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Marshall London: What happens when an amp maker builds a phone?

James Trew , @itstrew
09.12.15
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Why does a company famous for making guitar amps decide to make a phone? The Marshall brand realized clinging to its rock heritage won't serve it forever. That's why it already moved into headphones and Bluetooth speakers -- modern day lifestyle products -- via a collaboration with Zound Industries. The "London" phone could easily have just been a rebadge, but the first hint it was going to be something different came at the press event. The news conference had all the trappings of a "proper" handset launch: a nice venue, presentations, even a few famous faces joining the CEO on stage. But, unlike, say, awkwardly peddling U2's new album, Marshall dished out shots of JD and put on punk rock performances. At one point, an executive on stage proclaimed the company was going to [verb beginning with F] the competition, in the [orifice beginning with A]. Whether that's going to catch on like Tim Cook's "We think you're going to love it," I'm not sure. I'll admit, though, it made me instantly warm to Marshall.

Gallery: Marshall London IRL | 12 Photos

Marshall's London Phone: A Closer Look at

With its 4.7-inch 720p display, 8-megapixel camera, 2GB of RAM, 16 gigs of storage and 1.2GHz, quad-core Snapdragon 410 processor, the London looks quite tame, especially for the $499 asking price. Said differently, it hardly lives up to the Marshall reputation of going to 11. But, after speaking with the team behind the phone, I get the impression the London is trying to cater for a user who doesn't care about MHz and GBs -- for those that just need a phone that does the basics well enough, but fits into your life in other ways (in this case, music). That's also possibly a way to excuse a mediocre spec sheet, but for what it's worth, I believe them.

Conceptually, the London reminds me of the Nokia 808 PureView: an otherwise forgettable phone with a huge 41-megapixel camera attached. The London's music features give it a similar deliberate focus, but to much less of an extreme -- the phone's totally alright and the music features are solid.

About those features: From what I can tell, there's a little bit of something for everyone, whether you're a creator, listener or remixer. For example, there are two headphone jacks, and each gets its own volume control. The dedicated Cirrus/Wolfson sound hub in the London means each listener gets full-power music, too (not a split signal). It's a neat touch, but no one likes the music I do, so less handy for me.

What I find more interesting is that these jacks are also inputs. With a TRS cable, you can feed a signal (guitar, mic, et cetera) and record it into one of the phone's (multiple) bespoke recording apps, which you can access with the dedicated "M" button, along with various media players. One of them is a skinned version of Loopstack, a looping app that's perfect for these audio inputs and Foley recordings -- if only I had the right sort of skills, I'd show it off properly. I spent some time meddling with it, and it's tons of fun: I lost an hour trying to do something for this article. Clearly I need more practice!

My favorite hardware feature is something that's not immediately visible. Marshall threw in two microphones (on the top and bottom edges), which means you not only get active noise-cancellation on calls, but also get the ability to record proper stereo audio -- and the London does that rather well (for a phone). Below is a recording from a gig that switches between an iPhone and the London. The London beats Apple's phone easily in my opinion, with a much broader range of frequencies recorded/fuller sound, and with so much headroom there's almost no chance of clipping. The iPhone, however, is tinny and artificially loud (compressed). Listen to it first -- it switches every five seconds -- and see what you think.

Have you decided which is better? First or second (and then alternating then on out)? The iPhone was first, and if you listen again, it should be clear (it definitely is with headphones). As for listening on the London, there are two loud (for a phone) speakers on the front, which do a sterling job; they sound better than my LG G4, but I will never, ever want to listen to music on phone speakers. Ever. This is probably a good time to mention that the bundled headphones are Marshall's own $70 Mode in-ears. I prefer my Aiaiai TMA's, but for pack-in headphones, these are way better than what you normally get.

It's unusual that I'd get seven paragraphs into an article about a phone without talking about the actual "phone" part, but there's not really much to dwell on. The handset itself is pretty cute. It has a soft-touch finish designed to look like the leather Marshall uses on its amps and speakers, and the brass accents are a nice touch. In terms of looks, it's definitely unique. I dig it, although a few people did ask me if it was a phone in a Marshall case, and that's indeed kind of what it feels like.

The "Androidy" part of the phone is, eh, okay. It's Lollipop, and it runs nice enough, although I had a few instances where apps would crash trying to open FLAC files (something the London is very capable of), or moving the volume control -- the lovely gnurled brass wheel on the side -- wouldn't do anything. These all seemed sporadic, and cleared after a reboot, but still. Marshall tells me it designed the London so it can receive software updates without carrier involvement, which is something. This includes new features, like a Marshall DJ app that should arrive later this year. Given the dual headphone jacks, this would make the London a legit monitor-and-line-out setup -- no crappy headphone splitting, two dedicated audio channels. Another important update will boost the support for 64GB microSD cards to a FLAC-friendly 128GB.

I digress. Software bugs aside, the phone doesn't feel overly sluggish -- just a shade slower than a typical flagship. (I use the G4 as my daily driver.) The same goes for the 720p display. It might be low-res compared to QHD, but in practice it never felt subpar. Not to mention, it helps the (replaceable) 2,500mAh battery last for the two full days I've been getting out of it, which is nice. The camera is also not memorable, but you're probably too rock 'n' roll for Instagram anyway, right? In seriousness, the imaging here is fine; it's just not one of the highlights.

The London is something of a conundrum. For not too far off the $499 asking price, and a bit of shopping around, you can buy a higher-spec phone, like the LG G4 or HTC One M9. The way I see it, why does logic necessarily have anything to do with it? Phones are no longer tools; they're a part of our daily lives. When you buy a car, some will go for value, or practicality; others will say "screw it" and buy what makes them feel good. And that's what the London is: It's singing along to "Bohemian Rhapsody" at the top of your voice in your (original) Mini convertible. Because why the hell not?

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