Review: Marshall London smartphone
Marshall's London smartphone is an interesting animal. On the one hand, it's a pretty mediocre smartphone with a high price tag, but on the other, it's a musician's dream, with hi-def playback and recording, dual headphone ports, and more. Read on for our thoughts on the audio-focused smartphone.
The look of the London is stunning. The Marshall logo on the textured back cover is striking, and the gold accented button and volume dial (a nice touch in itself) mimic the iconic styling you'll find on the company's iconic guitar amps. It has all the hallmarks of the brand, and for this reason stands out from the rest of the smartphone crowd.
Unfortunately, in hand, it's a bit of a mixed bag. The buttons have a satisfying cushioned click to them, and the notched volume dial feels great, but the overall build is a touch plasticky, and the pronounced curve of the sides almost makes it feel like you're using a device entombed within a protective case that you just can't take off.
The combination of a bezel and speaker grille at the top and bottom add to that feeling, making the whole thing feel a little clunky, despite being a fairly modest-sized handset by 2015 standards.
If you view the London purely as a smartphone, it isn't all that impressive. It runs on a budget-focused Snapdragon 410 processor, paired with 2 GB of RAM, and there's a 720p display up front. The display measures 4.7 inches, which works out to 312 pixels per inch.
The sharpness of the panel is ... fine, and colors look good straight on, but they do start to look washed out when you're viewing the screen at an angle. Most modern flagships have good (if not great) viewing angles, so it feels like we're time traveling several years back to see a phone display that's weak in that respect.
Performance is okay during standard use, with no detected slow-down when zipping around the near stock Android 5.1 OS, opening and closing various apps one after the other. Don't expect to play more advanced games like GTA: San Andreas or Telltale's Game of Thrones here though, as the hardware simply isn't up to it.
The device's cameras are a low point, with both the 8 MP and 2 MP rear and front shooters producing poor results. Captured images are grainy, lifeless and the tap-to-focus feature is far too slow and not as reliable as it should be.
One area where the London did shine was battery life, with the device easily managing a full day of standard use, and striving on well into the next.
A clear focus
So, yes – as a smartphone, the London isn't all that impressive. But when you start looking at the other things on offer here, it starts to look much more appealing, at least to a certain type of consumer.
Firstly, the phone supports high definition WAV and FLAC files, which audiophiles will love. Playback through the included Marshall Mode earphones is punchy and spacious, and the dedicated Wolfson WM8281 hub even does a good job on MP3s, with crisp playback that's a subtle notch above what you'll hear from standard smartphone.
The phone has 16 GB of internal storage, which is a little tight for a mobile device in 2015 (though Apple seems to disagree). If you're looking to pack the handset full of FLAC files, then the built-in storage simply won't do the job. Luckily, there's a microSD slot under the back cover, allowing you to pop in a card and increase storage up to 128 GB.
There are also a couple of really nice design features included, including dual headphone ports on the top of the handset, with individual volume controls, letting you listen with a friend, but level your own earbuds as you please. There's also a physical volume dial on the side of the handset in the place of the usual dual button setup. It's a great looking design choice, but you have to click it up two notches before the software responds, making it feel a little unresponsive – a minor annoyance, but one that you encounter a fair bit.
Another big audio feature is the slightly raised gold clicker on the top of the device, emblazoned with the Marshall "M". If you're listening to music, no matter the source, you can click the button and it will display the current track inside the dedicated interface. From there you can control the music, jump into the global equalizer or skip over to the built-in audio recording.
Speaking of which, the London's dual microphones produced the most impressive recordings we've experienced on a smartphone. Setting it to FLAC recording, basic acoustic guitar and vocal arrangements came through extremely clear and characterful, with great spacial awareness.
You can also record using a bundled in version of the Loopstack four track recorder. We found the software to be a touch limited, and the interface a little unintuitive, but it's fine for quickly laying down ideas. The phone's two headphone jacks also double as audio inputs, making it possible to simultaneously record two tracks at once using splitter cables and external mics with software like n-Track Studio, which could be yet another big draw for musicians.
The smartphone's speakers are impressive, too, pumping out music at significant volumes, and at pretty good quality. You're not about to throw away your speaker system, but we haven't heard better audio from another smartphone.
Aside from the audio features, there are also a few quirks that add character to the experience. Take the clock widget for example – it reads "Nineteen Past One" instead of "1:19" or "13:19" and "Twenty Eight to five" in place of "4:32" or "16:32" – and if you take off the back cover you'll see "Long Live Rock 'N' Roll" emblazoned across the 2,500 mAh removable battery. They're small doses of personality that we enjoyed.
A swing and a miss?
Overall, it feels like the London is a bit of an experiment. The device offers functionality that musicians and music lovers will like, but it's less successful when delivering the more basic smartphone stuff. We like the design, but don't love the build quality. And though we're smitten with some of the audio features, we also lament the sub-par display and middle of the road performance.
The London feels like a first gen product for Marshall, and we can't help but feel that a follow-up handset (which is in no way confirmed) might tick a few more boxes. If you love the sound of the audio features here, then know that the London might be worth a look. It's not a bad handset; just don't go expecting something that feels and performs remotely like a high-end flagship.
The other problem here is the price. The raw specs are comparable to, say, the third generation Moto G, but the price is far higher, coming in at £399. It's not on sale in the US right now and, when asked, its maker was rather vague about whether it will ever reach American shores.
As such, that current asking price translates to around US$610, similar to what you'd pay for the iPhone 6s or Galaxy S6. Even though we were rather taken by the overall design and the music-centric features on offer, it's difficult to recommend the London at that price.
Product page: Marshall London