The Nothing Ear (stick) EARBUDS

Cheaper than AirPods, and just as satisfying to use

Another day, another headphone? Not so much, in the case of these extraordinary new wireless earbuds from a rather unusual tech start-up.

The first thing to know about the quirkily named Ear (stick) from the quirkily named Nothing (which we first featured a year ago) is that they are an amazing value. At $99, they offer Apple-level quality, both in manufacture and performance, at just over half the price of entry-level AirPods.

We’ve been listening to a lot of familiar tracks on a pair these past weeks and have discovered elements of the music we hadn’t previously noticed. The sound is fresh and sharp as well as loud as heck, the way we like it.

If it’s a bit too fresh for your liking, there’s a simple, stylish, and effective companion app that offers tone controls so you can set the bass, treble, and middle as you prefer them. It’s the level of control audiophiles don’t want you to have—there’s a silly, over-purist thing in audio-geek land that you have to listen to music as it’s served by the recording engineer and not alter it. It’s the audio equivalent of chefs who throw you out of their restaurant if you ask for salt and pepper.

Another thing about the Ear (stick)—and, yes, we know it’s a stupid name that grates even more on repetition—is that they are a terrifically innovative bit of industrial design. Even the case is clever and pleasing. Remember how addictive opening and closing the first AirPods case was when they came out in 2016? The tubular container in which the Ear (stick) comes is simpler but just as gratifying to fiddle with.

A word about Nothing’s pedigree. The company was set up in 2020 by Carl Pei, a 33-year-old, Beijing-born Swede currently based in London. When you learn Pei has adopted Sweden as his homeland, the idiosyncratic (and, honestly, slightly jarring) English branding-and-marketing language makes more sense. It’s a Stockholm tech thing. Nothing’s design is done by another eccentric, thoroughly excellent Swedish tech company, Teenage Engineering.

Pei also co-founded an extremely successful Chinese smartphone company, OnePlus, in 2013, when he was in his early 20s. He has now left OnePlus, but Nothing does have a novel and highly acclaimed smartphone, the Phone (1), in its range. It’s not available yet in the U.S., however.

A lot of us in tech wonder who the next Steve Jobs might be, and after having lunch with the modest and charming Pei in London in 2016, your columnist formed the opinion it may just be this young Chinese Swede.

The Wilson Audio Alexia V, from $67,500.00.

The Wilson Audio Alexia V Speakers

Big sound at an even bigger price

Speaking of audiophiles, we were invited to an audition of the latest speakers from Wilson Audio, of Provo, Utah, at London’s renowned KJ West One home-audio store.

Wilson is arguably the most upscale speaker manufacturer in the world. So you might think that, at $67,500-plus a pair, its Alexia V is a flagship model, but in fact it’s pretty entry-level. And at 265 pounds a speaker, it’s a featherweight compared with their actual flagship, the seven-foot-high Wamm Master Chronosonic, a pair of which weigh in at 1,800 pounds and cost $685,000.

So, what does the cheapskate who can only afford the Alexia V get for the bargain-basement price? The answer is a mind-blowing audio experience that makes it hard to imagine what you get for the extra $617,500 required to upgrade to the senior model.

We should explain that for those relegated to the Alexia V, the $67,500 isn’t quite the end of it. The store—which, one can assume, was showing off a little—paired the speakers with hardware from British makers dCS and Vertere and Swiss amplifier-mongers darTZeel, and cables from Transparent of Saco, Maine. Total retail: more than $490,000. Suddenly, the cost of the speakers on their own doesn’t seem so steep after all.

It has to be said, Wilson speakers are kind of handsome but far from classical beauties. They look like foot soldiers in an army of amputee robots, even in the custom color of your choice.

Is this level of spending on hi-fi ludicrous nonsense? We’d love to say it is a waste of money and effort, but what we heard was as close as you can come to being in a live-concert hall. We were particularly struck by a 1962 recording of a Benjamin Britten children’s opera, Noye’s Fludde. Hearing everything as clearly as if one were there was downright eerie, nothing less than a time machine.

Total-immersion audio like Wilson and its co-stars offer is worth the money, if you happen to have it, along with the musical connoisseurship, the space, and perhaps a slightly obsessive personality.

The Moto Razr, $599.99.

The Moto Razr Cell Phone

A slice of the past, updated for the smartphone age

At the dawn of mobile telephony, when the devices we shouted into were like house bricks, Motorola was so central to technological progress that you could have imagined the brand name being almost a synonym for a cell phone. The later DynaTAC flip phone and the StarTAC clamshell phone were pioneering innovations we clamored for.

Even when cell phones became a fashion object, the Moto Razr, introduced in 2004, was attractive enough to survive the onslaught of the iPhone for a while.

The cell-phone wing of Motorola, still headquartered in Chicago but now Chinese-owned after a spell as part of Google, is still surprisingly energetic.

Its new Moto Razr, which is branded as the Razr 2022 to distinguish it from previous versions, is a folding 5G smartphone along the lines of Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold range, but we think possibly better.

When the huge, 6.2-inch screen magically appears from what was a smooth, palm-size square, it’s hard to see where the screen hinges. Moto says that fold is good for at least 200,000 folds, or an estimated five years of use.

The O.L.E.D.-screen quality is pretty magnificent, as is the 48-megapixel main camera. And the selfie/zoom lens, which Moto claims is the world’s best, is very impressive indeed.

Will the new Razr (which we see is already being heavily discounted) challenge the iPhone or big-name Androids? No. Is it a good choice for a work-and-leisure phone nonetheless? Unquestionably, yes. An eccentric choice, but one you will be proud of when people admire your Razr.

The Spintronics Circuit Building Kit, from $75.95.

The Spintronics Circuit-Building Kit

If a Ph.D. is too much, but nothing is not enough

Looking for an unusual Christmas gift for a scientifically inclined youngster (or youngster at heart)? Spintronics, just out from Upper Story, a tiny company in St. Paul, Minnesota, could be your best bet.

A few years back, they invented a marble-powered computer, which replicated the basic workings of a computer in mechanical form, with marbles playing the part of electrons. They named it Turing Tumble, in honor of Alan Turing, considered by many to be the founder of modern computer science.

Spintronics, Upper Story’s new product, renders the invisible workings of all kinds of electronic circuits physical, with chains running through sprockets to replicate current running through wires and all types of components, from transistors to resistors, capacitors, inductors, switches, batteries, and more.

It’s a mind-bending idea, with more than a touch about it of Rube Goldberg and W. Heath Robinson, the early-20th-century cartoonists who drew crazy but almost plausible machines.

Spintronics makes such nutty ideas in colorful physical machines. Huge fun whether you fully understand what you’re doing or struggle with the underlying science.

Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer for the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology