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Remember the Nothing Ear 1 earbuds? They were the UK tech company's debut product in 2021, which showcased how Nothing's minimalist and transparent design approach would differentiate itself in the industry.
Nothing says its newest earbuds, the Ear Stick, are not the successor to the Ear 1, but instead, usher in a separate accessory in a different form factor. What remains, however, is the company's fashion-forward mindset. Debuting as a part of designer Chet Lo's SS23 runway during London Fashion Week, Nothing's Ear Stick, inspired by a cosmetic classic -- lipstick -- are more than just a tech gadget, they're a fashion statement.
While case design seems to be the earbuds' most obvious draw, Nothing promises that the earbuds themselves are ideal for comfort and other sound aspects -- excluding Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). While fun, the new product seems like another funky concept that Nothing is throwing against a wall, but does it stick? Read on.
Many would argue that wireless earbuds have become as much of a staple as lipstick. In that regard, Nothing's play on earbuds and lipsticks here is charming. I'll be honest, though, the clear, cylindrical charging case, with the red accent at the top, looks more like my ProAir RespiClick inhaler than, say, Revlon lipstick. But unlike my inhaler, the Ear Stick's red top has a USB-C charging port embedded in the top.
But similar to my inhaler, the quirky case is compact enough for me to throw into my work bag or back pocket. While you can slide the Ear Stick into your front pocket, it's neither the most comfortable nor flattering look -- especially if you prioritize your 'lewk' more than anything else.
With the transparent design of the buds -- they look nearly identical to the Ear 1, by the way -- and the accents of red and dot-matrixed branding, the Ear Stick doesn't feel like an off-shoot from Nothing's current catalog, but there is a twist -- literally.
Instead of flicking open or sliding out like a lid, the charging case twists open to reveal the earbuds, similar to how you'd twirl out lipstick. The case has a 360-degree twist, with a thicker, golf-ball-textured coating on the backside of the earbuds platform. This gives the Ear Stick case more grip when the buds are tucked inside. I'd be lying if I said the clicking mechanism of the case hasn't been one of the most satisfying aspects of my time testing these.
For those who have read my previous earbuds reviews, you know that I have an issue with charging cases that don't keep the earbuds safe and secure. I'm happy to report for all my fellow klutzy readers that the case -- even with its twists and turns -- that the Ear Stick case is earbuds spill-proof.
What's old is new
Nothing claims that the flat-based, cushionless earbuds make for a more ergonomic and comfortable fit. Like Apple's original AirPods model, the Ear Stick lacks the silicon cushion that I typically see with other offerings on the market. The buds sit flush against the outer part of my ear canal, but that's about as far as it gets in terms of fit.
Nothing says this design helps the earbuds go unnoticed in your ears, even after wearing them all day long. While I found the light weight acceptable in the first two hours of listening, anything after that made the larger-sized buds more apparent. Keep in mind that the Ear Stick only comes in one size – no extra tips or cushions are included – so if they feel too big and you experience minor pains, I'd stick with something more personalizable.
My ZDNET colleague, Emery Wright, shared a similar sentiment, saying that she'd rather play it safe with her "archaic AirPods" than try and fit the wider buds into her ears.
Earbuds, but make it fashion
Just as you wouldn't wear Gucci sneakers on a treadmill because they're technically tennis shoes, I wouldn't choose these earbuds as an exercise companion. The Ear Stick works best when you're sitting and relaxing. Anything more and they will fall out -- I've tried.
Does sound quality stick the landing?
As trendy as the Ear Stick are, I was surprised that they didn't support one of the market's most-demanded features: Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). At first, I was skeptical about not having ANC, fearing that the lack of noise control would affect the fullness of the playback. I was surprised and glad to be proven wrong. Even in higher treble moments, there wasn't an overwhelming "tinny" sound. Unfortunately, the buds are not the most bass-heavy, even if you take advantage of the custom EQ in the Nothing X app.
In place of ANC is what Nothing calls Bass Lock, a digital feature that should, theoretically, provide a sound seal over external noises. However, even at higher volumes, I was able to clearly hear the conversations around me just as much as the audio. If you're someone who finds ANC disorienting, though, and want transparent-sounding buds, these may as well be the perfect option.
Sound leakage is another problem with the Ear Stick. With the lack of passive noise cancellation -- typically from cushioned ear tips and a tighter seal -- my deskmate, Sabrina Ortiz, was able to guess the songs that I was listening to during testing. That said, if you plan on traveling with these earbuds, expect to hear the ambiance around and, possibly, see the faces of judgment from neighbors.
Nothing says ecosystem like exclusive features
ZDNET's June Wan, who reviewed the Nothing Phone 1 earlier this year, also spent time with the Ear Stick to get a feel for Nothing's product-exclusive features. Most notable is the Ear Stick's low lag mode, which reduces the latency of the audio transmission and is ideal for mobile gaming. From what he's seen (and heard), the feature certainly helps with producing the audio from games so that what you see on screen is heard almost instantaneously. Similar low-latency features are available with gaming-centric earbuds, but if you want something a little more mainstream, then the Ear Stick does the job just as well.
The Nothing Phone 1 also presents you with a quick toggle to access the Ear Stick's native settings without needing to download Nothing's X app, but that's as far as exclusive features go.
I use earbuds mostly as a microphone/speaker duo to make calls while walking through New York City. So, I was disappointed that Nothing's clear voice and filtering technology didn't live up to the marketing lingo. I spent most of my phone calls shouting into my phone's speaker for my mom to tell me it sounded like a whisper. So, if you're looking for streetwear earbuds, these have the look, but not quite the right sound filter.
If you're as frustrated as I am with how sensitive gesture controls on earbuds can be, especially when it causes you to hang up on calls prematurely or skip your favorite song, here's some good news: The Ear Stick's gesture controls require a very firm, intentional squeeze to pause, play, or hang up a call. Much like the second-generation AirPods Pro, Nothing also incorporated a phone-free way to turn the volume up and down by swiping against the earbuds' stems.
I'm impressed with the practicality of the gesture controls, but I have to channel my inner Goldilocks and say that the buds are a bit too tough to control. I find that I really have to press down in the exact right place for a function to happen -- especially when controlling the volume. But, hey, I'll take that over random switching.
If there's one thing going for Nothing's latest earbuds, it's the looks. These are uniquely designed, from the buds themselves to the case that protects them. That said, you'll be compromising on sound for such aesthetics. For $99, the Ear Stick deliver relatively clear audio, but they're far from market-leading -- not with the lack of ANC and the sound leakage issues. If you are looking to start or add to a quirky headset collection or gift your fashionista friend or family member, Nothing makes a strong case going into the holiday season. But if you're more interested in keeping up with sound trends, look elsewhere.
Alternatives to consider
Besides the Nothing Ear Stick, here are three other wireless earbuds that you should consider: