Disassembly: Nothing Ear Headphones (1)

The high profile British start-up is experimenting with its new aesthetic.

Carl Pei is a bit of a tech personality. His previous company, OnePlus, is now established as a provider of well-designed, high-performance but mid-priced smartphones. It announced its latest, London-based Nothing in early 2021, and it launched its first product, the Ear(1) headphones, in August. The company says it had sold just under 410,000 by the end of the year.

Pei used many of the same marketing techniques as in OnePlus’ early days to make Ear(1) a high-profile launch, even though the earphone space is very crowded at all price points.

The design and the project have been teased on social media. Nothing was focused on direct sales and drip-fed units in the market, so “scarcity equals freshness” and marketing costs were kept low. And there was another robust design and brand statement: “Technology should fade and look like nothing.”

Based on the final design of the Ear(1) and the Concept 1 that was used to tease its arrival, this ethos seems to lean on functionalism, with transparent cases exposing the engineering inside so that , as the saying goes, what you see is what you get. We will come back to it.

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

In this context, the ear (1) is a marker for things to come. The announcement of a formal partnership with mobile chip giant Qualcomm late last year is further evidence of this – Pei seems very likely to take on 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 headphones that can come as an option alongside much more expensive (or even, sometimes up to three times as expensive) offerings from Apple, Samsung, Bose and others. other specialists in the sector.

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

There’s IPX4 water and sweat resistance for gym use, and a promise of four hours of listening time with ANC from a 3.7V, 31mAh cellular battery. Charging the case can bring up to 24 hours of life with ANC.

The buds have multiple tips and each weighs only 4.7g. The heavy silicon transport is performed by a Bestecnic Bluetooth Audio SoC. An app provides some settings, but not a full graphic equalizer.

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The design was undertaken in partnership with Swedish professional and consumer audio specialists Teenage Engineering, who were also recently behind the retro Playdate console which was the subject of the teardown in the November 2021 issue of AND.

TE’s presence brought obvious performance benefits, but another challenge it and Nothing faced was delivering a product that exposed engineering. This ultimately involved some compromise.

On the Concept 1, the entire bud is transparent. But the ear (1) only has a transparent rod, the speaker housing now being offered in white or black. It was no doubt difficult to bend the visible components attractively, but a bigger problem seems to have been our old friend, the glue.

iFixit’s Teardown Report notes on the stem’s comment: “We wonder if we’re just lucky with our ear specimen (1), or if Nothing managed to use just the right mix of adhesive to hold the connectors in place without interfering with disassembly too much.” Granted, there are no ugly glue cups visible in this part.

In contrast, when iFixit separated the opaque driver assembly, it found a large red speck attached to the battery cell: “I guess that’s why nothing made the ear (1) only partially transparent – the adhesive is not very pleasant and they know it!”

Rating the ear (1) at just 1 out of 10 for repairability – as shown in last month’s teardown, even Fairphone struggled in this regard – iFixit goes on to say that it thinks there’s more room for modularity, adding, “Fix-wise, we can’t help but feel that Nothing is shooting themselves in the foot with their key design feature.

However, Nothing seems to be aware of the concerns that have been raised about headphones. In November, it announced it had had the ear(1) audited and was buying offsets for the estimated 1.78kg of carbon emissions each set is expected to produce over its natural lifespan. . It also offers replacement, but not repair.

Nothing tried to do anything different in a very crowded market, and this is its first attempt, so some criticism was inevitable. He nevertheless gets the sales.

It has to be said, if you read a page marked ‘Teardown’, you’re also likely to applaud a company that wants to make engineering an integral part of industrial design. It will be interesting to see how Nothing adapts this aesthetic to larger products.

Nothing Ear (1) key components

Exploded view

1. Earphone case battery holder (top)
2. Earphone assembled
3. Bottom of earphone case
4. Earphone case battery
5. Earphone cover (inside)
6. Earphone cover (outside)
7. Headphone motherboard
8. Battery, Antenna and Gesture Control Earbuds Set
9. Top of earphone case battery holder
10. Case battery and wireless charger coil
11. Brand label
12. Pilot Assembly
13. End piece
14. Coverage
15. Earphone case top
16. Central box for earphones

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