Nothing Ear (2) Review: Nothing Good Here

  • Good software
  • ANC is new and decent
  • Transparency mode is good
  • Wireless charging supported
  • Sound is shrill
  • Controls are a step back
  • Isolation is not great
  • Battery life is not great

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The tech world is filled with established players and up-and-comers. The up-and-comers always think they can do things better than the established players, otherwise, they would be down-and-goers. But every once in a while a company emerges from the pack and stands out with its innovation, vision, and technical acumen that puts everyone on notice with a clear message: We have arrived. This is not that story.

It could have been. To the extent that a set of earbuds can be "innovative" and "daring," the Nothing Ear (1) earbuds certainly made some companies sit up and take notice. The transparent build, the clever touch controls, and very solid sound and active noise cancellation for a relatively low price made the Nothing Ear (1) earbuds easy to recommend. The Nothing Ear (2) — the company's first second-generation product — could have announced Nothing's presence with authority and made the world pay attention to them.

But alas, Nothing has managed to do an equally improbable task of making almost every aspect of its second-generation product worse. From huge features gone missing to tiny details, now annoying, the Nothing Ear (2) earbuds have shown that even Nothing can lose its way. I've been using the Nothing Ear (2) earbuds for (1) week paired with multiple smartphones, and this is my full review.

Same old, same old

When I first opened the box for the Nothing Ear (2) earbuds, I wondered if a mistake had been made. Inside the cardboard, nestled a familiar clear case with a familiar set of earbuds in it. I wondered if Nothing had sent over the Nothing Ear (1) by mistake. So similar are the cases and the buds, that if you aren't paying attention, you might accidentally grab the wrong case.

The buds are outwardly identical to each other — you can snap each set into the other's case, and as far as I can tell, the earbuds will charge. The only difference between the buds that you can see on the outside is the Nothing Ear (2) buds say "Nothing Ear (2)" on the stem.

The dimple on the outside of the case is also a little bit smaller, meaning the case is a little less of a fidget toy, or at least it's only a fidget toy for people with smaller fingers. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, right? Nothing had a winning formula in the Nothing ear (1) earbuds, so if it ain't broke, don't fix it, as the saying goes.

Nothing broke it

One of my absolute favorite features about the Nothing Ear (1) buds came in the controls. Nothing utilized the familiar single, double, and tap-and-hold formula to do everything buds can normally do such as skip tracks, play/pause, and more. The only thing you could not control with those taps was volume, and the only reason for that was because Nothing utilized a unique and ridiculously intuitive control — swiping up and down on the stems of the buds to raise and lower volume.

That's gone now. In its place is the "Hey look Apple, we can do it too" squeeze control. Taps are gone, and squeezes are in. Personally, I hate squeezes. A squeeze requires you to grip the stem and that in turn often dislodges the bud from your ear. At least on AirPods, the stem is long enough that you can grab them away from your ear lobe. But the stems are short on the Nothing Ear (2) so every time I used the controls, I had to push the buds back into my ears.

To say that I'm not a fan of that choice is an understatement, but adding insult to injury is the removal of the intuitive swipe gesture for volume control. That irks me to no end. Especially when you consider that these buds are effectively carbon copies of their predecessors. The only thing missing between the two is, presumably, the sensor that made swipes possible.

This was likely a cost-cutting move, or it was a move made to accommodate the sensors for squeezing. Neither is a good excuse in this reviewer's opinion.

Shrill sound

Moving on to the sound quality there is a noticeable step back in this department as well. Overall, the earbuds tend to overemphasize treble tones in the sound it outputs. That's not great and in some songs can result in almost ear-piercing sounds. The violin in Lindsey Stirling's "RoundTable Rival" in particular is hard to listen to. This can be tempered — slightly — by adjusting the equalizer in Nothing's app which we will discuss in a moment, but it's far from an optimal experience.

Add to that, whenever I put the earbuds in my ears, I always hear a high-pitched chirp, which is not painful, but it is annoying. It's almost as if the buds are letting me know, "this is what you're going to be listening to, so get used to it, buddy."

Active Noise Cancellation and transparency mode are both pretty good, so there's that. I can leave the buds in my ears while having a conversation with a drive-thru or another person, and the ANC knocks down the noise coming from an open car window decently. Even the isolation on the buds is only just ok, even though the ear tip fit test assures me everything is fine.

I won't say that, in this category, Nothing Ear (2) buds have regressed. The sound and ANC weren't amazing on the first-generation earbuds, but they were good. But Nothing did nothing to move the bar forward, which is a shame. There was (and still is) room for improvement in most aspects of the sound quality, and the fact that Nothing didn't progress makes me a bit nervous to be perfectly frank.

