Nothing’s Ear 1 wireless earbuds are an ambitious start

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How do you stand out as a new tech company when the dominant players have huge budgets, thousands of employees and decades of product R&D? That is Nothing’s challenge, and its first product, a pair of true wireless earbuds, makes a pitch for a simplified kind of tech, designed to stand out from the likes of Apple AirPods, Samsung Galaxy Buds and their myriad clones.

Design appears to be very important to Nothing, which has already published several blog posts dedicated to its philosophy and direction — and that’s before the company even launched anything. This is the result. The $100 Ear 1 buds feature active noise cancellation, touch controls, a wireless charging case and a particularly eye-catching see-through design, coming to the US mid-August.

This transparency — a design choice that I love — seemingly resonates with Nothing’s mission to make technology less obvious and more seamless. It makes a statement.

This styling extends to the charging case, which reminds me a lot of Apple’s old wired headphones that used to come packaged with iPhones. They also came in a half-transparent case. Nothing’s Ear 1 case is predictably more complex. The see-through shell has three indented bubbles that keep the buds in place. There’s a red dot both on the right headphone and its socket inside the charger.

Like most wireless earbuds, tiny magnets pull the buds into place, but this time they’re visible. Nothing apparently had to find suppliers to make sure its transparent design would work. The company needed glue that was either invisible or at least more aesthetically pleasing, and according to a spokesperson, these tiny, polished magnets were apparently hard to come by.

So yes, the Ear 1 is all about attention to detail. The case shuts with a satisfying thud, and the snippets of text across the hardware and even the companion app pay homage to retro technology — or perhaps computer interfaces on Alien. These feel like a tribute to see-through tech we’ve seen in the decades past. You might immediately think of those see-through Game Boys from the early ‘90s, but also Apple’s early 2000s eMac all-in-one PC, with transparent casing laid onto white and metal.

Surprisingly, the price is reasonable. These are sub-$100 earbuds, which would put them up against Beats’ latest truly wireless buds and make them cheaper than Apple’s entry-level AirPods. What do you get at this price, though?

While I haven’t had enough time to fully scrutinize sound quality, the Ear 1s sound decent, although there’s no spatial audio functionality which isn’t great for new headphones in 2021. Teenage Engineering, which worked with Nothing on these buds, was responsible for tuning the headphones. The sound is generally clear, but seems to lean toward the mid-range frequencies rather than treble and bass, though you can adjust the equalizer to ramp up either of those levels.

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