The Nothing Ear 1 earbuds were a success, but not a tough act to follow. Their see-through design was stylish and original and they offered features normally found for earbuds twice as expensive. At the same time, their experience was marred by one too many bugs – a constant reminder that they were a first-gen product from a nascent brand.
Two years later, the London-based startup Nothing is back with a successor, the Ear 2, which not only fixes all that ailed its predecessor but also adds a series of meaningful upgrades, including better sound, multi-device connectivity, and noise cancellation that can adapt to your hearing.
Nothing Ear 2 – Photos
These improvements have come at a hefty cost, however. At $149, the Nothing Ear 2 earbuds are 50% costlier than the Ear 1 were at launch. Yet, after carrying them around for two weeks everywhere, from airplanes to gyms, Nothing has made it worth it: the Ear 2 offer a far superior experience than the Ear 1 with improved sound, a sturdier see-through build, and multi-device connectivity.
Nothing Ear 2 – Design and Features
You’ll be hard-pressed to tell the new Nothing Ear 2 apart from the Ear 1 on the outside. They inherit the same look as their predecessors, and frankly, I’m not complaining. Though the all-white buds that go into your ears themselves are similar to others, like Apple’s AirPods, their stems are transparent, giving you a peek into the circuitry and components inside.
The boxy charging case is made out of clear plastic as well, exposing the earbuds they house as if they’re a public art exhibit. It has two color-coded slots where you can slip the earbuds for charging. They’re magnetic, so you don’t have to fuss around with aligning them properly, but I’m still not convinced if their horizontal setup is the best path forward. It’s not just not as convenient as dropping earbuds into a vertical holster-esque case, as you get with the AirPods.
The Nothing Ear 2’s design still feels refreshing among all the similar-looking earbuds out there. They’re a head-turner for sure, and I’ve lost count of the times someone has asked me about them. They’re comfortable too; I’ve had no problems wearing them for hours on end, and the three sizes of ear tips in the box mean I could find a fit that stayed snug even when I was on the treadmill.
While there are no cosmetic differences from their predecessor, Nothing has made a handful of practical changes to the build. The case is now smaller and lighter, and easier to open with one hand. Much of that can be credited to the plastic housing inside that holds the charging tech. Its bottom now protrudes out of the transparent case, which offers a better grip on the base.
The Ear 2’s case is also constructed out of more durable plastic and no longer picks up as many scratches as the Ear 1’s. In fact, in the few weeks I’ve used it, there are barely any, compared to my experience with Ear 1, of which their case had collected so many by the time I wrote their review that its clear plastic had lost its original sheen and smoothness.
In addition, the Ear 2 have better water-dust protection, but you still can’t submerge them in water. So while they can handle your workout sweat or a little spill on your desk, you can’t go running with them in the rain.
One of the Ear 2’s most significant overhauls is in how you control them. On the Ear 1, you paused your music and controlled the volume by tapping and sliding on the bud’s stems. For the Ear 2, however, Nothing has swapped out that mechanism for an AirPods-like pinch system. There’s a new sensor at the ends of each earbud you can squeeze or long-press to access controls such as skipping tracks, disabling noise cancellation, and summoning your phone’s voice assistant.
I’ve found the new control mechanism to be both an improvement and not. On one hand, it works well and is far more accurate at detecting input, especially when I have to tap in quick succession. Plus, they aren’t prone to accidental activations, unlike their predecessor, which I used to inadvertently trigger at least once a day mainly because it was in an area I touched to adjust the earbud’s fit.
On the other hand, there’s no longer an easy way to control the volume. In the Ear 1’s case, I could just slide my finger on the earbud to tune the level exactly to where I want it without lifting my hand. On the Ear 2s, however, I have to allocate a gesture individually to turn the volume up and down, and even then, you have to hold down for a few seconds if you’re trying to increase or decrease it by a few notches. After a while, I simply resorted to pressing the volume buttons on my phone instead. In comparison, even though Apple offers the squeeze mechanism on the AirPods, it still includes a slide gesture for altering the volume.
Nothing Ear 2 – Software
Nothing wants to tailor its earbuds’ experience to each user, and to do so, it has bundled a host of new options on the Ear 2’s companion app that personalize the listening experience to your hearing. You can take an ear test and build your sound profile, for example, which allows the app to understand which frequencies you struggle with and tune the audio so that you don’t have to raise the volume to hear them. It also claims to calibrate its noise cancellation to your hearing, and tells you whether the tip size you’re using is the right fit for you.
Though these software features are nice to have, they’re a hit and a miss in reality. I found little difference between the default and personalized settings, and in some cases, the former even offered better results. Part of that could be because the hearing test is clunky and takes more than five minutes, in which you have to listen to a series of beeps and tell the app how well you hear them. In several stages, I wasn’t quite sure of my responses, and it’s unclear whether the app takes these error margins into account. Perhaps if the process was more automated, the results would have been more consistent.
Nothing Ear 2 – Software Screenshots
That said, the reason these personalized features potentially didn’t improve my experience is likely because my hearing abilities don’t vary by frequency. Someone who suffers from hearing issues or is older (the tests do ask for your age) may benefit more from them.
