Nothing Ear Stick review
The Ear Stick are Nothing's newest wireless earbuds and only the company's third product so far. The Ear Stick are as much of a fashion product as a tech product, with a stunning rotating case design in what has become the company's trademarked transparent plastic.
The Ear Stick are meant to be an alternative to the previously launched Nothing Ear 1. While the Ear 1 have a more common in-ear design, the Ear Stick use the older half in-ear design like the AirPods. As such, they also lack features like active noise cancellation and transparency mode.
What they gain instead is a much longer battery life, larger drivers, improved antenna design, custom EQ, and better noise reduction for calls. And of course, that sweet new case design. All for $99, which slots in below the recently price-bumped $149 Ear 1.
The Nothing Ear Stick have one of the most unique designs I have seen, not just for a pair of earbuds but for any tech product in recent times. We see the same use of transparent plastics for the design as the Ear 1 but while the Ear 1 applied the transparent materials to a more traditional TWS case design, the Ear Stick creates something completely unconventional out of it.
The design of the Ear Stick case is based on your average lipstick. You turn the bottom of the tube while holding up the top and the earbuds swing into view. The case turns both ways and can be spun infinitely in either direction.
The main receptacle for the earbuds also houses the battery and the rest of the electronics for the case and is covered by a tubular transparent plastic shell with an opening on one side. The transparent plastic ensures the earbuds are always in view regardless of whether they are "open" or "closed".
The transparent plastic shell also extends to the bottom of the case, which houses a red plastic module that contains the USB-C charging port. Next to it is a silver button that visibly extends out from the main body of the case. The button sits flush with the bottom of the case so as to not get pressed accidentally, which also makes it harder to press intentionally.
The mechanics of the spinning cover are well-designed. There is a satisfying fluidity to the motion and the mechanism snaps in place when it reaches the end of its travel. You could spin it for hours and not get tired of it.
The transparent cover for the case is made entirely out of glossy plastic. The white portion on the inside has a matte finish with a fine dotted texture that makes it easy to grip and slide if you want to open it one-handed.
As attractive as the case design is — and it is very attractive — there are several issues with it. The case does not seal at all when closed, leaving it open to dust, debris, and worst of all, hair. It's very easy to find random bits of hair or dust inside the case and once it gets in there it can only get out on its own, as there's very little you can do from the outside but stare at it.
The lack of a seal means the case is also not water-resistant, even though the earbuds themselves are.
The glossy exterior of the case is also easy to cover in fingerprints and smudges, and although they are not easy to see, you know they are there. The case also becomes quite slippery when covered in oils or sweat from your hands, and becomes difficult to open. The plastics also get scratched quite easily and will not hold up well over time, especially if they perpetually live inside your bag or purse.
Finally, the tubular nature of the case means it can only stand up vertically. If you put it sideways, there is a very real danger of it just rolling away. And even though it is volumetrically smaller than, say, the Ear 1 case, it is thicker and sticks out more in your pocket. There's a joke here about a three-inch tube in your pocket but I refuse to make it.
While the downsides are notable, it is easy to look past them simply because of how unique and interesting the design is. I'm not sure how well the moving parts will age and the clear plastics have already started to scratch but in my mind, the design will always remain fresh and timeless.
Compared to the case itself, the earbuds seem less interesting, probably because we have seen this design before on the Ear 1. But even though they may seem similar at first, the Ear Stick earbuds are very different from the Ear 1.
The most notable difference is the most obvious one; the Ear Stick buds have a half in-ear design as opposed to the in-ear design of the Ear 1 buds. This means they sit just outside your ear canals rather than inside them.
This style of design has mostly gone out of fashion these days, largely because of how categorically worse it is compared to the in-ear design. The in-ear design offers a better, more secure fit, better sound isolation, and most importantly, a better environment for the smaller drivers to do their thing. In comparison, the half in-ear design has to have a one-size fits all approach, can just fall out if they don't fit well, have the noise isolation equivalent of covering someone else's ears, and make the drivers deal with basically an infinite amount of air as there is no seal.
The only products keeping this archaic design alive are Apple's AirPods and the only reason they sell is that they are the cheapest AirPods you can get, not because they are good. It's a design that should have been left behind in the 20th century along with cassette players, and the four people who still claim to prefer it need to get with the times.
