What a difference two years makes.
Back in 2021, Nothing, the consumer tech startup led by OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei, had only publicly existed for a few short months before launching the Ear 1 true wireless earbuds. They were feature rich for their $99 price point but, at launch, suffered from plenty of bugs and so-so noise-canceling performance.
Two years later and it’s time for a refresh with the imaginatively named Ear 2 earbuds. They add some nice quality-of-life features like support for multipoint connectivity, but fundamentally they’re very similar to their predecessors. Put the two next to each other, and it can be hard to tell them apart.
In use, however, the Nothing Ear 2s feel like a much more polished product. There are fewer bugs, more capable active noise cancellation, and a much better and more refined sound. It’s enough to turn the Ear 2s from a good-looking pair of earbuds with only okay performance into an accessory that (almost) sounds as good as it looks. It’s just a shame that, at $149, they’re not quite the entry-level bargain this time around.
The Nothing Ear 2 earbuds now start at $149, a 50 percent increase over the starting price of the Nothing Ear 1s original $99 price point. That’s not entirely unexpected after Nothing increased the price of the Ear 1 earbuds by the same amount last October, but it impacts who the Ear 2’s competitors are. $149 is within striking distance of the (often discounted) AirPods and the same price as Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2, for example. It means Nothing’s buds have to hit a much higher bar than their predecessors.
But side by side with the Nothing Ear 1s, the physical differences appear to be minor. The Ear 2’s case is slightly slimmer and lighter, and the earbuds themselves are slightly taller and even slightly lighter. But look, the dimensions are close enough that the earbuds can physically fit in either charging case (though they’re not functionally cross-compatible across generations). One functional change, however, is that Nothing says it’s using more durable plastic this time around, which should theoretically reduce the amount of scratches compared to what we saw appear on our Ear 1 case.
Battery life is both better and worse than the Ear 1 earbuds. With active noise cancellation (ANC) on, Nothing claims the Ear 2s offer four hours of playback from the buds themselves (same as the Ear 1s), rising to 22.5 hours with the case (slightly worse than the 24 hours claimed last time). But turn ANC off, and those figures rise to 6.3 hours and 36 hours (slightly better than the Ear 1’s 5.7 and 34-hour ratings).
That battery life isn’t great compared to a lot of the Ear 2’s noise cancellation-capable competitors. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2 offer a more impressive five hours of ANC playback from the buds themselves (though admittedly only 20 hours combined with their case), while Apple’s more expensive AirPods Pro 2 offer six hours of ANC listening from the buds, or 30 combined with the case. Cast your eye over our buying guide to the best wireless earbuds and many of our picks offer six hours or more.
Like the Ear 1s, you still get wireless charging here, which is especially useful if you have a phone that can do reverse wireless charging like the Phone 1. Otherwise, there’s a USB-C to USB-C cable in the box for wired charging. Like an increasing amount of consumer tech, there’s no charging brick included.
You get an IP54 rather than IPX4 rating this time around
One other note to make about build quality is the IP rating for dust and water resistance. Nothing says the Ear 2 earbuds are IP54 rated, which on its face is much more impressive than the IPX4 rating of the first-gen earbuds. But in reality, the only difference here is the addition of 5-level protection from a limited amount of dust. Water resistance is still a “4,” which means you get protection against splashes but not submersion. It’s a middle ground between the Galaxy Buds 2’s IPX2 rating and the Galaxy Buds 2 Pro’s IPX7 rating. Good news, in other words, if you plan to sweat while wearing Nothing’s earbuds, but not if you want to dunk them in water.
Rather than the tap controls used by the Ear 1s and other earbuds from the likes of Samsung, the Ear 2 headphones are controlled by squeezing the stems on each earbud, similar to how Apple’s AirPods are controlled. The controls worked well in my testing; they weren’t prone to accidental activations, and most can be customized in the Nothing X app.
New for these earbuds are a host of personalization features designed to tailor them to your ears and listening preferences. They’re all accessible via the Nothing X app on iOS and Android. There’s a sound personalization feature that attempts to test your hearing by having you listen to a series of beeps at varying pitches, an ANC personalization feature that attempts to automatically calibrate the earbuds’ noise cancellation to your hearing, and an equalizer to give you manual control over your audio. Another feature can tell you whether you’re using the right size of ear tip, and there’s also an “adaptive” noise cancellation mode this time around that’ll adjust its intensity depending on how loud your environment is to avoid sapping your battery in quieter environments.
