Review: Marshall’s Stockwell speaker is more glam than jam

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The Marshall Stockwell looks amazing, while it delivers impressive output for its size(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag)

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From the top-of-the-line Woburn speaker to the experimental London smartphone, Marshall Headphones offers audio for everyone in a range of prices and power. It was only until recent that the Kilburn was the company's most portable speaker. With Marshall's latest release, users now have a backpack-friendly option for music on-the-go. We spent the past weeks rocking out with the Marshall Stockwell to see if big things still come in small packages.

Design & connectivity

When it comes to describing the appearance of Marshall's speakers, it's hard to choose a more fitting word than "iconic." Although the Stockwell is the smallest and most portable yet, there's no denying the dominant visual traits passed down through the generations. Like the rest of its siblings, the Stockwell closely resembles the kind of Marshall speaker amp you'd find on stage during a live rock performance. Some encountering the Stockwell for the first time have experienced a brief state of incredulity, softly uttering "woah" while repeatedly asking confirmation. Yes, the Marshall Stockwell is indeed a Bluetooth wireless speaker. And it's OK to wrap hands around it first so that the mind can follow suit.

Although made mostly out of plastic, the Marshall Stockwell presents itself in a handsome way that doesn't come off as cheap. The smooth finish and rounded edges give off a satin glow that complements copper accents and the Marshall logo. Even the back of the speaker is textured like a Marshall amp. Completing the image is a brushed metal panel embedded with a 3.5-mm input, control buttons, and analog knobs to adjust the volume, bass, and treble. Measuring 10.2 x 5.5 x 1.5 in (26 x 14 x 4 cm) and weighing in at 2.6 lb (1.2 kg), the rectangular-shaped Stockwell leans towards the larger side of battery-powered portable speakers.

Despite the thin footing on pair of silicone pads, the Stockwell speaker maintains secure footing, even as the woofers and tweeters do some serious business ... as long as the surface is relatively flat and stable, of course. Know that the Stockwell requires more care in positioning compared to most Bluetooth speakers. Bump against its resting surface hard enough and it'll tip over flat with a smack. However, Marshall offers a removable, velvet-lined, protective flip-cover case that doubles as a stand when folded. It can be purchased separately or together, with the latter option saving US$20 off the total cost.

The controls are straightforward – it's totally OK to obsess with the retractable, retro-throwback analog knobs and ignore the rest. A three-second press-hold on the power button turns it on, and the accompanying startup/shutdown sound is a simple series of rising/falling "boops." It's neither loud nor obnoxious, so you can power on/off the speaker without drawing curious looks. Out of the box, the Stockwell starts off in Bluetooth wireless mode, switching to 3.5-mm input with a single press of the "source" button. Source selection stays the same, until you change it, even after powering the speaker on/off. Little red LEDs glow to indicate active power and current input selection.

Staying in-line with many a modern portable speaker, the Stockwell also functions as a speakerphone, allowing users to field incoming calls without having to reach for the connected device. Although the person on the other line comes in loud and clear, the same can't be said for whoever is speaking through the Stockwell. By comparison, at the same distance, the built-in microphone on a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 offers better pickup without the addition of echos or buzzing noises. While the Stockwell works in a pinch, you're way better off answering calls with your smartphone whenever possible.

The only other notable feature of the Marshall Stockwell is its 5V/1-amp USB output port, located on the rear. With the sizable battery capacity, there's enough to share with mobile devices needing some extra power. However, you'll have to supply your own USB cable, as the Stockwell doesn't come with one. You also don't get a 3.5-mm audio cable either, which usually comes standard with most portable audio purchases. All that comes in the box with the Stockwell speaker is the wall adapter for charging.

At moderate to high listening levels, the Stockwell provides almost 17 hours of music before needing to recharge. But if you dial the volume down to low-medium, the speaker capably reaches its listed 25-hour uptime. Bluetooth pairing and connecting is lightning quick. The functional wireless range of the Stockwell comes impressively close to the listed specs of 33 ft (10 m). Indoors, with only your typical furniture and occasional body in the way, you can stream steadily up to 30 ft (9 m). Put a wall in between and it will only shave off six or so feet. But no matter how close or far your device is from the speaker, expect to hear the occasional half-second stutter in the Bluetooth connection.

