Nothing’s Ear (stick) is a timely reminder that less may just be enough

Nov 15, 2022 09:47 AM IST

Not exactly inexpensive, but the Nothing Ear (stick) is banking on the uniqueness of design and the simplicity that comes with stripping away a lot of features

Less is more. Less may be enough. These phrases may not always hold true in real life. Or at least perceptions won’t allow it to be. The world of tech works a little differently, and sometimes (just sometimes), there is the urge to get away from complication. Something that just works. An ode to the past, perhaps? The simpler times. True wireless earbuds, as brilliant as they are, have become incredibly feature heavy in the short time since they began existing. Perplexing. Something had to give.

The Nothing Ear (stick) delivers a few minutes more than 7 hours on a single charge. (Vishal Mathur / HT Photo)
The Nothing Ear (stick) delivers a few minutes more than 7 hours on a single charge. (Vishal Mathur / HT Photo)

Nothing, the London based tech startup which effectively did a very good job of trying to refresh the otherwise fairly mundane smartphone space, is at it again with the wireless earbuds. We wouldn’t put it past them, to achieve the desired result of uniqueness. The Nothing Ear (stick), as they are called, now become their second wireless earbuds, joining the Ear (1). Incidentally, more expensive too at 8,499 (the predecessor set you back around 7,299).

A design that’s an odd ode to the past

Time indeed has flown by, quickly. The eccentric cylindrical case is worth the effort? Simplification is how the Ear (stick) is attempting to build a user experience. Largely, this is the return of earbuds’ design which doesn’t use silicon ear tips and instead relies purely on the design of the buds themselves to stay in place, in your ears. This sort of design is fast disappearing from the earphones space, overall.

Also Read: Nothing ear (1) review: The dark mode adoption declares that time is relative

Reminiscent, in a way, to the original Apple AirPods. In the time that’s passed since, less ingenious earbuds makers have copied that design, but never really gotten around to evolving the concept. Nothing has. Admittedly, the design of the Nothing Ear (stick) may come across as marginally bizarre, but we realised, it grows on you.

The family resemblance is clear, right down to the transparent stem area of each earbud, giving you a peek at the components inside. Not a sight you see every day.

The case plays a big part. The cylindrical form factor, which you must gently slide (twist, more like it) to open, isn’t like anything else in the earbuds space. And this isn’t something we say lightly. After all, some Indian tech companies (Crossbeats, for instance) did even attempt to double up the charging case as a wireless speaker.

Look closely, and the in-ear part of each bud seems more rounded and a bit chunkier than the AirPods were. This should, theoretically, give that slightly better fit for some ear types. No one size fits all – nothing could be truer than with earphones, since comfort is appreciatively subjective. In our experience, the original AirPods never posed any fit issues (neither did they drop out of the ears on a whim). The Nothing Ear (stick), are in fact, a step better.

That’s after you get used to how you’d be wearing these though. They more or less sit, rather than be pushed in. It should, logically, improve comfort levels when wearing earbuds for a longer duration. Unlike buds with silicon tips, there is no feeling that something is tightly fit in the ear canal — though we have all undoubtedly gotten used to that over the years, switching away from it does give us a reminder of what we’ve missed all this while.

The flip side — a lot of the ambient noise will filter through. But for the extra comfort in terms if the fit, that may worth be the trade-off, if that’s what works better for your ears.

For once, a sparse features list is a good thing

True wireless earbuds, in a blinkers-on approach towards adopting more features, have generally lost a sense of simplicity. Active noise cancellation, for instance. Or head tracking, as we noted recently. There’s a lot more. The Nothing Ear (stick) gets our attention for what is essentially the opposite. A much less populated specs sheet.

No noise cancellation (you can let the ears breathe; the design wouldn’t allow it even if Nothing tried). No complication of a learning curve elsewhere. As they often say, a manual transmission car is for the pure driving experience. The lack of a thick layer of processing has a similar effect on in-ear audio. It sounds pure(er), in a way.

The big limitation here is the codec support, which is SBC and AAC. It is a bit of a disappointment for the AptX ready Nothing Phone (1) users, for instance. Something could perhaps have been done to add support for more codecs.

Controls on each of the earbuds aren’t typical touch, but more of pressure sensors. You’ll need to press and hold for a bit longer, to control music and calls. These are configurable, with the Nothing X app (this is a rebranding of the Nothing ear app; available for Android phones and the iPhone).

Speaking of the app, there’s the handy equaliser (EQ) option to tweak the sound. That, out of the box, is neutral, with no apparent forced boost for either the lower frequencies or vocals. With the EQ available, you have that option. Beyond that too, the app has improved tremendously in terms of intuitiveness.

The Nothing Ear (stick) isn’t compromising at all on the baseline, that is the audio hardware. In each ear are 12.6mm audio drivers, which by any comparison, are on the larger side. Earbuds which cost more than double the Ear (stick) tend to have similar sized audio drivers.

Sound is hitting the right notes, mostly

To get an idea of how the sound works when aided by its ecosystem and when it isn’t, we tested the Nothing Ear (stick) with a Nothing Phone (1), a Google Pixel 7 Pro and an Apple iPhone. We were therefore quickly able to dispel any notion that these earbuds may sound better with one source device over the other. They don’t. Parity is good.

Secondly, the tuning is neutral (at least out of the box). The soundstage is detailed and strong, with the higher frequencies coming through very neatly without sounding uncomfortable. It is at the lower end of the spectrum, where you might feel a slightly lower potency than expected (one of the reasons could be we shifted to this after the Google Pixel Buds Pro and the Samsung Galaxy Buds2 Pro, both of which do bass a couple of notches deeper.

That can be corrected quickly using the companion app, which should be the ticket for your playlists that are leaning more towards remixes, trance or electronic genres. Interestingly, dialing up the bass ever so slightly (we did this in increments) did not overshadow the vocals. But there is a limit till which time the Nothing Ear (stick) can hold the fort with the dynamic range on some more complex tracks.

There is a sense from the Nothing Ear (stick) that despite their affordability pitch, they do not feel rough, either to use or in terms of the music they deliver. Just do not attempt to get the best out of these with low quality tracks (either downloaded or streaming). The Ear (stick), as to perhaps be expected, does not have the sort of grunt to make rough(er) recordings sound good.

So is the battery life

The Nothing Ear (stick) delivers a few minutes more than 7 hours on a single charge, that’s with just the batteries in each earbud. Factor in the top-ups, of which the charging case can manage three full cycles, you end up with extremely respectable battery life from these earbuds.

The design of the case is one reason (the cost is definitely the other) there is no wireless charging option. But it’s USB-C, and that itself is quick enough to get you through a full day at work even without being fully charged.

Going back to the basics?

The Nothing Ear (stick) makes one thing very clear – Nothing aren’t attempting to redesign any wireless earbuds’ wheels here. In fact, to the contrary, the path taken is one of minimalism and going back to the roots. Good audio, without the complications and learning curves of more features bolted on.

Whether the Nothing Ear (stick) work for you or not, once you factor in the price, will depend on how important active noise cancellation is for you. And how the uniqueness of the charging case and the earbuds’ design weighs in for you. There may be times, such as the restrained bass for example or the very lack of noise isolation, feel limiting. There seems to be a premium here for simplicity. Perhaps it’s worth it. That is definitely your call.


    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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