M2Tech made their name with their HiFace product range, which helped audiophiles to use PC as their source to old DAC that not support USB input, a DAC with USB input is very common now but not so in that era, I have also tested various of their DACs and headphone amplifier before, the HiFace DAC is quite musical and coherent little USB Stick DAC that I loved very much, the Evo DAC 2 Plus which is small but completed and superb sounding, their original Young DSD and Marley which are one of the best DAC and headphone amplifier that I have ever tried, they are expensive but competent for the price, apart from superb sounding, they are quite compact and looks handsome on your table too.
That was 2014, I believe, the year I tried the Young DSD (DAC) and Marley(Headphone amplifier), but I didn’t write them a review for some reason. However, both of them remain DAC and headphone amplifier that I regularly missed, which is rare as a reviewer, most of the equipment that I tested although sounded good, only a few of them are unforgettable and remarkable as the M2Techs that I have tried. It is 2020 now, and M2Tech launched Young III and Marley II in May 2019, it is not easy to request a review unit, but it is worth the wait, today we will be testing the M2Tech Marley II, that I have always wanted to try and review. For this review, I even borrow some reference headphones from Stars Picker Audio Library (Sennheiser HD800, Audeze LCD-1, and Hifiman HE1000SE, both balanced and unbalanced except LCD-1) and my audiophile buddy (Sennheiser HD600 and HD6XX, balanced and unbalanced), to have a clearer picture and evaluation on the sound quality, stay tuned as this is one of our most comprehensive and attentively review on Earmass Audio, ever.
M2Tech Marley II (2200 USD)
Marley II, without any question, is a high-end headphone amplifier. Of course, it is not the top end like a 5000USD headphone amplifier, but it is a higher tier product. It made with simplicity in mind. It is not enormously large nor as complicated looking as other headphone amplifiers, the looks certainly is quite beautiful and elegant, M2Tech is not skimming the features for the simplicity while having only physical button, M2Tech smartly integrated Android/IOS apps and a remote control to control some of the features of Marley II (more on that later), it is a fully balanced design.
The amplifier is well constructed and very nice looking, it is heftier than the compact size suggest. At first glance, I am skeptical that it will sound good, but the secret really lies inside the case, tuning, and experience. There is not much included in the box, and you will get the headphone amplifier, a start-up card, remote control, and an AC-DC adapter (that you will additionally buy a cable according to your country regulation).
The display is very beautiful with the white-lit OLED multifunction display. The display can be turned off, which is important, especially at night, it is quite relaxing and classy to look at. It displays your input, volume level, and it also shows tone control and crossfeed control after you turn them on. The knob turns nicely but a tad small, however, I don’t use the knob to adjust anything even the volume, most of the time I will use remote control and apps to control it as it is much easier.
The rear panel is much more advance looking; Marley II accepts XLR balanced input and two sets of RCA input from DAC. Besides, it also supports RCA line output to function as a pre-amplifier unit, a trigger input (5VDC to 12 VDC and output (12V DC) terminal, the triggers are used to wake up or being wake up by other preamp or receiver, which we rarely use in headphones world. There are a Bluetooth Module antenna and the rear panel for you to control Marley II with smartphones app (not Bluetooth music streaming purpose), an AES type of adapter to accept external power supply if you want to upgrade your power supply, something like the M2TechVan Der Graaf MKII.
There are two features that worth mentioning, and I believe M2Tech has put some hard work too, which are Tone Control and Cross-feed Circuit. As a purist, you can turn them off, so no worries. I must be honest that I never will try to EQ my music, but if you follow the headphone trends, you can see most of the people has no objection at all to EQing their music to their taste in the past purist, will never accept this, me too. But after trying it, I can say I quite like it. Additionally, you can instantly mute(lowering by 20dB) your music by pressing the front button, repressed it again for unmute it. You can select the output impedance for your preference as well, and you can pair ultra-sensitive IEM to detect if there is any hissing (I try with KZ AS10 and no hiss), this is a great move.
The tone control has three ranges: low boost/cut has a 100Hz corner frequency, midrange boost/cut has a 1kHz central frequency while treble boost/cut has a 10kHz corner frequency. Max change is +/-12dB. It’s fully analog, of course, as no digital processing is included in the Marley MkII. The crossfeed circuit implements the modified Linkwitz circuit, but at a line level rather than at a power level. It increases crosstalk to about -20/30dB to emulate that of a typical phono cartridge, therefore mitigating the unpleasant feeling due to the extreme channel separation in early stereo recordings.
Marley II is also versatile and flexible, you can even set the LED light on/off when music playing, set the volume level when you switch on your amplifier and a lot of other things which I think is quite important for headphone amplifier at this price. Marley II is features packed and discrete components power amplifier with low-noise FET’s on the input stage, but also of the ultra-low-noise discrete components dual regulator which makes for the high resolution the Marley II.
The M2Tech Apps
The app is the best way to control the Marley II, especially when you want to control the Tone Control and Crossfeed Circuit. It is an easy and comprehensive way to control the amplifier, but I have found no way to dim the control as the physical remote control can. Do refer to the screenshot I have taken from my phone as the images are pretty self-explanatory.
