Review: Altec Lansing UHS301 SnugFit Earbuds with Microphone
Five months have passed since Altec Lansing released its first pairs of "iPhone-compatible" earphones -- an over-the-ear pair called UHP307 ($40) and earbuds called UHP301 ($50), both billed as iPhone-ready because their headphone plugs were thin enough to fit Apple's recessed headphone port. We featured both earphones in First Looks at the time, but didn't review them because they didn't offer a complete iPhone headset experience: they were little more than iPhone-sized iPod earphones, lacking the microphones and call/playback control buttons of other true iPhone-ready options, including Apple's packed-in iPhone Stereo Headset. Altec promised that those features would soon arrive in an update.
In late November, the updated versions arrived: the UHS307 ($40) and UHS301 ($50) offer the same earphone designs, cables, and plugs as their predecessors, but now come with four things not found in the UHP-series designs: an in-line microphone, a single-button call/playback control, a shirt clip, and a 3.5mm to 2.5mm adapter cord for use with non-iPhone mobile phones. Altec also released another model, UHS306 ($90), which replaces the other models’ earbuds with in-canal earphones. Each of the models comes with silicone rubber eartips, a zippered neoprene carrying case, and attractive gray fabric cords; they’re all otherwise primarily made from gray plastic, and feature in-line volume controls in a box that’s separate from the microphone, if one’s included.
Basically, all five of these earphones strike us as a step or two back from the Etymotic-developed earphones Altec was selling a couple of years ago under its inMotion label, introducing elements from Plantronics’ cell phone headsets that don’t necessarily improve the iPhone or iPod earphone experience. Our separate reviews briefly discuss each version in relation to the others, as well as other iPhone-specific headsets we’ve tested.
The middle of the pack earphones are the UHS301 and UHP301. In each model, Altec wraps traditional earbud-style earphones with Bose TriPort IE or traditional Plantronics headset-style layers of blue silicone rubber, which are supposed to made the buds fit more snugly in your ears. We have not had good experiences with these in the past, and didn’t like them in UHS301 or UHP301, where they come in three different sizes, and with standard circular rubber caps as an alternative. Besides looking weird and uncool by iPod earphone standards, the sculpted caps did not feel right in our ears, and the standard ones felt bigger and harder than Apple’s old foam-covered iPod earphones, rather than comfortable.
Apparent sound quality is also affected substantially by the fit of ear tips. A word we do not often use in earphone reviews is “thin,” describing the sound that comes out of earphones or speakers that sound less than full-bodied, often as much because of poor channeling of the speakers’ output as anything else. The rubber caps in UHS301 and UHP301 just don’t deal wisely with the sound that’s coming out of the earphones’ metal grilles; they put rubber on top of the metal, blocking some of the output, while trying to channel the rest through smaller holes towards your ears. Here, the result is thinness—the sense that music is being compressed through a strainer, and not fully depicting the entire sound spectrum or detail it originally possessed.
With the UHP301, you’re basically getting a pair of less than Apple pack-in caliber earbuds at a fairly steep $50 price, but the UHS301 makes a little more sense thanks to the included microphone and call features. Callers described the UHS301’s microphone as similar to the UHS307’s, providing more natural sound—albeit a little softer than Apple’s own microphone—rather than the sharper sound of the UHS306. We wouldn’t pick these over Apple’s pack-ins, but users with ears shaped to fit the unusual rubber pieces may feel differently.
Given that they’re priced the same as earphones that come with in-line microphones, remotes, and 2.5mm adapters, our ratings of the UHP301 and UHP307 are a hint lower than the mic-equipped UHS301 and UHS307 versions, respectively, but it’s worth noting that we’re a bit disappointed with each of the earphones in this collection. Altec Lansing was generally on the right track with its Etymotic-developed InMotion earphones, but something seems to have gone wrong here—comfort, isolation, and style have all decreased rather than improved in this new generation of offerings. It sounds almost silly to say this, but we want our old Altec back, and soon.
Though we consider the UHS307 to be a good earphone overall, and the best of this bunch, the others are varying shades of “OK” save for the UHP306, which costs around twice the price of the others, and doesn’t approach the sound or comfort of past inMotion designs. It rates a D- in accordance with our policy on defective products, because of the frayed state it was in when received.