A lot of Bluetooth speakers that we test are portable and rugged, but Marshall generally takes the opposite approach. Its speakers resemble the company’s signature guitar amps and are more appropriate as centerpieces for your living room. The $279.99 Marshall Acton III, a follow-up to the Action II, keeps this trend alive. It looks fantastic, sounds great, and lets you adjust the bass and treble levels to your liking. Distortion is audible at high volumes and the companion app isn’t very helpful, but these issues aren’t likely to sway ardent fans of the brand. If you’re willing to consider alternatives, however, you can save a bit of cash with the $199 Picture frame Ikea Symfoniskwhich has a still distinct, but much more modern design.
Stereo audio with premium controls
Measuring approximately 10.3 by 6.7 by 5.9 inches (HWD), the 6.3-pound Acton III looks a lot like previous entries in the Marshall lineup. The three color combinations (black, cream or brown leatherette) are attractive. Brass control knobs and the Marshall logo script on the grille accentuate the design. Some people may not like the amp’s retro aesthetic, but we’re fans.
That said, our complaint about the rear panel remains from previous models; it’s covered in the legal text that most brands manage to hide elsewhere. The bottom would have been a much more remote location for this information. Beyond the clutter of the text, the rear houses the power connection (the cable in the box is quite long) and a port that enables efficient driver performance. Four sturdy feet keep the speaker stable wherever you place it.
(Credit: Tim Gideon)
Behind the grille, it uses a single 30W Class-D amplifier for the woofer and two 15W Class-D amps for the tweeters; the combination offers stereo sound with a frequency range of 45Hz to 20KHz. It is compatible with Bluetooth 5.2 and only works with the default SBC codec. The lack of support for AAC, AptX, or any other higher-tier options comes as a surprise at this price. If you want better codec options, the $349.99 Sony SRS-XG300 works with AAC and LDAC codecs.
The control panel on top does its best to distract you from the back – the brass knobs and switches look and feel great. From left to right, you get a button to switch between Bluetooth and the auxiliary sound source; buttons to control volume, bass and treble; a combined button-switch for track navigation; and a large power switch. On the far left, there’s a 3.5mm auxiliary input. It seems a bit out of place since the other connections are on the back, but maybe Marshall just doesn’t want you to spend too much time looking there.
In any case, the playback controls worked seamlessly in testing: tap to play or pause, or push left or right to change songs. The knobs have markings but no detents, so they glide smoothly from 0 to 10. Red LEDs light up the notches as you turn them. Luckily, these settings update the ones you see in the app and vice versa.
What is missing ? Some users may expect speakerphone capability or access to a voice assistant, but there’s no mic, so neither is possible.
Marshall Acton III Application Experience
The Marshall app (available for Android and iOS) is a bit mixed. For starters, we like the adjustable equalizer with bass and treble controls that adjust the LED levels on the speaker. Usually we’d complain about not having a five-band EQ with presets you can save, but a lot of the physical controls are more focused here.
A placement compensation feature first intrigued us – some sound bars and other larger speakers have internal mics that can gauge a room’s acoustics and adjust the sound for optimal playback. The function is much less impressive; it just takes you through a very short questionnaire to find out if the speaker is near an edge or close to a wall, then adjusts the sound accordingly. It’s better than nothing, but you’ll probably have better luck manually adjusting the bass and treble to taste. As a general rule, we’d recommend keeping any speaker with a rear port at least 9 inches from a wall anyway.
The app doesn’t offer much other than the EQ and placement compensation sections. An About section simply details the model, brand, and serial number of your device. The Forget Device section is self-explanatory. The Marshall Explore section is basically a shopping link to buy more Marshall gear. Otherwise, you can access a manual, subscribe to a newsletter, opt in to anonymous scans, and install over-the-air firmware updates.
Keep the volume low for the best results
Before we get into the sound quality details, just note that this speaker can get quite loud. At these higher volumes, the digital signal processing (DSP) comes into play and changes the sound signature somewhat. But at levels below the maximum, the sound is relatively transparent. We didn’t install the speaker near a wall or near an edge, so no automatic placement compensation was in effect. We left the bass and treble knobs halfway.
On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the Acton III delivers a powerful low-end thump. At moderate volume and bass levels, plenty of robust bass depth kicks in. At maximum volume and bass levels, however, the track turns into a distorted mess. You can eliminate distortion by turning up the volume or bass settings a bit.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover”, a track with much shallower bass in the mix, gives us a better idea of the speaker’s sonic signature. The drums on this track are rich and full by default, but can sound thunderous if you max out the bass (we recommend starting with setting 7 on the scale and adjusting from there). Callahan’s voice achieves a solid balance of low-mid richness and high-frequency presence, while acoustic strums and percussive upper register hits sound crisp and clear.
(Credit: Tim Gideon)
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop is given plenty of high-mid presence, allowing its attack to retain its punch. The crackle and hiss of vinyl that usually sits in the background moves forward slightly in the mix. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are a bit deep, but not to the extent you’d hear with a dedicated subwoofer. Raising the bass doesn’t change that – you definitely hear more punch in the sustain of the drum loop, but the sub-bass response remains about the same. With the default settings, the bass stays in balance with other sound elements, including vocals, which have excellent clarity and just a bit of extra sibilance.
Orchestral tracks, such as John Adams’ opening scene The Gospel According to the Other Mary, feature a nice balance and lots of detail with the default settings. The lower register instrumentation retains its role as a subtle anchor in the mix, while the spotlight remains on the upper register horns, strings and vocals.
For a Bluetooth speaker that costs $279.99, the Marshall Acton III is a bit stripped down. Anyone spending that much money should reasonably expect a bit more from the app or at least the speakerphone functionality. But you’re not paying for the latest features here. Instead, much of the appeal is in the timeless design, physical controls and powerful sonic performance. Distortion is a problem in some cases, but you can easily avoid the DSP’s wrath by turning down the volume or bass a bit. And if you’re interested in this speaker as a conversation piece as much as for audio playback, those quirks probably won’t bother you much. People who want to spend less should consider the aforementioned $199 Ikea Symfonisk picture frame, while those with deep pockets and exquisite taste can look to the $499. Astell&Kern Acro BE100 for its superior codec support, better connectivity features, and similar high-end controls.
Marshall’s Acton III Bluetooth speaker delivers good audio performance, but its appeal also lies in its trendy, vintage-inspired design.
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