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PSB M4U 2 headphones review

  • The brief. The M4U 1 (passive, US$299) and M4U 2 (active, US$399) form PSB’s mighty fine first foray into the headphone space.  Each model is available in black (diamond), (Arctic) white or (Monza) red colour schemes. Being a polycarbonate, closed headphone both the M4U 1 and 2 have a decidedly Monster Beats aesthetic.  I put the M4U 2noise cancelling model through their paces during a recent trip to the USA with only a Macbook Air and iPhone as sources.


    Inside the box.  Unzip the shell-like carry case to find the folded headphones plus two 1.5 m connector cables: one with in-line hold-to-mute for dealing with quick interruptions, the other with in-line microphone and playback control for iOS devices. Your lead of choice can be plugged into either 3.5mm socket at the base of each ear cup – a neat feature for those left handed folks who need their headphone cable to stay on the right side of their body. The earpads are replaceable and the M4U 2 ship with an additional set. Impedance comes in at 32 ohms.

    Reach up behind the right cup to engage one of three listening modes via the vertical sliding switch: Passive (‘OFF’, no LED), Active (‘ON’ = amplified, red LED) and Active Noise Cancelling (amplified + ‘ANC’, green LED). A pair of AAA batteries, installed behind the left cup’s cover plate, powers all but the passive mode. You should get around 50 hours playback before seeing the ‘low battery’ warning of the amber LED.

    Build quality is super-sturdy – a well-cushioned metal headband with metal hinges for foldaway storage. The M4U 2’s are reasonably heavy and clamp tightly to the head – your head feels sealed in. At one third of a kilo they’re not as heavy as Audeze LCD-3’s half kilo. Those seeking light ‘phones should look elsewhere. Being a tall chap, I found it hard to shake the feeling that I look like a Cyberman when wearing them around town.

    PSB_M4U_2_instagram_2At the airport, en route to Los Angeles. Even before I fire up MOG playback, ‘ANC’ dials ambient noise waaaaay back. The background whir of air con in the terminal building is near obliterated. The result? A quieter noise floor – an aural floatation tank – from which music can emerge with superior dynamics and tonal colour.

    Time to hit play. FSOL’s urban decaying Dead Cities is reproduced with excellent spatiality and speckless layering. Tonal mass = unimpeachable for the price. These cans are neither lean nor light with sound. The textural information reproduced on the plucked bass sample at the core of “Her Face Forms In Summertime” is stellar. Ditto bass definition and fortitude. Squiggle to the left, chimes to the right – that’s “My Kingdom” coming to life. ‘ANC’ mode allows these quick darts of detail to twitch on the margins and not get amongst the busy chatter of airport business. It’s near impossible to go back to the [comparatively lifeless] passive mode once you’ve experienced this.


    On the plane. The M4U 2 in ANC mode strip away the low frequency rumble of engine noise and the subtle drone of air pressurization so that all that remains is a high(er) frequency hiss. The feint stab of passenger voices still punctured the aural bubble. Watching Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects…this is where the PSB headphones really excel. With fewer sounds being lost to outside interference they take the viewer deeper into the movie experience.

    On the street, downtown Salt Lake City. Here ‘ANC’ moves the midrange-dominant ‘woosh’ of passing cars into a higher frequency ‘hiss’. I finally got time to listen to Electronic’s debut, recently remastered for 2013. On city walkabout, ‘ON’ mode is immediately more present than passive. Soundstaging is extra wide. Another click and ‘ANC’ locks Bernard Sumner’s vocal closer to the centre of my mental field – as a listener, I was less aware of two separate channels creating a stereo image.

    PSB_M4U_2_instagram_1 Having begun reading Jonathan Lethem’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series on Talking Head’s third album, Fear Of Music, I thought it appropriate to take head time with the same. ANC ensures more space is cleaved between Tina Weymouth’s bouncy bass line and David Byrne’s strung out vocal – whose words are therefore better discerned. Bass is tighter/leaner than the more standard (but still amplified) ‘ON’ mode. This means that things get drier with (this) poorer source material. For such circumstances I prefer the wetter and weightier ‘ON’.

