The Nothing Ear (2) eclipse their predecessor, adding high-res audio support and performance to rival the best buds in their price bracket
- Engaging, high-resolution sound
- Unique, eye-catching design
- Lots of features and customisation options
- Battery life with ANC could be better
- LHDC 5.0 support is limited
The brand may not have been around for long but Nothing is already on its third pair of wireless earbuds – the Nothing Ear (2). That pace of development isn’t entirely uncommon in the rapidly growing true wireless market but certainly reflects the London-based tech company’s determination to carve itself a bigger slice of a very lucrative pie.
And given the quality of the Ear (2), it deserves to achieve exactly that. I was sent a pair ahead of launch and they mark a significant step up from their predecessors, the Ear (1). Their sound is much improved, as is the noise cancellation, and they have an impressive suite of features. Indeed, they make a very strong claim for being the best wireless earbuds in their price bracket.
Nothing Ear (2) review: What you need to know
The Ear (2) are the follow-up to Nothing’s debut earbuds and first-ever product, the noise-cancelling Ear (1), which were released in 2021. We weren’t blown away by those buds, but they’ve sold over 700,000 units worldwide – an impressive figure for a burgeoning startup, even one fronted by OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei.
The Ear (2) seek to build on that success by upgrading their predecessor’s audio, improving their ANC capabilities, and making minor design tweaks without compromising Nothing’s unique aesthetic. They also borrow the best functionality from the interesting but ultimately disappointing Ear (Stick), which were released in October last year.
In an ideal world, Nothing would prefer you to pair the Ear (2) with its smartphone, the Nothing Phone (1), and there’s one big reason to do so: LHDC 5.0 support, which unlocks the Ear (2)’s high-resolution audio potential. If you don’t have a phone with LHDC, you’ll have to make do with SBC or AAC over Bluetooth 5.3.
The rest of the offering is system agnostic, however, and there’s a strong focus on personalisation and convenience. Both audio and noise cancellation can be tailored specifically to your ears courtesy of clever hearing test technology, while wear detection, “Find My Earbuds” and Bluetooth multipoint are all present to make your life that little bit easier.
Nothing Ear (2) review: Price and competition
The Nothing Ear (2) have a list price of £129, putting them firmly in mid-range territory – one of the most competitive sections of the true wireless market. Most manufacturers have a pair of noise-cancelling earbuds available for between £100 and £150, so you’re spoilt for choice.
A couple of our favourite options are the JBL Live Pro 2 (£129) and Anker Soundcore Liberty 4 (£140), while the Urbanista Phoenix (£149) offer unique functionality in the form of a solar-powered charging case. Denon’s AH-C830NCW (£139) are some of the best-sounding mid-range buds around but lack features, while those in search of cheaper alternatives would do well to check out the Huawei FreeBuds 5i (£90) and Redmi Buds 4 Pro (£85), both of which have ANC and support high-resolution audio. If spatial audio is more your bag, 1MORE Aero (£100) are your best bet.
Of course, the earbuds the Ear (2) aspire to be like are the AirPods Pro 2. Apple’s ubiquitous buds dominate the market and for good reason – they’re comfortable, cancel noise supremely well and are crammed full of useful features, especially if you own an iPhone. They are, however, significantly more expensive than the Ear (2) at £249.
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Nothing Ear (2) review: Design and fit
At first glance, there’s not much to differentiate the Ear (2) from the first-generation model. The case is still made from transparent plastic, as are the earbud stems, which means you can see them in the case and look at some of their internal components. The main earbud housings are fashioned from the same glossy white plastic and the contrast between that and the black and transparent materials remains eye-catching.
Nothing has made a few tweaks, however. Most notably, the case is now lighter and more compact. Where the Ear (1)’s case measured 58.6 x 23.7 x 56.6mm (WDH), the Ear (2)’s has reduced dimensions of 55.5 x 22 x 55.5mm. That might not sound like much, but it’s 5.5g lighter and feels less chunky in your hand. It’s more tactile too, with a section of white plastic protruding a few millimetres from the base and raised bumps of transparent plastic beneath where the buds sit. These touches, along with the thumb-sized dimple on the lid, are there to encourage you to use the case as a technologically advanced fidget spinner.
