SPL Audio Marc One by Arthur Stone
Can one device be many things successfully? A monitor controller; USB interface; headphone amp; a stand-alone converter; the sole studio interface; or part of a larger signal chain?
If a device can do all these things without compromise then that is an attractive proposition in the shrinking real-estate of the modern studio. Perhaps it is even reasonable to allow for some compromises to achieve that?
The SPL Marc One is designed to do just this and has all the features necessary. One compromise not made is sound quality.
Out of the box: Good build and finish. Slight give/flex at top mid panel at connection to fascia plate...annoying feel. Not structurally unsound but perhaps a consideration if stacking units.
The lack of balanced XLR outputs (despite one set of balanced outs for TRS jacks) will not be everyone's 'cup of tea' especially given that most active monitors (at the general technical level in which the Marc One sits) have balanced XLR inputs.
OK you get more I/O on the rear panel in a smaller space with jacks but not all monitors (in Marc Ones milieu) have jack inputs, or even balanced jack inputs.
The debate can get philosophical here: the extra circuitry needed (from amp and in monitor) for balancing and unbalancing the signal has to be considered alongside the length of, and interference on, the cable. I've had no issue with unbalanced monitor feeds with short (>6ft) cables but there is little electronic interference here in my home/project studio.
These potential limitations might not suit everyone; and even if they do, one set of monitors is always on an unbalanced output. That'll be the nearfields then : D
Ergonomics: The headphone dial is small (approx. 8mm giameter) in comparison to the main dial (approx. 28mm) so the 8mm is all you've got to play with; OK but tight...at least it sounds very good.
Another ergonomic consideration is the physical shape and features/controls of Marc One and it's positioning in the monitoring environment. It cannot be tilted and needs to be at arms length. Usefully this positions it near the centre of the monitors (again great for shorter cable length) but the distance (compared to a tilt-up or upwards facing desktop monitor controller) loses some immediacy and requires the listener to lean forward and out of the monitoring sweet spot for head/ear position – whereas with the desktop controller it is easier to control from the sweet spot. There's less of a sense of connection with the Marc One controller; it's a conscious decision to lean forwards to manipulate it rather than the unconscious tweaks of a closer desktop controller.
So I have an ergonomic disconnect with the Marc One as a monitor controller; ideally I'd mount it in a tilted desk rack so that the fascia was upward-facing e.g. at 35 degrees, but the power button is on the rear, which is also a consideration when positioning anywhere.
Desktop monitor controller have their own issues too: multiple cables out the back and across the desk, and/or a racked engine. The Marc One, on a shelf or in a rack, avoids these issues.
Despite the ergonomics, the Marc One sounds awesome (yes, awesome!). High fidelity without sounding 'hi-fi.' I immediately heard an un-hyped improvement in my signal chain and monitors; clear, unfatiguing, exciting, dynamic. The sound quality is definitely the strong point despite the excellent build and components. The sound is outstanding.
I'm always concerned about adding anything into my studios utility signal chain: the mixer, the 2-bus chain, anything that will end up on the recording or in the monitor signal, that isn't an instrument or fx, is suspect. I won't even allow them gearz in the studio. So it was a relief when I heard the SPL Marc One; I don't like to be the bearer of bad news and I'm not. The sound kinda justifies the price. As an active monitor controller it enhances the sound transparently without adding anything identifiable. Music (and all audio) sounds improved and better with than without.
Headphone Amp: I noticed that at the lowest 10% of the headphone dial the image was not symmetrical with more level to the left headphone – this happened regardless of Crossfeed position. Using Audeze LCD-1 planar headphones I didn't need more than 15% of the dial; with AKG K702's I used around 30%. This was a little too tightly bunched for my preference and combined with the small 8mm dial there was not a lot of room for fine adjustment (which is a shame given the overall quality of the headphone amp and it's lack of image just below the optimum level.
Crossfeed is remarkably subtle (in a good way) and effective. The sonic mix qualities of the audio are unaffected but the perspective of listener to source is adjusted forward and backward. It doesn't impact the tonal, dynamic or soundstage of the mix; more of a comfort reverb' for the listener or more precisely, given that there is no reverb, 'comfort adjustment' in positioning in a still ambience.
