Nothing Ear (stick) vs. AirPods (3rd Gen): Which wireless earbuds win?

Nothing Ear (stick) vs. Apple AirPods 3
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Nothing Ear (stick) earbuds are the latest release from a young British tech company aimed at music fans who prefer the half in-ear earbuds design, rather than earbuds you insert into your ear canal. They're affordable, they look great (if you like the drop stem style), and have the kind of feature set that really does suggest they're aiming to muscle in on the Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) in particular.

Apple's AirPods hardly need introduction and are arguably the most recognizable in-ear headphones in the world. But if you’re in the market for a new pair, should you stick with what works or back the new tech company creating a stir? That’s what our Nothing Ear (stick) vs. AirPods (3rd Gen) analysis will find out.

Nothing Ear (stick) vs. Apple AirPods (3rd Gen): Specs compared

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Header Cell - Column 0 Nothing Ear (stick)Apple AirPods (3rd Gen)
Price$99 / $149 CAD / £99 / €119 / AU$179$179 / $239 CAD / £189 / €219 / AU$289
Wireless chargingNoYes
ChipNot specifiedH1
Battery life (rated)7 hours; 29 hours (charging case)6 hours; 30 hours (charging case)
Water resistanceIP54IPX4
Case size3.4 x 1.17 x 1.17 inches1.83 x 0.84 x 2.14 inches
Case weight1.63 ounces 1.34 ounces
Special featuresAdaptive EQ; Google fast pair; Microsoft swift pair; Find my earbudsAdaptive EQ; Audio Sharing, “Hey Siri” voice activation; Spatial Audio; Find my earbuds

Nothing Ear (1) vs. Apple AirPods (3rd Gen): Price

The Nothing Ear (stick) earbuds are on sale now across the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Europe priced at $99 / CAD$149 / £99 / €119 / AU$179 through Nothing retailers, including the first Nothing store in Soho, London, and via the Nothing store website. Existing Nothing tech owners are eligible for a 10% discount.

The Ear (stick)s are currently only available in a white/transparent colorway.

The AirPods 3 are sold for $179 at major online retailers, including Amazon and Best Buy, or directly from the Apple store. Color options are limited to white. Inside the box are a MagSafe charging case, Lightning-to-USB-C cable, quick start guide, and other standard documentation.

Winner: Nothing Ear (stick)

Nothing Ear (stick) on stone surface

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Nothing Ear (stick) vs. Apple AirPods (3rd Gen): Design and comfort

The design of the Ear (stick) charging case is said to be inspired by the cosmetic industry, and features a unique, yet functional, twist opening action that feels remarkably tactile. I feel inclined to add that I'm particularly impressed with the packaging box the Ear (stick) ships in, which looks nothing like the standard carton packaging typically used to market a pair of $99 earbuds. 

The Ear (stick) earbuds are a half in-ear design that sit outside of the ear canal. They weigh less than the Ear (1) at 0.15 ounces per earbud, and I can honestly say that they feel super light in place in my ears. They feel remarkably secure too, although I wouldn't recommend using them as an exercise partner. Nevertheless, they are IP54-rated for dust, water and sweat resistance, which means they are very well protected should you feel inclined to do so. 

The Apple AirPods 3 wireless earbuds resting atop the wireless charging case

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

The white styling synonymous with Apple AirPods is robust and we're told that is built from recycled materials. The AirPods 3 are IPX4-rated for water resistance and sweat, and they have better on-ear stability than their predecessor thanks to a few tweaks to the design to improve the fit. But while the contoured sound port allows the buds to sit comfortably on the ear and nestle into the canal, like the Nothing Ear (stick), they don't go all the way into the ear canal.

The AirPods charging case is a little smaller than the AirPods Pro 2’s case, but otherwise it looks pretty similar. They each boast an all-white exterior with LED on the front, charging port on the bottom, and pairing button on the back. You can engrave the charging case for free when purchased through Apple. 

While both models are half in-ear designs and offer a similar degree of comfort, neither 'buds are suitable for running down the street to catch the bus or exercising with these dangling from your ears, say, but the fit may feel more secure to some wearers than others.

Winner: Nothing Ear (stick)

Nothing Ear (stick) earbuds and a stone surface

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Nothing Ear (stick) vs. Apple AirPods (3rd Gen): Controls and digital assistant

The control scheme of the Nothing Ear (stick) uses physical controls to enable playback, skip tracks, adjust volume and call management. These can be customized in the app that's already integrated for Nothing Phone 1 owners, or downloadable for Android and iOS devices, which lets you swap out and assign functions to different input methods: single/double/triple tap or hold.

The control buttons give a good sense of tactile feedback to assure you that the commands have been made. The response time isn't the swiftest I've experienced, and is slower to carry out commands than the AirPods, but commands are carried out accurately.

Testing the force sensor on the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

The AirPods 3 employ similar tactile control functionality called Force Sensors that operate flawlessly. Playback, call management, and the digital assistant can all be activated through single/multi-press and press-and-hold gestures. The sensors produce solid tactility and respond properly to intended commands. The volume slider is also easily accessible by pulling down the Control Center from the top-right of your iDevice.

Wear detection for each of the Nothing Ear (stick) and Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) works flawlessly both ways. Removing a single 'bud from your ear pauses playback, and placing both 'buds in your ears resumes playback immediately.

Nothing doesn't mention voice activation for the Ear (stick) or manual control to access AI bots, but I was able to command Siri to deliver my music requests via my iPhone 12 Pro.

Siri can be enabled manually on the AirPods, though if you’re like me, firing her up using “Hey Siri” voice activation is more gratifying. The mics demonstrate excellent speech recognition, picking up every syllable and understanding long-winded requests. 

