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Marshall Mode II hands-on: Discreet, true wireless headphones for those about to rock

Best known for its guitar amplifiers, Marshall delivers headphones with balanced sound in a compact package.

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Marshall

Marshall has announced its first set of true wireless, noise-canceling, in-ear headphones, the $179 Marshall Mode II. Though officially a sequel to the original Mode wired headset, the Mode II is its own beast. In my quick tests, I liked the sound a lot, but here's a quick overview.

The Mode II promises five hours of wireless playtime and comes with a slimline charging case that offers an extra 20 hours worth of recharges. The case itself can be charged wirelessly or via USB-C. Marshall's rubberized case is a lot smaller and lighter than that of the $229 Sony WF-1000XM3, and the earphones themselves are half the size of Sony's. The case's lid feels a little flimsier than the Sony's, though.

The headphones use Bluetooth 5.1, and Marshall has an easy-to-use app for iPhone and Android. The Mode II has an IPX4 water-resistance rating (resistant to water splashes from any direction) and comes with a set of four different ear tips.

The Marshall Mode II is available for preorder Thursday on marshallheadphones.com and goes on sale on March 8. The headphones cost £159 in the UK, and while Australian pricing and availability isn't yet known, you should expect them to cost around AU$300.

Ears-on

While I prefer using Comply tips with in-ear models, I found that even with my huge lugholes, the largest silicone tips in the package offered a secure, comfortable fit. Unlike the relatively bulky Sony 1000XM3, it's easy to forget you're wearing the Marshalls, though at maximum noise cancellation, the Sonys offer inky levels of silence compared with the milder version of the Marshalls. In the Mode's defense, I never felt like my head was in a vacuum or that the sound was closed in.

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The Sony charging case (left) versus the Marshall.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The company calls its default EQ setting "Marshall," and as you'd expect, it's suited to rock. Without any tweaking, the sound quality was excellent -- the Mode offers a little treble forwardness or crispness, but not it's bright or hard to listen to. What really came across was a sense of balance -- vocals were easy to decipher, guitars growled as they should and bass was tight. If you want to pump the bass or lessen the treble, you could also do that with the app.

In terms of operation, tapping the right earpiece stops and starts the music, two touches skips and three touches skips back. Double tapping the left earpiece toggles between "transparent mode" and noise cancellation. There is only on or off, no levels or customization, unlike the Sony. This means you need to use your phone to control the volume. While the original version of the software allowed for a voice assistant, it doesn't seem to work with the firmware version I tested (26.3.0). I have reached out to Marshall for clarification. 

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Sony (left) versus the Marshall Mode II.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

In terms of downsides, I had some issues with phasing between the earphones and intermittent cutting out with an LG V60 on Android 10, and this was especially noticeable on calls. Once I upgraded the phone to Android 11, the problems ended. Your mileage may vary.

Overall, I think the Marshall Mode II is a fine set of headphones, and its compact size, discreet looks and keen sound will find it many fans. For more true wireless headphone choices, check out CNET's roundup of the best true wireless headphones here.