You have to be a certain age and somewhat affluent to know and love British brand Marshall’s legendary guitar amplifiers and, by extension, know that the Marshall name has quite the reputation in the personal audio segment, even if the headphones and speakers are made by Swedish company Zound Industries as part of a brand licensing agreement. Not that it matters, since Marshall personal audio products do well to earn the iconic cursive logo and expectedly charge a premium for the badge.
The latest in the series is the Middleton (Rs. 31,999), a speaker that balances portability, outdoor-friendly durability, and room-filling sound from a small package.
Marshall is the sort of brand that doesn’t mess around with the classic styling made popular by its guitar amps, right down to the fake-leather rubberized silicone finish to the top, sides and bottom, a metallic grille in the front with the brass Marshall logo and a gold rocker button on the top. It’s a classic look, one that the Middleton pulls off really well in the black/brass and cream color variants.
Controls are on the top – you get buttons for pairing, battery status, bass and treble adjustments, aside from the track and volume controls on the rocker button - but visibility takes a bit of a hit since they’re color matched to blend into the body – black on the black unit and cream on the unit I had.
An IP67 rating ensures that the Middleton can take a dip in half a meter of water for 30 minutes, but I found it odd that the USB-C and 3.5mm jack on the rear didn’t have any sort of rubberized protective cover. Despite the claim, I’d ensure that the ports are fully dried before plugging anything in.
Marshall intends for the Middleton to be taken everywhere – it has included a loop strap in the box - but at 4.29 x 9.06 x 3.74 inches and 1.8kg, this is better suited to road journeys and picnics/pool parties than lugging around in a backpack on an airplane. Portable, yet not quite. The heft does have some benefits – it’s weighted enough to not skid on a table when nudged, and the 3,200mAh battery doubles up as a power bank for your smartphone.
Behind the vintage exterior, there are two 3-inch 15W woofers and two 0.6-inch 10W tweeters aided by a pair of passive radiators, all of which are powered by four class-D amplifiers. There’s support for wired input, and Bluetooth 5.2 for wireless, with the ability to connect two devices at once so you can share DJ duties with a friend.
Bear in mind, the Middleton only supports the SBC codec, not the higher quality AAC or AptX codecs for Apple or Android users – a somewhat odd choice for something in this price bracket but not necessarily so for an outdoorsy speaker. If high-resolution audio is your jam, the only option on the Middleton is a phone wired into the 3.5mm line-in on the rear.
The speaker connects to the Marshall app, but there’s very little extra that you can unlock with it – aside from basic bass/treble control, you can group multiple Marshall speakers into what Marshall calls “stack” mode and play the same song. But that’s about it.
Now, while I had reasonably high expectations from the Middleton based on my previous experience with the Stanmore and the Woburn, I was not prepared for how big this small speaker could sound. It produces a bass which is incredible for its size, and Kendrick Lamar’s All the Stars reverberated across glass surfaces in my study, filling up the room and then some even at low volumes. Regardless of the music you listen to, the Middleton packs a warmth that will have you carry it around the house, it's that good.
Pump up the volume and there was next to no distortion. The speaker would get so loud that I never felt the need to push it beyond the 60-70% mark. Mid-range and high frequencies weren’t ignored either, allowing vocals and instruments to be distinctive and defined, without being harsh. Equally spectacular was the sense of stereo separation – it wasn’t as well defined as a pair of distinct left and right channel speakers placed on two ends of the media cabinet, but there was a distinct left/right separation in many of the tracks, a rarity in a speaker of this size.
Moving around the room, the soundstage felt wide and while I’m not the biggest believer in Marshall’s “True Stereophonic” multi-directional sound, I felt it was a small knock on what was otherwise a truly impressive sonic output. If you’re the sort who prefers their bass to be served up sparingly, you can use the EQ controls, and it does work well to tone down the low/high end. Of course, I’d have much preferred more granular equalizer controls, but this does in some way take you back to the good old days when bass and treble control were all you had.
After listening to the Middleton at 30% volume for about 9 hours, the battery level indicator told me the speaker was at around 50%, which backs up the 20-hour claimed battery life. Obviously, when you run it louder, it may drop to as low as 12-14 hours. Charging was a pain at four and half hours for a full charge, but a 20-minute splash-and-dash can net you roughly two hours of playback time.
Another thing you may miss in the Middleton is a built-in microphone for calls and, given its price, Wi-Fi connectivity and better codec support would have been good to see.
So, while the Middleton is a good speaker with impressive audio and great build quality and looks, its size limits its portability, and it is pricey for what it offers. If you’re not swayed by Marshall’s vintage cool aesthetics (wouldn’t blame you if you were), Sony’s splash-proof SRS-XG300 with its support for the high-resolution LDAC codec might be worth considering.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets @2shar.