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Apple AirPods (3rd generation) vs Nothing Ear (Stick)
If you’re in the market for earbuds, there’s a near 100% chance Apple’s AirPods have crossed your radar. But Nothing has been making waves in this space with its Ear line of earbuds—is it worth a look? Let’s dive in.
Editor’s note: this article was published on April 20, 2023, and is the first version of the article. Updates will follow as the market changes.
What’s it like to use the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) compared to the Nothing Ear (Stick)?
Though both the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and Nothing Ear (Stick) are quite different in form and function, each earbud is targeted for the same type of user: someone for whom inserting things into their ears is an unpleasant experience. The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and Nothing Ear (Stick) sit just outside the ear canal, relying on the tragus and antitragus to hold the buds in place. Assuming a good fit—which is far from a guarantee without more than one point of contact in an ear—those with sensitive ear canals should have nothing causing them pain from wearing either set of earbuds. This is an attractive prospect for some even if it means that other aspects of the performance suffers as a result (like acoustic isolation and sound quality).
Both sets of earbuds are competent at their main goal: which is uncomplicated, unsealed audio playback on the go.
The downsides to this type of design would usually be addressable by finding alternative ear tips, ensuring a better fit, or having some sort of control to ensure a seal in the ear canal. Because these products intentionally don’t do that, it’s not surprising that many have a love-it-or-hate-it relationship with this design. Not only does it mean that your buds are more likely to fall out, but things like IP ratings are far more important because there’s less protecting the grille over the drivers from foreign object damage.
Both sets of earbuds are competent at their main goal: which is uncomplicated audio playback on the go. These are not audiophile products, nor are they meant to be—they’re meant to be feature-first listening devices for those that don’t like the realities of using in-ears, but like the idea of earbuds. These products aren’t geared towards people looking to drown the world out, nor are they a good match for those looking for audio quality above other concerns.
How do you control the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and Nothing Ear (Stick)?
Controlling either set of earbuds is relatively straightforward, as there’s only so many ways you can use pinch or touch controls on a small piece of plastic. But it is worthwhile to see what each can do if you really loathe digging your phone out of your pocket.
Apple AirPods (3rd generation) controls:
Press and hold
Change volume, request directions, playback control, receive messages, and more
Nothing Ear (Stick) controls:
Pinch and hold
Accept call/End call
Double pinch and hold
Assignable to voice assistant, volume up, volume down, or no action
Assignable to voice assistant, volume up, volume down, or no action
It’s worth pointing out that you can, in fact, customize the controls for either to a certain degree through either the app or settings in iOS (for the AirPods). However, you can’t go too crazy with it, usually it’s just changing the actions available through the multifunction or long press inputs.
Should you use the apps of either Apple AirPods (3rd generation) or Nothing Ear (Stick)?
Comparing earbuds like the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) to others with apps like the Nothing Ear (Stick) is a bit of a weird prospect because the software that enables the most advanced features is an operating system and not an app you can just download off the App Store. Though the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) comes with a lot of advanced features through iOS, you can’t really get those with Android, and you’re left with earbuds that don’t have a great way to get them back. For example, the Nothing Ear (Stick)’s app enables a three-band EQ, firmware updates, and customizing your controls.
In general, we recommend using apps to stay on top of critical updates, but with earbuds you’re rarely in a position where you’ll be too put-out if you opt not to use the app to prevent data collection. If you find yourself missing AirPods features on Android, there’s limited ability to get some of the basics like equalizing back through the use of third-party apps, but the task takes a little bit more effort than an OS-level feature—and it also opens the door for other privacy concerns if you don’t read permissions carefully.
How do the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and Nothing Ear (Stick) connect?
Both the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and Nothing Ear (Stick) are true wireless earphones that connect to smartphones exclusively over a Bluetooth connection, using SBC and AAC. However, the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) has a lot of software-based enhancements that require an iOS device to make the most out of the product, where the Nothing Ear (Stick) will have all its features on just about any source. When using AAC as your Bluetooth connection, you will see the best latency results for both earphones.
It’s a bit frustrating that a product would be incomplete depending on what device you use it with, but buying AirPods means you’re putting up with that exact nonsense. On non-iOS sources the AirPods become “merely” regular ol’ earbuds.
- Enable Bluetooth in your Bluetooth settings on the device
- With the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) in the case, press and hold the button on the case until the indicator light blinks.
- Step 3
- Enable Bluetooth in your Bluetooth settings on the device
- With the Nothing Ear (stick) buds in the case, press and hold the button on the case. Let go when the indicator light blinks.
- Select the Nothing Ear (stick) in your Bluetooth settings, and now you’re connected.
Is battery life better on the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) or Nothing Ear (Stick)?
At typical listening levels, both the AirPods and Nothing Ear (Stick) offer a fairly pedestrian battery life, with the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) clocking in at 6 hours and 21 minutes and the Nothing Ear (Stick) falling short with 4 hours and 29 minutes. It’s not often we get a clear winner with battery life, but as our testing is standardized, it’s a good yardstick to measure against.
