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Nothing Ear (stick) review: How do these earbuds stand out from the rest?

By Liu Hongzuo - 3 Dec 2022
Launch SRP: S$169

Nothing Ear (stick) review: how do these earbuds stand out from the rest?

Note: This review was first published on 1 November 2022.

Nothing Ear (stick).

Expect Nothing

After the success of Carl Pei’s first consumer electronic gadget and earbuds – the Nothing Ear (1) (review here) – the UK-based company sought to recreate that magical combination of aesthetics and exclusivity with the new Nothing Ear (stick) that was launched just last week.

While it’s not explicitly mentioned in its reveal keynote, the Nothing Ear (stick) appears to cater to a very different crowd mostly because it has an open-bud style design that's similar to the Apple AirPod (3rd generation) true wireless earbuds. 

That suggests Nothing was willing to give up audio fidelity for perhaps more wearing comfort and convenience. It's a style that's perferred by some listeners though it comes with certain weaknesses that impact its audio quality – many of which Nothing seeks to address with features like  wind cancellation for calls, automated bass gain, and having three microphones inside each bud for better voice pick-up.

It’s also not like its predecessor, since it lacks Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) or wireless charging, but it’s replaced with higher water-and-dust resistance (IP54, versus the old IPX4).

At S$169, how would it fare against the many TWS options available in our market? Is it a good purchase next to its very own, similarly-priced Nothing Ear (1)? Let’s listen in.

TLDR version:

Excels in ways you won't expect, but still an average pair if you have high expectations.


Lipstick-style charging case has more benefits than you’d think

What differentiates the Nothing Ear (stick) from other true wireless earbuds lies in its bud design. It repeats the same aesthetic found in the Ear (1), where it uses a simple, yet pleasing black-white-transparent style that can pass off as ear studs when viewed from a distance. 

Nothing did not neglect the case design either. Instead of the conventional flip-to-open charging cases offered by most TWS earbuds on the market, the Ear (stick) employs a lipstick-shaped, turn-to-open charging case. The case’s shape keeps away neatly – instead of having another bulge in your pocket, it could sit vertically next to your wallet or phone. 

The case mechanism feels quite sleek and there's a tactile confirmation “bump” when you have the case fully opened or closed. It also has a tiny white LED that tells you if the buds are fully charged and ready to go.

To make it easy for users, Nothing made one side of the cylinder case red – which represents where the USB-C charging port and silver pairing button sit, as well as where the right-sided earbud is.

Its overall design isn’t only unique, but also practical and sensible for daily use. It’s little touches like these that help bump up its value proposition. If only the case has wireless charging to be the cherry on top.

 

Open-type buds have their pros and cons

An important difference between the first Nothing Ear (1) and the new Nothing Ear (stick) lies in their bud types. 

Ear (1) has in-ear silicone tips that go inside your ear canal, while the Ear (stick) uses Apple AirPods-styled, hard-shell open buds that sit right at your concha. 

The comfort of wearing open buds depends on the person. It’s even stated within Ear (sticks)’s disclaimer on its official product page. Some folks prefer open buds because having ear tips inside the ear canal might be uncomfortable for them.

On the other hand, we have users with ear shapes that don’t take well to Apple AirPods or Nothing Ear (stick) buds, since the hard shells on the open buds feel less secure and sometimes painful (especially if you have small earholes). Furthermore, a poor fit can mean lower audio quality because more external noises are let into your ears and more sound energy from the earbuds is lost to its surroundings.

We’ve a simple take on this: if the regular Apple AirPods were comfortable enough for you, you wouldn’t find many problems when wearing Nothing Ear (stick) for your listening needs. When worn well, they’re just as secure as the Apple AirPods (3rd generation), and these 4.4g buds certainly don’t weigh down your ears after long periods of wear.