The buds are slightly lighter, too, but a difference of 0.2g is imperceptible – the Ear (2) are simply a very comfortable pair of buds. You get the usual selection of small, medium and large eartips to choose from and I found that the largest tips created an in-ear seal that remained secure regardless of what I was doing and never once caused any earache. The IP rating of the buds has been upgraded from IPX4 to IP54, meaning they’re now dust-tight as well as splash resistant, while the IP55 case is more protected against the elements.
Nothing Ear (2) review: Features
Like their predecessor, the Ear (2) can be topped up via the USB-C port on the side of their case, wirelessly using a Qi charger, or reverse charged on a compatible device like the Nothing Phone (1). Battery life when not using ANC has received a bit of a boost, with total playtime up to 36 hours from the 34 hours offered by the Ear (1). In-ear battery life also sees an increase, rising from 5.7 hours to 6.3 hours.
Those figures take a hefty hit when you engage ANC, with the buds delivering roughly 4 hours of audio playback and the case providing a further 18.5 hours of playtime. That overall figure isn’t too shabby but four hours in-ear is on the short side – this may prove a dealbreaker for some.
I mentioned earlier that the Ear (2) take some inspiration from the Ear (Stick) and this is most evident in their implementation of touch controls. Rather than using the tap gestures found on the Ear (1), the Ear (2) use the pinches that worked so successfully on the Ear (Stick). There’s merit to both approaches but pinches effectively remove the possibility of accidentally triggering commands while adjusting the buds.
A single pinch of either stem plays or pauses audio and this is not customisable, but you can choose which commands to assign to the other three gestures – triple pinch, pinch and hold, and double pinch and hold – in the Nothing X app. You’re not given complete control as to which gesture does what, but it is possible to create a setup that covers every command at your disposal: track skipping, voice assistant activation, volume controls and noise control (switching between ANC/transparency). Personally, I hate having to omit certain commands so this comprehensive control scheme is greatly appreciated.
The controls themselves work very consistently and are accompanied by sound prompts, which means you’re never left uncertain of whether your gestures have been registered. I only encountered one small hiccup during a week of testing – when walking in the wind and rain, my voice assistant was triggered without me going anywhere near the buds. I had voice assistant activation assigned to pinch and hold on the left earbud at the time but was unable to replicate the issue so am unsure what caused it.
The Ear (2) support wear detection and the sensors proved highly responsive, pausing audio quickly when one bud was removed and resuming it almost immediately upon reinsertion. This can be toggled on and off in the Nothing X app along with the low-lag mode for reducing latency when gaming, dual connection (Bluetooth multipoint) and personalised ANC, which I’ll come onto shortly.
Also available in the Device Settings section of the app are an eartip fit test that works as intended and Find My Earbuds which can be used to trigger a rather horrible sound to help you locate the Ear (2) if they’re nearby.
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Nothing Ear (2) review: Noise cancellation and transparency
One of the big differences between the first and second-gen Ear models is how active noise cancellation is handled. Where the Ear (1) had just two noise-cancelling modes (high and low), the Ear (2) have four (high, mid, low and adaptive). The adaptive option is one we’re seeing more frequently these days and adjusts attenuation based on the level of sound in your environment. This helps save battery and reduces the sensation of in-ear pressure that builds up while stronger levels of noise cancellation are being applied.
The Ear (2) also offer personalised ANC. To make use of it, you’re required to take a very quick test that assesses the sound loss from your ear canals across seven audio filters. Once the test is complete, the Ear (2) can tailor how sound is attenuated when the high noise-cancelling setting is engaged according to your hearing sensitivity.
Overall, I’d describe the Ear (2)’s noise-cancelling as functional rather than spectacular. They successfully took the edge off external distractions when at the gym, on public transport and in the office, while responsively changing attenuation levels depending on what was going on around me. Low-end frequencies were reduced to a decent degree, but there was little effect on mid-range sounds (such as people talking) and anything piercing or particularly shrill. I also didn’t see much benefit from engaging the personalised ANC option. In every situation during testing, the level of attenuation applied felt near-identical regardless of whether it was on or off.