Aside from this rather large downgrade, the earbuds on the Ear Stick are just as cool-looking as those on the Ear 1. In fact, they are a bit cooler because they now employ more reliable controls that require you to squeeze the stems rather than just tap. The antennae have been moved further away from the face to make the connection more stable. The driver inside is also larger, although just by a millimeter. The rest of the design is just as clean as on the Ear 1 but the transparency is still limited to just the stalks and you cannot see inside the driver chamber.
The Ear Stick currently come only in white but at this point, it's easy to guess that there will be a black version sometime in the future.
The Ear Stick are moderately comfortable pair of earbuds. While comfort can be a subjective topic, it is especially subjective when it comes to half in-ear style earbuds. These will either fit you well or not at all. For me, they do fit well as they seem to be roughly the same size as the AirPods, which also fit me well.
However, just because they fit you doesn't mean they will be comfortable. While in-ear earbuds primarily anchor to your ears using the soft tips and the seal inside the ear canal, the half in-ear buds have to exert pressure on the walls of your concha to secure themselves and they do this with hard plastic. This causes your entire inner ear to feel a bit sore after a couple of hours of use, which was my experience as well with the Ear Stick.
And that's if the earbuds fit you. There will be plenty of people for whom the earbuds will simply fall out and at that point, you may as well return the product.
The Nothing Ear Stick support the new Nothing X app, which is an updated version of the previous Ear 1 app with unified support for all current and future Nothing audio products. The app is available on Android and iOS.
The Nothing X app features a slightly updated design with a few more features. From the main screen, you can see the battery percentages for the earbuds and the case. You can also go into the equalizer or the control settings.
The equalizer setting for the Ear Stick has four presets as well as a three-band custom EQ. The EQ is visualized in a rather odd round pattern as if the audio spectrum is a circle rather than a flat line. You have to choose one of the EQ presets and there is no option to disable it completely. For my testing, I chose to use the default Balanced preset as it seemed to act as the 'flat' profile as there was no discernible difference between it and the custom preset to zero values.
One interesting thing about this app is that the custom EQ is only available for the Ear Stick and disappears if you pair the older Ear 1. All you get are the four presets that were available before in the older Ear 1 app. Why the cheaper Ear Stick has a custom EQ and the $50 more expensive Ear 1 doesn't is a mystery.
The control customization allows you to change the bindings for the double press, triple press, press and hold, and double press and hold gestures for either earbud. You can choose from skipping tracks, voice assistant, or adjusting the volume. The single press is always bound to play/pause. While the press gestures work better than the tapping on the Ear 1, the stems on the earbuds are a rather small target to find on your ears.
Other features in the app include disabling in-ear detection, a low latency mode for gaming, a Find My Earbuds feature, and the ability to update the firmware.
If you have a Nothing Phone 1, all of these options are built into the Bluetooth settings, so you don't need to download the app. You can also access many of the features from quick settings.
In terms of software stability, the Ear Stick performed very well. This was a major issue on the Ear 1, which had several bugs even months after launch. The Ear Stick are inherently simpler so that may also be why things are working better this time around. The app is also well-designed (aside from the silly circular EQ) and easy to use.
The Ear Stick have a single 12.6mm dynamic driver on either side. They support SBC and AAC codecs over Bluetooth 5.2.
The Ear Stick have a very upper-midrange, treble-forward sound that makes them sound aggressively bright. This, coupled with the lack of a fleshed-out low-end, makes the overall tonality quite tinny and reedy at times.
The low-end response from the drivers is weak. This is to be expected from a half in-ear design although Nothing did claim to have solved this with the software-based 'Bass Lock Technology'. Whatever it's supposed to do, it's not doing very well.
Speaking purely from a reference level perspective, the low-end lacks most of the rumble and warmth present in recordings. You get a milquetoast punch and slam with a hint of rumble but it's lacking in depth and sounds hollow. Maxing out the bass EQ adds a bit more energy to the low end but it sounds somewhat disjointed from the rest of the sound. It also pushes the driver to its limit, which can introduce some distortion in bass-heavy tracks.
The mid-range, unencumbered by the low-end, has a lot of presence in the mix. The lower mids do sound a bit hollow but the upper mids can be quite forceful, almost to the point of being aggressive. Unfortunately, the mid-range has rather disappointing timbral characteristics, as a lot of the vocals and instruments have a somewhat nasal, metallic timbre and lack their natural warmth and tonality.
A lot of this bright, metallic energy is carried into the lower treble as well, which can also be quite aggressive and in your face. It does create an artificial sense of a higher resolution, more detailed sound but you don't necessarily want all details blasting at you at all times, especially when they have a tendency to sound tinny. After a while, I found myself skipping the brighter tracks in my playlists because of how fatiguing they could get to listen to.
