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Marshall Hanwell: An 'iPod' speaker on steroids

Let's face it, itsy-bitsy or even large tabletop Bluetooth speakers can't rock out, but the 23-pound Marshall Hanwell speaker delivers the goods.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
4 min read
The Marshal Hanwell speaker Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed I'm not a big fan of any type of wireless speaker, and more specifically I have no love for Bluetooth or AirPlay speakers. For me the sound compromises that come with compact size and wireless technology are hard to swallow. I have less of a grudge against the smaller, under-$200 models; they produce "good enough" sound, but the more expensive models' sound pales next to a pair of wired Adam Audio, Audioengine, or Emotiva self-powered speakers.

So when I first spotted Marshall's $800 Hanwell speaker I wasn't interested. It looked awesome, a bit like a small practice guitar amp, and I just assumed it was a Bluetooth speaker. When Marshall's people said no, it's not any kind of wireless speaker, I couldn't believe it; why in 2013 would they introduce a speaker that can only be hooked up with a wire? Well, it's true, the Hanwell has just one input -- a 3.5mm jack -- and that was reason enough to check out this speaker. I'm glad I did, it's really pretty amazing.

The Hanwell's control panel Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The Hanwell sounds like a Bluetooth speaker on steroids, this 100 watt beast sports a pair of 6-inch woofers and dome tweeters, and the solid, 23 pound cabinet looks like a mini Marshall guitar amp. It's 17.1x7.6x11.7 inches, so the Hanwell is a good deal smaller than a real amp, but considerably larger than most Bluetooth speakers. It comes with a coiled, guitar-style cable, terminated with 3.5mm plugs at each end. The heavy-duty toggle switch for AC power is a nice, retro design touch. Priced at a hefty $800 the Hanwell is more expensive than most high-end BT speakers, but the Hanwell's sound crushes the competition. Yup, size matters. Amazon sells it for $600.

The Hanwell has stereo speakers, just like some BTs' do, but since the Hanwell's are right next to each other in a 17 inch wide cabinet the sound is strictly mono. That's true with all single speaker systems, regardless of price, so it's best to not even try to compare them with stereo hi-fi or desktop speakers. Single speaker systems can't fill a room with sound like a pair of speakers would, though the Hanwell is better than most I still miss not having stereo sound. I do like the Hanwell's easy to fiddle bass and treble control knobs, it's nice to be able to get the sound you like without exploring menus or sub menus.

This bad boy clobbers the punier BT/AirPlay competition with EDM, hard rock, reggae, or any bass heavy music, or any tunes that only come alive with real volume. The Hanwell can crank! Iced Earth or Metallica fans will have much to like here. ZZ Top's awesome new tune, "I Gotsta Get Paid," fully flexed the Hanwell's muscles. It's a sound you can feel, and that makes all the difference. More laid-back acoustic tunes sounded sweet overall, but the Hanwell's treble detail and "air" are in short supply.

I also used the Hanwell as a sound bar/TV speaker. Its potent bass and dynamic abilities were put to good use with "King Kong," and when the giant ape gets frisky the Hanwell put me in the action. The better sound bars are optimized for movie sound, so it's worth noting the Hanwell far outperforms most of them with music, especially if you want to really crank your tunes. The Hanwell's bass oomph outperforms that of most sound bars with separate subwoofers!

Smaller, sleeker BT and AirPlay speakers take up less space, but can't match the Hanwell for wham-bam dynamic jolts and low-end bass fullness. That said, there are much better ways of spending your money, if you prioritize sound quality over size. For example, pony up for a pair of self-powered speakers from Emotiva, specifically the Airmotiv 6s ($699/pair), or for even better sound buy a good stereo receiver, like the Onkyo TX-8020 ($199) and a pair of tower speakers, such as the Onkyo SKF-4800 ($349/pair). I'll review both Onkyos on this blog in the near future, but for now I'll say the sound won't disappoint. Dollar for dollar, the Onkyo system's sound is dramatically better than the Hanwell's, or any BT or AirPlay speaker on the planet.

Lots of people buy pricey BT and AirPlay speakers because all they need is good enough sound in the smallest possible package. That's cool, but if you can't deal with a pair of speakers the Marshall Hanwell will be the next best thing. Oh snap, you'll have to use a wire to connect your phone or MP3 player to listen to your tunes. If you care more about sound than going wireless it's worth the "hassle."