Ultimately, I didn’t expect the Ear (2) to quieten a room as effectively as the far pricier AirPods Pro 2 or Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II, that would be unrealistic. But, despite the noise-cancelling system here improving on that of the Ear (1), rivals such as the FreeBuds 5i still deliver more effective ANC for less.
The Transparency mode, on the other hand, is very impressive. It’s a one-level-fits-all approach, so you can’t choose how much sound is piped in, but it does a great job of filtering in ambient sound clearly and naturally. I had no issues making out what my partner was saying in another room and could hear every word of what was being said on TV in the lounge while sitting at my office desk.
Nothing Ear (2) review: Sound and call quality
The Nothing Ear (2) use 11.6mm drivers like the Ear (1), but this time around they’re custom-made and have two distinct advantages over their off-the-shelf predecessors. They use a new diaphragm that’s constructed from both polyurethane (PU) and graphene rather than just graphene, with the addition of PU improving low-end clarity and power. They also incorporate a dual-chamber design, which increases the space around the speakers, smoothing airflow and resulting in clearer, more defined sound.
Not only are they structurally superior, but they have that all-important high-resolution support thanks to LHDC 5.0. Using a Nothing Phone (1), I listened to numerous songs over AAC on the Ear (1) and LHDC 5.0 on the Ear (2) and the difference between the two was stark. The soundstage of the second-gen model was broader and this additional headroom allowed for a more detailed presentation and more accurate stereo imaging. On Hybrid Minds and Netsky’s “Let Me Hold You”, the piano and female vocals sounded that much crisper and straight-edged and there was greater presence across the whole soundstage.
LHDC 5.0 injects a welcome level of additional detail and is definitely the optimal way to listen to music using the Ear (2) but the second-gen sound better than their predecessors over AAC, too. Upper midrange and treble frequencies were overemphasised on the Ear (1) but they’re less aggressive here, with the Ear (2) an easier and less fatiguing listen.
There’s a bit of extra weight to bass and sub-bass frequencies too, and that extra punch means most people won’t need to resort to the More Bass preset or the basic three-band equaliser found in the Nothing X app. There are also More Treble and Voice presets accompanying the default Balanced profile, but the most impactful audio customisation comes in the form of a personalised sound profile created after taking a hearing test developed by German firm Mimi Hearing Technologies.
The test involves listening to beeps being played over background noise at different frequencies and indicating when you’re able to hear them. Once you’ve completed the test on both your right and left ears, the technology constructs a listening profile that compensates for areas of auditory weakness. You can even choose how this personalisation is applied, with Softer, Recommended and Richer options along with a sliding scale for intensity.
I was already impressed by how the Ear (2)’s default profile sounded and my personalised profile elevated this even further. As I’ve been shown by other hearing tests in the past, high-pitched frequencies are those I struggle most to pick up, which is common for a man of my age. My profile actively restored details in this region and I was able to notice an improvement in how cleanly vocals were delivered, too. It’s one of those features that will be more impactful for some than others, but its inclusion is definitely welcome and was my preferred way of listening to music on the Ear (2). I’d definitely stick with either the Softer or Recommended options, however – Richer sounded a bit too distant and clinical for my tastes.
When it comes to making and taking calls, the Ear (2) again trump the Ear (1). They use a similar three-microphone setup, but a new algorithm is used to filter out external sounds and isolate your voice more effectively. The number of sound samples used to create this algorithm has increased from around 2 million to 20 million and those I spoke to reported that the (2) more clearly highlighted my voice when out and about. They did struggle somewhat in windy conditions, however.
Nothing Ear (2) review: Verdict
Nothing has really upped the ante with the Ear (2). Although the Ear (1) sold well, they lacked the audio chops to truly stand out and were beset by buggy firmware at launch.
Nothing has taken that criticism on board and the Ear (2) sound great, with LDHC 5.0 support and sound profile personalisation proving a winning combination. Noise cancellation may not be the best around but it’s both adaptive and effective, and the comfortable fit, unique design and handy features round out a potent offering.
Nothing seems to have got its house in order when it comes to software, too. My experience with the Nothing X app was blissfully smooth and regular updates are being pushed out to improve things further.
While our previous review of the Ear (1) was titled “Not quite the full package”, the same can’t be said for the Ear (2). They’re great-sounding, feature-packed and – at this price – deserving of our Best Buy award.