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Marshall Motif ANC review: Wireless earbuds that rock...until they stop

These $199 wireless earbuds are an hour or two of battery life away from being top tier.
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Written by June Wan, Tech Editor on
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June Wan/ZDNet

In the realm of wireless earbuds, Apple's AirPods Pro sits at the top of the rankings. To compete, manufacturers often look to two paths: Settling for a smaller market share through innovation and unique value propositions, and/or relying on brand identity to elevate a new product.

The Marshall Motif ANC earbuds cover a bit of both. Audiophiles and fans of rock may be acquainted with the British music company, Marshall Amplification. Known for its leather-wrapped amplifiers and sound systems, with the "Marshall" name confidently slabbed on the fronts, the company's latest entry in the true wireless earbuds market aims to appease listeners who crave its proven sound signature with a design that's unlike any other. 

At $199, the Motif ANC is priced competitively against the Apple AirPods Pro and other high-end earbuds. But for the premium, it'll have to sound as good as it looks.

Like
  • Well-balanced sound right out of the box
  • Lightweight design is comfortable on the ears
  • Companion app is very useful
  • Wireless charging
Don't Like
  • Mediocre battery life
  • Mids can sound distant
  • Equalizer settings are preset

Design

With true wireless earbuds, there are usually two stories to tell: The design of the case and how the earbuds sound.

At first glance, the Marshall Motif ANC case is bold-looking, adventurous, and as on-brand as it gets. It's covered in a PU leather (plastic) material that's rugged, all black, and feels like the textured finish of Marshall's studio speakers and amplifiers. This gives the case scratch protection and a ton of grip (and personality).

At the center of the lid is the iconic "Marshall" branding that, when lifted, reveals an "Est. 1962" message. Clearly, the company wants you to know that while Tim Cook was still a toddler, Marshall had already begun manufacturing audio products. Jokes aside, you wouldn't be wrong if you assumed that the Motif ANC's case was an accessory for the Apple AirPods Pro.

Dimensionally, the two cases look very similar, as do the earbuds within. But unlike its competitor, the Motif ANC's earbuds sport a sleek, black finish, with a matrix design on the stems that prevent them from slipping off your ears. The touchpad on the surface of the earbuds can register single taps, double taps, and tap-and-hold inputs. More on that later.

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The Motif ANC has an all-black design that pays homage to Marshall's leather-covered audio products.

June Wan/ZDNet

Weighing in at just 4.25 grams (0.15 oz), the Motif ANC earbuds are lightweight and fit comfortably in my ears. In fact, I'd go as far as to say these are some of the most form-fitting earbuds that I've tested, beating the AirPods, Galaxy Buds, and Jabra Elites. From hours of lo-fi listening to working out, I have yet to experience any aching or discomfort when using the earbuds.

To wrap up the design elements, the case is rated for IPX4, meaning it can take a splash of water from any direction. The earbuds have an IPX5 rating, making them resistant to sustained, low-pressure water (i.e. faucet, toilet, shower, etc.). There's also a Bluetooth 5.2 pairing button at the front of the case and a USB-C charging port at the bottom.

Performance

When testing the Marshall Motif ANC earbuds, I naturally leaned towards the tunes of the Scorpions and Radiohead, rock bands that deliver intricate, yet harmonic performances.

True to the Marshall name, the Motif ANC has an exceptionally well-balanced sound stage, with the highs and lows doing the instrumentals justice. During the intro of "Rock You Like A Hurricane" I could hear and, most importantly, feel the build-up of the song as the percussions and guitar took the stage. In the chorus of Radiohead's "Creep," the guitar chords in the background can similarly be discerned from the drums, as opposed to the crowded and blurred-out melody that I'd typically hear with other earbuds. Out of the box, the high frequencies of the Motif ANC are crisp and clear sounding, and the bass provides just enough of a thump to get my head bobbing.

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The Motif ANC earbuds are some of the most comfortable true wireless earbuds I've worn.

June Wan/ZDNet

The mids, which represent the vocals of songs, are great, but not perfect. In some cases, voices sound distant and covered up by the instrumentals. My solution to this, like with other headphones, is tweaking the equalizer settings within the Marshall Bluetooth app. Still, as the default configuration, I think the Motif ANC sound excellent and will be enjoyed by audiophiles and non-audiophiles alike.

Also: Best Bluetooth speakers

As the name implies, the Motif ANC has active noise cancellation, the same distraction-free tech that's found on the AirPods Pro. By inverting external soundwaves through the built-in microphones, the earbuds are able to block out ambient sounds like bird chips, rain, and fans. While a majority of sub-$100 wireless earbuds now offer ANC, there is a noticeable difference between price points. In the case of the $199 Marshall's, the passive white noise is near-silent, but very effective. When strolling through my neighborhood boardwalk, the ANC did a reliable job at fading out my surroundings and keeping the music front and center.

In busier areas that require more auditory awareness, a tap and hold on either earbud toggles between ANC, transparency, and regular modes. Transparency mode is best used when crossing streets or listening for what the next stop is on the subway. I often find transparency modes to be overly aggressive, amplifying sounds to the point where they feel closer than they actually are. However, the Motif ANC does a great job at keeping sounds natural and realistic.

App and software

Like most companion software, the Marshall Bluetooth app -- available on iOS and Android -- gives you the ability to modify the earbuds' equalizer (EQ) settings, touch controls, ANC levels, and more.

While phones including Samsung and OnePlus have native equalizers, being able to fine-tune the frequency levels within the Marshall app is a great addition. However, one of my issues with the software is that you can only select from a preset list of EQ profiles (Rock, Spoken, Pop, Hip-Hop, and Electronic). There's also a default "Marshall" preset that has all the frequency levels normalized. To my surprise, I found that to be the best sounding.

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The Marshall Bluetooth app lets you customize the earbuds' sound and function.

June Wan/ZDNet

Besides the basic features like changing the functionality of touch inputs, the Marshall app carries some extra settings and quirks that greatly enhance the overall listening experience. One of which is the option to turn off interaction sounds, the beeps and chimes that play whenever you tap or pair the earbuds. While some will find the audible feedback useful, it was too alarming for my ears and made me cringe whenever I interacted with the earbuds.

Battery

Marshall rates the earbuds for 20 hours of battery life with the case and 4.5 hours standalone. That's not taking into account turning on ANC which, from my experience, puts a significant toll on the endurance of the earbuds. While the battery life of the Marshall Motif ANC earbuds is not the best on the market, the three to four hours of music playback that I got is similar to the AirPods Pro and Galaxy Buds Pro, and should suffice for commutes, meetings, and workouts.

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Fueled by the charging case, the Motif ANC can provide up to 20 hours of music playback.

June Wan/ZDNet

When you do need to top up, it takes about three hours to charge the Motif ANC from 0% to 100%, and longer if you go wireless. The Marshall Bluetooth app also lets you toggle on Eco Charging, which caps the earbuds' charging limit at 80% to reduce battery degradation. ZDNet's Adrian Kingsley-Hughes recently covered this phenomenon but with smartphones, which I highly recommend reading.

Bottom line

I came into this review with middling expectations for the Marshall Motif ANC and I'm ending it with astonishment. These true wireless earbuds provide all the essentials that you'd want from a high-end set, including active noise canceling, excellent fit, comfort, full and rich sound quality, and a companion app that tightens any loose bolts. If you can settle with average battery life and an undeniably expensive price tag, then these earbuds are worth rocking.

Alternatives to consider

Along with our running list of the best wireless earbuds, here are some worthy alternatives to the Marshall Motif ANC: 

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