If you’re not an audio hound, you may not have heard of PSB Speakers. The Canadian-based company isn’t exactly a household name in the US like Blackberry is, but then again, look how that turned out. Flying slightly under the radar has worked pretty well for PSB, and the company’s 40 year-long catalog of hi-fi gear has earned it a litany of awards and commendations.
Taking the minimalist approach, PSB Speakers makes only two headphone models: the M4U 2 active noise-cancelling, and the M4U 1 passive headset, offered at a premium price of $400 and $300 respectively. We had a pretty good idea from the plaques on the wall that the M4U 2 would offer some solid audio. But just how well the company’s rich history in consumer audio would condense into a couple of 40mm headphone drivers was a question yet unanswered (we love it when a story starts out this way). Here’s what happened when we switched the M4U 2 on and let it fly.
Out of the box
Premium-priced cans deserve premium packaging, and the M4U 2 didn’t disappoint. Pulling the plastic wrap and outer cardboard sheath away revealed a dual-layered box which opened like a book. Inside was a clever, succinct layout with an undercarriage of accessories and a pill-shaped black case with a gleaming PSB medallion on the front. We removed the zippered hard case to find the snow-white headset folded in on itself, with rich foam pads in grey, and more silver PSB medallions surrounded by brushed metal on the ear cups.
Lifting the top layer inside the box revealed cubbies of accessories on both sides. The ample collection included two removable cables, a backup set of AAA batteries, and gold-plated airline and ¼-inch adapters.
Features and design
The M4U 2 sport a gigantic frame that gives off a retro sci-fi vibe when you put them on. At first glance, overall design is similar to most collapsible over-ear headphone, with a gloss-finished polycarbonate exterior and the familiar hinges at the base of the wide band which connect to the earpieces on adjustable metal tracks. But examining the headset more closely revealed some innovative design traits that give it an edge over many of the models we’ve tested, especially in the way of creating a tailored, comfortable fit.
Though the headset is large, it’s surprisingly light on the head, seeming to mold into place effortlessly.
Though the headset is large, it’s surprisingly light on the head, seeming to mold into place effortlessly. The ear cups are connected to the frame via a “gyro” suspension system, allowing them to swivel both vertically and horizontally in smooth movements for optimum fit. The cups are shaped into long, ergonomic ovals with a plastic shell at the base, and a brushed-metal plate on the exterior.
The interior of each earpiece is encircled by a thick layer of feather-soft padding, matched by another heavy helping of padding at the top of the headband, all of which is cloaked in stitched leatherette. We were surprised a headset at this price would forgo real leather, but the material feels creamy and luxurious to the touch, despite the absence of animal hide. Under the grey screens inside the ear pads rest the headset’s 40mm dynamic drivers, which are claimed to offer a full range frequency response of 20Hz-20KHz.
Along the base of the right ear cup sits a toggle switch to activate the M4U 2’s three modes, including active noise cancellation (ANC), active mode, and passive mode, the latter of which allows the headset to function outside its lengthy 55-hour estimated run-time. The exterior plate on the left ear cup is removable, concealing the AAA battery compartment. We were impressed to find the headset pre-loaded with batteries for immediate use, and we also have to give props to PSB for not only including a backup set, but also using name-brand batteries instead of the random knock-offs we normally see. It’s the little things.
The M4U 2 is one of the better ANC headsets we’ve auditioned
Grey removable cables connect to either side of the headset at the base of each ear cup. A close examination of the cables reveals another of PSB’s slick design features. At the top of each is a white button labeled ‘M’ which, when pressed, uses the headset’s onboard cancellation microphones to monitor your surroundings in stereo. The effect is pretty cool, and lets you hear just how much ambient noise you’re bypassing with the headset in ANC mode, as well as allowing for quick communication with a flight attendant when you need to order that third beer. One of the cables also includes a single-button inline microphone which rests just below the monitor button. Both cables are 1.5 meters in length, and terminated with a 90-degree angled jack with gold plating.
