While it has a long history making audio equipment, it's taken Altec Lansing a while to develop its own line of custom-fit earbuds. The company's first effort, the $499 A1 Custom Single Driver Earphone, is a solid one, offering a great fit and well-balanced sound.
In order to get a custom pair of earbuds, an audiologist must first take molds of your ears. As with the Ultimate Ears custom monitors we tested, the audiologist inserted a piece of cotton deep into our ear canal, and then injected a pink silicone using a plunger. It was a weird sensation as the cold goo went in, and cut off almost every sound from the outside world.
Unlike our Ultimate Ears session, we weren't required to hold a bite block in our mouth, but were told to keep our jaw loose. We then waited patiently for 10 to 15 minutes while the silicone hardened, and then the audiologist removed the forms.
Altec Lansing listed only one audiologist in all of Manhattan were you can get fitted for their earbuds. Of course, Ultimate Ears only has two on the island. However, we like the fact that the cost of the fitting for the Altec Lansing buds -- which can range from $50 to $150 -- is included in the cost.
Typically, it takes about two weeks for the earbuds to arrive; ours arrived in a neat-looking silver plastic case, along with a tool to clean out the canals, a ¼-inch plug adapter, and a cream to help the buds fit comfortably in your ears.
Design and Fit
The A1 earbuds fit perfectly into our ears, almost too well. In fact, we had a little bit of trouble pulling them out; a small tab would go a long way in this regard. A small red dot lets you know which one is for the right ear, but it can be hard to spot. Made of medical-grade silicone, we liked that the earbuds had a little flexibility, so they were comfortable even when we yawned.
The earbuds' Kevlar-coated cords are thin but very durable, measuring a long 62 inches. The cords are meant to loop around your ear, but we had to give them a twist to make sure they remained looped around our ears. We would have preferred a small plastic guide, as with the Ultimate Ears and the Sonomax eers PCS-250.
To test the A1s, we listened to a variety of tracks, some of which were MP3s recorded at no less than 160 kbps, as well as FLAC and Apple Lossless files. The single ACS armature in the S1s did a great job reproducing music of all genres. Everything we listened to was well-balanced. Jay-Z's vocals were bright, and weren't overwhelmed by the bass on "Empire State of Mind."
On classical tracks such as Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Beethoven's 9th Symphony, we could pick up the sound of pages shuffling, chairs creaking, and bows hitting stings. As there's only a single driver--as opposed to the three in the Ultimate Ears in-ear reference monitors--the roar of cannons wasn't as dramatic, but still made their presence felt. On live recordings, such as a String Cheese Incident concert at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, we could make out individual conversations in the crowd.
By comparison, we found audio from the dual drivers in the Sonomax eers PCS-250 to be slightly muddier, and bass a little heavier.
Our $499 A1 model were the low-end of Altec Lansing's custom earphone line. The company also makes the $749 A2 dual-driver, and the $999 A3 triple-driver earphones.
As befitting its legacy, the Altec Lansing A1 Custom Single Driver Earphones fit well, and were a delight when listening to music. They fit more snugly, and delivered better audio than the Sonomax eers PCS-250. While we prefer Ultimate Ears $1,000 Custom in-ear reference monitors, the A1s deliver a superb audio experience for half the price.