Nothing Ear Stick hands-on: Stylish and comfortable, but I miss the noise cancellation

Mat Smith / Engadget

It’s been a busy year for Nothing. After debuting its Ear 1 wireless headphones last year, it followed up with its first smartphone, the Phone 1, daring to compete in an arena that’s actually shed some more established competitors. Now, it’s tackling wireless buds again with the $99 Ear Stick. It’s not a great name, but it’s at least descriptive. Instead of the slim, squarish case of the Ear 1, Nothing has pulled inspiration from cosmetic product design, creating a charging case for the buds inspired by tubes of lipstick. It’s not the first set of wireless headphones to feature a twisting cylinder, but it ensures the Ear Stick won’t be confused with rival earbuds.

At $99, the Ear Stick is reasonably priced but lacks some of the significant features of Nothing’s first wireless buds – most crucially, active noise cancellation (ANC). There are plenty of improvements here, though, especially concerning connectivity.

The hardware

Nothing Ear Sticks hands-on
Nothing Ear Sticks hands-on

It’s hard to stop twisting and pawing at the Ear Stick’s eye-catching case. The micro-dotted surface of the charger, exposed when the buds are locked in and charging, feels nice. At the top of the charger, there’s a USB-C charging port and a chrome button for pairing the buds to devices. Given the form factor, there’s no wireless charging this time around, but it also ensures the Ear Stick is cheaper to make. (As it is, Nothing recently raised the price on its Ear One buds.) There is a sliver of space on the case, though, so pocket lint can easily get trapped and rolled into the crevice, which is annoying. Judging by my other transparent gadgets, this might only get worse.

The Ear Stick buds themselves continue that Nothing design language, with transparent casing around the tips and a dot-matrix font labeling each stem. There’s a red dot on the right bud to help users ensure they go in the right ears. However, compared to the Ear 1, they don’t have silicone tips, so they rest loosely inside the ear. This means that, regardless of any noise cancellation technology, a good amount of noise will seep in.

Nothing says the buds went through over 200 rounds of modifications, and I think it was worth it: They’re comfortable. Weighing in at 4.4 grams (0.15 ounces) each, they’re also lighter than the Ear 1 buds. I know that many people (and several Engadget editors) prefer this kind of looser fit, as AirPods Pro, Galaxy Buds and many others put a little too much pressure on their ear canals. The Ear Stick is aimed at those people – but are there enough of them?

In noisy environments – say, when traveling on public transport or working out – I’m forced to crank the volume up to max to compete with all the ambient noise. That said, they are comfortable and, for buds without removable tips, snug enough not to fear losing them when on the move. I still wasn’t completely at ease running or jumping in them, but they didn’t fall out during regular use.

I haven’t extensively tested the battery life yet, but Nothing’s seven-hour rating seems roughly accurate. Expect to get 29 hours of total playback with the case, which is almost a week of intermittent listening for me. There’s a fast-charge function that can juice the buds with two hours of playback with only 10 minutes of charge time, which has already been convenient during long trips across London, where I’m based.

Nothing also made a new custom-designed dynamic driver in this generation of buds. The company claims it’s the most sensitive one found on wireless buds in the market, and while I can’t vouch for that, I did find that the Ear Stick performs best when I’m listening to spoken word or on phone calls; they’re notably clearer and crisper sounding than the Ear 1. Additionally, Nothing says it’s packed in a Bass Lock feature that tries to gauge sound leaking from the half-open design, but I struggle to hear it make enough for all of the sound loss.

However, there’s not much Nothing can do with a half-ear design like this to maintain bass levels in comparison to the competition. There’s a tinniness to music and sounds that I don’t think any algorithm can fix, given the half-open bud design.

The software

You can ameliorate this a little with the customizable equalizer from the companion app, and if you’re already a Nothing Phone 1 user, you’ll get handy shortcuts from the Android drop-down menu. It’s a nice touch, matching the slickness you get when using Samsung buds with a Galaxy phone, etc.

Nothing Ear Sticks hands-on
Nothing Ear Sticks hands-on

Nothing has also addressed some of the connectivity issues that marred the Ear 1. It’s moved the antenna further down the buds, which it says minimizes signal blockage. In use, the Ear Stick connects and pairs more consistently than Nothing’s other headphones. They’re less likely to drop connection when I move around my apartment and get farther away from my phone. The Stick is also much less fussy about pairing with phones, laptops and other devices. While I was initially impressed with the Ear 1, its inconsistency pairing to iPhones, laptops and even Android phones meant I eventually changed back to my AirPods Pro. Nothing has fortunately learned that lesson with its second pair of wireless buds.

I’d happily take the audio and signal improvements of the Stick, but unfortunately, I’m just not as enamored with the Ear Stick as I was with the Ear 1. I need my noise cancellation and silicone tips. However, I am looking forward to Ear 2, or whatever Nothing decides to call its third attempt, when it hopefully combines the best of both buds.