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Teardown: Nothing Ear (1) headphones

Image credit: Nothing/iFixit

The high-profile UK-based start-up tries out its new aesthetic.

Carl Pei is a bit of a tech personality. His previous venture, OnePlus, is now established as a vendor of well-designed and well-performing but mid-priced smartphones. He announced his latest one, London-based Nothing, at the beginning of 2021, and it launched its first product, the Ear (1) headphones, in August. The company says that it had sold just shy of 410,000 by the end of the year.

Pei has used many of the same marketing techniques as he did around OnePlus’s early days to make Ear (1) a high-profile launch, even if the earbud space is very crowded at every price point.

The design and project were teased over social media. Nothing focused on direct sales and drip-fed units into the market so that ‘scarcity equals cool’ and marketing costs were kept low. And there was another robust design and branding statement: “Technology should fade into the background and feel like nothing.”

Based on the final design of the Ear (1) and the Concept 1 that was used to tease its arrival, that philosophy appears to draw on functionalism, with transparent casings exposing the engineering inside so that, as the saying goes, what you see is what you get. We’ll come back to that.

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Because another significant part of Nothing’s early development is that it has established itself as a money-raising machine. Initial backers included such Silicon Valley luminaries as iPod inventor Tony Fadell, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman and Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin. They were followed over the course of 2021 by GV (formerly Google Ventures), a raft of individual crowd-investors drawn by Pei’s rock-​star reputation, and a more traditional $50m venture capital round at the end of the year.

In that context, the Ear (1) is a marker for things to come. Further evidence towards that came with the announcement of a formal partnership with mobile chip giant Qualcomm late last year – Pei looks very likely to go after his alma mater.

The general consensus in the audio community is that Nothing has essentially achieved its first goal. With the Ear (1), it has produced a set of earbuds that can stand as an option alongside much more expensive offerings (indeed, sometimes up to three times as expensive) from Apple, Samsung, Bose and other sector specialists.

For £99, Nothing’s Ear (1) package includes active noise cancellation (ANC) – with a transparency mode allowing for a mix of music and conversation, 11.6mm drivers (even AirBuds come in here at just 11mm), the latest Bluetooth 5.2 standard, and Clear Voice Technology via three high-definition mikes per bud.

There is IPX4 water and sweat resistance for gym use, and a promise of four hours of listening time with ANC from a 3.7V, 31mAh cell battery. Case-​recharging can bring life up to 24 hours with ANC.

The buds have multiple eartips and each one weighs just 4.7g. The heavy silicon carrying is done by a Bestecnic Bluetooth Audio SoC. An app provides some settings, albeit not a full graphic equaliser.

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The design was undertaken in partnership with highly regarded Swedish pro and consumer audio specialist Teenage Engineering, which was also recently behind the Playdate retro console that was the subject of the Teardown in the November 2021 issue of E&T.

TE’s presence has brought some obvious performance benefits, but another challenge it and Nothing have faced has been in delivering a product that exposes the engineering. This has ultimately involved some compromise.

On the Concept 1, the entire bud is transparent. But the Ear (1) has only a transparent stem, with the driver casing now offered in either white or black. No doubt it was tricky to fold in the visible components in an attractive way, but a bigger issue appears to have been our old friend, glue.

The iFixit teardown report’s notes on the stem comment: “We wonder if we’re just lucky with our specimen of the Ear (1), or if Nothing managed to use just the right mix of adhesive to keep the connectors in place without hindering disassembly too much.” Certainly, there are no ugly gobbets of glue visible in that part.

By contrast, when iFixit pulled apart the opaque driver assembly, it found a large red blob attached to the battery cell: “Guess that’s why Nothing made the Ear (1) only partly transparent– adhesive is not very pleasing and they know it!”

In scoring the Ear (1) at just 1 out of 10 for repairability – as noted in last month’s Teardown, even Fairphone has struggled on that count – iFixit goes on to say that it thinks there is more room for modularity, adding: “Repair-wise, we can’t help feeling that Nothing kind of shoots itself in the foot with their main design feature.”

However, Nothing seems to be aware of the concerns that have been raised about earbuds. In November, it announced that it has had the Ear (1) audited and is buying offsets for the estimated 1.78kg of carbon emissions each set is expected to produce over its natural life. It is also offering replacement, though not repair.

Nothing has tried to do something different in a very crowded market, and this is its first attempt, so some criticism was inevitable. It is nevertheless getting the sales.

It has to be said, if you are reading a page marked ‘Teardown’, you are also likely to applaud a company that wants to make the engineering an integral part of the industrial design. How Nothing scales that aesthetic to larger products will be interesting to see.

Nothing Ear (1) key components

Exploded view

1. Earbud case battery holder (top)
2. Earbud assembled
3. Earbud case bottom
4. Earbud case battery
5. Earbud cover (inner)
6. Earbud cover (outer)
7. Earbud motherboard
8. Earbud battery, antenna and gesture control assembly
9. Earbud case battery holder top
10. Case battery and wireless charger coil
11. Brand label
12. Driver assembly
13. Eartip
14. Cover
15. Earbud case top
16. Earbud case midframe

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