Unfortunately, the feature isn’t available for Android, though it’s possible you can manually turn on the digital assistant through third-party software (try your luck with Trigger Assistant.

Winner: Apple AirPods (3rd Gen)

Nothing Ear (stick) earbuds on white wooden bench

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Nothing Ear (stick) vs. Apple AirPods (3rd Gen): Sound quality

Nothing mentions that the Ear (stick) have smart software called Bass Lock Technology, which is said to measure the unique shape of the ear canal and the fit of the earbuds as they're being worn to optimize the sound output automatically. Nevertheless, the Ear (stick) half in-ear design are too bass light for my tastes, even when playing bombastic bass tracks like "Dangerous" by Big Data. The natty customizable EQ goes some way to alleviating the bass shortfall, but even with it ramped up to max, they still sound 'thin' and lacking in low-end energy.  

Midrange frequencies carry vocal elements well and voices always sound engaging, but there's just a bit too much brashness in the high frequencies to make these suitable for a longer listening sessions.

The Apple AirPods 3 playing The Weeknd's "Blinding Lights" on Apple Music

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

When it comes to the AirPods (3rd Gen) audio, these deliver and more solid sound balance than the Nothing Ear (stick). Apple's low-distortion driver delivers powerful bass and crisp, clean high frequencies. The Adaptive EQ adjusts frequencies in real time and the results are far more impactful, delivering a wider and better balanced range of frequencies than the Nothing Ear (stick). 

Although impressive, audio on the AirPods isn’t perfect. Bass doesn’t knock as hard as it does on wireless earbuds that are intended to sit inside the ear canal, so if you pull up "Pump It" by the Black Eyes Peas, you may feel shortchanged in the bass department compared to true in-ear designs.

Apple’s immersive, 360-degree spatial audio technology is also supported on the AirPods 3.

Winner: Apple AirPods (3rd Gen)

Nothing Ear (stick) earbuds in charging case placed reviewers hand

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Nothing Ear (stick) vs. Apple AirPods (3rd Gen): Battery life

Nothing rates battery life at 7 hours, and this seems accurate. Keep in mind though that higher volume levels when you're trying to block out the general hubbub of background noise on your travels or in the office will reduce playback times. 

The charging case holds up to 29 hours, depending how you use the buds. A 10-minute quick charge is said to generate around 2 hours of use. A USB-C charging cable is supplied. The case does not support wireless charging.

The Apple AirPods 3's charging case held in hand

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Apple's AirPods (3rd Gen) achieves 6 hours of listening time from a full charge, which is an improvement on previous versions. What's more, battery management is exceptional, with features like Optimized Battery Charging learning your charging routine and stopping charges at 80% to reduce wear.

The MagSafe charging case increases battery life from 24 to 30 hours. It’s part of the MagSafe ecosystem and works with the MagSafe charger, though it apparently doesn’t support MagSafe reverse wireless charging from iPhones. You can also charge it on any Qi-enabled wireless pad. Quick charging is said to generate an hour of use on a 5-minute charge.

Winner: Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) 

Nothing Ear (stick) alongside AirPods 3

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Nothing Ear (stick) vs. Apple AirPods (3rd Gen): Call quality and connectivity

I didn't encounter issues with voice and video calls, and conversations came through loud and clear. Nothing says that The Ear (stick) has improved call performance compared to the Ear (1), and that its Clear Voice Technology uses three high definition mics to work together with updated algorithms to filter out louder background noises to for wind-proof and crowd-proof calls. There's a low lag mode compatible with Phone 1.

The Ear (stick) operates on Bluetooth 5.2 with SBC and AAC audio codec support. Connectivity to my iPhone was stable throughout my time with the Ear (stick). Google Fast Pair and Microsoft Swift Pair are also on board for compatible devices.

A video call being taken on the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

The AirPods 3 is one of the best headphones with a mic for voice and video calls. Apple covered the mic with acoustic mesh to reduce wind interference when outside on calls, and clarity was strong throughout.

Speaking of which, the AirPods 3 come with AAC-ELD, a speech codec designed for full HD voice quality when jumping on FaceTime calls, which always sounded clear in our tests.

Winner: Tie

Nothing Ear (stick) vs. Apple AirPods 3

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Nothing Ear (stick) vs. Apple AirPods (3rd Gen): Verdict

Despite the Nothing Ear (stick)'s half in-ear open design not creating quite the kind of sound balance I enjoy, they still manage to do a lot of things right. There's plenty to appreciate: comparable battery life, strong call quality, app integration, and one of the most undeniably stylish pair of earbuds on the market right now. The Nothing Ear (stick) will win plenty of adoring fans, and at $99 I really can't argue with that.

In the meantime, there’s no denying the triumph that is the AirPods 3.

Nothing Ear (stick) vs. Apple AirPods (3rd Gen): Scores

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Header Cell - Column 0 Nothing Ear (stick)Apple AirPods (3rd Gen)
Price and value (5)54
Design (15)1413
Fit and comfort (20)1615
Controls (10)710
Sound quality (20)1015
Special features and apps (15)1013
Call quality (5)55
Battery life (10)87
Total score (100)7582

You might question whether a pair of $179 wireless earbuds without ANC are worth the investment, especially since the AirPods Pro have been seen on sale for the same price.

Essentially, the AirPods 3 are the 'Pro' minus the eartips and a handful of features (ANC, Transparency Mode, Ear Tip Fit Test). The higher price may be off-putting compared to the $99 Nothing Ear (stick), but Apple's audio experience proves worthwhile, and are the better-sounding half in-ear earbuds choice overall.

Lee Dunkley
Audio Editor

As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.