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Featured Review: Marshall London

October 5, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

New players enter the smartphone market all the time, but by now we’re mostly used to hearing strange Chinese names rather than brands that are familiar to Western markets.  This time around it’s a bit different as London-based Marshall, a company known for its guitar amps and other audio products, is entering the smartphone market for the first time.  Instead of just dropping another flagship device on us with top-tier specs or a phone that retails for less than everything else on the market, Marshall is opting for a smartphone that specializes in what the company does: audio.  The price is all premium though even though many of the internals are not, so is this one really worth the â‚¬550 that it costs?  Let’s take a look.

Specs

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For â‚¬550 you’d probably expect top-of-the-line specs in every category, but you’re mostly only going to find it in one area instead: audio of course!  Focusing on the audio components first we’re looking at 2 heaphone jacks, 2 front-facing speakers, dual microphones with active noise cancellation when recording and even support for higher quality and lossless FLAC audio via the Cirrus Logic WM8281 Audio Hub.  The rest is something that looks more out of a budget phone than an expensive one, including a 1.2GHz quad-core 64-bit Snapdragon 410 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 720P IPS 4.7-inch Gorilla Glass 3 screen, 8mp camera on back and 2mp camera on front.  16GB of internal storage is included and microSD support is available for expandable storage and the 2,500mAh battery is also removable.  Last but not least the phone is mostly one-handable at 140.45mm tall, 70.25mm wide and 9.45mm thick and weighs only 145g.

In the Box

As Marshall is going for a mostly premium experience with the London it makes sense for the box to look and feel the part.  Upon opening the familiar looking black box that drips with Marshall’s design flavor you’ll immediately find the most important part of the whole package; no not the phone, a guitar pick!  Sure this is a silly little thing but it fits so well into the Marshall brand of rock & roll that it immediately makes you smile and reminds you what this phone is about: the music.  Below this you’ll find an immaculately wrapped London phone, dressed in thick black paper and giving the feeling like you’ve just opened a really amazing Christmas or birthday present.  Besides the usual microUSB cable and wall charger you’ll also find a screen protector, manual and even a pair of Marshall headphones designed to give you an amazing audio experience out of the box.  This is an amazing package that’s got plenty of character, just like the phone and the brand of course.

Display

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At 4.7-inches a display above 720P is probably not necessary to be completely honest.  Sure you could pack a 1080p display on here and woo everyone with the fact that you can’t see any pixels anywhere in the screen with the naked eye, but Marshall isn’t marketing this phone for those people.  The fact still remains that this is the resolution we normally find on budget phones, a spec that’s difficult to overlook for many, and the fact that the screen is incredibly small at 4.7-inches will likely be a plus for plenty and a negative for even more out there.  After all there’s a reason the phablet took off as well as it did and the overall size of screens grew considerably over the past few years.  That being said I never really felt cramped with the screen, even with software buttons taking up that small percentage of the bottom of the screen most of the time.

The quality of the panel was pretty good too, giving plenty of brightness outdoors, good contrast, accurate and attractive colors and good black levels for an LCD.  Viewing angles were great and the only negative I found is that the black levels dropped a bit at some angles, a problem that many likely won’t care about when showing off simple videos and the like to friends or family.  The digitizer is quite excellent too and I found myself typing furiously away on my favorite fast-typing keyboard (Fleksy) with nary an error.  There’s great multi-touch support here and it’s clear that Marshall didn’t skimp on the single most important part of the display anyway (the digitizer).

Hardware and Build

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Easily the most unique aspect of the phone aside from its audio capabilities, and certainly the thing everyone will notice right off the bat is the style of the phone itself.  First of all this thing looks like it was ripped right out one of Marshall’s product catalogs, a design that’s wholly intentional and completely unique.  As such the materials used are ones you’d probably be more accustomed to getting on an amp rather than a phone, including rubber sides and a textured back.  The phone itself is built solidly and feels high quality, although the removable back is quite thin and feels a little bit cheap, taking away from premium feel just a bit.  It’s a pretty small device that feels surprisingly light, yet at the same time feels much more durable than most devices out there thanks to the rubber body the components are encased in.

