OnePlus recently launched the Buds Z2, which are a pair of truly wireless earbuds and successor to the 2020 OnePlus Buds Z. While they are still fairly affordable, the new model comes with active noise-cancellation and improved drivers for better performance.
Priced at $100, the new Buds Z2 cost exactly the same as the Nothing ear (1), which too are a pair of affordable wireless earbuds with ANC. Having reviewed them in the past, we had our reservations about both products but ultimately both seemed to perform reasonably well for the price. The question then is which one’s better? Let’s find out.
When it comes to aesthetics, the Nothing ear (1) have a clear advantage. The use of transparent plastics for the case and the earbuds is as striking today as it was six months ago. Few products are as eye-catching and unique in their appearance. The new black variant loses some of that see-through appeal with its darkened black plastics but is still nice to look at.
In contrast, the Buds Z2 looks fairly generic. The overall design is rehashed from the first generation model although there are some differences. The pill-shaped case is now narrower as the earbuds inside are smaller. More specifically, the stems of the earbuds are smaller but the shape is similar.
The Buds Z2 do, however, have better build quality. They feature IP55 dust and water resistance while the Nothing ear (1) have only IPX4 splash resistance. The case also feels better put together; while our white review unit of the ear (1) had a firm lid, the black model had a loose and shaky hinge. The ear (1) case also gets covered in scratches within days of use and progressively loses its luster while the Buds Z2 case only seems to attract fingerprints and smudges but can be cleaned off easily.
My original complaint with the Buds Z case still holds true for the Buds Z2. The way the earbuds are arranged inside the case with their stems pointing inwards makes them awkward to remove and place back. Your hand naturally wants to place them with the stems facing outwards after you pull them out of your ears but you then have to twist your hand to turn the stem inwards before putting them back in the case.
Overall, though, this one goes to the Buds Z2. The Nothing ear (1) look a lot nicer but the Buds Z2 are better built.
While comfort is a subjective thing, I had no issues with either pair of earbuds as both are relatively small and lightweight. After a while, you tend to forget you are even wearing anything.
While the Buds Z2 are the lighter of the two, they seem to basically weigh the same. However, the longer stalks of the Z2 are more noticeable than those of the ear (1), which barely touch the side of your face. Regardless, neither pair should pose any major comfort issues to most users.
Software and features
The OnePlus Buds Z2 and the Nothing ear (1) both feature a companion app for customizing their feature set.
The Nothing app is fairly basic and identical on iOS and Android. You can control the ANC modes (ANC on, ANC off, Transparency), and adjust the strength of the ANC (Light, Maximum). There are also four EQ presets available (Balanced, More Treble, More Bass, Voice) but no custom EQ. You can also change what happens when you triple-tap the earbuds (Next Song, Previous Song, No action) and if you press and hold (Noise cancellation, No action). A double-tap always pauses the music.
Other things you can do in the app: disable the in-ear detection, adjust the latency mode (Normal, Low latency), use Find My Earbud, and update the firmware. The Find My Earbud feature still plays the sound at maximum volume instead of a crescendo to avoid hearing damage if the earbuds are still in your ears but at least now it warns you before playing the sound.
The Buds Z2 have effectively two apps. On OnePlus phones, you rely on a built-in feature that integrates the options within the Bluetooth settings through a system-level app. It takes one too many steps, especially on older OnePlus phones, but once in you are greeted with a UI that looks part of the OxygenOS rather than being a separate app.
Here you can adjust the ANC modes, earbud gestures with a few extra options compared to the ear (1), including a gesture where you press and hold to switch between the current and previously paired device, in-ear detection settings, and an AirPods Pro style earbud fit test. Unlike the more expensive OnePlus Buds Pro, you don’t get additional features like Zen Mode Air (plays soothing sounds) and OnePlus Audio ID (customizes the sound to your hearing) with the Buds Z2.
