Review: Altec Lansing inMotion iM302 Headphones
Pros: iPod-matching white earphones in distinctive designs, each including plastic cases and long cords. iM202s in particular are cool alternatives to many bland white earbuds.
Cons: Not the best audio quality or balanced sound we’ve heard for the prices; iM302s are not comfortable, and are more expensive than other, better options. Some users may perceive the 202’s lack of treble and 302’s lack of bass as steps down from Apple’s packed-in earbuds, which are only decent low-end options.
While there are many good headphones on the market, few properly match Apple’s iPod in color and style. For most iPod fans, white headphones - particularly earbuds - have become a stylistic necessity.
Until recently, Altec Lansing has been known in the iPod market primarily for its portable speaker systems. That’s about to change, now that the company has introduced a new and visually exciting set of headphones, as well as rebranding an older set under the company’s inMotion name.
The newer headphones are called the iM202 model (also known as iM202WHT for their “white” color designation), while the older ones are now called the iM302, and similarly badged with the WHT in their iPod-colored version. Both products are from a family of Altec products originally called “OYOYO,” and have now been switched to the inMotion portable audio line as complements to the company’s portable speaker systems.
Besides their white coloring, the two products share other traits: both include nice plastic protective cases, each of which incorporates a groove so that you can safely wrap your cables for storage when not in use. Each set’s cord is around five feet long and splits off into equal lengths for your left and right ears, with a gold-plated stereo minijack at the iPod end. And both are targeted at the same general market: low-end headphone buyers who don’t want to use in-ear buds.
While both headphones are unusually designed, the iM302 ($49.99) version is the more awkward. It grafts two large white plastic and metal drivers on the outsides of your ears, holding them in place with a somewhat flexible white plastic band that wraps around the tops of your ears and the back of your head. We found the earphones easy enough to fit in the proper place, but the band always felt uncomfortable at the back of our necks. It was just a bit too firm in just the wrong places to make you forget that you’re wearing earphones - sort of like how Apple’s iPod pack-ins feel inside your ears, but now on the outside of your head instead.
On the bright side, the iM302s sound fine. For the price, they offer generally agreeable dynamic range, with reasonable treble and a bit too little bass, though like Altec’s inMotion speakers they aren’t as strong in the clarity department. All of this is somewhat predictable for the price; it’s hard to find a really clear, distortion-free headphone under $100 (some would say $300), and the bass is lacking because they’re outside of your ears and unable to channel the thumping directly into your ear canals. For the same reason, you hear more ambient noise from outside when they’re on your head than when you’re using Apple’s packed-in earbuds. Depending on how you use your iPod, this could be a good or a bad thing, but most people prefer more of a seal against the outside world.
The iM302s come in an ovular, piranha-esque case that works well to protect both the phones and their cord. Because the earphones fold up in an interesting way - one that is more attractive than when they’re unfolded, actually - the case and its cord-management system perform a valuable function that a simple bag couldn’t accomplish. Score one for Altec on that front.
Of the two pairs, the newer and smaller iM202 version is definitely more interesting - mostly in their looks. Like Sony’s MDR-EX81s (iLounge review: A), which we really liked, the iM202s are a different type of earbud. They go over the ear and suspend the bud in your ear canal with external support. But unlike the EX81s, the iM202s don’t fill up your ear canals with rubber. Instead, they’re a cross between the MDR-EX81s’ around the ear suspension system and the iPod pack-ins’ bud shape, resting in just the same place as the iPod pack-ins but held in place outside the ear. It’s an unusual combination, but one that will please those people who don’t like the feeling of deeper in-canal phones. The only consequence is lower external noise isolation, which is comparable to (perhaps a mite beneath) Apple’s own buds.
Though we really liked the feel of the plastic outer frames of Sony’s EX81s, some of our readers couldn’t find a way to make them feel comfortable on their ears. Altec’s over-the-ear frames may be better for those users: each features a thin and truly adjustable top pipe that locks into two places a few millimeters apart, and slides gently between them. Larger, thicker L-shaped pieces of outer plastic hold the chrome earbuds in place on your ears, and you twist the Ls so that the top pipes and L tops fall where your eartops touch your head. Combined with the adjustable top piping, this last bit of position tweaking makes the Altecs a bit more likely to fit different shapes of ears without incident.
Like the iM302s, the iM202s sound fine for the price, but have a dynamic range that’s more bass-heavy than balanced, in part because they’re more closely positioned to the ear. We still wouldn’t call the iM202s super-clear - music sounds a bit compressed, which isn’t surprising for the price. And despite the treble-light sound, they’re not bass superstars: they don’t so much define different bass notes as present them as a thump, which is what many consumers of lower-cost headphones seem to like.
Like the 302s, the 202s include a protective case, though the latter’s is better than the former’s: circular in shape with two clear pop-open compartments for the earpieces, the center of the 202’s case has a groove for coiling the cable. It resembles Audio Outfitters’ EarPod, only entirely appropriate (and limited to) this particular pair of headphones.
Overall, the iM302s and iM202s are acceptable iPod pack-in replacements, but not the top-of-class options we would have hoped for. They’re not as clear as some others we’ve heard, lack treble-balanced sound, and may put some people off because of their unusual designs. Mostly because we liked the look of the iM202s, we think they’re are a fun pair to experiment with, the iM302s less so because of their less comfortable headband. Younger and less picky iPod owners may well find both worth a try; serious audiophiles should stay far away.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.