A great looking pair of speaker bars sits atop and below the screen, giving you true stereo front-facing sound that we’ll discuss later.  Every button truly feels handcrafted and designed rather than carbon copied like so many other phones out there.  Up top you’ll find not one but two 3.5mm headphone jacks designed to deliver sound to more than one audio output, as well as the M button that takes you straight to music control, while long pressing it toggles the flashlight.  On the right you’ll find a rubberized power button and below that the incredible looking and feeling brass volume wheel.  The volume wheel clicks as it’s scrolled and also presses in and acts as a quick launch for the camera, an essential tool at any concert or other events.

With all these custom options you might be surprised to find a rather standard microUSB port on the bottom instead of something crazy and special, which honestly is just fine.  Behind the removable back you’ll find a single micro-SIM card slot, microSD card slot and the removable 2,500mAh battery.  The rather flimsy textured plastic back is held in with standard clips that pop off easily enough.

Performance and Memory

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Here’s where the crux of the device certainly is.  Pushing that more expensive price tag with less expensive processing components is a tough bet no matter how you slice it, but thankfully the phone performs just as well as you would expect from a modern smartphone.  In fact I found that this phone ran better and more smoothly than some significantly higher powered phones including the not yet properly released Huawei Mate S that we’re still testing.  That’s pretty impressive considering the massive downgrade in processing power this phone has, but it seems Marshall’s use of mostly stock Android accompanied with maybe some optimizations have created an excellent user experience.

Proper Android software buttons mean a dedicated Overview multi-tasking button.  This makes multi-tasking easy, fast and effortless, and the 2GB of RAM coupled with the relatively low-resolution screen mean apps will basically never reload no matter how many you’ve got open.  I found switching in-between apps was fast and without delay in general, and the multi-tasking experience was about as good as you could get.

Benchmarks

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Benchmarks certainly won’t make this phone look good, there’s just no way around it.  Take a look and see for yourself but don’t forget that these tests don’t always reflect what you’ll find in daily usage, rather they are a measure of maximum performance in many areas.

Phone Calls and Network

Marshall-London-AH-phoneBeing a phone only sold in Europe at the present time I was surprised to find that I got good 3G HDPA connectivity from the Marshall London.  Reception was mostly good although I had some problems with T-Mobile US’s network that will not be present when using this on a European network with proper band support.  Call quality was good and I have nothing to complain about, however volume needs some serious ticking upward as it’s way too quiet no matter what you do.  Using both the loudspeaker and earpiece on the phone always proved to be too quiet, and I found myself smashing the phone into my ear to hear the person on the other end.  Ironic considering the volume and clarity of these speakers in general, which you can read about below.

Battery Life

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When Marshall reps showed me the phone for the first time at IFA they explained a few things about the hardware choices made here.  First off they choice a processor that gives the best battery life possible rather than one that performs better than anything else out there.  As a result of this and the relatively lower resolution screen even a 2,500mAh battery can last well over a full day with heavy usage.  This simply cannot be said about most phones, even the big dogs out there, and is a testament to how Marshall designed the phone to be.  I consistently got over 5 hours of screen-on time even with streaming music and videos the entire day.  Often times it would take 2-3 hours off the charger to drop below 100% battery, something I’m simply not used to seeing no matter how many phones I review.  Simply put battery life is superb without pushing into extreme multi-day territory, and light users will find that 2-day battery life is fully achievable here without question.

