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These $99 transparent earbuds make AirPods look and sound boring

Priced to compete, the Nothing Ear (a) are a delightful addition to a market that desperately needs some color.
Written by Nina Raemont, Associate Editor
A hand holding the Nothing Ear (a) earbuds
Nina Raemont/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways 

  • For $99, the new Nothing Ear (a) earbuds offer clear sound and a thoughtful design. 
  • Their affordability, comfort, and long battery life make them a great option for budget-conscious shoppers.
  • Unfortunately, its middling noise-canceling tech doesn't protect you from external noises. 

Most of the audio tech on the market right now errs on the side of aesthetic caution. I've tested plenty of earbuds this year, and something I've noticed is many manufacturers sacrifice style for functionality, opting for blacks, grays, and enough matte finishes to fit inside a therapist's office – much to my chagrin. In the words of the late, great Andre Leon Talley, "it's a famine of beauty" over here.  

Also: Why I ditched my AirPods Pro for Nothing's new transparent earbuds (and don't regret it)

So when Nothing sent me their new earbuds, I was excited to finally see a cool, fresh, and exciting design, and they're worthy of a callout. I tested the new Nothing Ear (a) earbuds for a week, taking them on a ten-mile run, working deskside, and commuting on the subway with them in my ears. One question informed my inital testing: despite their stylish design, how does the audio tech stack up to similarly-priced competitors?

View at Nothing

The Nothing Ear (a) advances on the specs from the brand's Ear (1) earbuds from 2021. The new buds offer plenty of upgrades like improved active noise cancellation, transparency mode, longer battery life, Bluetooth multipoint, minimized latency for gaming, and pinch controls.

Nothing plays with solid color and transparent accents and puts the two at the forefront of its product design. You can't help but obsess over the brand's unique visual appeal: a stripped-down design that reveals the inner workings of the technology cast against bold colors. The clear design of both the earbud case and the earbuds itself offers users an inside look into the tech's internal components and an appreciation for what is often obscured. 

Nothing Ear (a) on a table
Nina Raemont/ZDNET

The earbuds come with three ear tip sizes in the box and are available in three colors: black, white, and yellow. I tried these buds in yellow, which are the first non-neutral color in Nothing's earbud lineup. The color feels daring and bright and is just as much a fashion accessory as it is a tech accessory. 

Other competitive earbuds can't say the same: I looked at my list of best earbuds to see if there was any color diversity, and found that every top earbuds I've included is either black, a muted white, or white, from Sony's WF-1000XM5 and JBL's Tour Pro 2, to Bose's QuietComfort Ultra and Apple's AirPods Pro. These earbuds, on the other hand, are like the AirPods Pro's funkier younger sister who went to art school, buys gifts for friends through the MOMA Store, and can explain the difference between white and orange wine to you. 

The case is lightweight and compact, so it won't be obstructive or heavy in your pocket. The earbuds themselves are comfortable and easy to wear with an extra tactile ear tip that keeps the buds attached to your ear canal as you move around. Nothing also equipped these buds with Bluetooth multipoint and in-ear detection when you wear these, two nice touches that inexpensive earbuds occasionally lack. 

I ran for five hours and worked and commuted with these earbuds for a week straight and still have a battery life of 80%. Needless to say, these earbuds won't die easily on you. 

Nothing Ear (a) held up to a mirror
Nina Raemont/ZDNET

One of my favorite design choices with the Ear (a) is that the controls are dictated by pinches instead of taps and swipes, similar to the AirPods Pro 2. Most earbuds that I've tested with the same form factor have touch controls on the top of the ear stem where the bud meets the stem. I always run with earbuds in, and when my ears get too sweaty and my earbuds begin to slip out, I accidentally touch and activate the touch controls when I'm attempting to press the bud back into my ears.

Also: The best earbuds under $100

Nothing eliminated this problem for me, as the touch controls are at the bottom of the stem, far away from accidental touches. Despite needing a pinch to activate the controls, they are reliable and responsive. The pinch controls allow you to play and pause music, skip tracks, and toggle between ANC and transparency mode.

Speaking of ANC, this feature is where the Ear (a) buds begin to show their affordable price. I turned on the ANC while I worked in the office, and I could still hear my colleagues' computer notification pings and conversations around me. For $99, I wasn't expecting mind-blowing ANC and that's certainly not what I got. The earbuds will drown out some noise, but you'll have to pay a higher price for premium ANC.

Review: Nothing Ear Stick: Earbuds, but make it fashion

When it comes to the actual audio quality, however, these earbuds produce a balanced, clear, and bright sound. While listening to Moses Sumney and Shabaka's Insecurities, the harp and flute whistles in the upper midrange shimmered in my ears without being too harsh. Bass-heavy songs can get an extra boost by tweaking the Bass Enhance algorithm in the Nothing app. While listening to Kaytranada's What You Need, I toggled between the five levels of bass enhancement to boost the lower frequencies. This feature created a noticeably different sound with deeper, richer bass. 

ZDNET's buying advice 

I don't recommend the Nothing Ear (a) earbuds for audiophiles or people who want earbuds with competitive noise-canceling tech. These earbuds are for people who want a decent pair of earbuds with thoughtful functions, a unique design, and an affordable price. Still, the Ear (a) buds offer many features for a low price and are certain to satisfy casual listeners.

If you want earbuds with more effective noise-canceling for a similar price, consider the JLab JBuds ANC 3 for their strong noise-canceling and snug fit. If you like Nothing's unique and charming design choices but want better sound, more effective ANC, and more premium features, try the Nothing Ear.

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