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Marshall’s AirPods alternatives: Slick style comes with some compromises

Marshall products typically chart their own path in terms of design and features. This true of like the excellent Emberton and Tufton Bluetooth speakers, as well as the Mode II true wireless earbuds. But for its latest products, the $129 Minor III and $199 Motif ANC, Marshall has chosen to reinterpret two of Apple’s most popular gadgets: The now more affordable $129 AirPods and the $249 AirPods Pro. Did Marshall find a way to upstage Apple’s act, or should you stick with the originals? Let’s check them out.

AirPods with attitude

Marshall Minor III true wireless earbuds.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Apple’s iconic white AirPods are popular for a reason. They offer dead-simple operation, as well as easy and reliable pairing with iPhones and other Apple products. And while they don’t have especially noteworthy sound quality, they’re just fine for casual listening. But their popularity means we see those unmistakable white golf tees sticking out of a lot of people’s ears.

The Marshall Minor III offer a truly 180-degree stylistic shift from the AirPods while maintaining almost all of their advantages. Marshall’s signature guitar amp-inspired design language is all over the Minor III, which gives them a rough-and-ready rock ’n’ roll vibe — which is a huge contrast to the AirPods’ squeaky-clean look.

For some folks, that’ll be worth the price of admission. But Marshall manages to add some extra value in the form of a wirelessly charging case, something you can’t get on the AirPods unless you buy an entirely new charging case for $79.

The portion of the bud that goes in your ear is a tiny bit bigger than on the AirPods. When combined with the Minor III’s textured finish, I found they sat more securely without sacrificing any of the AirPods’ comfort.

The Minor III also sound a lot better than the AirPods. Marshall prides itself on its big, bold sound signature and how loud its audio products can get. And while semi-open earbuds like the AirPods and Minor III will never sound as good as a closed, ear canal-sealing design, the Minor III overcome this limitation to a surprising degree. Bass is actually full and satisfying (something we couldn’t say about the AirPods), and there’s plenty of clarity through the mid- and upper-ranges.

Man wearing Marshall Minor III true wireless earbuds.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The touch controls are very responsive and you get a comforting click sound when you trigger them, so you’re not left wondering if you tapped accurately or not. I wish there were a way to control volume, but you can always use your phone for that.

Call quality isn’t stellar, but it’s just fine if you can find a quiet spot where your voice won’t need to compete with too many other noises.

The only drawback — and for AirPods fans it could be a big one — is there’s no way to trigger your voice assistant, regardless if that assistant is Siri, Google Assistant, or Amazon Alexa. But if you’re able to get through your day without Siri or Google Assistant, the Minor III are an attitude-laden AirPods alternative you should definitely consider.

ANC ain’t easy

Marshall Motif ANC true wireless earbuds.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The AirPods Pro are, as they say, often imitated but rarely equaled. That’s because when it comes to active noise cancellation (ANC), transparency, and ease of use, they’re outstanding. With a bar set that high, it’s not surprising that Marshall’s first set of true wireless active noise-canceling earbuds haven’t quite managed to knock the AirPods Pro from their perch.

The Motif ANC definitely look the part. Like the Minor III, they take Apple’s basic product sketch and then dress it up in a black leather jacket. Stylewise, I think they’re a home run. But at $199, they need to be more than a fashion statement.

On paper, you get everything you could want: Wireless charging, ANC, transparency, IPX5 water and sweat resistance, wear sensors, and a very compact design. The Marshall app lets you tweak several settings including EQ and ANC/transparency levels, and there’s even an eco mode you can engage that Marshall says will extend the serviceable life of the rechargeable batteries.

Man wearing Marshall Motif ANC true wireless earbuds.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

But I found that when it comes to sound quality and noise-canceling, the Motif ANC simply can’t match Apple’s best buds. Even with ANC set to maximum, there’s only a small reduction in outside noise. As an example, my home office desk sits right beside a bathroom. When the bathroom fan is running, it’s very audible. With the Motif ANC, you can still hear it, but it’s a little less intrusive. With the AirPods Pro, the fan noise vanishes instantly and completely.

The Motif’s sound quality also takes a back seat to Apple’s buds. The clarity in the midranges and high frequencies is very good, but I found the bass response to be weak, and no amount of tweaking the EQ presets in the Marshall app could fix it.

I suspect that both the ANC and sound quality issues are the direct result of the Motif’s shape. It has the same short-stemmed design as the AirPods Pro, but Apple has created a subtle curve to its stems that allow the AirPods Pro to nestle deeper in your ear. By contrast, the Motif ANC use a straight stem that sits very close to the silicon eartips, creating a physical barrier that limits how deeply you can insert the buds. Even when using the largest of the three supplied eartips, it felt like I wasn’t getting a really good seal with my ear canal. All ears are different, so this might not be true for everyone who uses the Motif ANC.

Call quality is decent. Noisy locations will still make it tricky to hear you, but quiet ones will offer really good quality for your callers.

Should you buy them?

Marshall Minor III and Motif ANC true wireless earbuds.
Marshall Minor III (left) and Motif ANC Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Before Apple dropped the price of the second-gen AirPods to $129, the Marshall Minor III seemed like a very good deal, despite their lack of voice assistant support, based their strengths: Wireless charging, good sound quality, and Marshall’s signature style. Those should all still apply to your decision, but now, you’re no longer saving money. If you love the idea of AirPods, but can’t stand the idea of joining the white earbud mafia, the Minor III are calling your name.

You’d think that at $199 — $50 less than the price of the AirPods Pro — the Marshall Motif ANC would be a slam dunk. But their poor ANC performance and mediocre sound quality make them hard to recommend. My advice: Watch for the regular sales on AirPods Pro and snap them up when they hit $199. They may not have Marshall’s rock ’n’ roll attitude, but they’ll help your rock ’n’ roll sound its best, which is really what matters in a set of $200 true wireless earbuds.

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