PSB M4U 2 Active Noise Cancelling Stereo Headphone System
I’ve wondered for some years when Paul Barton would turn his keen speaker design sense in the direction of headphones, after having mastered the many facets of speaker engineering over a multi-decade career. Well, it’s finally happened, and has become something of an event, with new intelligence applied to what we in broadcasting used to refer to as “cans”. Over the years they’ve been called “ear speakers” and many less flattering names, especially those notable for their lack of comfort on the head in extended listening. We’ve seen the rise and fall of KOSS, once a family firm with whose principals I interacted over several decades of outstanding designs, which culminated in a superb electrostatic, and then under new ownership declined into Chinese designed and manufactured rubbish. Other notable headphones have come and gone, notably the great Grados and the innovative, fragile Jecklin Float, but few have offered the combination of luxury, utility, and common sense seen and heard here from the M4U 2.
It comes in a handsome cardboard and plastic box, with a nice nylon/plastic zippered carrying case, a pair of detachable signal cables (more on this below), a set of extra earpads, a nice nubby cleaning cloth, and both a “Quick Start Guide”, and well-written owner’s manual, titled, “Music For You”, which explains the model designation. In the latter, some guidelines for general headphone use are provided, as well as explanation of the special features found here in the M4U 2. It’s a nice package, as befits its price, the Manual and and Quick Start Guide (the latter for all you anxious, impatient audiophiles), both providing this interesting information for users:
“OSHA Guidelines for Noise Exposure Limits”
“The Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) has issued headphone usage recommendations for maximum daily exposure and sound pressure levels [measured in decibels (dB)]. A decibel is a unit of sound measurement that increases exponentially with volume. For example, conversational speech is typically around 60dB, and a rock concert in a stadium is often about 110dB.Figure 190dB 8 Hours 95dB 4 Hours 100dB 2 Hours 105dB 1 Hour 30 Minutes 115 dB 15 Minutes 120 dB Avoid as [ear] damage may occur”
For the technical specification sheet have a look here.
All these guidelines are worth digesting before you eat, so to speak, and welcome with an unusual headphone that actually provides gain. The M4U 2 also offers an extra cord that allows control of your iPod, the other, simpler one having an easily accessible Mute button right near whichever headphone input jack (yes, there’s one on the bottom of either earpiece) you choose. And, yes too, with some additional longterm design intelligence, because Paul Barton has included an extra pair of the soft ear cushions, you’re set for years and years of happy listening. The built-in amplifier runs on a pair of AAA batteries in the left earpiece under a snap-on cover (more about this below), while a 3-position slide switch on the right earpiece controls Off, NR On, and Gain, the former with red LED indication, the latter with green. Battery life is specified at 55 hours with both NR and gain (ANC) on.
The headphone folds for easy storage in the supplied hard case. With the cleaning cloth, this adds up to a very complete package. It is very satisfying in other lasting ways, too, as I will outline in detail below. I used the M4U 2 at my remote island cottage quite a lot, from late June to early August, both for music listening from portable CD player or with my Sony portable Blu-ray/DVD player, my first impression being that, while the sound quality was simply superb, the headband needed some break-in, being a little oppressive physically, so I stretched it somewhat to fit my oversized head (with its well-padded undersized brain), and this helped make the headphone more comfortable with use. The same exercise managed to break a key pivotal point on my smaller Phiaton (see review), which ultimately survived thanks to LocTite super glue.
Once the supremacy of man over technology was once more established, the PSB phone became increasingly comfortable for longer periods of time. So don’t be afraid to bend it to your will, so to speak, but within reason. Its sonic character can be quickly described as very neutral, with extremely well-defined deep bass. It’s a true monitor reproducer in the best sense, sounding neither overly analytical nor excessively warm and fuzzy. This balance is what I look for in a personal listening and monitoring tool, something I’ve only previously found consistently in my rather fragile GRADO SR-125, in for repairs from a dead channel once again. Conversely, the PSB M4U 2 is reassuringly robust, as well as sonically authoritative and revealing. Its pure audio features are also very helpful, the noise reduction even more effective than the well-sealed, ear-enveloping soft rubber cushions, and the gain feature a blessing with wimpy, underpowered iPods. I wish I’d had this headphone when in hospital last year, with Aaron’s old iPod sounding quite distant with the Phiatons, which leads me to another primary virtue of Paul Barton’s design: efficiency.
This headphone is very sensitive, even without the gain feature engaged, and that’s an even better thing, Martha. Do I have any criticisms? Well, for one thing the battery cover seems to pop off a little too easily, especially when you’re stretching the headband to fit more comfortably over your ears. I did find this happening less once the M4U 2 was “broken in” physically, as described above. It also helps to plug the audio cable into the right earpiece instead of on the battery side, which I prefer anyway. This is not your earbud-type headphone, of course, and I must admit that my lighter and less substantial Phiaton tends to be more easily forgotten on one’s head, for better or for worse. But that means I’ve walked away with them on once too many times, which is perhaps why I broke the damn thing, so the PSB’s essential robustness comes with just a minor penalty in terms of size and weight.
It seems to take many companies, even headphone specialists, years of design refinement to eventually come up with a real winner, if at all they do. Here’s one on the first try that’s a remarkably complete piece of industrial and user design, both professional perfect, and consumer friendly, with lots of comfort and just the right mix of well-conceived user features. It may be that it’s just the sound that matters, but it’s also the felicitous feature set that makes the PSB M4U 2 headphone a sure winner.
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