I finally bought a Bluetooth speaker. I ended up purchasing the Marshall Acton, partly because of The Sweet Home’s recommendation. I really just wanted a decent looking speaker with at least average sound quality, but I’ve really found myself adoring this product, I want to use it because it’s fun to use, and I’m quite surprised how well-designed this product is. It may be the product I’ve most enjoyed using since I bought my first iPhone. And here’s why.
The state of usability when it comes to consumer products is, generally, abysmal. For instance, if we look at B&O’s Beoplay line of portable speakers, products which have been generally well-received, we find aesthetically pleasing products with absolutely horrendous usability. The entire interface is made up of buttons that don’t feel particularly well-made. The tactile feedback is mediocre and the layout and design is unintuitive.
The Marshall Acton instead just re-uses what already works. Using a dial to change volume is a masterful piece of design: The feedback is immediate, it’s very easy to gauge where the lowest and highest volume points are and you have fine-grained control over volume changes.
Using a button to change volume, especially when there’s no screen for visual feedback, is just not as enjoyable or easy to understand. The only feedback you get is vocal, you may hear a beep to signify the volume change was registered, but that’s it. You don’t know where the lowest and highest outputs are and the fine-grained control you experience using a dial is gone.
Similarly, the Acton uses a good old mechanical switch to turn the speaker on and off. You can’t not know the speaker is turned on, because the visual state of the switch clearly shows it. Not so with the Beoplay speakers, where a single button is used. You hold down the button and the speaker beeps to signify it’s turned on. The button now lights up to show it’s turned on, much harder to see and understand than a simple switch. To turn the speaker off, you don’t just press the button, you have to hold it down, because the designers realised that it was too easy to mistakenly turn off the speaker if all it took was a press. That’s bad design, it’s unintuitive and the feedback is easy to misunderstand.
The Marshall Acton has two input types, Bluetooth and mini-jack. Most of the Beoplay speakers support both input forms, too, but the Beoplay speakers – most likely in the name of minimalistic and pleasing aesthetics – hide the mini-jack port behind a flimsy, plastic door. The Acton put it in plain sight, it integrates it as a part of its aesthetics with a beautiful, coiled, gold-plated cable. The Beoplay speaker automatically switches inputs, so if a mini-jack cable is connected to an audio source, the speaker uses mini-jack. That’s not obvious to the user, there’s nothing on the speaker which signals which input is used. That’s not the case with the Acton. It has two lights which show which input source is used and you switch between the two with a button marked “Source”. And it may sound silly, but the buttons itself are a joy to use. The tactile feedback is great, the clicking sound is great, it feels well-crafted, it makes you want to press the button.
The last button, which both the Beoplay speakers and the Acton have, is the Bluetooth pairing button. It’s as well-implemented as can be done when using the Bluetooth protocol: press the button to initiate pairing, which is shown by the Bluetooth light blinking, and you can then choose the Acton in your audio source’s Bluetooth settings. This is basically the same flow for the Beoplay speakers.
So, I love my Marshall Acton. I love how physical the interface is, I love that it feels well-crafted, I love using an actual dial to change the volume, I love feeling the “click” when I flick the switch or press a button, and I love how each button, switch and dial has a dedicated function. I even love the power cable, it’s one of those standard figure 8 cords that you find everywhere, so it’s easily replaceable. And the sounds quality isn’t bad either! For 1.500 DKK this is an amazingly well-crafted Bluetooth speaker.