In the words of the company itself, “Nothing is here to make tech fun again.” With its proclivity for funky, skeletal designs and some distinctive visual marketing, Nothing has certainly become a hard brand to ignore. Established just three years ago, the London-based outfit has built a name for itself with the Nothing Phone and two sets of wireless earbuds: the Nothing Ear (1) and the Ear (stick).
While we were impressed with the Ear (1)’s usability, large feature set and confident sense of style, we had our reservations when it came to delivering truly great sound. As solid as this striking debut was, we couldn’t shake the feeling that Nothing could do better.
That is the test for the Ear (2), a product that the company itself promises has been completely re-engineered for improved audio quality. “Better sound. Better clarity. Just better,” is the claim from one of Nothing’s rather striking promotional posters. Let’s find out.
Comfort & Build
The short-stemmed Ear (2) in-ear wireless headphones easily provide satisfactory comfort and style. At no point did we experience excess pressure or unwanted slippage during stationary wearing, and while ears come in all shapes, sizes and dimensions, Nothing’s personalised ‘Ear Tip Fit Test’ is useful for assessing how snugly the buds are nestling inside the wearer’s lugs.
The Ear (2) arrive in a neat, ergonomically-designed package with pretty much everything you need all in one place: the earphones themselves, a USB-C charging cable and a lighter, more scratch-proof charging case. Small and compact the package might be, cheap and flimsy it isn’t – everything here feels robust, stylish and genuinely well made. There are also three removable eartips included, but with so many varying ear shapes and sizes, is it too much to ask for a few more?
The earphones themselves do feel like quality items. Not only has Nothing managed to fit some eye-catching detail onto what is such a small pair of buds, but they’ve also delivered with regard to build quality. The Ear (2) are sturdy and robust at the stems but smooth and comfortable at the tips without ever feeling obtrusive, cheap or overly delicate.
2023’s long-awaited sequel brings improved touch controls and new features for greater ease of use. Nothing’s sophomore effort borrows heavily from Apple AirPods Pro 2’s pressure-based system for its on-ear controls, and while it may take a while to get used to, the mechanic is consistently responsive. It certainly avoids the irritation for long-haired users of having their song skip every time a loose strand brushes against the earphone’s outer edge.
Battery life has also been improved, with the Ear (2) boasting 36 hours in total with the case and 6.3 hours in the earbuds alone. In comparison, the price-rival JBL Live Pro 2 TWS manage eight hours in the buds and 30 hours with the case, while the cheaper Panasonic RZ-S500W do 6.5 hours and 13 hours in total. We checked out Nothing’s claim that the buds’ fast charge gives eight hours of battery life from a 10-minute session and discovered it to be genuine if powered from the right source.
Battery life 6.3 hours (buds only, ANC off); total 36 hours (with case)
Dimensions (hwd) 29.4mm x 23.5mm x 21.5mm
Weight 4.5g (earbuds only)
The earbuds can also be used with the Nothing X app, a smart application that allows a customisable user experience straight from your phone. Checking things like battery life is pretty standard fare, but clever tricks, such as Nothing’s personalised ANC, automatic in-ear detection and low lag mode for gaming, are welcome additions. The ‘find my earbuds’ feature, which plays a small noise from the buds if they become lost should also be a really useful facility, but the noise emitted is so quiet you’d struggle to hear it outside of the confines of a small cupboard.
The Ear (2) also comes with brand-new Bluetooth specifications. The onboard LHDC 5.0 codec is supposedly capable of transmitting hi-res audio data at speeds up to 1Mbps, something Nothing claims is an “industry-leading standard” when compared with LDAC’s 990Kbps and aptX HD’s 576Kbps. If LHDC isn’t available through your device or source (and current compatibility shows Huawei, Oppo and Nothing phones), the standard AAC and SBC codecs are also supported.
The Ear (2)’s improved Adaptive ANC, meanwhile, working now at 5000Hz of noise cancellation bandwidth, is generally excellent, especially when we tried it in conjunction with the Nothing X app’s personalised ANC test. When trying out the buds in our Reading office, the swirling rush of air and irritating banging of shutters caused by an open top-floor window soon dissolve as the AI-powered noise cancellation dials down the volume of external distractions to almost nothing.
If Nothing’s Ear (2) are to be a genuine proposition for rivalling Apple’s AirPods 3 or JBL’s five-star Live Pro 2 TWS, they have their work cut out when it comes to delivering sufficiently competitive sound quality. What we were certainly hoping for is an improvement on the brand’s debut effort with the first Ear model.
Sadly, it seems, the same frustrations remain. The Ear (2) are unquestionably bright, but with that brightness comes a harsh tone that can become utterly overbearing. The warmth and depths of the human voice are often lost in favour of the Ear (2)’s intense leading edge, demonstrated when we sample Cass Elliot’s Make Your Own Kind Of Music and find it to be overly shrill at the higher ranges.
This is the sonic territory in which the Ear (2) seemingly want to operate, and you might even find yourself spotting extra elements in tracks that you’d hitherto failed to notice. Check out the final third of Muse’s Hysteria through the buds and you’ll hear how the Ear (2) pick up high-register guitar screeches separately across the distinct channels.
The problem is that other nuances and textures tend to become clouded by this bright and peaky treble emphasis. Nothing’s wireless earbuds deliver a relentlessly aggressive sound straight out of the case, even if you add more bass via the app’s onboard equaliser or opt to use Nothing’s personalised sound profile. Subtle songs just don’t sound as nuanced and precise as we’d like them to, even if that constantly leading edge initially fools you into thinking you’re getting improved clarity. Dynamics, too, struggle to be borne out by the Ear (2), leaving music sounding noticeably compressed.
Ghost’s Mary On A Cross is a perfect example of how Nothing’s earphones colour a piece with their assertive, almost overconfident delivery – amp-quivering guitars and floor-shaking drums do feel strong and spiky, but the real warmth, depth and musicality of the ensemble feels lost in a sea of overwhelming harshness.
We were excited to see whether Nothing could improve on the foundation laid by the solid Ear (1) model. The Ear (2) are a feature-laden, truly stylish pair of wireless earbuds that benefit from intelligent design, but that overly sharp sound will become wearing after a time.
Yes, they’re well-made, eminently comfortable and unquestionably affordable, but there are simply finer choices at this price point that can offer far better sound, such as the balance and class exhibited by the similarly priced JBL Live Pro 2 TWS or Panasonic’s superb (and cheaper) RZ-S500W Award-winners. With those competitors in the market, it becomes hard to really recommend the Ear (2).
- Sound 3
- Build 4
- Features 5
Read our JBL Live Pro 2 TWS review
And our Panasonic RZ-S500W review
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