The upper treble isn't as bright and in fact, rolls off fairly quickly. This does result in a somewhat dark high-end, which lacks some of the air and brilliance at the top end.
The overall sound has a tendency to sound somewhat one-dimensional, as most of the energy is focused in the upper mids and lower treble ranges, with the opposite ends of the spectrum taking a backseat in the mix. You get the distinct impression of listening to a rather small set of computer speakers, which often have a very limited frequency response, rather than a set of floor-standing speakers with multiple drivers covering the entire frequency spectrum.
With the half in-ear design, the bass was never going to be a strong point of the sound, so I can see why Nothing chose to have a mid and treble-forward sound so the speakers at least have some personality. However, it is quite an acquired taste and one that may not find many suitors. And this is coming from someone who generally prefers bright-sounding speakers.
On a technical level, the Ear Stick perform okay. The sound does seem quite lively and detailed due to the bright tuning, so you don't get the same dark, boxed-in feeling you get from most Bluetooth earbuds. The imaging is somewhat odd, as the sound seems to be coming from a plane located just behind your head rather than in front of it. The soundstage also feels artificially inflated, with somewhat stretched stereo separation that sounds like the speakers are placed further apart in the room than they should be.
Overall, the audio quality on the Ear Stick was disappointing. While it can sound passable with some content, it feels compromised mostly due to the decision to have a half in-ear design. The funny thing is that the sound is better in some ways than the Ear 1 but since the Ear 1 have an in-ear design, they sound better overall. It would be interesting to see the same drivers with the same tuning inside an in-ear design.
The Ear Stick have decent microphone quality. There is some of that telltale clipping toward the end of sentences as the noise reduction algorithm rushes in to silence the background noise but the overall voice quality is quite adequate for voice calls.
In noisy environments, such as next to a running sink, the earbuds struggle to maintain clarity in the voice and the background noise splashes through a fair bit. This is something the more premium products on the market are a lot better at.
The Ear Stick have an okay latency performance. When used with an Android or iOS smartphone for watching video, there is essentially zero lag as the phone will automatically delay the video to sync with the sound.
This does not, however, work when watching videos from a PC. I measured close to 300ms delay when watching videos from a Windows PC, which is extremely noticeable.
The delay is also present when playing games on a phone, which cannot do the same audio syncing trick for obvious reasons. For that, you will have to enable the low latency option from the Nothing X app, which does bring down the latency to a more tolerable level. If you are on a Nothing Phone 1, this mode is automatically enabled when you launch a game.
The connectivity performance on the Ear Stick was mostly good. Aside from very few minor pauses while playing music, the connection was otherwise quite stable and reliable.
The Ear Stick have a rated battery life of 7 hours of continuous audio playback. In my testing, the earbuds ran for 6 hours and 50 minutes continuously, which is pretty close to the official claim and a good result overall.
Nothing also claims 2 hours of playback after a 10-minute charge. I found this claim to be quite accurate, as the earbuds played for exactly 2 hours in my testing.
The Nothing Ear Stick are an attractive and ingeniously designed product. There's no one that I showed them to that wasn't immediately fascinated by their design and I can see a lot of people purchasing them simply because of the way they look.
They also have good battery life, reliable and well-designed software experience, and decent call quality.
The earbuds are let down by the decision to have a half in-ear design. Fit and comfort are bound to be an issue for many with this one-size-fits-all solution as it lacks the flexibility of in-ear variants. Audio quality is also unimpressive, with a thin, overly bright sound that lacks the balance and warmth of good in-ear models.
At $99, the Nothing Ear Stick prioritize form over function. If you are absolutely smitten by their looks and do not care how well they fit or sound then it's not an especially large sum of money to part with to have a cool-looking fidget spinner in your pocket. But if audio quality and comfort are a priority then are a ton of other options on the market right now.
- 23 Mar 2023
Carl Pei doesnt understand audio.... it took him forever to care about the camera... and after deleting the headphone jack it will take him forever to understand what good audio is...
- 09 Mar 2023
In addition to your points, there's the issue of safety. Having a more isolated aural experience might be of benefit to your calls and music on noisy streets, but at the expense of peripheral awareness. No thanks. I see people daily, walking,...
- 08 Nov 2022
I really want to like these. Pei ok'd OnePlus's 1st two iterations of their buds and they're meh, at best. not very hopeful and this review reeks of roses.