Audio performance

The Marshall Stockwell emits a feeble hiss, detectable mostly only when the treble knob is turned all the way up – and music has to be playing at a low volume, plus you practically have to put your ear against the speaker in order to hear it. Aside from that, music streams hiss-free and pristine whether you're connected via audio cable or Bluetooth wireless. The Stockwell's volume, bass, and treble adjustment is wonderfully smooth with the analog knobs, which presents a fun and refreshing change if you've been accustomed to basic buttons.

Zero volume on the speaker mutes music, regardless of the output from a connected device – you'd be surprised at how often this isn't the case. Cranking the Stockwell's volume to 10 (leaving the bass and treble adjustment at zero) drives some impressive decibels as device volume also increases. With the Stockwell dialed all the way up, music tends to stay distortion-free until the last one or three clicks of volume (i.e. pushing over 80 percent) on a smartphone.

The fact that the Stockwell can play loud with minimal distortion (depending on track quality and music genre) isn't terribly surprising, considering how Marshall has demonstrated uncanny ability to do so with its speakers. At moderate listening levels, the Stockwell is capable of filling an average-sized bedroom with music. Turning the volume up more provides output suitable for a fun yet lively party atmosphere, delivering tunes that hold their own against a dozen chatty people. Leave the speaker in a central room downstairs, and you can hear music meander its way up to the second floor.

You'll know you've gone too far with the volume when the highs come across as wiry and/or haloed from distortion. Vocals develop some sibilance with a subtle touch of boxy and/or nasal tone. The mids and lows turn colored and coarse, with the former trading distinct layering for hum, and the latter developing a muffled blur at the edges. That's about it for distortion due to excess volume, which is not too bad considering the Stockwell's size and decibel output. Keep in mind that tweaking the bass/treble knobs on top of all this can and will add ugliness. Too much bass imparts a bloated rumble throughout the lows, while too much treble creates excessively bright, piercing, crunchy highs. So be judicious with the adjustments.

The Stockwell's soundstage opens up appropriately wide for its size and power. The depth is acceptable, decent, depending on the track. You can't expect too much when it comes to portable speakers, but the Stockwell delivers a good amount of space for vocals and instruments to express without too much crowding. With its broad projection, you can sit practically anywhere on the business-side of the speaker and enjoy. There is not a whole lot for lateral imaging, but at least it doesn't fade out so quickly as volume increases. The Stockwell maintains a forward presentation that's eager to grab your attention, but also makes sure not to be pushy about it.

Abrupt changes in volume and tempo are smooth. Loud/soft dynamics are ok, although quieter elements don't receive as much emphasis. This leads to missing out on some low-level details at the outer fringes of sound, largely applying to instruments playing in the lows and low-mids. And, depending on the music, instances of such omission can be unmistakable. The Stockwell's tonal balance tips in favor of the mids. The lows and highs sound good, but sharp ears can hear how they mildly lack an equal level of potency. It's not necessarily a bad thing, especially for those who are tired of speakers creating overly-ambitious lows that barge their way over everything. But it narrows the scope of music that the Stockwell can competently handle.

The Stockwell plays highs that are smooth and accurate. Female vocals sing silky sweet. Cymbals and hi-hats retain their metallic sheen and are, for the most part, quick on the hit. The decay of these notes can linger a bit at times, adding some blur when played/struck in rapid succession. However, string and wind instruments maintain a better level of detail with crisper edges. On the right tracks, the Stockwell captures delicate notes without sounding too close to tinny, even with the volume dialed up. But the biggest problem with the highs is how they can appear softly recessed/veiled and/or overshadowed by prominent mids. Adjusting the treble knob to 2 (strongly recommended to leave it there) helps to enhance and sharpen the highs for better balance.

There is a lot of power and positive energy that stems from the mids. Brass instruments engage with vibrant, full tartness. Midrange vocals are lively and very present. Guitars come out strong, enunciating characteristic sound with a bit of hit/scratch detail of the strings here and there. But in many instances, the Stockwell's midrange dominates against the more gentle highs and mildly-absent lows.

This may not be such an issue if it weren't for how lead vocals can sometimes feel too forward versus instruments. And how backup vocals can sound somewhat muted. And how coloration unevenly trades away some crisp edges for warmer ones. The mids feel inconsistent, in that they can sound fantastic and clear for a song or two, but then slightly muffled and plain come the next track. With too much volume, midrange vocals can sound clipped and, over time, also start to tire out the ears.

