Although the company’s specialty seems to be manufacturing hype, after the Ear (1) and Phone (1), Nothing is back with its third product: another set of wireless earbuds that deliver solid performance (with a side of gimmick) at a very compelling price that makes them hard to ignore, even for iPhone users.
Although they didn’t deliver industry-leading sound quality, noise-canceling performance, or even the smallest charging case, Nothing’s original Ear (1) wireless earbuds were still a fantastic overall package when you factored in their $99 price tag, which was $150 cheaper than the Apple AirPods Pro (the first generation) they were being positioned against. Just over a year later, we’ve finally got all the details on the new Nothing Ear (stick) wireless earbuds after a few months of well-hyped teases, which appear to be coming after Apple’s third-generation AirPods instead. They can’t compete with how seamlessly the third-gen AirPods play nicely with all the hardware in the Apple eco-system, but that could be a minor sacrifice, even for iPhone users, when you’re saving $80 by opting for Nothing’s latest instead.
By now we know that Nothing’s playbook for new products includes lots and lots of hype paired with a hardware design that makes it stand out from its competitor’s products. For the Ear (1), that design featured a gratuitous use of clear plastic revealing the electronics inside each earbud, and for the Phone (1), it was all about flashy illumination on the back panel, called Glyph lights, that provided visual cues about notifications or the smartphone’s charging status. These design choices can certainly be viewed as gimmicks, but you can’t fault Nothing for wanting to stand out in two already crowded markets.
For the Ear (stick), Nothing has packed the wireless earbuds in a cylindrical charging case that feels like a super-sized tube of Chapstick, particularly when slipped into a pocket.
The Ear (stick)’s case is quite a bit larger than the charging case for the third-gen AirPods, and it’s not like Nothing justifies the added size with a significant step-up in battery life over the third-gen AirPods. The Ear (stick) will run for about 29 hours when paired with their case, while the third-gen AirPods promise 30 hours in total.
If you’re a skinny jeans devotee, the Ear (stick) might not be a fit for you, both literally and figuratively.
The case is charged through a USB-C port on one end, but the cylindrical design means that adding a wireless charging coil wasn’t an option. Next to the charging port, you’ll also find a single button that’s really only ever used to put the earbuds into pairing mode for connecting them to a new device. The red plastic portion? It’s red for no other reason than to add some color contrast.
A simple twist of the cap rotates the charging case’s outer shell until an opening provides access to the earbuds inside. It’s simple, satisfying, and is currently competing against the AirPods’ charging case’s magnetic lid that I snap open and closed hundreds of times a day as my favorite fidget toy.
Nothing likes to point out that the rotating case’s design means it won’t pop open on its own after an accidental fall, ejecting the wireless earbuds inside. What it doesn’t acknowledge is that the perfectly cylindrical case isn’t asymmetrically weighted which means that it’s prone to rolling off a desk, and will continue rolling when it hits the ground, which I’ve already discovered several times during my testing.
You wouldn’t be wrong to point out that the overall shape and size of the Ear (stick) were reminiscent of the third-gen Apple AirPods, but Nothing takes a more brutalist approach to the bud’s design with sharper angles and less contouring.
The Ear (stick) earbuds are only slightly heavier than the third-gen AirPods—4.4 grams compared to 4.28 grams, respectively—and are extremely comfortable to wear, even for longer periods.
The large bulb that sits just inside the ear is more or less the same size as the one atop the third-gen AirPods, however, I found that Nothing’s design sat more securely in my ear. That’s the big challenge with open or half in-ear designs like this, unlike earbuds that use a squishy silicon tip you securely jam into your ear canal, these buds have to securely nestle themselves into the folds of your ear. Compared to the third-gen AirPods, it required a far more vigorous head shake to dislodge the Ear (stick) buds from my ears. But the size and shape of everyone’s ears differ, and I know people who can’t get the third-gen AirPods to stay in no matter what they try.
Nothing doesn’t use the same touch-sensitive stem strip with gesture controls you’ll find on the Ear (1) for the Ear (stick). You’ll instead find a metal button on the stem that doesn’t physically move but detects presses (or more specifically, careful two-finger squeezes, assuming you don’t want to dislodge them out of your ears) for playback control and other shortcuts.
I’m not entirely sure what Nothing is doing differently, but I found squeezing the Ear (stick)’s stem to be far more responsive and reliable than with the third-gen Apple AirPods. I think it has something to do with the boxy design of the stems, making it easier to feel when you’re squeezing the right area. I also like Nothing’s implementation of volume control with the stems: you squeeze and hold the right stem to increase volume in stepped increments, or squeeze and hold the left stem to decrease the volume in the same manner.
With the arrival of the second set of earbuds comes a big update to the Nothing Ear (1) mobile app, which has been renamed to be more generic: Nothing X.
It’s available for iOS and Android, but not necessary for those with the Nothing Phone (1) which makes all these settings available through the phone’s Quick Settings while the buds are connected. (We weren’t able to test the Ear (stick) with the Nothing (1) phone, but performance isn’t affected by which smartphone you’re paired to.) The customizability isn’t expansive, but Nothing does provide the option to choose from four different EQ presets, as well as a custom setting allowing the balance of the bass, treble, and mid-range frequencies to be manually adjusted. You can also change what squeezing each of the bud’s stems does, including prioritizing quick access to a smart assistant.
They may not be as comfortable for all users, but wireless earbuds with silicone or foam ear tips that direct sound directly into your ear canals are going to sound better than an open or half in-ear design like the Ear (stick) uses. There are fewer outside sounds getting into the ear to interfere with what you’re listening to, and less sound leakage from the buds themselves.
Nothing takes a brute force approach to sound quality with the Ear (stick) through the use of 12.6-millimeter drivers that more than over-compensate for sound leakage while providing decent bass performance. They don’t deliver as satisfying a thump as in-ear options like the original Ear (1) earbuds, but I was genuinely impressed with how lower frequencies still make themselves heard in tracks like Martin Solveig and Dragonette’s Hello. Highs are satisfyingly snappy, although I occasionally experienced a bit of distortion during particularly emphatic parts of certain tracks with the volume cranked, like Loren Allred belting out Never Enough.
Do they sound better than the third-gen AirPods? No, but they come very close. Apple’s tuning gives the AirPods a slightly more balanced sound with a bit more presence on lower frequencies. It’s easier to pick out the strum of a bass guitar, for example, with the third-gen AirPods, but you really have to be listening for the differences, and I did my comparisons in a dead quiet house without the ambient noises of the outside world or even a busy office. Could I tell the two apart while listening to music on a noisy bus or subway car? Definitely not.
Call quality was also good, although, with a little more emphasis on higher and lower frequencies than the mid-range, I found. One person I called complained that higher frequencies, including sibilant consonants, were over-pronounced and uncomfortably high-pitched, although most couldn’t tell I was using wireless earbuds instead of my iPhone’s mic.
With the new Ear (stick), Nothing once again demonstrates that very good wireless earbuds don’t need to cost a small fortune. The Ear (stick) have taken over the original Ear (1)’s $99 price point (the latter has increased in price to $149) which makes a very compelling case for choosing Nothing’s latest over the limited number of half in-ear buds options out there, including Apple’s.
The third-gen AirPods do offer tighter integration with other Apple devices, wireless charging, and the ability to call on Siri without having to press any buttons, but I’m not entirely convinced that those features justify spending an extra $80 over the Ear (stick). I know I’m not going to sway Apple die-hards from sticking with AirPods, but everyone else looking for an extremely comfortable pair of wireless earbuds will in no way be disappointed if they opt for the Nothing Ear (stick) instead.