Carl Pei says he looked around and saw much of the same. You are not alone in that regard. Apple didn’t invent the completely wireless earbud with the first AirPods, but it did provide a kind of tipping point that sent many of its competitors toward a kind of homogeneity. It would be difficult to name another category of consumer electronics that matured and fused as quickly as Bluetooth headphones, but finding something unique among the hordes is another matter entirely.
These days, a perfectly useful pair of wireless headphones is just a click and $ 50 away. Spend $ 200 and you will get something really great. But variety? That is a completely different question. Beyond choosing between a long-stemmed AirPods-style design and something a little rounder, there’s really not much diversification. Until recently, features like active noise cancellation and wireless charging divided the category into premium and non-premium tiers, but both have become increasingly ubiquitous.
So let’s say you’re launching a new consumer hardware company in 2021. And let’s say you’ve decided that your first product will be a pair of headphones. Where does that leave you? How are you going to differentiate yourself not only in a crowded market, but also compete alongside giants like Samsung, Google, and Apple?
Price is certainly a factor, and $ 99 is aggressive. Pei seemed to regret putting the price of Ear (1) to less than $ 100 in our first conversation. It’s probably safe to say that Nothing is not going to be cleaned exactly on every unit sold. And like its previous company OnePlus, it seems reluctant to position cost as a defining characteristic.
In a pre-launch conversation for Ear (1), Pei’s take on the state of the industry was something of a “feature glut.” Certainly, there has been a never-ending spec race in different categories over the past few years. And it’s true that it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate based on features – look at what smartphone makers have been grappling with in recent years. Meanwhile, wireless headphones jumped from the “exciting early-stage mess” stage to the “really pretty good” stage in record time.
I think there is still room for differentiation of functions. Take the recently released NuraTrue Headphones. That company has taken an opposite approach to coming up with headphones, starting with a specialized audio tech in which it has built three different models of headphones.
Pei noted on the Ear release press (1) that the company determined its aesthetic ideals before deciding what its first product would be. And true to form, his association with design firm Teenage Engineering was announced long before a single image of the product appeared (the best we got in the early days was an early concept inspired by Grandma’s tobacco pipe. Pei).
There are other ideals, too – ecosystem concepts, but that’s the kind of thing that can only emerge after multiple product launches. In the meantime, we have seen the product from all angles. I wear the product on my ears and hold it in my hand (although I am now putting it down; it is too difficult to write).
The form factor certainly borrows from the AirPods, from the long stalks to the white buds that they pop out of. They cannot be said to be completely yours in that sense. But perhaps it can be argued that the nature of fully wireless headphones is itself limiting in the form of form factors it can accommodate. I’m certainly not a product designer, but they should fit comfortably in your ears and can’t be too big or too heavy or stick out too much.
According to Pei, part of the delay in launching the product was due to the company returning to the drawing board to rethink designs. What they eventually came up with was something recognizable like a pair of headphones, while also offering some unique embellishments. Transparency is the main differentiator from an aesthetic point of view. It comes into play largely with the case, which is unique, as these things go. With the buds themselves, most of the transparency occurs on the stems.
In a vacuum, the buds look a lot like an Apple product. The glossy white finish and white silicone tips are a big part of that. The reason why all the buds are not transparent, as the first versions showed, is simple and pragmatic: the components of the buds are too unsightly. That brings us to another element in the eventual delay of the product: Brightening a device requires thinking about what things like the components and glue look like. It’s the same reason there’s a big white stripe in the middle of an otherwise clear case – the charging components are ugly (sorry / not sorry).
It’s a potential recipe for too busy a design, but I think the team landed on something solid, and certainly distinctive. That alone should explain something in the homogeneous world of device design. And the company’s association with StockX should be a pretty clear indication of precisely the kind of pioneering adopters / influencers that nothing is after here.
