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These $150 transparent earbuds offer audiophiles something AirPods Pro don't

Nothing's new Ear 2 enter a competitive $150 wireless earbuds market with a flashy design, sharper audio output, and improved battery life.
Written by Kerry Wan, Senior Reviews Editor
Reviewed by Min Shin
Nothing Ear 2 with a red background.
June Wan/ZDNET

I'm not an audiophile -- far from it -- but I've listened to my fair share of headphones and earbuds to know what's good and bad, and what features make one greater than the other. 

I also know a chic piece of tech when I see one. 

Also: The best noice-canceling earbuds (and how they work)

While the ultimate decider of what product is king is, well, each individual's eyes and ears, I've spent the past two weeks with the Nothing Ear 2 -- you probably don't need any pun-tastic introductions of the company at this point -- and can't help but shake my head at how this two-year-old, London-based startup now has a pair of earbuds that goes toe to toe with the industry's best.

The new earbuds, which go on sale today for $150, look great and sound even better. Nothing has kept the design of the Ear 2 roughly the same as the original Ear 1, with two semi-transparent buds housed in a see-through charging case. The industrial design, in and of itself, helps the Ear 2 stand out from a market full of monotone-colored earpieces. 

Nothing says it's made some changes to the plastic throughout the body this time around, opting for a smoother material that's more resistant to scratches. (Remember, transparent plastic is the bane of micro-scratches. Owners of clear phone cases should know best.) This shift in design is a subtle yet meaningful change that I noticed right away. The overall footprint of the Ear 2 has gotten smaller, too. 

The Nothing Ear 1 in black next to the Nothing Ear 2 in white.

The Nothing Ear 2 (white) is noticeably smaller than the Ear 1 (black).

June Wan/ZDNET

So, what if I told you that even with the shrinkage, the Nothing Ear 2 comes with a superior audio diaphragm than its predecessor and gets a bump in battery life (from 32 hours to 36 hours)? The company tells me that the new custom diaphragm within the buds features soft polyurethane (PU) for more accurate reproduction of low frequencies and graphene for sustaining through high frequencies. Basically, the Ear 2 sound lifelike, heavy enough on the bass to scratch an itch, and true to artists' intentions.

Also: I sweat so much it damages earbuds. Here's what I run with now

Perhaps the most valuable spec with the Ear 2 is its LHDC 5.0 codec compatibility, allowing them to tap into hi-res audio from supported platforms like Apple Music, Tidal, and more. Even Apple's AirPods Pro 2 can't play in hi-res, lossless audio which, at this point, is a consistent shortcoming. The feature is not a deal breaker by any means, but it's certainly glorious that audiophiles have reasons to be more drawn to Nothing's $150 earbuds than Apple's $249 pair.

Nothing Ear 2 with a red background.

Nothing says the Ear 2 will only be available in white... for now.

June Wan/ZDNET

My complaints with the Ear 2 are more nitpicks than objective criticism: Closing the charging case produces a loud clack no matter how gently I shut it and the disconnect chime is louder than I'd prefer. I've also found the squeeze-based gestures more reliable than the companion app's adaptive noise-canceling mode.

Review: Nothing Phone 1: You ain't seen Nothing yet

We've hit a plateau in the wireless earbuds space, with most manufacturers now keeping their upgrades incremental and designs on the safer end. That leaves room for newer players like Nothing to take a leap of faith at consumers, like myself, who long for something new, fresh, and just as good. The Ear 2 deliver on those facets, and their $150 price tag is the icing on the cake.

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