Sound

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No doubt the selling point of the phone and quite possibly the reason it caught your eye in the first place, Marshall has absolutely built the London for the best sound possible from a smartphone.  Before the London the benchmark has been the HTC One series for years, as its front-facing BoomSound speakers trumped even the best of the best out there in smartphone land.  I would argue that the London easily ties the HTC One series for best speakers on the phone, in fact they were so good I used it in place of my Bluetooth speakers quite often.  We’re not just talking volume or clarity though, both of which these speakers can boast as being among the finest in the land, but we’re also talking range of sound as well as some palpable bass.  Holding the phone will give you the greatest impression of bass by far, as the vibration from the large sound drivers helps keep the bass line no matter the song.  The rubber construction of the phone means that even placing it on hard surfaces won’t result in a rattle or obnoxious sound, a choice that was obviously intentional when designing the device.

Sound output via Bluetooth or either of the dual-3.5mm headset jacks was just as impressive as the speakers on the device.  This is certainly in part thanks to the incredible Cirrus Logic WM8281 Audio Hub, which not only allows for two completely separate audio channels to be streamed, each with its own independent volume controls, but also to stream higher quality audio.  Lossless FLAC audio is supported and sounds phenomenal via any high-quality audio system.  Even MP3s are played back at higher resolution and result in some of the clearest, cleanest audio I’ve ever heard from a smartphone.

Of course we can’t forget to mention the headphones that are included in the box, which are designed to deliver an excellent experience straight to your ears.  The design again is all Marshall and looks the part, featuring semi-detached audio drivers that are joined together with ear buds.  These earbuds come in three different sizes, with the medium size ones attached from the get-go.  Along the cord you’ll find a microphone section for using these while on the phone or recording audio, as well as a lapel clip that features three buttons: a play/pause button as well as volume up and volume down buttons.  Overall sound quality from these headphones was good and featured some really great audio range, although I found them lacking quite a bit in the bass department.  Even after adjusting the bass levels in the built-in equalizer on the phone I couldn’t get any decent response out of them, and besides the clarity these are probably only marginally better than your average inexpensive headphones.  At least they were free and are comfortable.

Those that aren’t 100% happy with the default audio output can adjust it via the global equalizer, which is always accessible via the M button up top and a quick click to the EQ section.  This equalizer isn’t the most advanced one I’ve ever seen on a smartphone but it’s packed with more features than most might have.  What’s great here is that since this is a global equalizer it’s applied to all audio coming out of the phone no matter the audio source.  Marshall has also bundled a bunch of other music software in here, which we’ll discuss below.

One last section that’s not usually paid much attention to nowadays is the built-in sound effects, ringtones and alarm tones.  Most OEMs just ship their phones with the stock Android sounds and call it a day, or continue to recycle the ones they made up years ago when they first started building Android phones.  Marshall has crafted dozens and dozens of new ringtones, notification tones and alarm tones for use on the London and it really shows just how much care and effort was put forth into making this phone an experience rather than just another device.  These are all awesome sounds too and really fit the Marshall brand, and honestly it’s nice to see this sort of thing nowadays.

Software

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The London ships with Android 5.0.2, a throwback 9 months ago or so that’s a little odd given how long Android 5.1 has been out.  With 6.0 Marshmallow looming on the horizon it’s a wonder if Marshall will just skip the 5.1 update altogether, but it’s even more curious that we’re looking at an outdated version of Android out of the box simply because Marshall reps were so adamant about their update schedule.  Plainly put I was told the skin was light and simple because they wanted to be able to update it easily and quickly without a heavy OEM skin creating compatibility issues.  My biggest guess is that they’ve put some serious work into the audio portion of the phone so that may be holding them back a bit, but here’s hoping that the London gets a quick Marshmallow update to make up for the missing 5.1 update.

The biggest customizations to the UI you’re going to see are some additional quick toggles like invert colors and multi-color notification light, but that’s really about it.  Most of the menus are using the built-in Material Dark theme, which is built into Android Lollipop but isn’t often used over the standard Material Light theme.  Darker tones make more sense on a Marshall device, and in all honesty it’s easier on the eyes anyway, so it looks great.  Aside from this darker theme and custom icons for the built-in AOSP apps there’s not much different here than you’d find on a stock Android device, that is until you check out the included apps.