The M4U 2 is one of the better ANC headsets we’ve auditioned, bringing ambient noise such as fans, dishwashers, and engine hum to a faint whisper, with little to no compensatory white noise. We wished for more passive isolation from the ear cups themselves, but with music playing at medium volume, our A/C and fan-laden house was transformed into a virtual vacuum — that’s vacuum as in the depths of space, not a vacuum cleaner.
The M4U 2’s lightweight frame and supple pads combined for one of the most comfy experiences we’ve had with an over-ear headset. Sure, the giant apparatus made us feel a little like Lando Calrissian’s weird assistant in Cloud City, but when a headset fits this well, who cares?
While the headset works fine without power, we preferred the sound with the onboard amplification engaged. We tested the headset via our iPhone 5, as well as with our MOTU 896HD A/D converter.
Whoa nelly, these babies sounded sweet. (Wow, did we just say that?) Either way, the M4U 2 provided a golden blend of pristinely balanced instrumentation, ultra-accurate transient response and a magnified presentation of the music’s subtle details that made us fans from the very start. Throughout our listening we found no notable chinks in the armor, enjoying a beautiful and thorough exploration of all genres.
The first song we cued up was “From Frank to Hendrix” by Neil Young. The track entered with a gorgeous combination of brilliant instrumental attacks and warm, full sustain. Cymbals were sleek and powdery, and the B3 organ had a sweet, fluttering tone. But what really hooked us was the palpable harmonica swell that came in at the center between the verse and the chorus. The reedy, metallic buzz of the mouth harp was so forward and rich we could almost taste the brass on our lips.
While the headset works fine without power, we preferred the sound with the onboard amplification engaged.
One of our favorite aspects of the M4U 2’s sound was its ability to separate instruments, revealing the effects and ambient space of each, and allowing for excellent dynamic expression. A surprisingly keen example came when we auditioned Peter Tosh’s famed pot anthem, “Legalize It.” As the song entered, it spread before us with deep dimension. The headphones unearthed the swaying, multi-layered percussion with a presence so live it seemed to be right in front of us. And the detail was clear enough to hear the movement of the tape hiss behind the shifting background vocal track before the voices even entered, revealing an obvious practice by the engineer of using old, dirty tape for the tracks.
Another sterling example of the headset’s unerring emission of detail came when Radiohead’s “Climbing Up the Walls” showed up on shuffle. We hadn’t actually heard the track in years, so the rich definition of each ripple and synthetic pop was so vibrant, it sounded like a brand new song. The synth effects seemed to bubble at the entrance with grinding textures, as if they were a pack of wild creatures rambling around the sound sphere. The timbre of the strings towards the end was superlative, and the sustained vocals rang out into a suspended echo, revealing brand new vocal accompaniments we’d missed in previous listens.
Moving along through our varied library, the M4U 2 displayed powerful bass, full mids and sparkling treble, rendering the underlying nature of each track with extreme accuracy. If forced to render a criticism, we might say that the instrumental timbres could have been slightly richer here and there, and there was a tinge of bright color to the mids. But really, there was very little to complain about. The M4U 2 provided a refined and inviting sonic landscape for everything we tested.
PSB M4U 2 is a superb example of a premium headphone that does almost everything right. The headset provided good noise cancellation, a rich and brilliantly detailed sonic signature, and an impressive feature set, all bundled into one of the most comfortable pair of cans we’ve put on. Though the $400 price tag is steep, frequent travelers who appreciate a refined audio experience will likely find it to be a worthy investment. If you’re looking for a superior ANC headset with all the fixings, make sure you try on the M4U 2 — you might not want to take them off.
- Excellent balance and instrumental separation
- Brilliant detail and dynamic expression
- Solid noise-cancelling
- Deep feature set
- Extremely comfortable
- Not especially stylish
- A bit pricey