyway, so that’s fine. Both earbuds can be used independently, which is yet another nice addition.
Battery life is pretty average, Nothing claims 4.5 hours with ANC on, and I did get around that time. If you turn ANC off though, you’re supposed to get six hours in the earbuds with a total of 34 hours when you add in the case, which means the case gives an additional 4 or so charges. It should mean a total of around 24 hours with ANC on, just a rough estimate. Not great, but I think 4 hours or so is the bare minimum for true wireless earbuds with ANC at this point in time.
There’s an IPX4 water resistance rating on these, so yeah, you can use them for exercise if you want to, and because they’re so lightweight, they’ll probably be decent for light exercise. Anything more vigorous, though, and you might need to look at other earbuds.
Moving on to ANC, it’s actually pretty good. Of course, it’s not up there with the best ANC earbuds, but you get a good amount of reduction in low pitched hums and rumbles. Of course, if you’re in a very noisy environment with plenty of people talking, it won’t completely eliminate those, but otherwise, they work decently for commuting.
As for microphone quality, you’ll be able to hear it for yourself. On voice calls, I did get the occasional feedback that my voice wasn’t very clear, so I think these might not be the best option if you take a lot of calls, but for the occasional one, they should be fine.
Sound quality is actually surprisingly decent. It’s not overly emphasising the bass, and I’m surprised Nothing has opted for a more accurate and neutral sound signature here. Nothing against it though, I’m actually quite happy with the sound. You still get impact in the bass, while ensuring that the mids are still clear and detailed. Vocals are also slightly more forward than other earbuds, which I do enjoy. Treble is actually slightly emphasised, and I’m particularly happy on this aspect since I do like brighter treble. While there isn’t much room for tweaks with the EQ in the app, it’s still possible to boost the bass if you so like.
Soundstage and imaging are pretty average, I’d say there definitely are better options out there, but for US$99, it’s hard to fault these.
There aren’t many other options out there at this price point of US$99 or S$179 that offers this feature set and sound quality. The only other one I can think of right now is possibly the Edifier NeoBuds Pro, but that’s now more expensive, at US$120 I believe, although you do get high-res codecs, better ANC and the likes. If you absolutely want to stick under 100 bucks, this is a pretty decent option.