This comparison also highlights another problem that you may run into with the earbuds: longevity. When battery life is significantly shorter on products, that also means that you’ll have to charge it more often. Though a minor annoyance up-front, over time it means that the cells themselves will degrade much faster. Though most true wireless earbuds don’t last more than two years, the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) will stand a much better chance of lasting you longer than the Nothing Ear (Stick) will.
Does the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) or Nothing Ear (Stick) block noise better?
Neither of these products should be on your radar if you want to listen to music in noisy environments, or want to block out the world. Because both of these products do an exceptionally poor job at sealing the ear canal—nor do these products offer active noise cancellation ANC—neither works well at attenuating outside noise. We tend to recommend against products like these in general because this poor isolation can make avoiding hearing loss more difficult.
That said, there’s a number of advantages to having little isolation. The main one, situational awareness, is good if you find yourself in an area that has a lot of problems with bad drivers or other hazards that you need your hearing to detect. Additionally, these buds are an interesting option for people who need to hear things going on around them, like pet owners or parents.
Does the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) sound better than the Nothing Ear (Stick)?
Though both products sound decent, our testing revealed that the Nothing Ear (Stick) has a pronounced lack of bass—which isn’t ideal. This underemphasis also makes the highs appear even louder by comparison, so you may run into a situation where cymbal-heavy songs will be unpleasant or fatiguing to listen to. Conversely, the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) has a much better balance between bass and treble, so music and podcasts will sound much more like they “should.” Highs are still slightly louder than we generally like to see, but because unsealed earbuds have difficulty with outside noise, we’ll give small deviations a pass.
Given that the AirPods do a much better job of representing bass, this one’s an easy head-to-head to adjudicate: Apple’s AirPods (3rd generation) has better sound quality, full stop. The only real caveat here is that the Nothing Ear (Stick) might work slightly better for podcasts in some situations. But hey, this is why we test these things in the first place. Though headphones don’t have to perfectly meet our house curve to sound good, in general it’s good to have a rather uncomplicated comparison point. In this particular case, the Nothing Ear (Stick) will definitely be a tougher sell to those looking for sound quality.
Does the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) or Nothing Ear (Stick) have a better microphone?
Earbuds have improved their microphone audio quality over the years, but they’re still mainly used only for phone calls. Still, if you’re using your earbuds primarily as a work device to talk to people, it’s possible that the slightly better noise rejection of the Nothing Ear (Stick) will be appreciated by your coworkers and video chat client.
In our experience both in the real world and the lab, neither microphone has a huge advantage over the other—but that’s not a bad thing. However, if you’re picking nits to try to decide which product is “better,” it might be worth instead asking “does it really matter?” Hear for yourself below.
Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo (Ideal conditions):
Nothing Ear (Stick) microphone demo (Ideal conditions):
Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo (street conditions):
Nothing Ear (Stick) microphone demo (street conditions):
Which microphone sounds best to you?
Should you get the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) or Nothing Ear (Stick)?
If you have an iOS device, there’s no contest. The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) has a lot more features to offer, like full spatial audio support, hands-free voice assistant access, and smart controls for ending playback when the earbuds are removed. However, the cost is the big sticking point. Not everyone has $169 USD lying about, and spending an extra $70 on earphones that will last from 1-3 years might be money wasted for many. It’s up to you what’s worth the money, but $70 is a lot of dough!
On paper and in practice, the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) has a lot more to offer buyers than the Nothing Ear (Stick) does, but there are a handful of situations where the Nothing Ear (Stick) is the better buy. For example, if money really is that tight, or if you are primarily looking to listen to podcasts and take calls with the earphones.
Of course, there aren’t a whole lot of unsealed earphones like these out there that aren’t dollar-store dreck—so the list of alternatives is going to be short (or a collection of in-ears with different features). For better or worse, AirPods in general seem to have eaten up this niche and other companies have taken to the in-ear segment to stay profitable.
What should you get instead of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and Nothing Ear (Stick)?
If you’re looking for something that blocks out noise or has ANC, you’re going to want to keep looking. You’ll likely (but not necessarily) have to shell out more money for this feature, but it’s something that will solve a lot of issues for many people. For example, being unable to hear their tunes over the din of outside noise.
For iOS users with money burning a hole in their pocket, upgrading to the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) will tick all these boxes and then some, as its feature list and performance is a huge step up from the original AirPods design. However, if you’re buying earphones to use with another source that doesn’t have Apple’s iOS: you’ll want to poke around the other options available, as there are plenty of bargains out there for the right buyer. For example, the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 Pro offer competitive features to the AirPods Pro (2nd generation), but at a lower price.
Frequently asked questions
Yes, they’re perfectly fine—if very expensive—earbuds. However, they don’t do much to set themselves apart from other earbuds when they’re not being used with iOS, so that price is hard to swallow.
No, it does not.