Ear buds (1) are much more welcoming than any of the styling experiments. Will.i.am done in the category. And while they are different, they don’t really stand out in the wild, meaning no one is going to yell and point or stop you on the street to find out what’s going on with your ears (sorry Will).
Ultimately, I like the look. There are also nice touches. A red and white dot indicate the right and left buttons, respectively, a nod to RCA and other audio cables. A subtle Nothing logo is etched in dotted text, reminiscent of the circuit board imprint. The letter extends to most of the Nothing brand. It’s clear that the design was dreamed up by people who have spent a lot of time negotiating with suppliers in the supply chain. In particular, the times I spoke with Pei, he was often in and around Shenzhen rather than the company’s native London, solving last-minute supply problems.
The buds feel great too. I have noticed my tendency to suffer from earache when wearing various headphone designs for long periods of time. On Monday, I took a walk within the municipality for four hours and did not notice anything. They also stayed in place as champions on gym visits. And not for nothing, but there is an extremely satisfying magnetic snap when you put them back in the charging case (the red and white dots still apply).
The case is flat and square with rounded edges (a squircle please). If it wasn’t clear, it could look a lot like a can of mints. It also offers a pretty satisfying snap when closing. You will be curious to see how well it holds up after several hundred, or thousands, of opens and closes.
Although the company says it put the product through all standard drop and stress tests, it cautions that even the toughest clear plastic is prone to scratching, particularly with a set of keys in the same pocket. Pei says those kinds of battle scars will eventually be part of her charm, but the jury is still out on that. After a few days and no keys nearby, I have a long scratch on the bottom. I don’t feel any cooler, but you tell me.
A large concave circle at the top helps prevent the lid from hitting the earbuds when closing. It’s also a good place to put your thumb when playing with the thing. I suspect it doubles down to alleviate some of that uneasiness that (I) tend to release by absentmindedly moving the box lid up and down. It’s a small but thoughtful touch. On the back, you will find the USB-C charging port and the Bluetooth sync button.
On iOS, you will need to connect the buttons both through the app and in Bluetooth settings the first time. There are downsides to not creating your own operating system, chips, and phones in addition to headphones. However, that is a minor annoyance (probably one time only).
The Ear (1) are a $ 99 pair of headphones with decent sound. I won’t say that I was impressed, but I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed that they don’t go up against, say, the Sony WF-1000xM4 or even the new NuraTrue. These are not audiophile headphones, but they are well suited for walking around town, listening to music, and podcasts.
The app offers a built-in EQ tuned by Teenage Engineering with three settings: Balanced, Treble / Bass, and Voice (for podcasts, et al.). The differences are detectable, but quite subtle, when it comes to these things. As far as EQ customizations go, it’s more point-and-shoot than DSLRs, as Nothing doesn’t want you to stray too far from your desired balance. After experimenting with all the settings, I mostly stuck with the balanced setting. Feel free to judge me accordingly.
There are also three ANC settings: noise cancellation, transparency, and off. You can also rate the noise cancellation between light and heavy. Overall, the ANC did a good job of erasing some of the street noise on my walks around New York City, although even with a lot of noise it’s not going to completely block out the sound of a car. For my sake, that’s maybe for the best.
There’s also a built-in “find my earpiece” setting that sends out a piercing squeak of sorts so you can find the one that is inevitably trapped under the sofa cushion.
The day of my big complaint today is one that I came across with NuraTrue. I ran into a number of Bluetooth connection interruptions. It’s kind of annoying when you’re really engrossed in a song or podcast. And again, it’s something you’re much less likely to find for those companies that build their own headsets, phones, chips, and operating systems. It is quite difficult to compete with a new startup.
I have objections, and despite months of excited teasing, Ear’s shoots (1) are not going to turn the overcrowded category upside down. But it’s always exciting to see a startup enter the consumer hardware space and deliver a solid first product outside of the game. It’s an idiosyncratic take on the category at a good price point from a company worth keeping an eye on.