OnePlus audio settings on the 9RT
However, if you are on a non-OnePlus Android phone or an iPhone, then you have to rely on the HeyMelody app. This app is designed to support all Oppo and OnePlus earbuds and has essentially the same features and controls but with a different UI.
Compared to the barebones audio customization features in the Nothing app, the Buds Z2 provide no audio customization at all. You are expected to make any adjustments through your phone’s system-level EQ instead, assuming you have any.
This brings me to the Dolby Atmos support claimed by OnePlus for the Buds Z2 and a few other OnePlus audio products. This claim is completely bogus, or at the very least extremely misleading and relies on reading the fine print. Despite what the marketing may lead you to believe, none of the OnePlus wireless products support Dolby Atmos. The Atmos support comes from the OnePlus smartphone they are paired to, and that too select OnePlus smartphone models.
This means you can experience Dolby Atmos if you pair these earbuds with one of the OnePlus phones that supports this feature. But you could also just use any wired or wireless headphones with these phones and experience Dolby Atmos. I was able to use Atmos on a OnePlus 9RT regardless of whether I was using the OnePlus Buds Z2 or the Nothing ear (1).
The point is that the Dolby Atmos feature is not inherent to the OnePlus Buds Z2 but rather to the source device and you need a source with the feature for it to work, whether with these earbuds or any other.
The Buds Z2 feature 11mm drivers whereas the ear (1) have slightly larger 11.6mm graphene drivers. Both support only SBC and AAC codecs and Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity.
The Buds Z2 and ear (1) are both average-sounding earbuds. While neither is particularly bad, they have very strong tonal characteristics, which makes picking one over the other difficult.
The ear (1) are very bright and sibilant-sounding earbuds. Most of the tonality is dominated by the excessive energy in the upper registers, which makes the sound seem excessively shrill or harsh at times. The mid-range takes a bit of a back seat, especially in the upper ranges, and sounds a bit hollow. It also has a nasal and robotic quality to it, which doesn’t make voices sound particularly pleasant. The bass response is good with an overall clean delivery and a slight bump at the low-end for some extra rumble.
The Buds Z2, on the other hand, are entirely dominated by an excessive amount of mid-bass. It tends to drown out most of the other sounds, particularly in the mid-range. The high-end is reasonably well-balanced but does have some sibilance at certain frequencies.
Compared to the more expensive Buds Pro, the Buds Z2 have a slightly less pronounced mid-range response and a more robotic tonality. It seems the audio processing isn’t as sophisticated or uses cheaper components, even though the drivers are identical. Both have the same bloated mid-bass response.
With such different audio signatures, it’s hard to say which one to go for. Neither comes even close to achieving neutrality or any sort of balance in the sound, instead preferring to boost one end of the audio spectrum or the other. However, while the bass of the Buds Z2 is a bloated mess, they do sound a bit more natural in the mids, especially while listening to primarily vocal content like podcasts. The ear (1), on the other hand, had an annoying metallic twang to the vocals that made them unsuitable for vocal content.
Technically, neither is particularly impressive. In terms of resolution and detail, they are both fairly mediocre. The ear (1) tend to sound a bit more detailed but that’s largely due to the exaggerated treble response. The Buds Z2 tend to sound mellower and a bit mushier in comparison. Both have average imaging and soundstaging.
While both can get quite loud, the Buds Z2 can get louder. This is usually not a concern as both have ample volume for general music playback, when listening to content with a low volume, the Buds Z2 can flex their higher peak volume over the ear (1). It’s possible the difference may be due to the Indian version of the Buds Z2 I’m using here having a higher 102dB volume limit vs the 98dB on the international model. The international model may get similarly loud as the ear (1) in other regions.
The Buds Z2 have better microphone performance than the ear (1). Both sound okay in a quiet room, with the Buds Z2 sounding marginally better as the sound from the ear (1) tends to waver a bit.
In a noisy environment, both do a reasonable job of reducing the ambient noise. However, while the voice from the Buds Z2 remains audible and clear, the voice from the ear (1) tends to get obliterated along with the noise and it’s hard to understand what is being said.
