Hands on with the Marshall London
Sep 4, 2015, 6:31 AM by Eric M. Zeman
Marshall, best known for guitar amps, is getting into modern electronics with the help of Swedish firm Zound Industries. More than just a branding exercise, the London phone is truly music-centric phone with some very unique features. We spent some time with it.
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Marshall loaded its London smartphone with popular cuts from Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC, Metallica, The Rolling Stones, Pantera, and others to demonstrate the handset's sonic powers. You wanna rock? The Marshall London will take you to the arena and blast your ears to bits.
But let's back up a minute.
Marshall, the amplifier company, doesn't make smartphones. It is licensing its brand to Sweden's Zound Industries, which is the same outfit that makes the Marshall Headphones products. Yes, it has the Marshall logo and even Marshall's design aesthetic, but the London doesn't have vacuum tubes and 12-inch Celestion speakers.
The London evokes the analog, not the digital, era. In addition to Marshall's iconic logo, the London has the signature white trim and tolex-patterned rear shell. Gold accents complete the brand mimicry. There's a large, gold Marshall button on top and a rotating dial for adjusting the volume. The Marshall button has a great profile and travel and feedback are quite excellent. The rotating volume dial is an awesome touch and worked well. Marshall said the dial gives the London 36 different volume levels, rather than the 10 or 12 most phones offer.
The handset has a 4.7-inch screen, but its size is closer to that of a phone with a 5- or 5.2-inch screen. There's a lot of intentional bulk to the design. For example, the outer rim of the phone is rubberized, making it rather rugged. The white trim creates a rim that protects the screen from scratches when placed on a flat surface. Marshall's reps were more than happy to toss the London onto the ground to prove the point. It didn't break, but it isn't unbreakable. Marshall was clear in that it hopes people will use the London without a case, as the included protective measures ought to be more than sufficient to keep the phone safe.
I think the materials are decent. This is not a high-end handset by any means, and the plastics and rubbers feel well matched to the price point of the phone. The chunky shape will make it difficult to stuff into tight pockets.
The display is of middling quality. The 4.7-inch dimension and 720p HD resolution give it adequate pixel density, but I thought it could have been brighter with more accurate color. It's not a bad display by any stretch; again, it matches the price point of the phone.
Marshall gave the London not one, but two headphone jacks. Both are on top. Right now they only serve as outputs, but down the road an update will let London owners queue tracks through one output and push music to their amplifier through the second. Neither provides line output; for that you'll have to us the USB port.
The Marshall London is an interesting design concept and, in general, I like it. The real story here isn't the hardware, however: it's the software.
To start, the London's soundboard is completely separate from the main CPU (which is a Snapdragon 410, by the way). The handset has an advanced DAC for pushing compressed and uncompressed (FLAC) audio through the two headset jacks and/or the stereo speakers. The speakers sounded good in the confines of a noisy, bustling trade show floor, but that's not saying much, I'm afraid.
Pushing the Marshall button opens the Marshall app, which is a universal tool for managing sound. It has a master EQ that applies to all music apps on the phone, and includes a customizable 5-band EQ in addition to more than a dozen presets (rock, flat, pop, EDM, etc.). This EQ controls the sound of native and third-party music apps, such as Spotify, Google Play Music, and Pandora. The software lets you adjust the output level of both audio jack independently. It is a master (of puppets) control panel that is intuitive enough that normals can figure it out, yet advanced enough that audiophiles will appreciate the control.
The phone has a basic voice recording app, but the twin microphones allow it to record stereo sound when you're shooting video. Moreover, it accounts for the sonic distortion that might occur at loud concerts, which means you can record your favorite metal band live and it will sound natural rather than a garbled mess. A simple four-track recorder is also on board, so you can lay down guitar, vocal, drum, and bass tracks for that pop hit you just wrote. Neat stuff.
BUT HOW DOES IT SOUND???
Well, with the Marshall Monitor headphones on hand, the sound was indeed impressive. I cranked up "Cemetery Gates" and "Seek and Destroy" to satisfy my need for metal and came away pleased. Marshall wouldn't let me test the sound with my own Shure headphones, though, which would have given me a better barometer by which to judge the quality. The phone can produce incredible amounts of volume through both the stereo speakers and the headphones, so you do have to be careful with your ears. I'll tentatively say the London should be able to satisfy normals and people with audiophile tendencies.
I would love to put the London through its paces, and hopefully we'll be able to review the phone soon.
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2) Is the output KT88s or EL34s?
3) Does it have Channel Switching?
4) Does the volume go to 11 as opposed to 10?
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