What did work was the fit test. When I first tried it, it accurately concluded that I could use a smaller left tip as the one I had kept slipping out. The adaptive ANC, which automatically regulates the noise cancellation based on how loud the room you’re in is, also did a decent job. On one occasion when I was at home, for example, I felt less pressure on my ear as the earbuds didn’t have to work too hard to cancel external noise, but it shot up as soon as I stepped out and boarded a bus. However, it’s sometimes either slow to respond or off the mark, forcing me to manually adjust the ANC.
On the Ear 2, Nothing has also included a much-requested function: multipoint connectivity. No longer do you have to disconnect your Nothing earbuds from one device to use them with another. The new Nothing Ear 2 come equipped with “Dual Connection,” which allows me to keep the earbuds paired with two devices at once. This means if I’m streaming music to them from my laptop and get a call on my phone, I can pick it up, and the earbuds will pause the playback and switch on their own. This was one of the most glaring omissions on the Nothing Ear 1 and I’m glad it’s been addressed this time.
Apart from that, the Nothing X companion app is cleverly done, and its minimalistic interface is friendly and easy to navigate. On the app, you can customize what each stem gesture does, precisely tune the equalizer, and even ring the earbuds to locate them.
Nothing Ear 2 – Audio, Noise Cancellation, and Mic Performance
The Nothing Ear 2 is the epitome of how raw specs don’t tell the whole story. While the startup has made very few changes to the earbuds’ hardware, their sound quality has vastly improved, and a league above the Ear 1.
They come with the same 11.6mm drivers as before, but their diaphragm is now made out of materials that refine the output of both high and low frequencies. They also feature a new dual-chamber design that offers the speaker more space to breathe, and as a result, boosts its abilities to bring out details in complex audio.
The Ear 2 produce a more balanced and richer sound than the Ear 1. There’s a wider soundstage, which means you can clearly discern the various instruments in a busy track, as opposed to the often muddy performance of its predecessor. No matter what I was playing – whether an audiobook or a video game soundtrack – the Ear 2 were objectively better and offered an immersive experience.
When I played a fairly complicated piece like Hans Zimmer’s No Time for Caution on the Ear 2, for instance, they neatly handled the concurrent undertones and didn’t allow any one of them to overpower the output. This meant I could discern the variety of instruments like the organ and the synthesizers as they stepped in and built up the ominous harmony. Even at higher volumes, the music sounds perky without ever getting too bassy. These differences are harder to spot on less challenging songs but over time, I did begin to appreciate the added nuance of the Ear 2 compared to the Ear 1.
The Ear 2’s noise cancellation, however, is largely in line with the Ear 1. Though not as strong as some rivals like the AirPods Pro, it can keep out most of your everyday noises to an extent that they don’t bother you anymore. On a recent flight, I could comfortably focus on the book I was reading despite a crying baby a few rows behind. When I’m typing at my desk, the Ear 2 completely cancels out the clickety-clack of my mechanical keyboard and air conditioner. It struggles to be effective in more challenging situations, such as when I’m walking on a sidewalk next to peak hour traffic, but that’s expected, especially given the price.
The one aspect where the Ear 1 were outright disappointing was their mic performance, and unfortunately their successor is no better. The Ear 2 have three microphones on each earbud and it depends on a tech called Clever Voice to cut out ambient noises.
In quiet rooms, the Ear 2’s microphones have no trouble picking my voice, and on calls, people on the other end reported it as crisp and loud. Introduce a couple of disturbances, however, and the Ear 2s’ tech goes haywire. In noisy areas, the Ear 2 turns my voice into a muffled, robotic, and distorted mess. Its tech gets confused about which noise to let in, and therefore, the output is often a cacophony of my voice and external pandemonium.
Nothing Ear 2 – Battery life
Battery life on the Ear 2s is pretty much the same as the Ear 1. With ANC and personalization features on, each earbud lasts a little over four hours, and without them, it can go up to six hours.
The endurance of the earbuds themselves isn’t particularly impressive, as many rivals are capable of running for over five hours with ANC, but the Ear 2’s large case allows you to recharge them about four times from 0 to 100, which is usually enough for me to last an entire workweek. Plus, it supports USB-C fast charging and gets you an extra two hours of listening time with just 10 minutes on a power source. Alternatively, you can charge them wirelessly with any Qi-certified charger.
Nothing Ear 2 – The Competition
While at $149, the Ear 2 are not the steal the Ear 1 once were, they still undercut several competitors like the AirPods Pro and the Samsung Galaxy Buds2 Pro by a large margin. Unless you plan to spend most of your time with your earbuds on calls, the Nothing Ear 2 won’t let you down despite their shortcomings, and if you are, I’d recommend upping your budget for the AirPods Pro.
In a lot of ways, the Nothing Ear 2 earbuds are a grown-up version of the Ear 1. They take their predecessor’s best qualities and build upon them with vital upgrades across the board. They offer a see-through design that’s now more scratch-resistant, a much better sound, an effective ANC that adapts to you, and multi-point connectivity. Most importantly, I didn’t face any bugs in the experience – something which prevented me from using the Ear 1s as my daily driver. But they’re not perfect either: the mic performance leaves a lot to be desired and there’s plenty of room for the battery life to improve.