Marshall headphones surf the name recognition of the well-known guitar amplifier brand, which the actual builder – a Swedish company – has done well. They look authentic and score well with young people. But can Marshall also take on successful high-end noise canceling Bluetooth headphones? We test the Marshall Monitor II A.N.C.
Marshall Monitor II A.N.C.
Who ever went to a performance of a rock band may have seen it before: a wall of sound consisting of Marshall guitar amplifiers. The British company is high on the menu among guitarists around the world, and not just among musicians who ram hard. The Marshall name is also well known to many music fans. The Swedish Zound Industries, also known for the Urbanears headphones, deliberately without a logo, wanted to do something with that fame and took a license on the Marshall name a few years ago. The result is a series of headphones and Bluetooth speakers that are completely in line with the products of the mother brand. The first Marshall devices were rather affordable things, but lately wireless speakers and headphones that aim a bit higher appear. Similarly, the Monitor II A.N.C., a brand new noise-canceling headset that with its 299 euro price tag is directly opposite the very best NC headphones from Sony and Bose. That's daring.
Very compact design
Most high-end noise-canceling headphones have large ear pads and are relatively large. This is partly because many top models are equipped with features such as built-in touch controls or large drivers that also need a larger sound box. Marshall does it differently. The Monitor II A.N.C. is an over-ears model with cushions that largely fit over your ear cups – depending on how big your ears are. That printing is with a certain amount of pressure. That's good to keep out noise, but your ears sweat from it. The material of the cushions helps in that.
The driver housings themselves are really thin. Together with the thinner brackets and headband, the headphones therefore appear relatively small. If you are looking for something that is less flashy on your head, this is the right place. The choice for that characteristic black eggshell finish makes the Monitor II A.N.C. a bit less noticeable, though. But that look is very true to the design of a Marshall amplifier, which the fans find important. Also those curled wires that run along the bracket are part of this.
The finish seems very solid. It's not as luxurious or premium as the Sony WH-1000XM3 or the Denon AH-GC30, but that just might suit that look of something a roadie would wear when loading the tour bus. We would say durability over sophistication.
When you see the Monitor II A.N.C. decreases and wants to store, you will discover that it is as compact at rest as it is in use. It is difficult to describe how it works, but by folding and twisting the headphones you end up with a small sphere that is much more modest than most rivals. This seems very useful. And because the ear pads rest on each other, the drivers remain well protected.
No touch controls on these rugged headphones, but something Marshall himself calls the “knob”. It is a striking metal button in copper color; another style element reminiscent of the guitar amps. You can press it but also move it in the four wind directions, just like a joystick. Up and down changes the volume, left and right skips the track to the previous or next. Pressing finally works like a pause button. The knob functions well itself. It is in the perfect place for easy operation with your right thumb. It quickly becomes intuitive, as it should be.
You can't really say the same about the two little buttons that are incorporated in a hinge of the bracket, one per ear. We think this is something special: a button in a hinge. The idea may be that you can press such a button with your left or right thumb. But for some reason we always had to grope before we found the button. It is difficult to say why this was so. Maybe the buttons should have a little more relief? And yes, it may just be a matter of getting used to and you will find it faster after a while.
The left hinge button lets you switch between noise canceling (the level is adjustable via an app) and a transparency mode where ambient noise is still transmitted (the intensity is also adjusted in the app). If you long press the ANC button, the noise reduction is completely turned off. The thing is that the Monitor II A.N.C. passive is already very well insulated. So good, in fact, that if you bring the noise canceling all the way down to 10 percent or the transparency down to 100 percent, it's still hard to hear someone standing next to you. So it actually works too well.
You can set the hinge knob on the other side, the M-knob. At this point, you can use it to switch between one of three equalizer presets (again, adjustable via the app) or to activate the Google Assistant. At a product presentation, we were told that there will be an update soon so that you can link a Spotify playlist to the button. This would be first with headphones; just press and a previously selected playlist will start playing.
