In the tech world, even with audio equipment, it’s getting increasingly rare to see something that goes five years without a refresh. But, that’s just what happened with the Marshall Major on-ear headphones. They were released in 2010 to mostly positive reviews, although we had some issues with comfort and sound quality. If they didn’t quite live up to the vaunted Marshall name, renowned for superior amps and high-end audio equipment, they at least didn’t bring shame to it.
But, here in 2015, Marshall has finally decided it’s time for an update. They were at CES 2015 with the brand new Major II Headphones, stocked with their second-generation custom drivers and a few other goodies that make the new headphones competitive with some of the heavier hitters in the headphone market.
The Major II Headphones aren’t much different than the originals from the outside, and remain very lightweight. The earcups look the same, with the Marshall logo in white set against a black background. Like before, these are on-ear headphones, so the earcups remain on the small side. They’re also still made of plastic that doesn’t feel particularly sturdy. The new headband sports a vinyl finish, and is black with the Marshall logo printed in gold on the underside. The hinges, which allow the earcups to fold into the headband for travel, have been updated to span the width of the headband in order to make them more durable, but again, the plastic build doesn’t feel sturdy and makes me feel like those hinges are going to be the first things to go.
The 6.25 mm converter that came with the original Major headphones doesn’t come with the Major IIs, but that’s more of a convenience thing. If you already have your own converter, you can just slip it on to this or any pair of headphones to connect them to an amp. Interestingly, despite being designed as travel headphones, the Major II headphones don’t come with a travel pouch or case, which is somewhat of a disappointment.
One nice change is that the 3.5 mm audio cable (which retains its inline microphone) can now be detached from the cans and plugged into either the right or left cup. The cup with the empty jack can be used to link another pair of headphones with an empty port to your music. The audio cable now has an L-shaped end and an improved stress-relief spring. That’s great news—a headphone’s audio jack is often one of the first things to break down, as the cable sheath starts to fray and the interior wiring gets damaged. A weak link that would doom other headphones (or at least necessitate repair costs) shouldn’t be an issue here.
The physical changes between the originals and the Major II headphones were subtle, but their effects are considerable. The new headband on the Major II headphones is much more flexible and softer than its predecessor, and sticking with metal rail adjustment allows the headphones to be adjusted more precisely. The rails are easy enough to slide back and forth, but in the few weeks since CES, they’ve always stayed in place during use. Granted, everyone’s going to be different when it comes to headphones, and there have already been some early reviews of the Major II headphones complaining of too much tightness or pressure. In my experience, these are some of the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn, and even through hours-long listening sessions, I’ve not yet been bothered by discomfort of any sort.
Sound quality is terrific, especially for a pair of headphones at this price. The Major II headphones boast clearer bass at lower frequencies than the original Major headphones, along with well-defined highs at the top of the spectrum. Mid-range notes, a strength of the originals, is just as good this time around. They’re a balanced pair of cans, without any noticeable distortion or feedback problems, but they might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re mainly going to be listening to any kind of rock, in keeping with Marshall’s heritage, the Major II headphones are a terrific choice. But, if you really enjoy genres that rely on booming bass, particularly hip hop or EDM, you’re not going to get the physical feedback you might prefer—low notes come in well-defined, but aren’t particularly powerful. Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 set and the Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers sounded fine, but they’d probably be better served by other headphones tuned and outfitted for stronger bass.
The Major II headphones do struggle with imaging. While music usually sounds clear, and you can pick out individual instruments without too much difficulty, things can start to sound a little mashed together on more complex recordings, like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. The sneaky-affordable Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones don’t provide as much definition at the extremes of the spectrum, but are much more adept at handling those trickier albums and aren’t that much more expensive than the Major IIs.
But, the Major IIs excel when it comes to passive noise cancellation. They’re terrific at blocking most ambient sound without the need for ANC, and while they won’t fare as well in airports (or, ahem, with roommates that snore at insane levels) where you might want something like the Bose QuietComfort 25s, the Major II headphones prove good enough as long as you’re rocking your tunes, and they won’t need battery power or add that extra pressure that ANC can cause. They’re also a whole lot cheaper than ANC headphones. The Major II headphones are equally good with sound leakage, keeping everything private at reasonably high volume levels. I was a little (and pleasantly) surprised when I took these headphones off while listening to music from my laptop at 35 percent volume and couldn’t even hear faint sound.
The Marshall Major II headphones are, most importantly, a marked upgrade over the original Majors. They’re much more comfortable, especially during long listening sessions, and performance on the low and high end of the spectrum has been noticeably improved thanks to Marhsall’s second generation custom drivers. They can struggle with more complex tracks, but that might not necessarily be a problem, depending on when you would use these.
The Major IIs are ideal street headphones. If you want something that looks great and sounds great on the go while not breaking the bank, the Major IIs are a fantastic choice, especially because they’re so lightweight and comfortable. If you live for home listening sessions where you can get really get engrossed in the music, the Major IIs probably aren’t what you’re looking for, and you’re probably going to need to climb up a price bracket or two (or consider Marshall’s Monitor headphones, their more heavy-duty studio-style model). Those who value noise cancellation won’t necessarily be disappointed by these, though. If you’re looking for effective noise cancellation at a low price, or just want something that will block out most sound while leaving a little background noise behind, the Major IIs should be just right for you.
The Marshall Major II headphones were scheduled to become available in late January at $120. They’re not up on the Marshall site just yet, but you can expect to see them there and in stores sometime very soon.
The Good: Very comfortable, effective passive noise cancellation, balanced and clear sound, can be linked to other speakers and headphones, sturdy audio cable, reasonable price
The Bad: Sound can be a little muddled on more complex tracks, no carrying case included, plastic on the earcups and hinges doesn’t feel sturdy