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Article updated on April 18, 2024 at 3:45 AM PDT

Nothing Ear Noise-Canceling Earbuds (2024) Review: Upgraded on the Inside

Nothing's ANC earbuds are still a translucent take on Apple's AirPods Pro, but improvements abound for this third go-round.

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Written by 
David Carnoy
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David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
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SCORE

Nothing Ear

Pros

  • Same eye-catching design with improved sound and noise-canceling
  • Solid feature set
  • Decent voice-calling perfomance

Cons

  • No XL ear tip included
  • Noise-canceling settings change the earbuds sound slightly

Nothing has changed with Nothing's latest $149 Ear noise-canceling earbuds. At least, not at first glance. In fact, you'd be forgiven if you thought the buds had taken a step back; while they're the successor to Nothing's Ear (2) earbuds they don't have a 3 anywhere in their name. Nor do they employ Apple's generational naming scheme. They're just the Nothing Ear, and they look the same as the Ear (2). However, there are some changes on the inside that deliver legitimate improvements, particularly to sound quality, noise canceling and battery life, though I did encounter some small issues that brought down their rating slightly.

The Nothing Ear earbuds have the same case as their predecessor

The Nothing Ear earbuds have the same case as their predecessor.

David Carnoy/CNET

Same eye-catching design

If you haven't heard of Nothing, it was launched back in 2021 by Carl Pei, who cofounded OnePlus. Design-focused from the get-go, its products, which included smartphones and earbuds, featured a partially transparent exterior and other slick accents that initially made them stand out from their competitors -- at least aesthetically -- and earned them a lot of media exposure. Performance-wise, Nothing's earbuds were decent for what they cost ($99), though arguably nothing special.

This $149 iteration of the Nothing Ear buds uses noise-isolating ear tips (the company also makes earbuds with an open design called the Ear Stick that sell for around $60) and have the same design as the previous model and includes the same case, which does offer wireless charging and is both water-resistant and dust-resistant with an IP55 rating.

A new step-down model, the $99 Ear (a) come in a new yellow color as well as white and black. It has different drivers and includes a smaller charging case (it has a lower IPX2 water-resistance rating and leaves off wireless charging), but otherwise has very similar features. 

nothing-ear-vs-nothing-ear-a

The Nothing Ear (a) has a new smaller case (right) but is missing wireless charging.

David Carnoy/CNET

As you might say about any noise-canceling earbuds with stems, these buds are a riff on Apple's AirPods Pro series and even feature pinch controls like the AirPods. I like the pinch controls, and they work well on the Ear and Ear (a), with some limited customization options available in their mobile app. 

The earbuds fit my ears well and are relatively lightweight. That said, the big issue I encountered was that I couldn't get a tight seal from any of the included ear tips. The companion Nothing app has a seal test, and even with the largest tips on the buds, I failed the seal test in both ears. The ear tips are oval, which isn't ideal for my ears. (I barely get a tight seal with Apple's largest tips for the AirPods Pro 2 and would prefer if Apple included XL tips, but at least I can pass Apple's seal test.)

My inability to get a tight seal impacted noise-canceling performance more than sound quality, but I had to switch in my own larger tips to optimize both sound quality and noise-canceling. Many of you may have no problem with the included ear tips and get a good seal. But I'm pointing all this out because not getting a tight seal can certainly impact performance, particularly with the adaptive noise-canceling setting.

Both the Ear and Ear (a) feature ear-detection sensors that pause your music when you take a bud out of your ear (you can use the left and right buds independently) and multipoint Bluetooth pairing that allows you to pair the buds to two devices simultaneously.

Improved sound quality

While Nothing isn't saying what Bluetooth 5.3 audio chipset it's using, it does tout the earbuds' new 11mm drivers (the previous model had 11.6mm drivers), which include a rigid, low-distortion ceramic diaphragm that helps deliver clearer sound. It says it's also "taken the dual chamber seen in Ear (2) and evolved it to include two extra vents, which improves airflow within each bud by 10%. This allows for less distortion and richer overall clarity."

