April 22, 2021

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Marshall’s First Wireless Earbuds Have More Style Than Substance

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Photo: Andrew Liszewski – Gizmodo

There are few brands as synonymous with rock and roll as Marshall, whose amps are as iconic as a Fender guitar. The company has parlayed its recognizable name into a line of consumer audio goods, including headphones and wireless speakers, but the Mode II is its first pair of truly wireless earbuds. The buds sound good and are designed well, but without ANC, their price tag makes it feel like you’re paying a lot for that iconic Marshall “M” on each bud.

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Marshall is far from the first company to take a brand known and respected by professionals and use it to sell more affordable consumer-focused products. You won’t see any musicians performing on stage with a wireless Bluetooth speaker like the Marshall Emberton, but the company’s consumer hardware still delivers excellent sound with a design that looks as cool as Marshall’s pro gear. It does feel like there’s a Marshall tax, however, similar to the Apple tax. Sure, a lot of folks are happy to pay it for the company’s larger wireless speakers, but it makes the company’s first wireless earbuds a tough sell.

Bringing Marshall’s recognizable design language to wireless speakers wasn’t terribly difficult—the company simply had to miniaturize its guitar amps and maintain that unique grill on the front. Headphones were tougher, but making wireless earbuds distinctly Marshall had to be the biggest challenge. To the company’s credit, the Mode IIs look very much like a Marshall product.

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It’s a toss-up between the AirPods Pro (left) and the Marshall Mode II (right) as to which set of wireless earbuds has the smaller charging case.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski – Gizmodo

The Mode II’s charging case is one of the smallest charging cases available for wireless earbuds, and may even best the charging case Apple includes with the AirPods Pro for pocketability. Instead of a glossy white finish, the Marshall case sports a faux leather texture similar to what you’ll find on a guitar case or a Marshall amp, which I’ll admit has grown on me. It’s a distinctly Marshall product without feeling too gimmicky.

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The case can be charged with a USB-C port but can also be plopped down on a wireless charging pad, which should be a standard feature for wireless earbuds at this point. Battery life is promised to be around five hours, and with the case being able to fully charge the buds up to four times, the Mode IIs should provide a total of 25 hours of wireless playback before you need to find a power source. That’s more or less what Apple promises with the AirPods Pro.

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Three status LEDs let you know when the buds are charging, when they’re in Bluetooth pairing mode, and how much charge the case has left. (The LED on the front changes from red, to orange, to green.)
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

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Three LEDs are used to indicate the charging status of the case and the earbuds inside, while a single button is used to put the buds into their Bluetooth pairing mode, indicated by the inner LEDs flashing blue.

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If there’s one reason to choose the Marshall Mode IIs over the competition, it’s because they’re some of the smallest wireless earbuds I’ve ever tested. Marshall includes four different tip sizes, although no memory foam option, which several wireless earbud makers are starting to include. The Mode IIs are incredible comfortable to wear because they’re so small and lightweight, which also means they’re slightly less susceptible to the forces of gravity and, at least in my testing, won’t fall out as easily as others do.

But instead of using shortcut buttons on the sides of each bud that can be activated with gentle presses, the Mode IIs rely on taps that require more force to activate than you anticipated more often than not. You’ll often find yourself having to repeat a tap pattern to skip a track or pause your music, which can also serve to dislodge the buds. It works, but my recommendation is to instead rely on a smartwatch for controlling your tunes if you don’t want to be constantly pulling out your connected phone.

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The Marshall Mode II earbuds are smaller than the AirPods Pro and the Klipsch T5 II True Wireless Sport, but as a result they sound like their drivers are also on the small side.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

A smaller, lightweight wireless earbud doesn’t come without sacrifices. The rechargeable battery is always the priority, which means there’s often less room available for a larger driver. That’s immediately obvious when you pop the Mode IIs in your ears. They sound very good, and can easily compete with the AirPods Pro, but they don’t deliver the crisp, distinct highs and deep satisfying bass thumps that the Klipsch T5 II True Wireless Sport earbuds (my current favorites) can produce. For most users, the Mode IIs will deliver an enjoyable sound experience, but there are many alternatives that outperform them, and at a much cheaper price point.

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Marshall’s app can be used to tweak the sound profile of the Marshall Mode IIs using an adjustable EQ, as well as turn on transparency mode and adjust the level of background noise you’ll hear added to your mix.
Screenshot: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

You can compensate for the default sound profile of the Marshall Mode IIs using a free accompanying app that provides access to a limited EQ with adjustable sliders, but you can really only change the balance of the sound. Pushing the slider on the far left all the way up will make lower frequencies more predominant in the mix, but still won’t deliver that satisfying thump in your ear.

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The app can also be used to activate and adjust the Mode II’s transparency mode, making you more aware of your surroundings while you’re listening to music, or allowing you to carry on a conversation without first having to take the buds out. It works, but the microphones on the Mode IIs are lacking, and everything going on around you comes across muffled and kind of unpleasant to the ears. It’s a useful feature, but not one you’ll actually want to use.

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Marshall has delivered some lovely hardware with the Mode II, and solid sound quality, but you can find better-sounding alternatives at a cheaper price point if features like active noise cancellation aren’t important to you.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

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Marshall’s a company well known for its iconic and distinctive music gear, and its commitment to design is evident with the Mode II wireless earbuds. I really like the physical design of the earbuds and the charging case, and would be tempted to reach for them over my AirPods Pro all day were Apple’s buds not so tightly integrated with iOS. But for $179, the design isn’t quite enough to make up for the lack of active noise cancellation, and the disappointing performance of transparency mode. If you can live without either of those features, you can save yourself $70 and opt for these over the AirPods Pro, but there are more affordable alternatives available, like the (admittedly beefier) Sony WF-XB700 earbuds, which deliver better sound with limited features for $130.

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