 

Wind cancellation, but only for phonecalls

An important distinction between the Nothing Ear (stick) and the earlier Ear (1) is that the Ear (stick) does not come with active noise cancellation. The open-bud design also makes it not great at noise isolation, either. When worn, the Ear (stick) offered no perceivable difference in a room with a full-speed fan humming away. It also doesn’t mitigate noise from inconsiderate public transport commuters, ongoing construction work, and other sounds that interrupt your audio immersion.

This is expected with Ear (stick)’s earbuds format. While it offers advantages like better traffic awareness during commutes, folks who cannot negotiate on having ANC or noise isolation might have to skip out on these earbuds.

What it does have is a proprietary Clear Voice Technology. During phonecalls, it combines the power of three microphones in each earbud together with its Environmental Noise Cancellation algorithm. In return, it ensures that your voice is free of wind noise during important calls

Based on all the calls we’ve taken during our testing phase, Nothing Ear (stick)’s wind cancellation was highly effective. Our callers reported no wind distortion, even when we had conversations in front of a standing fan. 

Our voice quality, however, was reportedly average. Despite having three microphones per bud (pick-up, feedforward, and feedback), it had occasional lapses, even though our recipients could hear most of what we said with the Ear (stick). 

It suffices for conversation with friends and family, but the Ear (stick) cannot replace professional-grade products – especially if you’re a presenter for an important virtual meeting. We think that its call performance matches what Nothing intended, since these earbuds are made to be fashionable and functional.

 

No music dropoff, even beyond 10m

The Nothing Ear (stick) excels in one area we weren’t expecting: connectivity, and the consistency of it. Nothing officially rates the Bluetooth 5.2 wireless connection with a 10m range for music (which is the norm for Bluetooth 5 devices), but it was capable of smooth playback even slightly beyond 10m (no line of sight). For example, we could leave the source device (phone) in the bedroom, go to a separate bathroom, and return without missing a beat.

Other quality-of-life features include Ear Detection, where the Ear (stick) plays a  confirmation chirp tone once worn. It also supports Google Fast Pair, so Android phone users don’t have to navigate to the Settings app to get the buds connected. Its IP54 water-and-dust resistance proved useful for working out in the gym, but that’s assuming the buds offer a secure fit for your ears (it did for us, at least).

Unfortunately, the Ear (sticks) don’t offer multi-point connection (simultaneous pairing to multiple source devices), which could’ve set it apart from many other earbuds offered in Singapore – even ones that have triple the Ear (stick)’s price point.

Potential owners of Ear (stick) should know that it comes with a dedicated Nothing X app, which was announced at its launch. Unfortunately, the app was not available during our testing period, and we were not able to try out its audio equaliser feature or check the bud’s battery levels.

Even without the app, we could pause and play songs very easily via the stem’s press controls. By gently squeezing the stem on either side, you can put your tracks on hold and resume them without reaching for your source device. The press controls’ simplicity helped make the feature feel fluid, responsive, and fairly intuitive to understand. 

 

Bass Lock Technology and overall audio quality

A unique feature of Ear (stick)’s audio profile is Bass Lock Technology. In-built software detects bass loss once you put on the earbuds, and the wearable automatically amps up its lower frequencies to retain a punchy sound signature. 

The earbuds are also significantly louder than most other closed types – also likely to compensate for the lack of sound sealing. The downside is that there is audio leakage (according to bystanders) – they can hear the vocals and drums, and almost make out the song that’s currently on the playlist.

Even with its high volume output, the Ear (stick) lasted five days of real-world use on one single charge (case and buds) – while in commute, in the gym, and while working. Technically, it’s supposed to have 28 hours of music uptime combined and that seems entirely believable. Again, we wished we had a more concrete number to take reference from, but the app wasn’t yet available by the time we published this review.

Ear (stick)’s 12.6mm dynamic drivers delivered reasonable audio quality, with a sound signature that biased towards bass and vocals. Such a sound profile works great for pop and rock music. However, it is n't the most balanced sound. The emphasis on the bass and vocals saw a loss of punch in other areas, especially the treble. Consequently, these earbuds lack zing in certain instruments, and can, at times, appear to sound not quite as clear as one might like them to be.

