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Nothing Ear (Stick) review: Is it a sound choice?

While the Nothing Ear (Stick) offers a unique design and an open soundstage, do the distinctive design features justify the price?

Is Nothing’s latest a case of style over substance, or does the idea… stick?
Is Nothing’s latest a case of style over substance, or does the idea… stick?

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Nothing’s starting to mean something to technology enthusiasts, and if the Nothing Ear (1) and the Nothing Phone (1) weren’t evidence enough, the Nothing Ear (Stick) arrives to prove that the London-based brand knows two things above all – how to manufacture hype for its product launches to stand out, and to make good looking gadgets that straddle the worlds of tech and fashion. 

Nothing’s second set of TWS earphones somehow manage to be even more distinctive than the original Ear (1), thanks to its lipstick-inspired case and a comfort-focused half in-ear design that is both reminiscent of and indicative of the bright-red target Nothing has painted on Apple’s non-Pro AirPods. In doing so, the Ear (stick) does take a few steps back when compared to the Ear (1), so is Nothing’s latest a case of style over substance, or does the idea… stick?

On first glance, the Ear (stick) buds seem to be using the same playbook as the Ear (1)s – the same transparent stem design that shows off the internals, with a similar monochromatic color scheme disrupted only by the bright red accent atop the transparent cylindrical charging case. A fun twist-and-turn mechanism allows you to access the earbuds (via a cut-out on one side), which otherwise rest in their cavities and charge over the Type-C port on the side. It’s a neat, playful and almost fidget-spinner-esque approach to store and access the buds that’s somewhat reminiscent of the cylindrical case employed by the Nokia BH-705 from some years prior. How this plastic will weather over time and handle scratches is not something one can gauge from a week’s worth of use, so even though it has the inhaler “throw it into a bag” aesthetic, it’s best used with care. Oh, and the cylindrical case misses out on the wireless charging one got on the Ear (1), so if that’s a must have feature, you know where to look.

Like Apple’s AirPods, the Ear (stick) are earbuds that rest against the ear canal instead of the snugger, in-canal fit with silicone ear tips that the Ear (1)s and plenty of other TWS like the AirPods Pro and the Buds2 Pro employ. The half in-ear style is more comfortable to wear and use for a whole set of users who cannot endure the tight seal of in-canal earphones, but this approach comes with a couple of compromises. First, it’s a one-size-fits-all approach (unlike the many-sized ear tips that many earbuds ship with) and despite Nothing testing the fit on over 100 people, your mileage may vary. This author traditionally has issues with the left earbuds on the half in-ear TWSs, and while the Ear (stick) offered a snug, lightweight (4.4g per bud) fit, there were the occasional facial expressions or munching that dislodged the bud. Yet, the same earbuds sat confidently and securely in the ears of other folks within the family, and at no point did they slip or fall out even during a jog – it’s good that these buds are IP54 rated so a little dust and sweat isn’t a bother.

The other consequence of the design is the absence of active noise cancellation in these earbuds, which means that you not only hear a lot of background noise while wearing them but also suffer from a fair amount of sound leakage. If you work in a noisy environment, you will have to look elsewhere. On the flip side, they’re great for being aware of the surroundings when you’re out and about, though… without needing the transparency modes one sees on ANC-equipped earbuds. Calls hold up well enough too – with three mics on each earbud, these do a much better job than the Ear (1). Battery life is a shade better than the Ear (1) earbuds, with each bud lasting well past the 6-hour mark and the case adding in another 22 hours’ worth of charge. Ten minutes inside the case adds a couple of hours of playback.

Now, unless you’re using these Ear (Stick)s with the Nothing Phone (1), you’ll want to download the new Nothing X app (Android/iOS) to control settings like the equalizer presets (pick Balanced, avoid Voice), check battery levels, customize stalk gesture controls and enable low-latency mode for gaming. Pairing happens over Bluetooth 5.2, and you get support only for the standard SBC and AAC audio codecs, not the higher-resolution AptX. The in-ear detection feature works well to pause the music the moment you take an earbud out of your ear, and there’s even a feature called Bass Lock which, as the name suggests, measures the amount of bass leakage and compensates bass levels accordingly. While it does work, it simply cannot match up to the punchiness that a pair of ear-tips can help deliver. For a pair of half in-ear earphones though, the Ear (Stick) buds, with their custom 12.6mm drivers, manage to deliver a solid sense of bass that’s detailed and energetic enough to work with workout tracks in the gym, though you will miss the satisfaction of that extra bass from time to time. Casual listeners will enjoy the overall balanced sound signature that comes through rather cleanly and clearly, the mids are well defined and the treble doesn’t get tinny or harsh…and the airiness of the soundstage and the clear separation among the instruments is a real vibe, one that one too many in-ear designs have suppressed in the past.

Here's the thing though. The Ear (stick) lands at Rs. 8,499 when it goes on sale on 17th November, and the price is by no means insignificant, particularly for a pair of TWS earbuds that skip on active noise cancellation and wireless charging, no matter how fashion forward they may be. Prices of electronics are going up across the board, but even so, you can pick up the excellent Oppo Enco X, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, the OnePlus Buds Pro or even the Nothing Ear (1) for the same price or less…and while the Ear (Stick) offers a unique design and an open soundstage, you’ll have to really be set on the half in-ear design to want to overlook the competition.

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