Carl Pei is a marketing genius. His penchant for marketing a product is astoundingly astute, making him similar from the man he idolised -- Steve Jobs. While growing up in China and Sweden Pei followed his idol, which led him to co-found OnePlus. And he has done it again with Nothing.
The name itself is so ingenious that when one talks about the Ear1 -- its first product -- you see the design and you ask which company has made these earphones? And the answer you get is 'Nothing'. But, before we get into the nuts and bolts of this review -- the one thing noticeable about the Nothing Ear1 is that these are the most well marketed true wireless earphones since the original AirPods, which also got all kinds of negative publicity at launch, because Apple had removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7.
Carl Pei, however, does one thing quite divergent from what Jobs was known to do – the former's products are affordable for the layman. That was never an Apple thing. The Nothing Ear1 is a stepping stone towards greatness, but even while taking that step, it has created a product that's better than the AirPods 2, looks cooler than any TWS product in the market and is all in a package that costs half as much as Apple's category-defining wireless earphones.
Nothing Ear1 (Image: Sahil Mohan Gupta)
Everything about the Ear1 starts with the design because it is unique, unlike anything we have seen on a TWS style earphone. You get a transparent case which is uber-cool because it has a chasm that allows you to hold it properly or even use it as a fidget spinner and then you have this retro-futuristic design of the Ear1's themselves as they are transparent from the stem, but transform into a more traditional look with white horns and silicone ear tips which are removable.
The good news is that you also get extra ear tips in the package which allows you to choose the fit that suits you and there is also a USB type C cable in the package. The case itself even supports the Qi wireless charging standard apart from fast charging the Ear1. If I have a minor quibble then it has to be the fact that the case gets scuffed very quickly and is full of scratches within a couple of days of use.
The design of the Ear1 is just very cool — it was very hard to implement considering we are talking about a wireless product. Transparency is a feature we have seen in many wired IEMs, but doing the same thing on a wireless product was going to be a Herculean task. Thankfully, while engineering the product, Nothing partnered with the audio alchemists at Teenage Engineering who have not only helped tune the sound of these TWS earphones but also helped with the design. Teenage Engineering is a Swedish company that is known to make some cutting edge synthesisers and their influence is massive on this first-generation product.
The attention to detail is quite staggering. For example, as many people have noted, there is a terminator eye style red dot on the right earbud while there is a black dot on the left one. The components in the stem have also been aligned in such a way keeping in mind the aesthetics, balancing acoustics and visual panache. For most people they look so cool, they will be sold regardless of how they sound. Then both the stems also incorporate intuitive touch controls.
Nothing Ear1 (Image: Sahil Mohan Gupta)
A triple tap takes you to the next song and a tap and hold allows you to modulate the noise cancellation between a breezy light mode to something more hectic or turn on transparency or turn everything off. Then there are also IPX4 rated which means they are sweat-resistant; making them ideal for even folks running. Yes, I said running because I run 5 kilometres a day and these surprisingly held on — something even the AirPods Pro or Galaxy Buds Pro don’t. They are amongst the most comfortable TWS earphones I have ever used, perhaps because of their fleetingly light 4.7-gram weight and that’s saying something.
But what makes or breaks these at least for someone who cares about music is the sound. And the Ear1’s impress. They have a bass and a mid-heavy sound signature. Most people will like this kind of sound signature. In terms of what hardware is there — Nothing has equipped these with a pretty substantial 11.6mm drivers on each bud coupled with a 3 array microphone system which makes it even great for calls.
The mid-heavy and bass-heavy nature of these earphones mean they delight with a wide range of modern music - be it distortion-heavy rock, pop and modern electronic music genres it has a very pleasing sound signature. The bass is tight and mid-range frequencies cut through nicely. This trait also shines through when watching videos as the Ear1 has a very pleasing stereo sweep.
The problems kick in with older music which uses sharper sounding instruments like a Fender Stratocaster guitar which has a top-heavy shimmer in the guitar tone. So if hear bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Buddy Guy or say, Prince, the sound needs to be EQed, but if you’re listening to something more layered or something that’s been mastered in the 90s or beyond - modern Metallica, Madonna, Britney Spears, AR Rahman, the Strokes, Shankar Ehsaan Loy, Blot!, Solomun — I can keep going on — point being they sound better with music that’s been recorded post the mid-80s and will struggle with some of the older stuff unless the sound signature isn’t inherently warm like in tracks by Led Zeppelin, Beatles or even Eric Clapton.
Active noise cancellation is amongst the best for a sub Rs 15,000 product and considering these cost just Rs 5,999, the cancellation is truly impressive. It also keeps things adequately silent but at the same time doesn’t give you that vacuum oriented head rush that you get with active noise cancellation.
Nothing and Teenage Engineering have done a stupendous job with the active noise cancellation as this makes it an excellent earphone to do zoom calls on with clear audio, and heck I have done shoots with the Ear1 microphones recording the audio and that’s also worked out quite nicely.
Interestingly, these earphones don’t leverage Qualcomm’s APTx technology which means they work equally well on Android and iPhone thanks to the Bluetooth 5.2 connection. Instead, Nothing uses something called Clear Voice which works like a charm.
Of course, all of this is handled via the Nothing Ear1 app which is simple to use, allows you to manually sculpt the sound signature to a certain degree, control the active noise cancellation and push out firmware updates. The entire pairing process was quite painless which is also a positive.
Battery life is also quite impressive on these TWS earphones. Even with active noise cancellation on using the compact case, you will always find the Nothing Ear1 to last you over a day on a single charge.
In my tests, active noise cancellation on the Ear1’s lasted around 3.5 to 4 hours on a single charge and lasted me beyond a day with a quick charge using the case. But when active noise cancellation was turned off they would last more than 5 hours and the case would have enough juice for a day and a half. My figures are in line with what Nothing has claimed which makes it attractive from a longevity perspective as well.
Overall, Nothing Ear1 doesn’t promise the moon. But whatever it promises it delivers. Think about it — they look cool, they are comfortable, they sound really good, actually better than the AirPods 2 and have active noise cancellation to boot, in a package that costs Rs 5,999 with superb battery life and simple to use app.
Although things could be better. They could sound better with music that's slightly trebly, the app could provide more granular control to EQ the sound and the case perhaps could be designed in a way that it avoids scratches, but all of this would probably cost more money so that would be a story for the Ear1 Pro maybe if they have something like that in mind. But at Rs 5,999 they represent knockout value and impeccable performance, features and cool. They are AirPods 2 that sound better, look better and have active noise cancellation at half the price while working equally well with the iPhone and Android. Carl Pei surely was listening.