There’s also a slight audio bleed between distinct frequencies, but the Nothing Ear (stick) isn’t an audiophile-grade device, so such expectations should be tempered. If audio quality is your number one concern for earbuds, we’d say it’s better to shell out top dollar and gun for our Tech Awards 2022 winner, which was also tested against the Nothing Ear (stick).

Our playback was mostly via an iOS device as its source, which uses AAC codec for audio. If you’re using Android, these earbuds use SBC instead. There’s no AptX or LDAC support, which is a downside that the Creative Outlier Air V3 and Outlier Pro also have. If we’re to be brutally honest, we also doubt that the Ear (stick)’s intended audience would know the difference between all these codecs, but that puts the Nothing earbuds strictly outside of an audiophile’s domain.

From our experience, we found that Ear (stick) has decent, average audio quality, and think Bass Lock was a much-needed feature. Open-bud types do not seal audio as well as their counterparts, although you might need to be mindful of its audio leakage if you’re particular about people eavesdropping on you.

 

Should you get the Nothing Ear (stick)?

Recommending the Nothing Ear (stick) to anyone depends on several factors – the first of which would be their comfort level with open-bud true wireless earbuds and whether you can accept the inherent flaws of such a design. 

Nothing has done a fairly decent job at patching some of the open-bud weakness by incorporating technologies that improve bass, cancel wind noise in calls, and generally having a higher maximum volume than its counterparts. If they can polish its sound signature or give a wider range of audio codec support, we think it would be a very tantalising option for more users.

It excels in areas most people do not think about, but these play a huge role in its daily use. Having a strong and consistent wireless connection to your phone is one of those things that’s easy to miss, but the Nothing Ear (stick) offers that effortlessly.

Another would be its design – it would be remiss to ignore its lipstick-shaped carrying case and the ergonomic perks that come with it. Plus, it looks different from other buds, even from a distance. If style points matter greatly to you, Nothing Ear (stick) gives high-scoring marks in that regard.

At S$169, the Nothing Ear (stick) feels pricey next to its fuller-featured sibling, Ear (1). We’d prefer full Active Noise Cancellation over specific cancellation use cases since the former gives us the choice of toggling it on or off. IP54 resistance is nice, but you’re still protected by water with Ear (1)’s IPX4 rating, too.

Against other alternatives, Nothing will also need to offer much more beyond its appearance to convince users of its value proposition. We’d imagine that the Xiaomi Redmi Buds 3 Pro (S$89) at half the price has some quirks (like no rated waterproofing), but it’s really hard to compete when these rivals also pack in multiple ANC modes and Bluetooth 5.2 with functional sound.

If your earbuds-buying budget is slightly more flexible, there are also feature-heavy alternatives like 1More’s ComfoBuds Z with sleep aids (S$159),  LG’s latest Tone Free choices (starts at S$229), or even Jabra’s Elite 5 with wireless charging (S$228). All that is not even including our list of the five best true wireless earbuds you can buy now.

That said, Nothing still stands out in a crowded TWS earbuds market with its Ear (stick), and it still delivers decent audio with strong connectivity and a unique look. If the brand is willing to look towards its competitors for ideas, it could very well be a threat to other S$150-250 earbuds in its future iterations. 

The Nothing Ear (stick) is officially available in Singapore from 11 November 2022 onwards, for S$169. It’s carried at Challenger stores, and Nothing’s e-commerce platforms like Shopee and Lazada. Pre-orders begin on 4 November 2022.

You can also learn more about the buds at its official local website, nothing.tech.

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7.5
  • Design 8.5
  • Performance 7
  • Features 7.5
  • Value 7
The Good
Unique, functional design (case)
IP54 resistance
Excellent connection stability
Nice touch with Bass Lock and Wind Cancellation for calls
The Bad
AAC and SBC codec support only
No ANC
Light on features against other rivals and its own Ear (1)
Subjective bud shape
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