Apps

First up are the shortcuts to launch apps including clicking the volume rocker to launch the camera, holding the M button to toggle the flashlight, and pressing the M button to launch into the Marshall audio suite.  The M button is the fast track to listening to and tweaking your music, starting with what’s playing at the forefront of the app.  Every music service I tried from Google Play Music to Pandora, Spotify and SoundCloud worked perfectly with the interface, which mostly seems to use system commands to play, pause and skip tracks.  Individual control of both headphone ports’ volumes can be found here, as well as a quick way to record audio in stereo.  The equalizer is here as well as quick launches for WiFi, Bluetooth, system audio settings and even LoopStack for Android mixing engine.

Within LoopStack you can combine 4 different audio channels to create something unique, a sound mixing app that’s really quite a bit of fun to play with.  In addition to this there’s a separate DJing app that’s going to be released soon for those of you out there looking to cater the music selection for your next party a little more personally.  Within the built-in music app you’ll also find a bass-boost section as well as a visual screensaver of sorts, something I haven’t seen or played with since the Winamp days of yore.  Other included apps of note are MixCloud, SoundCloud and a little game called Rockbilly Bros.

Camera

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The camera is certainly an afterthought here, and while I can certainly appreciate the inclusion of Google Camera out of the box as the primary software, the overall camera experience leaves a bit to be desired.  At first I thought the camera was abysmal, with low resolution, dark shots that really looked like something out of a smartphone 4 years ago or more.  Once I started playing with it though and finding the weak spots of the camera things got better and the picture quality started looking up.  Modes like HDR, panorama and Photosphere are all here from the Google Camera app you can get off the Play Store and work just as well as they would with any other phone on the market.  Since this isn’t specialized software it doesn’t include advanced features like instant HDR or manual camera controls, but the software suite Google has put together is generally very user-friendly and works well.

The front-facing camera is the worst part of the experience and it’s really rather bad, there’s just no mincing words here.  I know the Marshall reps that I spoke with said the camera will work fine for most people and isn’t designed to win any awards, but I wish they would have put a tiny bit more effort into the package here. Even the 8mp shooter on the back is just satisfactory at best even in good light, taking pictures that are not bad to look at but not great either.  Overall image quality is just decent and it does OK in low light, but it’s obvious the camera was an afterthought without a doubt.

On the bright side the videos taken with the phone are rather good and feature some truly excellent audio reproduction thanks to the stereo microphones placed perfectly on the phone’s body.  Video quality in 1080p was also quite good and looked excellent on even a 60-inch TV where videos can really fall apart if they’re even moderate quality.  Video is certainly the strong suite here and is well worth using thankfully, unlike the bulk of the picture taking experience.

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Conclusion

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Marshall has created an incredibly compelling product in the London, a phone that looks and feels unashamedly Marshall to the core.  The biggest drawback here is going to be what you get for the price; at â‚¬550 you’re likely to get a phone that’s better specced in almost every respect when it comes to display, camera quality and processing speed. While there are phones out there with newer versions of Android, Marshall has assured me that updates will be coming for the London and should be quick given the ultra light touches that Marshall has put on Android’s look and feel.  The biggest draw here are the audio capabilities which should be no surprise given Marshall’s pedigree since the 1960’s when the company was founded.  This is easily one of the finest audio experiences on Android, from the quality of the sound that comes from the speakers on the device to the devilishly clean and clear audio that emits from the dual 3.5mm headset jacks up top, each with its own volume controls.

If speed and crafty camera software is your thing you’ll need to look elsewhere, there’s just no competition here from Marshall and that’s on purpose.  Everyone seems to always release the next fastest device with the “best camera ever,” but often times audio takes a back seat to the rest of the experience.  While it’s difficult to understand why Marshall couldn’t have at least bumped up some of the specs given the price tag, or at least lowered the price a bit to make the non-audio components not feel like so much of a crutch it would be an easier sell, but at the current price tag I’m afraid Marshall has made itself a bit of a niche product.  Once that price tag comes down, however, they’ve got a real winner on their hands with this one.