The Marshall Stockwell bears lows that are surprisingly articulate, more apparent and appreciable after tuning the bass knob up (recommended to leave it at 4). You can hear the textures of bass strings and the different ways of drums being hit. Elements sound clean and exhibit a pleasing touch of musicality. Attack and decay are suitably quick, keeping notes separate and from blending too much into each other.

However, the Stockwell struggles to deliver impact and explosive power. Sometimes drums can sound as if someone placed a thin sheet of felt on top of the membrane. Sure, we can appreciate how the Stockwell doesn't overcompensate. Instruments sound more like instruments and not thinned-out toys, even as the volume pushes up to project across open spaces. But the big problem is that the Stockwell rolls off sooner than expected, and low-end detail suffers.

Music tracks showcasing deeper-reaching drums or synth have a noticeable amount of nuance left unexpressed. What you do hear consists mostly of the harmonics within the upper- and mid-bass regions, hardly dipping much lower than that. The Stockwell provides a proper amount of sonic character, but it's shy with overall richness and rumble. Notes feel leaner than desired, although not to the point of completely lacking warmth or body. It's a fine line that the Stockwell treads, seemingly erring too much on the side of caution to maintain low-end beats without the boomy bloat. But this doesn't just apply to EDM or hip-hop tracks. Van Morrison's song, And It Stoned Me, felt devoid of the kind of lows that are meant to support and balance the wonderful highs and vocals.

The Stockwell's lows sound pretty bad right out of the box, so turning the bass knob is essential, especially when strong mids are marching all over the soundstage. Just that little bit fills the open void and breathes some much-needed life into your music. Bass guitars benefit with improved and more detectable texture. Drums get louder, but, sadly, the bass adjustment does nothing for enhancing impact or adding more detail. Keep in mind that upping the bass can beef the lows at the cost of distorting the mids with more muffled blur. And when using an audio cable instead of Bluetooth, the Marshall Stockwell sounds marginally better. It's just not as convenient.

The verdict

We really, really wanted to unconditionally love the Marshall Stockwell with wild abandon. Although bigger than some other speakers, the Stockwell is still portable with a super cool styling, especially if you're into that type of look. The volume, projection, and battery life is most excellent. There's no electronic hiss, and the Bluetooth wireless range is way better than average. But that's where the easy praise stops and the complicated relationship begins.

There is nothing bad with how this speaker sounds. It's just that, for us, the performance isn't very remarkable. It's bland. The Stockwell doesn't deliver the sonic wow-factor that we were hoping for, especially when considering the hardware within. Bass and treble adjustment is practically necessary, but tailor-tuning for best performance each time you switch music genres quickly becomes tedious. The highs deliver well for quality and power, the lows are articulate but lack natural fullness and extension, and the mids kind of feel all over the place. If you listen to a lot of pop, jazz, classical, folk, etc., you can play the Stockwell all day long and be happy. But if rock, metal, or punk music genres are more your thing, it's a coin-flip for every other song. EDM and hip-hop? Good luck.

And maybe the audio aspects wouldn't be such a focus if it weren't for the fact that the Stockwell isn't really a well-rounded speaker either. Although it has its own sonic strengths and flaws, the Creative Sound Blaster Roar 2 offers fantastic utility and similar – arguably better in some ways – sound for the price. The Marshall Stockwell features a USB output to charge devices, yet disappoints with the hands-free speakerphone quality. And that's it for the Stockwell's features. There's no aptX support for Bluetooth, no onboard track control, no multi-device pairing, no linking two units for left/right stereo channels, no ruggedness, no water-resistance/proof, and no included USB or audio cables.

For the Stockwell's price of $229, you're getting more looks than musical substance. But it's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you're fine with that fact. If you want better-sounding music and don't mind paying a little more, the Marshall Kilburn, Acemile Theatre Box, or JBL Xtreme are excellent options. Or you can spend less on the Fluance Fi50 if you're ok with losing battery-portability.

If the Stockwell's style calls to you, and if you aren't overly-concerned about nitpicking sonic details, then this speaker will bring about wide smiles no matter where you place it. Otherwise, the competition is fierce for portable speakers between the $150 and $300 price points, many of which offer solid features in addition to above average-sounding audio.

Product page: Marshall Stockwell

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