There's an app for that

Nothing's app is one of the few bright spots in the Nothing Ear (2) experience. It's not amazing, but it's functional, well laid out, and easy to use, which is a breath of fresh air. The equalizer is laid out in a circle, which is a fun little quirk. The treble, bass, and midrange are laid out like three spokes on a wheel. There are four presets along with a custom option.

The controls are also configurable except for inexplicably, play/pause is automatically set to a single squeeze and cannot be changed. I'll be perfectly honest if I were going to set all of my own custom controls, play/pause would likely be a single squeeze, but I don't like that the option is taken away from me. That being said, this is far from the most egregious sin these earbuds commit, so I'm willing to let it go.

The app also allows you to set your own sound profile which takes you through a series of progressively higher-pitched tones to learn what you can and can't hear, to adjust the sound for you, giving you a better-balanced sound. I didn't hear too much of a difference before and after, but with these kinds of tests, I rarely do.

I should also mention that during my short review period, I received two firmware updates for the buds, so clearly issues are being addressed, which is a good thing, but I doubt there is a firmware update that will restore any of the functionality I'm missing

It would be fair to say that the software experience is a high point, which is a nice surprise. Typically the software experience is rather meh of earbuds, so I give Nothing props in this department, so good on them.

Other test notes

This is a shortened review period because of shipping delays getting the earbuds to me, and that can't be helped. But I'll continue to use the buds and if any of the fundamentals change in the near future I will update this review appropriately.

Nothing advertises about 36 hours of listening time with these earbuds. That seems generous based on my testing. After a single week, the case dropped to about 60% which sounds good, but I find I will typically go a month or more with my normal listening habits before I need to plug in a set of buds. I don't see 36 hours as a realistic number. The earbuds also support fast charging. Nothing advertises eight hours of playback in 10 minutes of wired charging. The buds also support wireless charging.

The earbuds come with Google's fast pair which is great for setting them up. The buds can also be connected to two devices at the same time, but that's a setting you need to enable in the app. Connecting to two devices can adversely affect battery life, so Nothing wants you to opt in, which is a smart decision.

Wrapping it up

Overall, it would be fair to say that if the Nothing Ear (1) earbuds did not exist, this is an entirely different review. In a vacuum, these earbuds are fine. They sound ok, they look cool, and the app is nice. Yes, they're treble-heavy, and yes they squawk into my ear when I put them in. The isolation isn't great, the ANC is just ok while the Transparency mode is good.

If these buds existed in a vacuum, they would have a higher score. But they don't exist in a vacuum, and what we're seeing here is a progression or a trend. That trend is not going in the right direction and sadly in my world, that means a deduction.

A first-generation product doesn't tell you much about the company. It's your first impression of a group of people trying something new. But a second-generation product starts to shape what a company is going to do. As they say in baseball, "a win is a win." A second win is called "two in a row," but a third win is a "bonafide streak." The pattern works for losses too. Three losses in a row is also a streak. Right now, I'm really worried about this streak.

So taken at face value, these buds are ok — they'll cost you $149 on Amazon right now — but there are better ways that you can spend your money. Soundcore's Liberty 4 earbuds ($129 on Amazon at the moment) come to mind. And if Nothing still sold them, I would recommend the Nothing Ear (1) earbuds every day of the week over these.

They don't exist in a vacuum

It would be fair to say I'm disappointed by the overall experience here. Part of it is because of how the earbuds are, and part of it is because of how the earbuds could have been. If I'm being honest with myself, I shouldn't let that muddy the waters.

But Nothing could have been a bold innovator that marched forward and trusted its initial instincts. Instead, it retreated into the familiar; into the "what everyone else is doing" mentality. The squeeze interface, and removing volume controls are both fairly obvious attempts to copy what Apple has done, even though Nothing founder Carl Pei takes every opportunity to mock that same company.

It's easy to argue that copying the AirPods is a recipe for success — after all, AirPods are a successful business. Plus, if "everybody" is already expecting squeezes and typical controls, then what could go wrong? That's a fair point, and I'll concede it. But in this reviewer's humble opinion, Nothing has taken a step back here, and it's disappointing. It's particularly disappointing because it makes me nervous about the Nothing Phone (2) coming later this year.

I'll say it again, this is Nothing's first second-generation product. I ended my review of the Nothing Phone (1) by saying that its best quality was that it made me excited for the next generation. That excitement is now all but quelled. Now Nothing is no longer exciting, and it needs to prove itself all over again.