It’s nice to have this level of control, but the actual usefulness of the personalization options can be a bit hit-or-miss. The personalized ANC option and ear tip size tests seemed to work well enough, but creating a personal sound profile is a finicky manual process that resulted in a setting that I thought sounded worse than the default.
Thankfully, all of these options are optional, and I’d recommend having a play around to find whatever combination suits you. I just wish the sound personalization was more automated, like we’ve seen from companies like Nura in the past, so there’s less chance of user error being to blame for any inconsistencies.
Also new for these earbuds is multipoint connectivity (Nothing calls this “Dual Connection”), which allows the earbuds to connect to two devices at a time. The earbuds happily maintained a connection to both my laptop and phone while I worked at my desk, letting me quickly take a break from listening to music on the laptop to watch a video clip on my phone, for example. The switch from device to device isn’t immediate (it could sometimes take five seconds or so for the connection to transfer over), but that’s not unusual for multipoint. It’s great to see it included, especially since it’s still absent on even Samsung’s more expensive Galaxy Buds 2 Pro.
Although these are all nice quality-of-life features, on paper, the Nothing Ear 2 earbuds aren’t a huge upgrade over the Ear 1s. And you’d be forgiven for thinking they sound the same to boot. Yes, there’s now support for the LHDC 5.0 codec alongside SBC and AAC if your phone supports it (LDAC and aptX remain absent), but the driver size is the same at 11.6mm.
But these specs don’t tell the full story when it comes to sound quality. The Nothing Ear 2 earbuds sound far more balanced and refined than their predecessor and are much more enjoyable to listen to as a result. Listen to a busy track like “Masayume” by Paranoid Void and the Ear 2 earbuds do a much better job at making every instrument in the song audible. The Ear 1s were just muddy and overly bassy in comparison. It was a similar story listening to “Saigo No Bansan” by Mouse on the Keys or Fox Capture Plan’s “Butterfly Effect.” The Ear 2 earbuds felt lively and energetic, but the Ear 1s bass was just too much and left higher frequencies sounding hollow.
Paper specs don’t tell the full sound quality story
It’s not a night and day difference across the board. A less complex track like Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” for example, sounded very similar between Nothing’s earbuds. I’d still just about pick the Ear 2s over the Ear 1s, but it was more of a toss-up.
The Nothing Ear 2’s noise canceling performance has seen similar improvements to the Ear 1’s. I had no problem listening to podcasts as the London Underground screeched around me, and it did an acceptable job on my local rattly bus. But I did experience a weird bug with the adaptive noise cancellation mode that would intermittently create a whooshing sound, almost like an imaginary train was rolling past me in a station. Setting the ANC mode to “high” rather than adaptive completely eliminated the problem, but theoretically, that means you miss out on the battery-saving benefits of the adaptive mode. When I reached out to Nothing, I was told it wasn’t aware of this apparent bug.
In my tests, the Nothing Ear 2’s microphone quality was broadly in line with the Ear 1s. Although the three-microphone array picked up my voice slightly more crisply in a quiet room, the second I introduced background noise, my voice started to sound similarly muffled and muddy. Side by side with Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live, my voice was more audible with Samsung’s earbuds.
The Nothing Ear 2 earbuds are yet another reminder that specs aren’t everything. On paper, this is an incremental update to the Ear 1 earbuds, with a very similar design and battery life, some improved durability, and a couple of additional software features.
But in practice, the overall package feels a lot higher quality. Yes, part of this is because I didn’t encounter any major bugs during my time with the Ear 2s (the adaptive noise cancelation bug notwithstanding), but mostly it’s because they simply sounded way better across most of the tracks I listened to. They feel like a second-generation product.
At $149, the Ear 2 earbuds represent a well-rounded pair of midrange earbuds. They’ve got all the style of the Ear 1s but without their rough edges. The likes of Sony, Apple, and Samsung may still rule the roost when it comes to more premium earbuds, but the Nothing Ear 2s are a capable alternative if you’re on a (slightly) tighter budget, even if they’re not quite the steal they would have been at under $100.
Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge