Nothing Ear (2) review
The Nothing Ear (2) is its "first ever second generation product," the company says, which is definitely one of the statements ever made. The new model features a range of improvements but focuses the most on improving the sound quality over its predecessor. At $149, the Ear (2) costs the same as the current price of the Ear (1), which originally launched at $99. There's a lot to talk about so let's just get right into it.
The design of the Ear (2) has seen some changes, mostly around the case. The new case is smaller in every dimension but you can only really tell the difference if you have it besides the old one.
The new case has more angled edges compared to the curves of its predecessor. The lid has a similar appearance but the large dimple in the middle that held the earbuds in place has been made smaller.
The bottom of the case looks as if they removed its cover. The Ear (1) case had a bottom cover that encased all the opaque plastics inside but the Ear (2) case leaves the white plastic bits hanging outside and you can even feel the curve of the receptacles for the earbuds. The lack of glossy plastics on the bottom should reduce the appearance of scratches, which was an issue with the previous case.
Speaking of the white plastics, they no longer have the dimpled finish of their predecessor, instead having a plain white texture that you can actually touch this time since they are no longer covered by clear plastic. How long they remain white when in touch with the outside world remains to be seen.
There is something about the design of the Ear (2) case that makes it look and feel like a downgrade. It feels like they removed chunks of clear plastic from everywhere and made the opaque plastic blander and featureless to save on costs. The new lid with its smaller hinge also had a lot more side-to-side movement than my two-year-old Ear (1) models. The Ear (1) case lid also had a much more satisfying thump when closed while the Ear (2) lid always closes with a clank.
The new design is also more visually uniform and not in a good way. The Ear (1) case had a smaller magnet and a wider hinge that made it easy to tell one side from the other. The Ear (2) has a hinge and magnet design that looks very similar in shape and size and it is genuinely hard to tell which way it opens without paying complete attention every time.
The actual earbuds are very similar to their predecessors. The only visible difference is the switch to pressure-sensitive buttons instead of a touch-sensitive area on the side for gestures.
Both the case and the earbuds are water-resistant. The case is rated IP55 and the earbuds at IP54. This is an improvement over the previous model, which only carried an IPX4 rating for the earbuds.
Overall, the Ear (2) feels like a downgrade in the design department, which is odd considering it was the most universally praised aspect of the Ear (1). While one could argue the original model was far too indulgent and potentially wasteful with its use of plastic, it is what gave it its distinctive design. The Ear (2) feels like it's trying to mimic that aesthetic with a third of the budget and ends up feeling like a knockoff in the process. It's still a very good-looking and unique design just not as good as the first one.
The Ear (2) are a comfortable pair of earbuds. The bulk of the design sits inside your ears, leaving only a small bit hanging outside. The inner ear shape is unobtrusive and the silicone tips are soft and pleasant on the ear.
The issue is with the new pressure-sensitive gesture area on the earbuds. These work well when you are intentionally using them but are extremely easy to press even when you are just grabbing the stem to pull them out of your ears. This happened almost every time I removed them as it takes no effort at all to activate the gesture.
Eventually, I had to resort to unusual grips such as holding the stem at the top and bottom while pulling them out. This is not a safe way to handle the earbuds as the chance of dropping them is much higher but I'd rather take that chance than press the button every single time I remove the earbuds.
Software and features
The Ear (2) can be controlled using the Nothing X app for iOS and Android or through the Bluetooth settings on a Phone (1). From here, you can change the ANC settings, the touch gestures, the audio effects, as well as access features like low latency mode, personalized ANC and sound profile, and find my earbuds.
The ANC has three manual levels of adjustment and a fourth adaptive setting, which adjusts on the fly for your surroundings. There is also a personalized ANC option, which runs a test to adjust the ANC frequency response to your ears and current ambient conditions. This test can only be run when there is sufficient ambient noise around you otherwise it just won't let you.
The problem with personalized ANC, something I noticed with the OnePlus Buds Pro 2 as well, is that the profile it generates is hyper-specific to your current ambient noise pattern. This can produce good results if you are, say, in an airplane and the ambient noise pattern is very consistent. However, if the noise varies a lot then you may not get good results. Also, trying to use a profile generated in one environment elsewhere can also produce worse results. In these cases, it is better to just disable personalized ANC and use the standard one.
