A Canadian company specializing in loudspeakers, PSB is a fresh face in the headphone game. Going all in with the M4U 2 over-ears (MSRP $399), the company offers plenty in terms of both comfort and audio quality—but the asking price is tall indeed.
To see if these headphones could live up to their pricey ticket, we handed over hundreds and got to testing. Turns out, if you want active noise cancellation and great sound quality in an over-ear package, these definitely deliver both.
Not a $400 outfit
From functionality to quality, the M4U 2 headphones don't meet $400 expectations. For instance, the sleek form factor looks impressive right out of the box, but that doesn't last long: I kept these cans right on top of my tidy desk or around my own neck, but a rowdy host of little scratches and marks quickly mobbed the susceptible plastic band. On top of that, the shiny surface grew cloudy with smudges and fingerprints, so that any feeling of newness rapidly faded. I can handle smudges with a cleaning cloth, sure, but the irritating throng of dings and scrapes is inexcusable.
The M4U 2 is not without a few nice flourishes, however. The soft faux-leather speaker pads are over-ear types, so you can listen comfortably for hours on end. The band is comfortable, too, thanks to a cushy pad along the uppermost curve. A very long 5-foot cable offers added convenience for desk users, and it's removable too—bonus points. The cable also houses two remotes; the one on the bottom is a traditional mic/remote, but the one at the top is a single-button control that momentarily halts active noise cancellation and music—convenient if you need to flag down a passing flight attendant, for example.
Rounding out the positives, PSB includes a smattering of handy extras: a hard-shell, zippered carry case, a cleaning cloth, a carabiner, a backup cable, two adaptors (1/4-inch and airplane), and even spare speaker pads for when the first two wear out.
The happy tidings end there. The one-button remote means you can change a song or take a call, but that's it. You can't turn your volume up or down—a basic staple that any $400 set of headphones ought to provide. To get to the batteries, you might wind up with chipped nails after prying the stubborn cover off the left ear cup. Lastly, if you take the M4U 2s on the go, don't plan on sporting them comfortably around your neck—the sheer volume of this headset conjures the feel of a neck brace, and the plastic edges tend to press sharply into one's collar bone.
Flat as a pancake
This sound profile is dead-set on pleasing hobbyists. From 100Hz all the way through 7kHz, the M4U 2 produces a flatter response than what you usually find on mainstream cans, which means that notes are largely balanced in terms of loudness—with only a modest bass and midrange boost. This quality makes the M4U 2 better for mixing and equalizing than most consumer headphones.
I tested these headphones three times: Once with active noise cancellation turned on, once in the Passive Mode, and once with all features turned off. The results are all positive.
Even better, the M4U 2's frequency response (unlike most active noise canceling headphones) doesn't croak as soon as the batteries do. If your AAAs die, you'll enjoy a very similar frequency response as before, but with slight falloff in volume in the sub-bass and midrange that makes for a slightly less rich sound profile—but a well balanced one, nonetheless.
Battery-powered peace and quiet; tasteful audio quality
The M4U 2 doesn't plod along with the main herd. Most casual listeners these days prefer a sound profile that really boosts the bass, and most consumer headphones do just that—but the M4U 2 embraces a more refined approach. If you're a big-bass apostle, you're barking up the wrong tree.
On the whole, this soundscape is quite natural. Each note receives similar emphasis because the sound quality is quite flat, so that no particular segment of the scale is dramatically showcased over another. Instead of "bassy" or "pitchy" sound, music is just more balanced across the board. Hobbyists tend to prefer this sort of balance because such treatment safeguards delicate musical details. For instance, since bass isn't boosted, listeners are sure to hear even delicate notes on softer instruments like the harp. Additionally, when all notes are emphasized more evenly, it makes it easier to equalize and mix one's own music.
The best part of all is that even when the batteries bite the dust, users are still treated to great sound quality—and that's tough to come by with active noise cancelers. You'll notice a slight drop in sub-bass and midrange emphasis when the batteries are off duty, so that music isn't quite as rich—but the overall sound quality remains quite detailed and balanced.
Meanwhile, though the M4U 2's active noise cancellation (ANC) is good, it's certainly not the best we've tested recently. Two AAA batteries do provide hours of shelter from high-pitched ambient noises—a flip of the ANC switch easily drowned out most of the surrounding chatter in my office—but I could easily hear trucks charging by on the street below. That's because the M4U 2 does a much better job blocking high-pitched noises than low, sonorous ones, so don't expect outstanding protection against racket from trains or booming construction.
Good performance lasts, even if the batteries don't.
Distortion trials revealed a largely distortion-free listening experience. Though we did test unsavory measures of unwanted garbage in the sub-bass range in the M4U 2's Passive Mode, we don't generally worry too much about that arena—human ears just aren't particularly sensitive throughout the sub-bass range. Still, if you're a dubstep fan, you might want to take these for a practice spin—just in case.
Luckily, though, distortion is otherwise effectively harnessed. Listeners therefore have nothing to worry over in the bass, middle, and high end—with or without batteries. Unless you pump your volume up past 115.54dB, which increases distortion to upwards of 3%, it's smooth sailing from top to bottom. For the sake of safe listening, though, don't listen so loudly.
The M4U 2 is by no means number one in terms of isolation, but you can still expect to block a fair amount of outside noise with the flip of a switch. Booming bass sounds are cut to half their loudness, middle-range disturbances to 1/4, and high-pitched noises noises to up to 1/8.
Great-big price tags shouldn't come with cheap components.
To put it plainly, PSB Speakers's M4U 2 headphones are annoyingly expensive—a fact I might not gripe about as much if it weren't for the questionable build. These things scratch up at the drop of a hat. Even if you're careful, you'll wind up with ugly marks and blemishes on every inch of that glossy headband. In combination with the $400 price tag, that weighs my enthusiasm down quite a bit. More importantly: If absolute powerhouse active noise cancellation is what you need, look elsewhere.
The M4U 2s are a great set of cans, true, but big price tags beg comparison shopping. Before you burn four big ones on these PSBs, consider that you can get even better raw performance, in a more-durable package, for hundreds less. But what if you want active noise cancellation and refined audio quality in a comfortable over-ear package? PSB is onto something there.
The M4U 2 really does have great, balanced sound quality, and it doesn't die out when the batteries do. The fit is comfortable, and the active noise cancellation blocks a good measure of ambient noise. Still, the chintzy headband, the limited remote, and the bloated price tag mean that camping out for sale prices is in order, at the very least.
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