Review: Altec Lansing Backbeat 106, 206 + 326 Noise-Isolating Earphones
In-canal earphones have become more popular during the iPod's and iPhone's lifetimes, and though we tend to focus our recommendations and attention on mid-range and higher-end models -- ones that have the greatest potential to actually improve the quality of what you're hearing from your device -- there's no doubt that inexpensive new designs continue to appear every year, offering users cheap ways to transition away from Apple's stock earbuds and move towards headphones that do a better job of blocking outside sound, if nothing else. For 2009, Altec Lansing has a new set of Backbeat-branded in-canal earphones that do just that, ranging in price from $30 to $80, and improving with each step up the pricing ladder.
Note up front that all three Backbeat earphones look and feel very similar to one another. The plastic and silicone rubber earpieces take gold and black design cues from Altec’s 2008 Expressionist and inMotion speakers, connected to symmetrical gray fabric cables and iPhone-friendly headphone plugs. They all come with clear rubber tips in multiple sizes, and feel solid: assuming that you like the gold accents, they do have a serious, generally professional look that’s a nice contrast with the often times deliberately cheap, colorful appearance of inexpensive canalphones. Note that none includes a microphone or remote control; they’re all merely for listening to audio, not for controlling your recent model iPod or iPhone.
Backbeat 106 ($30, aka Backbeat Classic) is the least expensive model, and also the least impressive of the bunch—most likely deliberately. Though it looks nice and compact, it appears to have been designed to be a little stubby, and consequently doesn’t fit as completely or snugly in the canal as its pricier brothers. In part because of fit, and in part because of its speaker design, the bass in songs seems to be comparatively missing; there’s no thump here. Backbeat 106 presents music with a treble and midrange focus, and due to the missing bass, tends to sound a little tinny. In distortion level, Apple’s $29 Earphones with Remote and Mic may be similar, but we’d pick them first for the extra features and superior bass; they comparatively lack only in noise isolation, and even then, not by a lot.
Backbeat 206 ($50, aka Backbeat Plus) steps up $20 in price and was designed to offer comparatively enhanced bass, according to Altec. In our testing, there was no question that 206 is a better design than 106: with a slightly longer body, 206 fits a little better when placed in the ear, which helps the bass pick up a bit. But in an absolute sense, the bass is still on the weak side: again, Apple’s earbuds do better at conveying a sense of warmth, and while Backbeat 206 steps up from both 106 and Apple’s earphones in isolating outside noise, the sound they generate still tends to be a little flat and bland by comparison. These aren’t pricey earphones, and don’t deliver a premium listening experience, but they’re fine for those looking for a decent, midrange-focused canalphone with good isolation.
For sure, Backbeat 326 ($80, aka Backbeat Titanium) will be the model that interests iPod users the most. In addition to the standard features found in the less-expensive models, 326 also includes a small circular zippered carrying case, one extra pair of silicone rubber tips—double flanges, for superior isolation—and an even longer body design that does a better job of fitting in the ear. Notably, Altec says that there are superior titanium-coated drivers inside; this is the reason for the Backbeat Titanium name.
Practically speaking, 326 is a standout relative to the others here because it has a sound signature that’s more appealing: this is an in-canal earphone for bass fans, with a decidedly stronger, intentionally ear-filling bass emphasis than either of the others, yet less of the Darth Vader, echo-like effects heard in V-Moda’s prior-generation. super bassy Vibes. What you get for the dollar is bass performance comparable to a well-seated set of Apple’s standard earbuds, with slightly more midrange detail and emphasis, and the sort of ambient noise isolation that only canal-hugging tips can offer. We’d call 326 fine in the treble department; the heavier bass presence here tends to draw your ear away from highs, however.
Notably, the $80 asking price puts Backbeat Titanium in the same category as Apple’s recently-released In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, and once again, Altec is a little behind the curve by comparison in functionality for the dollar—there’s no mic, no remote, just the earphones. That said, we actually preferred the way the Titaniums sounded relative to the Apple In-Ears, which comparatively neglect the low end; Altec’s sound is just richer and almost always more fun to listen to. Unless Altec gets a similarly equipped sequel out soon, you’ll have to decide whether to invest in a less functional, better sounding pair like Titanium, or a more functional, weaker-sounding pair like Apple’s design.
Overall, we think Backbeat Titanium/326 is a good earphone for the price, particularly for bass fans, while Plus/206 and Classic/106 aren’t quite as impressive and strike us as deliberately designed to make 326 stand out - 206 is the better of those two, but more expensive for no great reason. We’d skip the lower-priced versions in favor of 326; if you’re on a budget, there are other $50 and less expensive options we’d go for, first.