LONDON – The co-founder of the Chinese smartphone manufacturer OnePlus is challenging Apple with a cheaper alternative to the technology giant’s popular wireless earbuds.
Carl Pei helped develop OnePlus with his ex-colleague Pete Lau in 2013. OnePlus attracted a following by making cheap Android phones with attractive specifications. Pei left the company in October.
Now, Pei is back with a new hardware company called Nothing that aims to create a range of smart devices connected through an app. On Tuesday, the London-based startup unveiled its first product, a line of wireless earbuds called the Ear 1.
The headphones are “really wireless”, ie they are connected to each other without cables. They have active noise cancellation, similar to the AirPods Pro. But at $ 99, they’re a lot cheaper than Apple’s mid-range earbuds, which cost $ 249, as well as Samsung’s $ 200 Galaxy Buds Pro.
“We saw that the real wireless market grew pretty fast this year,” Pei, 31, told CNBC. “It felt like a place where we can make a difference.”
True wireless earbud sales reached 233 million units in 2020 and are projected to exceed 300 million units this year, according to Counterpoint Research.
Pei’s company faces tough competition. Apple made up almost a third of the market last year, while China’s Xiaomi and Samsung were the second and third largest players by market share.
However, Pei believes that most consumer technology today feels “cold” and believes there is ample opportunity for an aspiring player to break into the market.
“There’s a general lack of interest in consumer technology,” Pei said. “Instead, there are a lot of negatives about technology – tech companies are monopolistic, privacy issues and so on – and when you look at products it becomes more iterative and less fun.”
Nothing hopes that a few quirks in Ear 1’s design can help it stand out from the competition. For one, Nothing’s earbuds show the user the magnets attached to the case, which are usually hidden inside most wireless headphones.
The unusual requirement to make the magnets visible resulted in two Nothing factories separating because they were viewed as too small, Pei said.
The housing of the Ear 1 is also transparent and has a recess between the two buds to make it easier to hold.
Another unusual design choice with the Ear 1 is the lack of the letters “L” and “R” to indicate to the user which earbud is on the left and which is on the right. Instead, the right earbud has a red dot while the left one has a white dot.
According to Pei, the color “red” would translate as “correct” for many hardcore audio fans. For example, on RCA audio cables, red usually represents the correct audio channel.
Design quirks aside, nothing says the Ear 1 can play up to 5.7 hours of music on a single charge and up to 34 hours with its case – longer than the AirPods Pro. Each bud weighs 4.7 grams.
It comes with three different microphones, two of which collect ambient noise while the third focuses on the voice. Nothing says it also uses machine learning to block out different types of background noise.
The buds are connected to an app that has four different equalizer settings and three noise-canceling modes, Pei said.
A limited number of Ear 1 units will be shipping on July 31st, Nothing said, while open sales begin on August 17th. In the UK, the headphones will be available from the luxury Selfridges department store.
Nothing auctioned 100 limited edition engraved versions of the Ear 1 on the StockX marketplace last week, with one unit grossing a staggering $ 1,029.
The exclusive character of the Ear 1’s debut is reminiscent of old OnePlus phone launches, which were often by invitation only.
Nothing has raised over $ 20 million to date from investors like Alphabets GV, iPod inventor Tony Fadell, and YouTube star Casey Neistat. The company plans to raise funds again either late this year or early 2022.