A remote control is included in the package and it can also control other M2Tech Rockstar series of equipment, the remote is versatile and complete in term of functionality, I use it to control the volume and output impedance when I review different type of headphones, it is easy but I do prefer the M2Tech apps for much more easier to access the settings. The remote is handy though because I don’t actually bring my smartphone with me when I am doing critical listening.
We have used Stoner Acoustics UDXA/EGD (Balanced output) as DAC when testing the M2Tech Marley II, and the connection was made by iFi Audio Gemini Dual Headed USB cable. We have also paired Hifiman HE1000SE (Balanced and Single Ended), Sennheiser HD800 (Balanced and Single Ended), Sennheiser HD600, and HD6XX (Balanced and Single Ended), Philips X2HR (Single Ended) with the Marley II. Music files are high resolution and lossless files up to DSD256 played by Foobar2k, streaming Tidal Master, and Spotify Premium.
Sound quality is indeed superb. Marley II is a neutral and balanced headphone amplifier with a sense of body to the music. The sound quality is top-notch, the sound is marvelously transparent and clean, listening with the Sennheiser HD800 and Hifiman HE1000 SE through Marley II is an unforgettable experience, to be frank, I can’t find any shortcoming regarding the sound quality of Marley II, I have got the best worlds of neutrality and musicality because of the sound body, it didn’t alter the sound of headphones as well, every time I switch headphone, and the characteristic of each of the headphone clearly showed with it, it is there, but it is as transparent as air and never altering any sound signature, which is what audiophile-grade headphone amplifier should behave.
Being neutral and balanced didn’t mean boring at all, I found that the speed and clarity of Marley II is pretty decent, when listening to Classical music that craves for perfect timing the Marley II can deliver it, the treble is clean, well extended and airy, without any roughness and edge, it is clean but with good body, deliver plenty of details up there, micro-dynamic and micro details are good but never sounded forceful.
The midrange is nuanced, detailed, and emotive. Listening to The World Greatest Audiophiles Vocal Recordings (Chesky Recording) album and I am pleased with what I listened, vocal is so life-like and natural, details delivered in the way that is very natural and smooth, transparency like I said, is top-notch, micro-dynamic of Livingston Taylor’s voice clearly showed with no pressure. While I can’t say Marley II is lush-sounding but I never think that anything sounds thin through it, even with the HD800, the body of the music carried immaculately. Listen to albums like TAS The Absolute Sound, and you will appreciate Marley II even more.
Bass is clean, neutral, and detailed. If you are daring enough to turn up the volume level you will be rewarded by an excellent level of dynamic and transients, listening to my regular bass test track, The Patriot OST by James Horner, the dynamic and thumping of bass is remarkable, impactful and deep, of course, it didn’t boost up the bass, so the bass is largely neutral here; however, the bass is never boring, and it certainly has a good musicality too.
The soundstage is wide, deep, and tall with good shape, and imaging is superb too. However, I think that the ‘3Dness’ is not at the top tier, but it is not far from it, still pretty decent for the price. Speed and timing are great, and I can track it in every music that I have listened, I enjoy every minute that I have spent with Marley II.
Now, the tone control, if you feel like you want to alter the sound signature of your headphone this is where you should go, it is limited to only three bands but enough for you to alter the sound signature, I rarely played with it because I think that headphone sounded wonderful out from the Marley II, but during my experiment with it, I am surprised what it can do, I have to try to adjust, and it sounded quite natural to me, this is an analog type of changing despite digitally altering it by digital EQ, I am satisfied with the result. Another thing that I like is Marley II is very versatile with the output impedance selection, you can switch between 0,10 and 47 ohm of output impedance, which I can use it with various type of headphone ranging from low to very high impedance of headphone, and also some sensitive balanced armature IEM, I don’t have a super sensitive IEM but my KZ AS10 do exhibit some hisses with some high output impedance amplifier, luckily I detect none hisses or whatsoever with Marley II. As a result Marley II not only inject high wattage of raw power but also have a high current output for low sensitivity headphone!
I am not biased with M2Tech’s Marley II, I have listened to it for weeks before writing this review, to be honest, I try my best to find the shortcomings in sound quality but can’t find any that worth mentioning, you get the best as far as neutrality and musicality can go. The best thing is everything sounded so correct, transparent, and full with Marley II, without sounding harsh, I love how it sounded, into my bone.
Of course, M2Tech Marley II is a 2200USD headphone amplifier; I can’t just ask you to go out and buy it. I have long searched for a headphone amplifier that can serve my ears well, but they always have some shortcoming in sounds or usability, some are too brittle and thin sounding, some are warm and musical but cut out some details, some are not neutral and balanced enough, for headphone amplifier I want something neutral, balanced, transparent and timely, just like what Marley II showed here, when you spend this kind of money on a headphone amplifier you are people that are picky on sound quality, I believe Marley II can serve you nicely, if you want to find ‘taste’ in the music, in my opinion, it is always best to do it with your headphones, DACs and headphone amplifier should sound as the music is, in another word just like how Marley II dealt with music, I recommended Marley II, especially if you already have a decent DAC and top-tier headphones.