We've already referred to it a few times: the Marshall app (iOS and Android). Strictly speaking, you don't need to use the Monitor II A.N.C. to use. But it is useful to set things up. The Marshall app is not really extensive. You can see the battery level at a glance, choose an equalizer preset or noise canceling. As mentioned, you can dive deeper into the app to fine-tune things like the NC level. If you're someone who likes to play with an equalizer, here's a five-band EQ that you can pair with one of the three presets you choose via the M button. There are also seven genres with a fixed equalizer setting, which you can also select to link to a preset. You can't change Preset 1, by the way, because that's the official Marshall sound that – according to Marshall Headphones – is taken over by the Marshall in the UK. was approved.
The app tells you little about the actual connection to your smartphone. Diving into the developer settings of our Huawei P30 Pro teaches us that the Monitor II A.N.C. only supports the old SBC codec. We are surprised, because all rivals support at least AAC (the codec that iPhones and iPads prefer) and usually also newer codecs that forward music in higher quality (aptX, aptX and LDAC). The fact that the Marshall only knows SBC is not in itself a guarantee that the sound sounds bad. SBC can sound good, but only if the source device chooses high quality. That depends on the manufacturer and is certainly not always the case. Moreover, it is very difficult for the user to change those kind of deep settings himself. For example, on a Mac you can, if you get the Bluetooth Explorer app for Mac developers. But that proves our position, because that app is only available if you sign up as a developer at Apple. Anyway, at this price point we actually want to see support for aptX and / or LDAC. Because then you have a quality guarantee.
Dynamic and beat-friendly
So we have reservations about that exclusive choice for SBC. But what about in practice? Connected to our Huawei P30 Pro we can not really complain. If we listen to some heavy guitar rock, including Therapy's Greatest Hits album? it seems that the adjustment for this genre is entirely in the bullseye. The sound image is not as big as with the Bose QC35 (which otherwise sounds completely out of balance) or the top model from Sony, but the reproduction is open enough so that every instrument gets its place. With busy tracks like “Screamanger” or “Nowhere” the vocals are at the front and the different guitar lines and percussion more to the rear. With cheaper headphones, the sound image is more compressed, so you get tired more quickly when listening. We were particularly impressed by the drums on “Diane”, a Hüsker Dü classic that is perhaps much more famous in the Therapy version. Unfortunately, the recent hit album chose a rock version, not the catchy version with cello.
“Our Pathetic Age” by DJ Shadow, with the great voice of Samuel T. Herring / Hemlock Ernst, proves that the Monitor II A.N.C. also has no problems with pop and electronics. Marshall has chosen a fine, accessible tuning, with a certain bass boost to give tracks like this a lot of impact. But basses have not been overstated and the Monitor II A.N.C. stays tight and fast enough that “Rocket Fuel” keeps its tight beats. We already noticed it in a recent test of the AKG 371 (in FWD Magazine 77): a number of manufacturers have read the latest research on headphones and are now creating affordable devices that sound surprisingly good. We are not complaining.
A lot of technical knowledge is required to do noise canceling well – and that know-how is concentrated at companies such as Bose and Sony. Therefore, we did not expect the noise reduction on the Monitor II A.N.C. would be so effective. But partly because the headphones sit firmly on your head and the ear pads fit well to your ear, ambient noise is almost completely eliminated even without active interventions. It is a pity that only the SBC codec is supported. We really expect AAC or – even better – aptX or LDAC with a product from the higher segment.
The question remains: can the Marshall Monitor II A.N.C. the comparison with the big names in this segment? Because of the price of 300 euros, we find it a bit difficult. There are rivals that go a lot further in terms of technology, with adaptive noise canceling and touch controls. But we can imagine that some people just like the Marshall approach: practical, without unnecessary gadgets, with excellent autonomy and a sound that you enjoy a lot.