Its size limits its volume and low-frequency output
Bluetooth only, no 3.5mm AUX input or output
Much of what you’re paying for is aesthetics
The Marshall Willen portable Bluetooth speaker rocks out even when it’s not turned on. The price tag reflects its aesthetic fun and capacity as a conversation starter more than its audio performance, so if you can keep your expectations realistic, you’ll feel like you own a little piece of rock history.
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The Marshall Willen Bluetooth speaker fits in your back pocket like a wallet overstuffed with singles and too many credit cards. It’s Zound Industries’ smallest portable speaker, manufactured under license from the British guitar amplifier builder and bears that company’s distinctive gold script logo splashed across its grille.
The late Jim Marshall, founder of Marshall Amplification and king of fuzzy guitar amplifiers, was known as the Father of Loud or, alternately, the Lord of Loud. Nikki Sixx, Mötley Crüe’s bassist, said Marshall was responsible for some of the “greatest audio moments in music’s history–and 50 percent responsible for all our hearing loss.”
The Willen, for its part, is no threat to human hearing. It can reach 80 decibels, as loud as an electric vacuum, with tolerable levels of distortion. It’s about the best you’ll get in a speaker this size with a single 2-inch full-range driver and a pair of passive radiators. The Willen is too good to be considered a novelty, but not good enough to surpass the competition in its $120 price range. But that competition won’t draw second glances or spark the same conversations the Willen is likely to.
Confused Marshall fans looking to align the Willen brand with one of many Marshall amp models will be interested to know that the speaker is named after the Willen Hospice in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England. Marshall spent his final days there, about 7 miles from the Marshall Amplification factory.
This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best Bluetooth speakers, where you’ll find reviews of the competition’s offerings, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.
The scale-model Marshall amp
A compact Bluetooth portable speaker’s appeal is almost always its size–“Ain’t it cute?!”–but the Willen’s ready-to-rock visage adds another dimension. It measures just 4 x 3.96 x 1.59 inches (HxWxD) and it weighs less than 11 ounces. It even looks stackable, just like a Marshall guitar amp. In fact, the manufacturer refers to the pairing of two or more Willens as Stack Mode.
For now, the Willen is available only in black-and-brass, with a cream version coming later this year. The grille and golden Marshall logo are plastic, but the gold-finished multifunction control knob embedded in the grille’s right-hand top corner is fabricated from aluminum. You’ll use it like a joystick, with a combination of press, hold, or push movements in any of four directions. Push and hold to turn on or off, push up or down for volume control, and so on. Here’s hoping it’s built to last, because it will take a pounding. A strap on the back can secure to a backpack or beach umbrella. I wrapped around a deck umbrella, perched above my guests.
For such a featherweight, the Willen is a surprisingly rugged little block wrapped in textured, protective silicone. This ruggedness is PVC-free, too. And 60 percent of the plastic is post-consumer recycled from used electronics. Don’t worry about inclement weather or dropsies near water, either. Willen’s IP67 rating promises complete protection from dust and other airborne particles, and it can withstand immersion in up to 1 meter of liquid for up to 30 minutes. (You’ll find a deep dive on IP codes at the preceding link.)
Look closely at the speaker’s top panel to see the tiny icons for Bluetooth, microphone, and battery and a barely noticeable “Willen” in raised black lettering. To pair the Willen with your phone, press and hold the Bluetooth button until it pulses red. (Outdoors, with a clear path, Willen retained the connection up to about 60 feet.) Stack Mode requires a triple press on the main speaker’s Bluetooth button and a double press on any additional Willen’s you wish to connect. Like many Bluetooth speakers, the Willen can also function as a speakerphone when connected to your cell phone. There is no 3.5mm auxiliary input for wired listening. (Are we far from the day when people ask, “What was a 3.5mm port for?”)
Powered on, a red LED aligns with the Bluetooth button and a five-segment battery indicator illuminates red–and only red. I’d prefer a mix: Always green, unless low-battery red. Not that it matters much. Willen lasts 15 hours on a charge–at moderate volume levels–and I had no trouble getting that. A 20-minute quick-charge using the provided USB-C cable and a power adapter you must provide delivers three hours of playtime, while a full charge takes about three hours.
Willen uses a single, 2-inch ferrite driver powered by a 10-watt Class D amplifier and two passive radiators that both add to, and control, bass output. The Willen has a Bluetooth 5.1 radio onboard, and it supports only the SBC codec. It’s a monophonic speaker–using two speakers in Stack Mode won’t produce stereo–so you’re unlikely to miss the higher-fidelity the aptX and AAC codecs can deliver.
Marshall’s no-frills app (available for Android and iOS) offers basic playback controls and three equalization presets, with “Marshall” the best all-around, “Push” delivering a boost in the top and bottom end with less-dimensional sound, and “Voice” suitable for podcasts or audiobooks.
I recommend using “Marshall” as an all-purpose EQ setting. It wasn’t worth shifting to Voice to hear about my ongoing obsession, invasive phragmites, for a podcast from the “Plants are People, too” folks.
Is the Willen’s sound truly Marshallian?
In past weeks, I’ve listened to Willen at moderate volume while stacking a cord of firewood, cooking dinner on the backyard grill, visiting with friends, and doing some touch-ups on my deck and shed. In other words, this isn’t the kind of speaker you’d use for long critical listening sessions. That probably comes as no surprise.
As long it wasn’t pushed, the Willen delivered pleasant, midrange-heavy sound with “Oxygen,” the duet with Swedish singer Winona Oak and Robin Schulz, and Steve Reich’s “Patterns & Scales,” from Reich/Richter, recorded by France’s Ensemble intercontemporain.
In a higher-volume test that, fortunately, included no video of my actions, I used a YouTube recording of a barking golden retriever to humanely encourage a mother Canada goose and her goslings to leave a neighbor’s yard and return to a nearby marsh. Let’s just say the geese, which marched away in perfect alignment, were convinced.
Placing a sound-level meter three feet from the Willen made it easy to determine that this speaker’s comfort level is between 78 and 82 decibels. It’s just not built for music from certain endorsers of Marshall amps. Playing Mötley Crüe’s cover of the AC/DC classic “Highway to Hell,” assisted by the latter band’s–and Marshall endorsers Angus and Malcolm Young–the speaker registered 88 decibels–but with intolerable distortion and shrillness. The Willen just wasn’t willin’. A $100 Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2 ($99.99) played the same track significantly louder, deeper, and without distortion. But try fitting that speaker into your back pocket.
The Willen is worth a look
Line up 10 Bluetooth portables under $120 and, based on looks, I’d take Willen every time. At that price, however, Willen has a lot of sonic competition. Start with the Wonderboom 2, the Anker Soundcore Motion+. or an on-sale Tribit XSound Mega.
Willen is a great-looking little speaker with a pleasant sound at moderate volumes that would be a lot more attractive closer to $100.
Kevin, a former consumer electronics columnist for The Chicago Tribune, writes about technology and health from his home on the Connecticut shoreline overlooking an osprey platform. Smart-home confession: He has two nightlights in his home connected to smart plugs.