Both the Buds Z2 and the ear (1) feature active noise cancellation with a transparency mode. Both let you adjust the level of noise cancellation or turn it off completely.
The ANC on both earbuds is mediocre. Both do an okay job getting rid of the rumble and thrum of ambient noise but do very little about the noise in the mid and upper ranges. The Buds Z2 do a bit better here whereas with the ear (1) it’s often hard to tell if the ANC is even working. If you care about ANC, neither pair of earbuds is a good choice.
Both have reasonably good transparency mode. The one on the Buds Z2 sounds a bit more natural but the ear (1) are also serviceable in this regard.
The Buds Z2 let you pick two or more of its ANC modes to quickly toggle between with the touch gesture through the app. You can, for example, select ANC Max and Transparency as your two options and toggle between them with the gesture. The ear (1) don’t have this option and so you will cycle between all three ANC options — ANC On, transparency, ANC off — every time.
The Buds Z2 have better latency performance of the two. While watching videos, the Buds Z2 feel almost as good as wired earbuds with no perceivable delay. While playing games, the delay is a bit more noticeable but still reasonable. There’s also a low latency mode but it can only be enabled with select OnePlus phones when the phone is in Pro Gaming mode.
The ear (1) latency performance was terrible when we reviewed them at launch. It has improved a bit since then but is still not good enough. While watching videos, the audio delay is quite low but it can drift apart if you scrub through the video. Gaming performance is ruthlessly bad and even the low latency option that was added post-launch doesn’t do much to improve the situation.
Connectivity and reliability
In terms of general connectivity and reliability, the Buds Z2 performed well. I didn’t have any issues with dropped connections or even an occasional blip and the earbuds performed reliably throughout.
The ear (1), on the other hand, are anything but reliable. At launch, the product was basically a mess with a range of software and hardware issues. Since then, the severity of the issues has gone down but you still face them on a regular basis.
The issues range from only one earbud working at times, the ANC mode kicking in in only one ear, the ANC mode drifting in and out, or randomly switching to the light setting without actually being switched in the app, occasional pauses or blips in the sound, and so forth.
There are also hardware issues with the product. The earbuds will sometimes not sit correctly in the charging case and remain paired with the phone even after you’ve closed the lid. On a couple of occasions, I’ve come back to the phone hours later only to see the earbuds still connected from the last time I used them. You have to monitor your phone to see if the earbuds have disconnected every time, something you don’t have to do with other earbuds.
Just to be clear, these aren’t issues experienced on a single pair of Nothing ear (1) but rather four different pairs. Actually, it’s three different pairs because the fourth one was dead on arrival and never actually worked.
The Buds Z2 have the better battery life of the two. OnePlus claims 5 hours of battery life and I managed to get 4.5 hours of continuous playback.
The Nothing also claims 5 hours of battery life for the ear (1), which is oddly higher than the original claim of 4 hours. I managed to get 3.5 hours of continuous playback, which is more in line with the original claim and far from the new one.
In both cases, the ANC was on and they were tested using AAC with matched volumes.
On paper, the Nothing ear (1) seem like the more interesting and exciting product of the two. The transparent design will never not be striking and evokes an emotional response you rarely get from products in this price category.
Unfortunately, it just goes downhill from there for the ear (1). The sound is overly harsh and treble-heavy, the ANC is weak, the microphone performs poorly in noisy environments, and the audio latency is too high for gaming.
But what lets the ear (1) down the most is the reliability issues. There are both software and hardware issues with the product still months after launch and at this point, it seems we are better off waiting for the second generation model rather than expecting things to get any better with this one.
The OnePlus Buds Z2, on the other hand, mostly work as you’d expect. On top of that, they have better ANC performance, better microphone quality, much lower latency, and also better battery life. The sound is way too bass-heavy but the average buyer may be into that more than the ear (1)’s treble-heavy sound, so for some this may actually be an upside.
Overall, the OnePlus Buds Z2 is the better product of the two.