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

The Nothing Ear sees meaningful audio upgrades while retaining a design language and price point that's hard to beat.
Written by Kerry Wan, Senior Reviews Editor
Nothing Ear
Kerry Wan/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • The $149 Nothing Ear builds on the Ear 2's successes with improved noise cancellation, bass performance, and battery life.
  • They still look fantastic, with a transparent design that stands out from a crowd of black and white earbuds.
  • Microphone quality is passable, but I've stuck with my phone's mics when taking more important calls.

Over the past year, I've been traveling with two pairs of earbuds: the Nothing Ear 2 and Apple AirPods Pro 2. I prefer the Nothing earbuds for casual listening, with their emphasis on clear-sounding vocals that play well with my usual playlists. 

While inferior in audio playback, subjectively speaking, the Apple AirPods Pro fill the void of active noise cancellation (ANC), especially during cross-country flights, when I'd much rather listen to my thoughts than the drumming of plane engines. The Nothing Ear 2 aren't bad at blocking external noise -- the AirPods are just better.

Also: These $99 transparent earbuds make AirPods look and sound boring

With the new Nothing Ear -- yes, the company is going backward with the branding and saying goodbye to numbers -- I'm sold on a future where I only need to carry one pair of earbuds with me at all times, and they're not the AirPods Pro. Here's a rundown of the best new features of Nothing Ear, all of which only look better when you realize how much the earbuds cost.

View at Us.nothing

If you held the Nothing Ear and Ear 2 in front of me and told me to spot the differences, I'd think you were reenacting The Office meme. From the eye of someone who edits for a living, the new model -- both the case and the earbuds -- looks nearly identical to the previous, for better and for worse. 

The positives include a glossy, transparent casing that makes the earbuds underneath absolutely pop. Nothing's see-through design language may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it'll easily tug the heartstrings of gadget enthusiasts like myself. As a bonus, a gentle dimple on the case is purposed to keep the two earbuds in place, though I've found it to be just as useful as a fidget spinner grip.

Nothing Ear vs Nothing Ear 2

The Nothing Ear 2 (left) and the Nothing Ear (right).

Kerry Wan/ZDNET

Looking past the aesthetics and vibe checks, the Nothing Ear's transparent design makes them very scratch-prone. I'm talking micro-scratches and blemishes as soon as I took them out of my jeans pocket on the first day. I also wish the LED indicator was brighter, with more discernible flashes and strobes to understand when the earbuds are in pairing mode and fully charged.

For sound, Nothing embedded its "most advanced driver system to date," an 11mm dynamic driver that's now made with a ceramic diaphragm to better deliver high frequencies and a dual chamber design that features two additional vents for clear-sounding airflow (10% more in each earbud, I'm told). In layman's terms, the Nothing Ear takes an already fantastic-sounding pair of headphones and takes things up a notch in virtually all departments.

Also: Nothing's $350 Phone 2a nearly made me forget about the flagships

Specifically, I've noticed a big improvement in the bass output, with the Nothing Ear sounding more spacious and engulfing out of the box than I recalled the Nothing Ear 2 ever being. I still found myself dialing down the Bass Enhance leveler in the Nothing X app, because "too much bass" is a thing, but adjusting it in moderation made almost every song I listened to feel more lively than I was used to. That list includes Future's We Still Don't Trust You, where the chords of the underlying synths were surprisingly discernible from the snare drum and various ad-libs.

Nothing Ear X App
Kerry Wan/ZDNET

I'm just as impressed by the improved ANC of the Nothing Ear, which can now block up to 45 decibels of noise, enough noise cancellation to quieten low chatter and street noises. My bus ride home from work has become my go-to stress test for ANC, and since switching to the Ear from the Ear 2, I've noticed that the "Stop Requested" chime is no longer audible. The true test will come when I wear these on the airplane. For now, I'm satisfied with relying solely on the Ear for travel.

Within the Nothing X app, you'll also find an Advanced Equalizer setting that lets you adjust frequency levels and Q factors, but the secret sauce to audio euphoria may come from the new Personal Sound Profile feature. Following a five-minute hearing test, the app will adaptively adjust the EQ to accommodate any gaps in your frequency spectrum (read: what you can and cannot hear at various pitches).

Also: The best noise-canceling earbuds: Expert tested and reviewed

Battery life was one of the issues I had with last year's Nothing Ear 2, and partially why I needed to carry my AirPods Pro as backup, but things are looking brighter with the Ear. Throughout my two weeks of testing, I've charged the earbuds three times, case and all. Granted, I leave ANC at its highest level and listen to music at roughly 70% volume, but the endurance numbers I've gotten with the Nothing Ear -- roughly seven hours before needing to pop them into the case -- are a welcome change.

ZDNET's buying advice

In the consumer electronics market, you'll often see companies overhaul product designs and make drastic changes for the sake of innovation and keeping things fresh. With the Nothing Ear, the company has fixed just about every complaint I had with the last version, while staying true to its core design principles. That should instill confidence in customers more than anything else.

Delivering my verdict is made easier thanks to Nothing keeping the price of the Ear the same as its predecessor, at $149, even with the improvements to audio performance, battery life, and software features.

As a final tip, if you're not as crazy about having all the latest tech in your earbuds -- such as wireless charging and the best ANC -- but love the Nothing design, check out the $99 Ear (a), which also launched today.

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