In an ideal world, brands would always make our lives easier. They would ensconce us in a safe environment where each new product bearing a storied name maintains the quality and care that have made that name famous. But in the real world, we have Apple making both the iPhone and the EarPods, Adobe responsible for both Photoshop and Flash, and Leica putting its iconic red dot on rebadged Panasonic cameras. Brands are unreliable.
Marshall is precisely the sort of turncoat brand that we should all be wary of. Having established itself as an icon of live rock music with its unique guitar amplifiers, the company recently decided to make some extra cash on the side by selling its name to a small Swedish outfit by the name of Zound Industries. All of a sudden, Marshall headphones and Bluetooth speakers started showing up, accompanied by the tattooed arms of their supposed rock legend users. It was cheap and exploitative, and at first it was just a terrible charade for awful products. The first set of Marshall-branded in-ear headphones was an unqualified disaster, both in its sound and design.
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But somewhere along this road to perdition, a detour was taken and the Marshall-Zound hookup headed toward redemption. The latest Marshall Mode earbuds are a terrific improvement on their predecessors and finally sound like something worthy of bearing the big M logo that adorns them. And this week we got the next stage in the evolution of Marshall as a brand for non-Marshall products: a smartphone called the London. It should have been a dead-on-arrival calamity — another big name to add to the sad tales of the rebadged Polaroid and Kodak phones — but it's subverted all prejudices and wowed us with a highly individualized and attractive design.
What sets the Marshall London apart from the rest of the gimmicky crowd is that it's functionally, not just aesthetically, different. Its basic specs are unimpressive, but it has two headphone jacks for output and dual stereo microphones for recording. It has a professional Wolfson Audio sound card, a scroll wheel for a volume control, an "M" button for direct access to music, and yes, it even bundles in a pair of Marshall Modes. It's a music aficionado's phone that's designed for that purpose. The fact it's also embellished with brass accents and knurled sides that imitate Marshall's amps is just a bonus.
Zound has been talking up its smartphone plans for a few months ahead of this week's announcement, noting how boring and staid things have become and seeing an opportunity to add "soft values" with its own designs. That's the notion of addressing the unquantified needs and wishes of users: a phone that attracts attention without being kitsch, a device that does something materially, if not massively, different. Zound has sidestepped the endless spec race and created a lightning rod for attention simply by tapping into our imaginations and unexpressed desires.
In spite of its mediocre specifications, the Marshall London has revitalized excitement around smartphones by being so clear-eyed and assertive in its purpose. Everyone can just look at it and understand why it exists. That cannot be validly said of the marginal upgrades introduced by the likes of HTC, LG, Sony, and Huawei this year. It's true that those big global brands have to cater to a broader market and therefore aim for a lower common denominator, but that doesn't mean they can't also show a bit of leadership by experimenting with wilder and more fascinating designs such as the London's. Their passivity is what's opening the door for Zound to steal the limelight.
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And yet, the London still represents a Faustian deal. Sure, you get the pleasure of having the "turn it up to 11" marque on your phone, but you get none of the audio expertise of the actual Marshall company. Maybe Zound and its partners have enough engineering acumen to make that unimportant, but then they also lack the infrastructure required to support a smartphone beyond the first few days after it's sold. What happens when Google releases Android M and the London needs to be updated across multiple countries and multiple carriers? The handset has a removable battery, but who's in charge of making sure there will be replacements available in a couple of years' time? Those are the unappreciated benefits of going with an established smartphone brand.
Ultimately, this smartphone feels like one giant contradiction. It's disingenuous to just slap on the Marshall label when that company isn't involved in the engineering, and yet the London is far from some corporate copycat cash-in. Its design is thoughtful and understated, and its hardware additions are purposeful. It marries cynical marketing with sincere design. More than anything, though, it reminds us that smartphones can and should be exciting — it just takes a little bit more imagination and courage than everyone else is showing right now.