We’ve been test-driving the Nothing Ear (stick) wireless earbuds for over a week, and we have some thoughts on these futuristic $99 headphones.
If you’ve never heard of Nothing, you’re not alone. It’s a fairly new name to the technology world, but it’s led by a veteran of the industry: Carl Pei, one of the co-founders of OnePlus. Nothing’s primary goal as of late is to make quality products with slick designs at reasonable prices, and the Ear (stick) headphones are the latest example of that.
They’re the more affordable alternative to Nothing’s Ear (1) earbuds, which have moved up in price to $149. The Ear (stick) are $50 less and offer a decent balance of specs, but are they worth your money? Let’s find out.
If you're looking for an affordable pair of earbuds that'll stand out in a crowd, the Nothing Ear (stick) fit the bill. Just note that it lacks active noise cancellation, which you can find on many similarly priced rivals.
What we liked about them
Surprisingly decent sound quality for music and podcasts
Considering that Nothing is a relatively new company with little experience in the headphone market, my expectations were somewhat subdued going into this review. However, I was delighted to find that the Ear (stick) earbuds actually sound pretty good.
Nothing uses twin 12.6mm drivers for the sound and Bluetooth 5.2 to connect to your devices. After slotting them in my ears and pairing them to my phone, I quickly fired up some tunes like Florida Georgia Line’s “Life” and Brantley Gilbert’s “Little Piece of Heaven.” Both being country songs, they share a similar acoustic-rockstar aesthetic that’s brought to life in a pleasing way by the Ear (stick). I also listened to plenty of other songs — two of my favorite tracks for testing headphones being “Shook Ones, Pt. II” by Mobb Deep and “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison — to get a full scope of how well these buds perform, and the experience was consistently good. It’s balanced, wide and pleasing to listen to.
I also enjoy listening to podcasts on these buds. They present the vocal-heavy recordings with great clarity and detail, and you even get a decent bit of low end to round out the sound profile.
Being from a less established company and costing a good bit less, the Ear (stick) earbuds don’t sound as good as Apple’s AirPods or Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2. But that’s easy to forgive since it’s rare for new brands to make earbuds that sound as solid as these ones do — especially for the price.
A standout design and unique charging case
If you like standing out, the Ear (stick) earbuds are for you. The buds come in a case that’s reminiscent of one designed for lipstick. You open them up by twisting until the opening of the case is over the earbuds, which then triggers the buds to connect to your phone. It’s an extremely unique design, and I’m a fan of it.
The buds themselves are semitransparent like the Ear (1) earbuds are, with see-through plastic on the outer portion and internals covered by accent colors. They look super cool and futuristic, and the sounds they make when you pop them into your ears adds to the aesthetic.
Good battery life
I was pleased with how long the Ear (stick) earbuds lasted on a full charge. Nothing advertises seven hours of listening, and I found that mostly to be true. There were a couple of times when they died before the seventh hour struck, but they’re generally reliable nonetheless. For context, this is about an hour longer than most other earbuds can last, like Apple’s AirPods and Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2.
The transparent case provides a tiny bit more than three additional charges, so you get around 29 hours of listening time in total. They offer fast charging via USB-C — 10 minutes plugged in is enough to last just under two hours — but you won’t find any wireless charging here. That’s OK, in my opinion, since their unique design really doesn’t afford them a place to put Qi charging coils anyway.
Easy-to-use companion app on Android and iOS
The app that pairs with the Ear (stick) is simplistic and easy to use. It’s available on both Android and iOS so you get the same experience on both platforms, and everything from setting the buds up to adjusting their EQ settings is a breeze. You can also customize the touch controls if you have your own way of using earbuds.
What we didn’t like about them
No active noise cancellation (ANC) is a major deal breaker
I’ve been testing a lot of earbuds this year, and almost every pair I’ve tried has some form of ANC. So when I got my hands on the Ear (stick) earbuds, I was very disappointed to find that they didn’t ship with it.
You might not think having ANC on your earbuds is a big deal, but the second you use a pair that does include it, you can never go back. I sat in a local café to write this review, and it happened to be a particularly busy day. I popped the Ear (stick) buds on to listen to a podcast, and I simply couldn’t hear anything I was playing, thanks to the background noise. I immediately switched to my AirPods Pro, which have ANC, and it was a massive improvement.
A few years ago, it was easier to forgive a pair of $99 earbuds for not including ANC, but that’s not the case nowadays. The budget earbuds market has become very competitive and aggressive, with rivals like the Anker Soundcore Space A40 and the OnePlus Buds Z2 offering ANC for the same price. At the end of the day, it’s a shame to see Nothing drop ANC on the Ear (stick), especially since the Ear (1) buds — which previously cost $99 — had it.
The design isn’t great for everyone, and it kind of kills the bass
There’s no denying the Ear (stick) earbuds look awesome, but actually wearing them is another story. They feel loose and poorly optimized for a lot of people’s ears, including mine. The most I can do while wearing these buds is chew my breakfast — anything more rigorous causes them to slide out quickly. The buds try to get away with the lack of silicon tips by slightly altering the angle of the driver itself, but it fails to cling onto your ear canal in any meaningful way.
The looser fit also led to a dip in sound quality, particularly in the low end. While sound quality is generally good, there’s a clear lack of bass, which takes away some of the gravitas associated with music and movies. Nothing says it uses a feature called “Bass Lock,” which automatically adjusts bass levels as they sit in your ears for long periods of time, but I couldn’t tell if it was actually helping.
Touch controls get in the way at times
Because the Ear (stick) earbuds tend to slide out of your ears, you have to adjust them quite often, which I found leads to a lot of unintentional shortcut triggers. You can squeeze the buds’ stems to do things like play music, adjust the volume or activate a voice assistant. It’s incredibly convenient in concept, but because of how sensitive the earbuds are, I found that I was getting a lot more false touches than other earbuds I’ve tried.
The Nothing Ear (stick) doesn’t offer anything revolutionary in the earbuds market. They sound fine, offer decent battery life and are reasonably priced at $99. But with their lack of ANC, good bass and a reliable fit, they’re a bit of a tough sell, especially since the barrier to entry for buds with ANC is around $30 more. The Galaxy Buds 2, Jabra Elite 4 Active and OnePlus Buds Z2 all offer similar experiences for a bit more money and all ship with ANC.
Regardless, if you’re looking for a decent, affordable set of earbuds that look a little different from the competition, I think you’ll enjoy the Ear (stick) earbuds. Just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into.