Review: Altec Lansing UHS306 SnugFit Earphones 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 odd man out in the collection is UHS306, which we had expected to like more than we actually did. This model’s in-canal earphones use cooler-looking dark gray barrels and silicone tips, separated by silver metallic speakers and housings. Altec includes four sets of rubber tips—small, medium, large, and double-flange, the latter designed to provide additional passive noise isolation. UHS306 effectively competes with v-moda’s $101 Vibe Duo, which also uses in-canal earphones, fabric cables, and silicone tips, and includes microphone and call/playback button features.
Altec has apparently—we’ll get to that in a minute—included a different microphone that callers told us sounded crisper than the other UHS-series mics, and was apparently designed for intelligibility rather than just pleasant conversation—the high-frequency details are emphasized to let you hear voices over background details. Though our callers said that the optimization was a little over-aggressive, and not optimized for normal conversations in quiet rooms, the mic here is better for people who are frequently using their headsets in noisy environments and want to be heard regardless.
Our main issue with UHS306 was in the user’s listening experience. Whereas Vibe Duo is a small, comfortable little canalphone with at least one set of tips that will feel right in your ears, none of UHS306’s really did. The single-flange small, medium, and large ones all felt flimsy and odd, while the earphone-elongating double-flanges felt thicker and irritating—these comments, mind you, are coming from users who have liked unmodified triple-flanges in the past. UHS306’s tips just don’t feel right in thickness or tapering. And the sound that’s produced, at least when run through these tips, isn’t impressive for the $90 asking price. It’s merely OK, with limited frequency response similar to the UHS301’s; there’s nothing, like Vibe Duo’s extended bass, to make it stand out from the rest of the pack.
Another problem we had with UHS306 was build quality. The portion of its fabric cabling around its microphone and call/playback button was fraying and exposing wires inside before we even used the headset, a sign that something didn’t go quite right in the manufacturing process; the separation became more noticeable as we continued testing. It’s unclear whether the UHS306’s microphone behaved differently because of this, but as audio playback through the right earpiece didn’t seem to be affected, we doubt it; our only concern is the longevity of a headset that shipped in deteriorating condition.
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.