Those drivers are one of the big differences between the Ear and the new step-down Ear (a), which employ 11mm drivers with slightly less premium materials but also have those extra vents. There's not a huge difference in sound quality between the two buds, but the flagship Ear has slightly cleaner, more accurate sound and a slightly different tonal balance. 

I tested the buds with an iPhone 14 Pro and Google Pixel 7 Pro and generally liked what I heard. In the app, you can tweak the sound with the equalizer settings or create a personal sound profile that involves a hearing test (I used both the personal sound profile and also played around with the equalizer). Additionally, there's a "bass enhance" setting. 

nothing-ear-white-and-black.png

The Nothing Ear comes in white and black.

Nothing/Screenshot by CNET

You get big, bold sound with decent depth and openness. Comparing them to the AirPods Pro 2, the Ear were a little warmer with bigger yet slightly less defined bass. With some tracks, particularly bass-heavy tracks, I preferred the Ear's sound to AirPods Pro 2's sound. But with others, I preferred the AirPods Pro 2's sound. The mids, where voices live, are more forward and slightly more natural sounding with the AirPods Pro 2, which appears to be slightly better balanced.

As far as audio codecs go, you get AAC, SBC, LHDC 5.0 and LDAC. I tested LDAC playback on the Pixel 7 Pro using the Qobuz music streaming service, which features high-res audio tracks. There was a very slight uptick in sound quality from what I heard on my iPhone using the AAC codec, but it was quite subtle. 

The long and short of it is that while the Ear buds may not sound fantastic, they do sound fairly impressive for a set of earbuds in this price range. There's some question whether it's worth spending the extra money on the Ear versus the Ear (a), but the Ear sounds about 10% better to my ears.

Noise-canceling and voice-calling performance

I spent time testing the buds on the streets of New York and on the subway and found the noise-canceling was reasonably good, but it's just not in the same league as what you get with more expensive top noise-canceling earbuds like the Bose QuietComfort Ultra, Sony WF-1000XM5 and AirPods Pro 2.

Nothing says the noise canceling on both the Ear and Ear (a) "can offer noise elimination that's up to 1.8 times stronger" than the Ear (2), with the ability to muffle up to 45 dB. There are high, medium and low settings for ANC, along with an adaptive noise-canceling setting. Nothing describes high as "airplane/subway," medium as "street/cafe" and low as "office/indoor." I mainly kept it on high except when I was indoors. There's also a transparency mode that allows sound in from the outside world. It's not quite as good as the AirPods Pro 2's transparency mode, but it's pretty natural sounding.

nothing-ear-wearing

Testing the buds on the streets of New York.

David Carnoy/CNET

One issue I had is that when listening to music, the sound quality changed slightly -- for the worse -- when I changed the noise-canceling settings from the high setting. The earbuds sounded slightly different with each setting, which shouldn't happen. The same thing happened when I was using the Ear (a) buds.

As for voice calls, it's also pretty decent, though not exceptionally good. Callers said they could hear me pretty well in the noisy streets of New York, and the buds were able to filter out a good amount of background noise, but my voice warbled when a lot of traffic went by. And while my connection with the earbuds was mostly solid, I encountered some audio hiccups, essentially wireless interference, when listening to music in certain spots on the street (New York City is a torture test for headphones and earbuds). 

Battery life is decent enough, though not great. The Ear offers up to 5.2 hours of playback at moderate volume levels with noise canceling (8.5 hours with ANC off), while the Ear (a) is rated for up to 5.5 hours of battery life with noise canceling on (9.5 hours with ANC off).

Nothing Ear final thoughts

It's difficult to review earbuds that don't come with ear tips that allow me to get a tight seal because that's fundamentally a serious problem for effective noise cancellation. I do happen to have access to a lot of other ear tips for testing, though. So while most people shouldn't have a problem getting proper noise isolation with the included tips, I suspect some people will.

Aside from the tips, I've always liked the design of the Nothing buds and felt that it's what sets them apart from other earbuds in this price range. With this latest iteration, the company's moved in the right direction as far as performance goes, and they're mostly very likable earbuds. However, a few niggling issues do keep them from being truly top-notch and I'd say that buds like OnePlus's Buds Pro 2 (discounted to $130) hold a slight performance edge. Perhaps some of those issues will be addressed with a future firmware upgrade or two.