The app also offers an ear tip fit test. In the earlier firmware, the test tone played to check this was identical to the one you find on OnePlus and Oppo earbuds. A later update to the earbuds changed this to a different tone but considering the history between the aforementioned brands and Nothing's founder I thought the situation was quite amusing.
The Ear (2) also offers a custom EQ in the app, something the Ear (1) lacks to this day. It's not much; you get a 3-band adjustment laid out in a nonsensical circular pattern but it's better than just the four presets that the Ear (1) had.
The Ear (2) also lets you dial in a personalized sound profile. The test procedure to calibrate this differs a bit from what we have seen from other brands. You first have to set a level for a white noise sample, which will be played in the background. Once done, each earbud will play a test tone that gradually reduces in volume, and the point where you stop hearing it establishes the level for that frequency.
This process was more unpleasant than I expected. Having the relatively loud white noise sample constantly play in one of your ears isn't fun and the test can take quite a while to finish. I would not blame anyone for getting impatient and canceling the test midway.
Finally, you can also change the options for the pinch gestures. You can set different options for the left and right earbuds but you get the same set of options to choose from for both. Not all options are available for all gestures and the single pinch gesture cannot be changed at all. This makes the aforementioned issue of accidental presses especially annoying since you can't even disable the single press gesture like you can on some other earbuds.
The Ear (2) had minor bugs during testing. The ear detection often stopped working and the earbuds would not react to being removed from the ear. This means there was no automatic pausing and the sound would just keep playing. This would usually only happen to just one earbud at a time, so if you pulled out the other then the audio would pause as intended. Putting the earbuds back in the case would make them work normally again.
While not a bug, I also wanted to note the volume of the various alerts on the earbuds. The sound the earbuds make when inserted into your ears can be quite loud at times. Similarly, the noise for low battery alert is also loud and startled me every time. There are zero reasons for these alerts to be as loud and annoying as they currently are.
All observations in this review are with the firmware version 188.8.131.52, which was the latest available at the time of testing.
The Nothing Ear (2) uses updated drivers over the previous model. They have the same 11.6mm dynamic design but the diaphragm has been updated with a new material that uses graphene and polyurethane. The interior of the earbuds has also been updated with a new dual-chamber design. The earbuds also support LHDC 5.0 (also known as LHDC-V) in addition to SBC and AAC. Although still a lossy codec, LHDC 5.0 now supports up to 192kHz sampling rates and up to 1Mbps bitrate.
Before getting into the sound, I want to mention that there was audible high-frequency distortion when using LHDC 5.0 at the default configuration with our Nothing Phone (1) review unit. This could be solved by changing the bitrate values but that caused other problems, which are discussed in the Connectivity section. Most of the audio testing was done with LHDC 3.0 instead along with SBC and AAC.
The Ear (2) is a good-sounding pair of earbuds that is notably improved over its predecessor. It has the same sort of v-shaped tuning but still comes across as sounding remarkably better in many areas.
The low-end still has a bass boost shelf applied but it seems to stop lower down in the frequency range than before making it more localized to the lower bass regions. The bass also has less bloat than before and has a much faster attack and decay that sounds punchier and more precise. It's one of the more enjoyable bass tunings I've heard in this segment and never feels bloated or overwhelming.
The mid-range also shows considerable improvement on the Ear (2). The Ear (1) had a somewhat congested, fuzzier-sounding mid-range that just served to prop up the bass and treble regions. The mid-range on the Ear (2) sounds much more fleshed out and in sync with the rest of the frequency spectrum. There is a much greater sense of detail and separation here that was missing before.
Having said that, the mid-range on the Ear (2) is still not perfect. There is a dip in the mids that causes certain male vocals to lose all presence and authority in the mix. This does not affect deeper male vocals or female vocals as the dip is fairly narrow band in nature.
Unfortunately, the treble region remains a point of contention for the Ear (2). This is now the third Nothing audio product in a row where the treble is just way too hot. This isn't always a concern as it helps bring out the air frequencies and detail in the instruments and female vocals on some of the tracks. Then on the very next track, a cymbal hit or a higher-pitched female voice will shred through your ears.
It's not just the high treble that's hot. The upper midrange is also slightly accentuated, which can cause female vocals to be forward and male vocals to have a nasal timbre. Coming out of a dip in the lower mids, this accentuated region is particularly audible on certain mixes.
