When Apple launched the first iPhone SE in 2016, almost every leak, rumour and report before the launch said it would be a cheaper iPhone. And expectations ran high for the company to change the perception of a “cheap smartphone”. When it finally launched, for India, the phone was still too expensive, and didn’t offer what was expected at that price.
Five years later, the story is somewhat the same with a new consumer tech brand, Nothing, which promised to transform devices but has some way to go. The company is led by Carl Pei, the enigmatic co-founder of OnePlus, a brand that quickly became a favourite in India and led the premium smartphone segment for a long time. A host of tech dignitaries, including iPod inventor Tony Fadell, threw their weight behind it, raising expectations from its first device, the Nothing Ear (1), perhaps unreasonably.
On paper the Nothing Ear (1) true wireless earbuds, which will be available in India from 17 August, are perfectly good, something that’s often said of the newest iteration of the iPhone SE, despite its high price. Nothing is selling the device at an affordable ₹5,999, and what it provides at that price is reasonable. Except that everyone, including us, expected much more.
The Nothing Ear (1) has active noise cancellation (ANC) to drown out background noise, a feature that though uncommon isn’t unheard of in affordable headphones today. The technology actively recognizes ambient noise and produces sound waves to cut out that noise. It’s extremely useful for listening to music while on an airplane or taking calls.
More importantly, the Ear (1) produces excellent audio quality—another uncommon feature in affordable audio products—though it’s better at reproducing high-pitched sounds than warmer bass notes. There are some equalizer presets in the Nothing app, which can be used to customize the audio to an extent.
For a pair of simple wireless headphones, the Nothing Ear (1) does very well with soundstage. Good soundstage allows you to imagine the formation of the band on stage when you’re listening to music—the lead guitarist on the left, bassist to the right, drummer at the back, vocalist in the middle. The Ear (1) is as close to a good soundstage that a pair of true wireless headphones at this price range can offer.
The Ear (1) supports gesture controls, allowing you to tap twice to pause audio, and thrice to skip a song. It will pause audio if you pull out one of the earbuds to talk to someone. It looks strikingly different from every true wireless headphone available today. Design is subjective, of course, but in the commoditized world of consumer electronics, an unusual-looking pair of headphones is refreshing indeed.
So, what’s the problem? High expectations, that’s what. When Tony Fadell made the iPod, he changed the world. When Carl Pei introduced OnePlus, he changed the meaning of a flagship smartphone. The Ear (1) does none of that. What’s more, the software has some bugs, which is the last thing one would expect from a brand associated with Fadell and Pei.
In my usage, the music often stopped when I moved around, or while I was working out. A five-minute song would often run to eight, because I had to pull out the phone and press play again. It happened most often on Apple Music and a few times on Spotify, and two firmware updates to the device didn’t fix it. The headphones also seemed to turn off ANC without prompting, and sometimes the music wouldn’t pause when I pulled one bud out of my ear. To be fair, none of this is uncommon in headphones in this price range. It’s just unexpected from the Nothing Ear (1). The best consumer tech products excel at user experience, and Nothing is a few updates away from hitting that note.
Two features do set it apart: how simply the Ear (1) pairs with iPhones and Android, and the fact that there’s a “find my bud” feature in the app, which allows you to find the headphones if they’re stuck between the sofa cushions.
In sum, if you’re looking for perfectly good headphones that will turn heads when you’re around—at least till someone copies this design—the Nothing Ear (1) is for you. But, if you expected Pei and Fadell to produce the iPod of the true wireless headphone generation, you will be disappointed.
Update: Nothing sent us a second unit of the Ear 1, but that had the same bugs mentioned in the review. The music keeps turning off, often in such quick succession that it’s impossible to use the buds. In addition, the noise cancellation is erratic and seems to turn off while playing music, which affects the overall experience.