Sonically it is similar to an impedance change but with a spatial element rather than a tonal change.
The Marc One provides a clear, detailed, glossy/unharsh soundstage with great dynamics and enough resolution to hear detail (e.g. slight EQ changes or reverb tails); it worked well with a variety of material: DAW sessions; HD audio; general steaming audio; and as part of a tracking chain for live instruments, and also worked with a variety of musical genres: classical to afrobeat.
I didn't suffer any fatigue over longer headphone sessions or pick up on any annoying distortion – just cool, clear audio presented in a neutral way.
Potential Criticisms: The small dials are less easily read at arms length – the legend text is small and not visible in less than full light. To shift between line input and USB is less than optimal.
Push-button power switch on rear of unit and therefore awkward to operate if unit fitted in tight space.
The slight flex in the main body precludes heavy units being stacked on top.
No select control for line inputs 1 and 2 so levels must be set at source equipment.
Accepting adaptation: In a sense I'm being selfish in my criticisms and perceived flaws of the SPL Marc One: a more objective overview is of a device designed to operate in a manner imagined by SPL's designers, of a device destined to be connected with other (SPL) devices in a different way to my hybrid studio set-up.
The Marc One is perhaps better suited to a more minimalist studio: the high-quality USB conversion; analogue inputs for connecting hi-fi or tape-machine; line out as a source for a recorder or headphone amp.
The Marc One can do everything in a simple, high-quality manner but whether this fits the users needs is dependent somewhat on existing gear and imagined future purchases. The worst that can happen is that some features are unused as they are duplicated by other gear (and even then these redundant features can be repurposed). SPL do make other gear (in the same range); for example, the less-featured headphone amp or monitor controller might be all that is needed. In a sense the Marc One represents all the best features of the range.
Sonic Afterburner: After re-installing my Focusrite Saffire Pro24DSP I was surprised at how attractive the sound was – more coloured and subtly distorted than the Marc One but also I realised the accuracy and revealing nature of the Marc One – clean but not clinical, modern and precise but not fatiguing. Better dynamics than the 10-year old unit that cost half the price of the Marc One.
I didn't miss the Marc One but equally if I needed an interface/monitor controller/headphone amp then the Marc One would fit the bill and compete with similarly-priced competition.
The biggest compliment is that the Marc One isn't a weak link, doesn't mar the sound by leaving a signature sonic characteristic – and for an active controller (as opposed to a passive controller) this is a good attribute.
Conclusion: A positive first experience with an SPL product. Despite minor quibbles about the interface and ergonomics, the sonics are outstanding. I wouldn't hesitate to use the Marc One in my own home studio or to recommend it to you the reader.
In the introduction I asked if one device can be many things successfully; in use, despite the need to adapt to the controls, the answer is yes. There is no compromise.
Sound Quality 5/5: Very good. Bright, clear, modern, high-definition but non-fatiguing (for long periods of use) and a reliable reference. The USB connection/ADDA converter is high-quality and offers multiple high sample-rate and DSD option.
Features 5/5: Very good. Everything one would expect and need if you already have preamps. The rear DIP switches are fiddly but set-and-forget. Limited I/O but enough to work with especially with other studio outboard gear or ITB plug-ins. In general, the dials and switches are of good quality as is the finish. The monitoring modes: stereo, mono and right/left or left/right are useful. NO S/PDIF.
Ease of use: 4/5: The smaller dials are less than optimal for a monitor controller but if the Marc One is regarded as more of an interface then the controls are comparable to similar devices. No XLR I/O but that is now standard with this class of interface. The general gain range/operating level is a bit high for my home studio rig but might better suit other set-ups.
The slight flex between the main body and front panel may be problematic if weight is applied e.g. stacking units.
Bang-for-buck 4/5: Despite the sonic quality and interface feature set the Marc One appears as a relatively expensive unit. Personally I'd pay the extra for the Marc One and benefit from the advanced Class-A and AD/DA sonics but there are other good monitor controllers with better ergonomics out there at the price.