Unfortunately, there is little you can do with the EQ to fix this. The three bands of adjustment offered here give very little room to dial in precise adjustment. Moreover, making larger changes to the EQ causes the sound to change significantly across the spectrum. The overall sound is noticeably quieter when you increase any of the three bands and the focus seems to shift to whatever band you are adjusting. Instead of just making the particular band louder, the rest of the sound also gets inexplicably quieter.
The same thing happens when you enable the personal sound profile. Most of the time the custom profile would have added EQ boost across certain frequency ranges (usually high frequencies) to compensate for your hearing loss and this once again causes the rest of the spectrum to get quieter when enabled. This made the feature somewhat pointless as I couldn't tell if the personalization algorithm took into account the sound changing internally while also accounting for my hearing.
Leaving aside EQ shenanigans and the occasionally murderous treble, the Ear (2) can often be genuinely engaging and enjoyable to listen to. The drivers are clearly of a higher quality this time around and it comes through in the sound. The sound is also decently spacious with a good sense of imaging and positioning around the space. The tasteful bass tuning also helps elevate the sound above most other offerings in this segment. I just wish Nothing would get over its obsession with ear-piercing treble or at least offer users a more elaborate custom EQ.
The microphone performance was average. The voice sounds natural but the aggressive background noise cancellation algorithm cuts in too often even in quiet surroundings and causes dips in your voice while you are speaking. If they could just turn down the noise cancellation a bit then the voices could sound much clearer.
The Ear (2) has average noise canceling performance that unfortunately has a few issues.
For whatever reason, the ANC keeps fluctuating in effectiveness, which is extremely noticeable if you don't have anything playing. Even when manually set to the High setting, the ANC keeps adjusting its levels every few seconds in a very obvious manner. It doesn't even seem like it's adjusting to the surroundings but rather in a random pattern. One second it seems to be working fine, the next suddenly there's a lot more low-frequency noise being let in. This is more noticeable when outdoors but it also happens in quieter places. You just are less likely to notice it there, especially with music playing.
As mentioned before, the personalized ANC is also not the silver bullet it might seem like. The tuning it generates is specifically for your current ambient noise levels, which doesn't provide good results in other environments. In fact, in many situations, the general ANC just provided better results even after multiple manual personalized ANC calibration tests. I would still recommend using it when you are on a plane so it sets itself to that noise level but then also try switching it off to see if things are better or worse.
Even at its best, the ANC is a solid level 2, if the best ANC currently available on TWS is a level 4 and 0 being no ANC. This is an improvement over the Ear (1), which was a level 1 but still not quite as good as some of the best we have seen, such as the Sony LinkBuds S. It does an okay job of low frequencies but mid and high frequencies aren't as well attenuated. Even sitting here right now as I type this, I can easily hear the AC running behind me over the music. If I was using the LinkBuds S right now I would forget the AC was even on.
The transparency mode is also just okay. It sounds a bit muffled but is still usable overall.
The Ear (2) has poor latency performance. Without the low lag option in the Nothing X app, the default latency is awful, clocking in at around 300ms. This makes it unusable with devices that don't support the Nothing X app, such as computers or media players.
With the low lag option enabled, the latency is still a bit poor but should be passable for casual gaming or apps that let you play instruments, for example.
Even when just watching videos on the phone the latency is noticeable. This is usually a non-issue as phones will automatically sync the video to adjust for the audio delay but the delay on the Ear (2) is so great by default that the sync is still imperfect. Even for video, I would recommend enabling the low lag mode to get good synchronization.
The Ear (2) had a variety of connectivity issues during testing. For one, LHDC 5.0 simply does not work as intended. Setting it to the full 1Mbps bitrate on the Nothing Phone (1) causes it to start stuttering after a few seconds and become unusable. Even 900kbps is unusable. It's only when you go all the way down to 500kbps does it work somewhat stably. All of these observations are with the phone less than an arm's length away on a desk while sitting still. Things would be much worse if the phone was in a bag or pocket.
LHDC 5.0 settings on the Nothing Phone (1)
Since the testing for LHDC 5.0 was done entirely with the Nothing Phone (1) it was impossible to isolate the issues to just the earbuds, the phone, or both. Either way, they both belong to the same company, so now it's on them to figure out where the issue lies.
