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Nothing Ear Stick review: You won't find another pair of $99 wireless earbuds quite like it

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Nothing Ear Stick with earbuds out of the charging case.
Nothing's budget-friendly wireless earbuds offer good sound and distinctive design.
  • The Ear Stick is Nothing's new entry-level wireless earbuds. 
  • The transparent design and cylindrical charging case make it a standout.
  • But the lack of eartips and active noise cancellation means it won't suit everyone.

If we're going by looks alone, Nothing's latest offering — the cheekily named Ear Stick — is one of the most intriguing wireless earbuds to release all year. The fact that they cost $99 only adds to the appeal.

But when you get down to the figurative (and literally visible) nuts and bolts, the lack of key features could be an instant deal-breaker for many. Namely, the earbuds do not come with silicone eartips for a customizable fit, and they don't have active noise cancellation. If that sounds familiar, it's because it should be: The open-style fit makes the Ear Stick akin to the standard AirPods.

Despite that, the Ear Stick is still a competitive pair of earbuds under $100 for tech-minded early adopters or anyone looking for options outside of the norm. If you enjoy tech that makes a statement and prefer earbuds with an open fit, the Ear Stick might offer just enough to win you over. 

The transparent design stands out from the crowd

Nothing Ear Stick earbuds next to the charging case.
The Ear Stick has an attractive design and price.

The design is undoubtedly a big selling point of the Ear Stick. The London-based tech company's first devices, the much-hyped Ear 1 and Phone 1, both garnered attention for their semi-clear designs, and the Ear Stick shares a similar aesthetic. 

In a crowded market with boundless choice, the transparent design is Nothing's loudest declaration of differentiation. In terms of technical specs, the Ear Stick is competitive with every earbud at its price point: solid connectivity, great (but not the most premium) sound quality, and industry-standard battery life. 

But what gives these earbuds the edge is how different they look. Between the clear stems that reveal the interior circuitry of each earbud to the radical charging case, Nothing has managed to successfully inject interestingness to an otherwise ubiquitous everyday tech item. 

The charging case is unlike anything you've interacted with before

Nothing Ear Stick charging case held in hand.
The charging case is a semi-transparent tube charged via USB-C.

The charging case of the Ear Stick is just as quirky as the earbuds. It's a semi-clear case reminiscent of a tube of lipstick (hence the name). The case swivels open and close with a satisfying click to give you access to the earbuds, which are snapped into place by a magnet. It charges via USB-C, but has no wireless charging option — a notable feature that's missing.  

The form factor is certainly pocketable, but in a different way than more traditional flat and oblong cases. The small flaw worth noting is when not positioned upright, the cylindrical case is inclined to roll away on uneven surfaces. 

In terms of battery life, the Ear Stick offers more or less what you get from other earbuds. Nothing rates the battery life at seven hours of listening time, which is accurate in my testing. Overall, with the case, the earbuds can last up to 29 hours with 12 hours of talk time. The case can also deliver around two hours of playtime on a 10-minute charge.

Excellent overall sound quality, but the fit holds it back

Nothing Ear Stick nestled in ear.
Without silicone eartips, the fit won't work for everyone.

Whereas Nothing's now higher-end Ear 1 earbuds have swappable silicone eartips, the Ear Stick sports an open-style fit (Nothing calls it a "half in-ear" design). So instead of being lodged into the ear canal, the earbud rests against it. 

The good news is that at 4.4 grams per earbud, they are extremely lightweight and comfortable to wear. In my ears, they feel like nothing is there at all. The not-so-great news is that the "perfect" fit is dependent on specific ears, so they won't be to everyone's liking — and if that's the case, there's no way to customize the fit like you could with silicone eartips. 

The other big omission is active noise cancellation. The open design is ideal if you prefer an unobtrusive fit and to be aware of your surroundings, but otherwise, it has its disadvantages. Because they don't fit snugly in the ear, expect only a small degree of passive noise isolation. You'll hear a lot of background noise while wearing them. Sound leakage is another problem. 

If you're looking for a pair of wireless earbuds to minimize distractions, you should look elsewhere. Nothing's Ear 1 — which costs $50 more but has silicone eartips and active noise cancellation — would be the next logical alternative to consider, but Anker's Space A40 is another excellent option at the sub-$100 price point. 

The absence of a sealed fit and active noise cancellation also impacts sound quality, particularly bass performance. While the bass is perfectly adequate in quiet settings, it becomes obscured in louder environments, like riding public transportation. This is not particularly a critique of the Ear Stick, but rather any earbud with an open fit. 

To mitigate this, the earbuds support what Nothing calls "Bass Lock," a software technology that measures the shape of your ear canal, calculates the amount of bass lost due to fit, and then adjusts the EQ settings accordingly. Even still, you'll find yourself going into the Nothing X app and bumping the bass up to maximum. 

Drawbacks to the style aside, the Ear Stick offers impressive overall sound for its price. The 12.6mm full-range dynamic drivers housed in each earbud deliver a robust and balanced listen. Those who prefer the more spacious listening experience of open-design earbuds will appreciate the clarity and detail of the highs and depth of the lows. 

Better all-around voice call quality 

Despite what you might expect from open-style earbuds, conversations with the Ear Stick earbuds came through loud and clear in my testing. Unlike earbuds with a sealed fit, you're actually able to hear yourself more clearly on voice and video calls, which means a more natural call experience. 

In terms of microphone quality, the Ear Stick sees an improvement from the Ear 1. Whereas the Ear 1 has two microphones per earbud, the Ear Stick has three microphones. The extra mic helps filter out background noise during calls in loud environments. 

Responsive press controls with no hiccups 

One of the best things about the Ear Stick is its pressure-sensitive controls, which are triggered by a pinch of the stems. Touch controls are notorious for being hit-or-miss, so this is a welcome change. I found the tactile action of the press controls more reliable than earbuds with touch controls.

When combined with the open design, the press controls take a little bit of getting used to, but when you do, they're intuitive and easy to operate. A single pinch plays and pauses, a double-pinch skips the next, a triple-pinch skips back, and pinching and holding turns the volume up or down. You can also customize these shortcuts with the Nothing X app.

Should you buy it? 

Nothing Ear Stick charging case standing upright.
The Ear Stick doesn't check enough boxes to recommend to most people.

There are many wireless earbuds that cost less than $100, but none look like the Ear Stick. If you prefer the open-fit design, the Nothing's Ear Stick stands as one of the best budget-friendly alternatives to the third-generation standard AirPods.

At $99, Nothing's Ear Stick checks a lot of boxes, but probably not enough for most people. With decent sound quality and standard features, these earbuds won't astound you. But its innovative design and singular charging case might.

It should be noted that the Ear Stick has nifty integrations with Nothing's Phone 1, but Nothing's flagship Android phone isn't available in the US — at least not yet.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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