    Dryness is less of an issue with better recorded/mastered music. Squarepusher’s Port Rhombus EP. The only way to listen to this drill n bass is with ANC locked in and left there. The more standard ‘ON’ just isn’t as airy or transparent with the Jenkinson’s furious midrange clatter. Once again: forget about passive mode – it’s pretty much unlistenable after you’ve spent time with noise cancelling enabled.

    On the bus. Even in vanilla passive mode the M4U 2 are preferable to my existing commuter cans, Sennheiser’s HD 239 (AU$150). At over double the asking price they should be. The HD 239 are lighter, airier and less involving. Bass is far weightier via the PSBs. A pair AKG 520 (AU$150) split the difference – greater physical sonic presence than the Sennheiser but ultimately less detail and refinement than the PSBs.


    At home. When powered by a Burson HA-106 I’d still pick the AKG K-702 over the PSB M4U 2. The presentation is airier, more organic, easier going. The AKG also remain comfortable on the head for longer. However, the 702 won’t play ball with an iPhone so their services can’t be called upon for journeys to work; at least not until CEntrance drop their HiFi M8 portable headphone amp/DAC. But even then, some listeners might not dig an extra box strapped to their iDevice. This is where the PSB M4U 2 can-can into a field of their own: aesthetics that draw the attention of the Beats (by Dre) crowd with a sound that far surpasses the same. Effective noise cancellation seals the deal on these being my choice for future long haul travel.


    Associated Equipment

    • iPhone 4 w/ MOG


    Audition Music

    • Thin White Rope – Exploring The Axis (1985)
    • Future Sound Of London – Dead Cities (1996)
    • Talking Heads – Fear Of Music (1979)
    • Electronic – Electronic (2013 remaster)


    Further Information

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile. John used to live in Sydney. Now he lives in Berlin.

    Follow John on YouTube, Vimeo and Twitter


      • Not quite yet. It’s always been my intention to go slowly/softly with the headphone-related coverage. There is a comparative post to come though.

    1. Hi John, I have had this for a few months now. My only issue with it is that the control on the cable with the mic doesn’t allow you to adjust volume on an iDevice. I emailed PSB and they kind of conceded it was an oversight shall we say? Cheers.

      • That’s probably something they could address. PSB could then sell the new cable for a nominal fee to existing owners?

    2. I really wanted to like these, it seems like the pro reviewers really loved these and the average guy did not. I always get kind of suspicious about that.

      I gave them a try, and used them consistently for a few weeks with mainly my iphone 5 as a source, using mog like you do.

      First off I was not fond of the plasticey look, that’s fine I am not vain enough to dispose of a product purely based on how it looks. I also found myself having a bit of ear pain from the fit. I think if they revised the padding to make it either a bit thicker or compress less ? Because my ear was actually hitting the inner piece causing some discomfort after about 30-45 mins using them. My head is medium sized and my ears are pretty tiny for reference.

      I used the anc setting almost always, because I occasionally fly and travel by train alot so that is what I wanted them for. I did find the anc setting was the best sounding by far, but liked that if they did run out batteries you were not stuck.

      Sound wise it was ok, the noise cancelling was good enough. I found my denon d2k’s did just as good a job when music was playing and sounded better to boot and are cheaper. The psb’s also lost out to my iems, which I expected but wanted to compare anyways.

      I think psb is on the right track though, some minor adjustments and they are there. Bottom line is they didn’t sound better then my denons and really didn’t deaden the sound very much better when music was playing. Fix the earpads and make them a bit more robust, and maybe give them a bit of a bump in the sq department. I found the highs to be a bit shrill. Bass was nice and mids were present.

      The nitch factors were cool though, I like that they can power a second set of headphones and I Like that they fold up and had a nice set of accessories. I found the mute on the cable to register a quite loud boom when triggered, didn’t like that much.

      All in all I would rate them a 3/5, and would deem them not to be worth the asking price as they currently are so they respectfully went back to amazon. I would love to revisit them if there was a rev2, or an m5u2 or an m4u3 or whatever.

      • Thanks for a great post, Kcee. It’s always good to hear what others think. The issue of comfort is always gonna be contentious with everyone’s head/ears being different. I didn’t really have a problem with PSB cans but that’s because I have a Malcolm Meatball Head.

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