Review: Are Marshall's New Monitor II Headphones Worth $320?
Marshall
By Kirk Miller / April 9, 2020 12:45 pm

Based on the design — both in aesthetics and sound — of the brand’s iconic guitar amps, Marshall’s headphones are crafted from black vinyl, solid metal hinges and brass details. They’re retro on the outside, but the brains and features have always stayed up to date.

So the company’s just-launched Monitor II Active Noise Canelling headphones don’t appear much different than any other audio gear Marshall’s releaed in the last few years. That’s good, if you like the old-school, decidedly rock’n’roll vibe. But now the cans offer a serious upgrade in power, control and shutting out the outside world.

But is there any reason beyond looks to take Marshall’s new over-ear ANC headset over any other pair? Especially at $320?

To find out, we tested out the Monitor II in several different locations over a few weeks, starting with a crowded loft party (that was last month, don’t judge) and then for a week at our home office and walking around the neighborhood. For sound, we used our own Spotify New Release Radar playlist (featuring a decently diverse selection of artists like The Avalanches, Run the Jewels and Alkaline Trio) to a few streaming shows on Beats1 radio and some podcasts via Apple’s app.

The setup

The Monitor II ANCs arrive in a black box with headphones, a 3.5 mm cable, USB-C charging cable, canvas carrying bag and user manual — which can get you started, but to really understand and control the headphones you’ll need to download the Marshall Bluetooth app. Still, the device paired right away with my iPhone and I was ready to go in under five minutes.

The specs

  • 40mm dynamic drivers
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • 30 hours of wireless playtime with active noise canceling, 45 hours without
  • 5 hours of playtime with 15 minutes of charging
  • Google Assistant and Siri compatible
  • Weight: 320 g
  • Three dedicated controls: A knob for volume, power and track skipping; a customizable M-button for working the app’s equalizer and using a voice assistant; and a button to turn the noise canceling on or off or in a monitoring mode. 

What works

  • The Monitor II is light and extremely ergonomic — at several points, I forgot I was wearing these when I was at my desk (with no music on), and walking outside they were comfortable and unobtrusive. There’s a hidden plushness here.
  • The metal hinges and textured surface of the earpads makes this a tactile pleasure; this headset isn’t smooth and soulless, it’s got built-in character.
  • The ANC feature pretty much blocked out everything, as promised.
  • The sound: It would vary depending on the equalizer setting we used, but for the most part (and particuarly during a random Beats1 reggae-themed show) the audio was punchy, immersive and clean without leaning on bass. There was a slight muffled feeling to some songs when the ANC was at its full measure, but nothing I haven’t encountered in other headphones.

What kind of works

  • Siri functioned as promised, but I’ll still probably never use a voice assistant while I’m wearing these.
  • You can adjust the noise canceling and outside noise in 10-percent increments up to 100. Except when I pushed the limits to the extreme one way or the other, I noticed little difference. Sticking to a simpler on/off/in-between setting would have been fine.
  • The app’s equalizer offered multiple presets and did alter the sound, but it almost offered too much choice. And sometimes a rock song would sound brighter on a “spoken word” setting, or a dance track would work better when positioned on the “rock” preset.
Marshall

What needs work:

  • The app kept trying to connect to other Marshall devices that I don’t own (or maybe used once), even after I hit “forget device.” It never forgot.
  • Granted, the mini-joystick control knob is a superior option to headphones where you have to tap the sides to work the controls. But it took a while to get a hang of the volume (there seemed to be a slight lag) and particularly using the knob to skip back to a previous track, a task I never accomplished successfully.  
  • After charging overnight, the battery indicator went down to 90% after just a minute of use — and stayed there during heavy use. 

What others are saying

“They sound great, come with good noise cancelation, and they boast tons of cool rock heritage – it’s just a shame that Marshall couldn’t undercut Sony by a little bit more to provide a truly cheaper alternative.” — Tech Radar

“Sonically, they perform well, with rich bass depth and crisp highs for a clear audio experience. When it comes to noise cancellation, however, they do a fine job, but fall short of their relatively high cost.” — PC Mag

“Active noise cancellation, features audiophiles will love, and seriously attractive looks… It’s hard to find something that’s easier to recommend in this price range.” — Mashable

Recommendation

These aren’t the best ANC over-ear headphones I’ve ever used, but they deliver a sound that’s only a slight notch below Sony’s much-beloved WH1000XM3 set. Given the comfort level I have with Marshall in general, these will easily serve as my desktop set for the near future, although I’ll be using the control knob as little as possible.

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