Today I’ve called on the expertise of a close colleague of mine, Jason Mowen who specializes in hardware reviews especially when it comes to speakers and audio equipment. Jason has spent the last few days reviewing the PSB M4U 1 headphones which will hit the Australian market this week.
Before I hand over to Jason, we would like to extend a special thank you to Audio Products Group for allowing us to trial the headphones over the past week.
Here is Jason with his review…
Who Is PSB and What Do They Stand For?
For those who are unfamiliar with PSB, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking it stood for People, Sound and Business, however the truth of the matter is the acronym stands for Paul & Sue Barton (the founders) though their values definitely resonate the above.
Paul Barton is the founder and chief designer of PSB Speakers International and a man who developed his love for music from the age of 11, when he set out to build his first loudspeaker with his father in their tiny woodshop. Paul then continued this momentum by designing and building loudspeakers through high school which were sold to university students. So while PSB was officially registered in 1972, its legacy was created well before this time.
Today, PSB Speakers International can be found in Ontario, Canada and has developed such a strong presence to the extent that PSB is considered an industry leader with respect to consumer electronics for audio and where high quality loud speakers for home theatre applications and music is being considered – not bad for a concept which began in a small woodshop.
Before I close on this historical chapter, I think PSB deserves special credit for being one of the few, if not only business which places a significant amount of importance to psychoacoustics research through their relationship with the National Research Council (NRC). This level of dedication ensures that their strong reputation of producing high performing and reliable loudspeakers will continue to hold for many years to come.
Why The PSB M4U-1?
Those who are familiar with the PSB brand would be no stranger to the ‘successor’ model – the M4U 2 headphones. The M4U 2 Active Noise Cancelling Headphones were PSB’s first pair of headphones, but make no mistake; the engineers developed a smart design and made no compromise with the sound quality which helped PSB pick up a number of awards.
Note: If you’re wondering what M4U means, it stands for “music for you”
Needless to say, this supreme quality of the M4U 2 came with a price tag of $399.99 and for some, this was a stretch too far for their wallets. PSB have obviously picked up on this opportunity and as a result have decided to unleash the smaller brother, the M4U 1 which offers the same musicality as the M4U 2 but without the noise cancelling… and yes, they slashed the price also. The PSB M4U 1 will come in at $299 ($100 cheaper) in both Australia and USA.
What I Like About The PSB M4U 1
From a cosmetic standpoint, the M4U 1 shares a number of key design features with the M4U 2, however there are a few elements worth mentioning that stood out for me:
- The PSB M4U 1 is not self-powered i.e. completely passive and includes 40mm dynamic drivers
- I like how the design is flexible in nature that the headphone frame can fold and fit into the compact carrying case.
- The headphone ear cups are robust and were developed using polycarbonate-acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (PC-ABS) and we should also mention the Gyro suspension employed on these headphones which allow the ear cups to move up and down and from side to side. Yes, I had to mention the suspension because most headphones have not been designed in such a way to allow this level of comfort for their users, so I commend PSB for adding this element of customization in their design process.
- One of the funky elements of the M4U 1 is the detachable signal cables which allow you to plug in on either the left or right ear cup of the headphone. I found this dual input connection quite useful as it helps to avoid cross wiring so you simply plug in the cable on the left or right hand and still be within range of a headphone jack irrespective of where it’s situated. The other advantage with this set up is that it’s very handy when travelling with a partner on a flight as you can both listen to one iPod or watch one movie from your laptop as the second user can connect their headphones to the other input on the M4U 1.
- If you own an iPhone or Blackberry, there is a compatible signal cable which includes an inline remote which allows your headphones to be used as a headset for your smartphone. I can understand how some users might prefer a simpler straight line cable without the remote to avoid complications with the signal paths.
- The M4U 1 offers what PSB call ‘Room Feel” technology which is their way of saying that the frequency response curve is set to mimic the sound of a high quality loudspeaker as you would hear in an average room environment. Paul Barton has done an excellent job with the bass-lift which allows the loudspeakers to benefit from the low frequency. I personally believe this is a master stroke from Paul as most records are customized for speaker-based systems and not optimal for headphones.
Anything Not To Like
I’m reluctant to evaluate any audio hardware device without putting on my pessimist cap on, but I’d have to say that it was very difficult to fault the M4U1. The one drawback for me was the bulk factor, and although they were still comfortable, I can see the harsh critics would point this out. In saying that, PSB would have prioritized getting the comfort level right and sometimes a compromise is needed especially given comfort is prudent when you’re wearing headphones for long periods which could be listening to music or watching a movie.
Final Thoughts On PSB M4U 1
There are 4 key reasons which I believe will ensure PSB’s new release will successfully penetrate it’s target audience:
- Plug and Play: That’s right, the PSB M4U 1 has removed any form of complexity as you don’t require batteries, no need to memorize any switch settings so all you do is plug them into your preferred listening device and you’re up and running.
- Cost effective: While not exactly cheap, when you consider value for money, I think $299 is a fair price tag for what you get and at $100 less than the M4U 2, you’re not missing out on much especially since the design elements are virtually the same.
- Light weight: While not extremely different from the M4U 2 when you put them on a scale, the M4U 1 is lighter purely because there are no batteries and the onboard amplifier and noise cancellation modules have also been excluded.
- Power of Passive: I’m an outboard-amp proponent so I love the passive design of the M4U 1 and it makes sense to have it as the sound quality is still top notch. For those who are fond of high quality outboard headphone amplifiers, they would argue that you need to have this approach for the optimal sound quality.
If you line up the M4U 2 and the M4U 1, the only real point of difference is the noise cancelling (which is great to have) but I don’t need it since my daily commute involves the average train ride and bus where the external noise factor is bearable on the ears. I feel that at $299 without the noise cancellation, it really is my top pick for headphones in this price range. I struggle to point out any obvious deficiencies as the sound quality is crisp and sharp you really would have to jump up a lot in price if you wanted a better sound experience.