As mentioned in the audio quality section, there was also distortion when using LHDC 5.0. This somehow only manifested at 500kbps and lower bitrates, which as mentioned above are the only usable ones. You could go higher, at which point the distortion stops but then the audio starts stuttering.
These issues rendered LHDC 5.0 completely unusable on our review unit. Dropping down to LHDC 3.0, which was the next available option on the Phone (1) solved the distortion issue but I could still run into audio stuttering if I got too ambitious with the bitrate.
I also had a hard time getting LHDC to work at all with some non-Nothing phones. It worked fine with Xiaomi phones but wouldn't work on OnePlus phones with Qualcomm chipsets. On OnePlus phones with MediaTek chipsets, the Bluetooth menu would say it was using LHDC but the developer settings showed it was actually just AAC unless you switched manually.
As for SBC and AAC, there were no observed issues as both worked flawlessly. This is just as well since on most phones you will be stuck using either of these codecs, as LHDC is still a bit of a rarity outside of a handful of brands. I'm not really sure why Nothing would choose LHDC over the ubiquitous LDAC, especially with the range of issues their LHDC implementation has. LDAC has been much more reliable in my experience and is supported by basically every Android phone on the market today since it's built right into the OS.
Fortunately, both AAC and SBC sound just fine, so you don't need to have FOMO if your device does not support LHDC.
The Ear (2) does support connecting to two devices at the same time. This is a fairly easy thing to do and the earbuds can use LHDC with both paired devices, should they support it. It also worked well except that one time when one of the paired devices could only connect to one of the earbuds while the other was connected to both but as with other bugs this was fixed by putting the earbuds in the case and trying again.
The Ear (2) have a rated battery of 6.3 hours with ANC off and 4 hours with ANC on. I could not test ANC-on performance as the ANC is only active when the earbuds detect being placed in your ears, which means it cannot be activated as the earphones aren't worn during the battery test run.
So for the ANC off results, I tested with LHDC and AAC. The AAC run provided a battery life of 5.7 hours, which is close enough to the 6.3 hours figure that Nothing provided to make it clear it was tested with either AAC or SBC. However, the LHDC test ran for just 4 hours, which is way off and just insufficient in general. And just to reiterate, this is with the ANC off.
So if you used the Ear (2) as intended, with LHDC and ANC, you are looking at 2-3 hours of battery life, which is pretty terrible for a pair of modern earbuds.
Our review unit also had a large discrepancy between the two earbuds with the left one having a much worse battery life. To give the product the benefit of the doubt, the figures above are from the right unit which lasted longer. The left one usually was dead a good hour early.
At the beginning of the review, I said the focus with the Ear (2) was on improving the audio quality, and that was pretty much what I observed. The audio quality is unquestionably better on the Ear (2) compared to the previous model. In fact, it is one of the best-sounding wireless earbuds in its price range, despite its issues with the treble being a bit too bright.
Aside from that, the Ear (2) is disappointing for a sequel. The design, which everyone and their chihuahua raved about last time, feels stripped down and downgraded. The Nothing X app is still limited in terms of customizability and the software can still be buggy at times. Battery life is also quite bad, as is the latency performance. Things also just don't work as expected; the ANC has issues as does the fancy new LHDC 5.0 codec.
Fortunately, most of the issues are software related and fixable. Hopefully, Nothing will get the Ear (2) working up to its full potential shortly.
- Still has a distinctive design
- Good overall audio quality
- Dual connection support
- IP rating for case and earbuds
- Harsh treble tuning
- Inconsistent ANC performance
- LHDC 5.0 implementation has many issues
- Pinch gestures are way too sensitive
- Poor battery life
- Subpar latency for gaming
- Nothing X app offers limited customizability
- Case looks and feels worse than the Ear (1)
- joe nodden
- 09 Apr 2023
For a company who said, "It’s been a while since anything interesting happened in tech. It is time for a fresh breeze of change."... ...they sure do love making clones of Apple products.
- 05 Apr 2023
I have to say that this negative review is an outlier and not consistent with my experience over the past week. The primary sell of these earbuds for me has been improved audio quality but more importantly excellent call quality, both with regard to...
- 27 Mar 2023
It's easy to see you want to like them. But in truth, they're probably only as good as 1st Gen 1+ DUDS