The PSB headphones have finally arrived. This is a rather long review so I’ll cut to the chase for you speed readers. These are probably one of the best values in audio to come along in a long time in any category. At their price of $399, they totally obliterate the competition.
If you are familiar with PSB, you know its been led by Paul Barton for close to 40 years. Paul is a real scientist, using the facilities of the Canadian National Research Center. Over the past 40 years, his speaker designs have received more top value ratings than just about all other brands combined! He currently has 7 speakers in the recommended components list of a popular audio review journal.
The headphone market has exploded in the US with the popularity of portable high quality music. There were actually more headphones sold in the US last year than speakers! Everyone close to PSB has been looking forward to these headphones for a long time. I heard a prototype a year ago and hoped we would get them before now, but Paul’s quest for perfection held them up a bit. Boy, was it worth it.
The M4U 2 headphone (I have no idea where this model number came from) is designed to be used at home or on the go. It is an over the ear design with a super soft cup that completely seals off your ear. It’s mounted with a gyroscopic system that lets it seal you off, but does so in an incredibly comfortable way. The part that rests against the top of your head feels like some kind of memory foam wrapped in soft leather. You get a spare pair of earpieces too, which is a nice touch.
They fold up in a protective case which makes traveling with them a breeze. Another neat feature is the detachable audio connecting cord. There is a connector on both the right and left earpieces so you can situate the cord on the side that best suites the environment you are in. I also like the way the left and right sides are very clearly marked.
The back of the left earpiece pops off to reveal a chamber for two AAA batteries. Yes, these headphones actually have three listening modes you can control with a small switch on the back of the right earpiece. The batteries are good for about 55 hours and they will give you an amber warning light in active mode to let you know you have about 3 hours left. Of course you can listen to them in passive mode with no need for batteries. The modes are passive, active, and noise cancelling.
Two cords are included with the M4U 2. One has a simple mute button on it, but is pretty interesting. This comes into play when you are in active noise cancelling mode. When you press and hold the mute button, it reduces the audio output by 30db, but amplifies the external environment so you can communicate with the flight attendant asking for your drink order without having to take off your headphones! I can attest this works great. The other cord includes the mute function and another button to control your smart phone or iPod. You can with one click answer a call, then return to your music, or use dual and triple clicks to skip forward and backwards.
The M4U 2 are pretty efficient as well. You can easily drive them with a portable music player. Finally, they come with two adapters: one to convert the mini plug to a full sized plug and one with dual mono mini plugs that fit into some airline seats where you need both for stereo.
Yes, I think Paul thought of everything!
So, how do they sound/ Well, I knew when I heard the first track these were a winner. I got these on a Friday afternoon and listened to them for a couple of hours, then let them play for a while to fully break in. My two older kids came home for Easter Sunday before I had to head to the airport and I tossed the case over to my 20 year old son to try out. He pulled them out and said they looked kinda like the Beats headphones, which they do in a way. (Of course, there are only so many ways a headphone can look.) I asked him to try them out and plugged them into my iPad and let him click through a few tracks. When I finally pulled them off of his head, I asked him what he thought. He said they were fantastic, but this is the good part. I asked him how much he thought they cost. Now bear in mind, he has heard several headphones from $1500 and down in the past year of so that I have brought home to test out. He told me they had to be between $1500 and $2000 based on how good they sounded and how well they fit. When I told him they were only $399, the first thing out of his mouth was “Dad, my birthday is next week!”
The sound from the M4U 2 is just like PSB speakers. Very natural, non fatiguing and just flat out an incredible value. Paul spent a few years on the design of these and in the process made many models of the human ear to try and figure out how a headphone could best interface to a typical human ear canal. Being a Canadian company who can take advantage of the NRC does not hurt. This is a research facility Canadian companies can use. There are several acousticians there, and just tons of testing and modeling equipment.
When I usually test equipment out, I’ll play snippets from a lot of my favorite music and typically do not finish a song. Not the case with these! I always know I have a winner when I forget about the gear and get back into the music. I found myself listening to song after song on Saturday evening. I tried the M4U 2 on my iPad, iPhone, Mac Air and Peachtree amp/USB DAC. I did notice a significant difference in how the input impedance of the source effected the volume difference between active and passive modes. In active mode, a small amp inside the headphones is engaged. I felt on the portable devices I preferred the sound of active, but on the Peachtree I actually like passive a bit more. I tried engaging noise cancelling and noticed a small degradation in the audio quality. You would really only want to engage noise cancelling in a very noisy environment, where the cancelling out of all the external noise would far outweigh the slight audio degradation.
Timing was perfect though for a full test of these for both noise cancelling and long term use. I had to fly across the country for a business trip. I even had a very long flight delay on the second leg which allowed for even more testing time. Never did these feel uncomfortable on my head! But the real test occurred on the second leg of my flight. My seat was in the next to last row, in the aisle, which put me dead center between the two huge engines just outside either window on the S80 jet. Once we got airborne, it was so loud back there you pretty much had to shout to be heard. When I could finally bring out my approved electronic devices, I put these on, flipped to the noise cancelling mode and was amazed! The roar of the engines was reduced to a very soft background noise and the music just came through pure and clean. When I pressed mute to give my drink order to the flight attendant, I could hear him clearly, with very little plane noise. I tried several times during the flight switching to normal active and passive modes, and decided it was so loud where I was sitting, I would not be able to enjoy the music without the noise cancelling mode.
In conclusion, the new PSB headphones are a complete home run. They sound like they should sell for $1500 but are only $399. Plus most of the headphones that sound this good are not this easily portable and none of them have active noise cancelling. I feel like these are one of the best things to ever come out of PSB! For more info, check out the PSB website headphone section.