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PSB M4U 2 noise canceling headphones review

Working out my noise-cancellation issues

I’ve had a bit of a complicated relationship with noise-canceling headphones. I’ve had a chance to hear quite a few lately, and while many are what I’d call competent and appropriate for air travel or regular commuting, I really haven’t heard many with that “it” factor that makes you realize (generally right off the bat) that you’re in for a revelatory listening experience.  So I’ve come to think that, for this category, issues of overall usability have greater weight — portability, comfort, long-term fatigue, and control. All that and great sound, too? Too much to expect, right?

The%20PSB%20M4U%202%20noise-cancelling%20headphonesThe PSB M4U 2 noise-canceling headphones

It checks off the seasoned traveler's wish list

By their very nature, noise-cancellers are designed for people on the move because transportation generates so much in the way of broad-band, continuous noise. The PSB M4U 2s are certainly designed for convenient packing. They come with a handsome, zippered semi-hard case, which carries two 59-inch detachable headphone cords: one cord comes with an in-line remote/microphone and monitor control, the other with just a monitor control.

There’s also an extra set of ear pads, a 1/4-inch adapter, a cleaning cloth, and an airline adapter. The substantially sized earphones conveniently fold up when packed in the case. Trust me, throw this puppy into your daypack and you’re ready for action, because you’ve got all the essential accessories.

You can plug the cable into either earcup, so when travelling you can place the cord in the best place for staying out of the way. The substantial on-ear earpads make a solid seal, with the isolation being so dramatic that I almost wondered if noise-cancellation was going to be overkill. Listening passively (no amp, no cancellation) in my office, I found that outside sounds and conversations were significantly blunted. The top of the headband is well-padded, and felt comfortable even over long listening sessions.

A strong first impression

I began my listening experience with these headphones in passive mode, using my desktop DAC/amplifier (the NuForce iDo) to play back lossless and 256kbps AAC files from my iPhone®. Placing the M4U 2s on my head, they felt secure, with enough clamping force to make a solid seal on top of my ears. If you have small ears they might fit entirely within the confines of the ear pads, but for me they felt comfortable resting on top.

The first tune I fired up was a live recording (Side by Side) of alto saxophonists Phil Woods and Richie Cole playing the Charlie Parker be-bop classic Donna Lee. I’m not always a fan of live recordings. Firstly, because they’re not always executed well and secondly, because I’m a fan of good studio engineering. But this one has a real concert feel, clearly recorded out in the crowd, and the sound stage is so defined as to make it easy to visualize where everyone stood during the session.

The ‘M4U 2’s nailed me right between the ears from the start. Solid, musical, yet satisfyingly punchy bass. Smooth, even, but well-defined midrange that had just enough edge to get raucous when the recording called for it. And a silky, well-extended treble range that gave relief, shape and air to things like cymbals, guitar picks, and sibilant consonants. Plus, the soundstage stood out in full relief, faithfully reproducing the concert experience. I truly felt like I was surrounded by an appreciative audience, swinging at 200 beats per minute with Richie and Phil. Wow. These are noise-canceling headphones?

Taking the amplifier on the road

Kicking the right earcup switch to the middle position engaged the headphones’ on-board amp. Though I was already using the iDo, I wanted to see what the effect of the on-board amp was on the overall signal. I had moved on to a more obscure artist, one of my favorites for his engineering prowess: Nashville session artist Will Owsley, who was lost to us too soon back in 2010. Will won wide recognition for his guitar work with Amy Grant’s touring band, and he even won a Grammy nomination for engineering on his first solo effort back in 2000. So his big walls of pop sound are a good challenge for any hard-working set of headphones.

With the amp engaged, the PSB M4U 2’s fairly exploded, with powerful bass and powerful snare hits driving his solid groove on the song Undone from his album The Hard Way. So let’s just say, the amp switch wasn’t doing anything bad. A/B’ing it against the passive mode, it wasn’t just a volume difference. The signal seemed to gain a bit more presence and life.

Where this really makes a difference is when you’re running purely mobile. Straight out of the iPhone, the on-board amp was a welcome shot in the arm to the signal.

A trip to the Crutchfield Labs

A while back we had a noise-cancelling headphone challenge at the Labs, where we took some of our IT staff and put them into a variety of simulated noisy environments with several noise-canceling headphones, the M4Us among them. The test files and surround sound gear remain available. Time to take my cue from Crutchfield headphone guru Ralph Graves, and take the unit downstairs to the Labs for a solid test of their active noise-cancellation capabilities. Would they still sound good when I kicked the switch to the third position while backed by lawnmowers and airplane noise?

Well, in a word, yes. I cranked up our in-cabin background noise to simulation levels, and turned on a delicate acoustic piece, Begin by the Wailin’ Jennys, off their Firecracker album. With just the amp engaged, I could still hear the broadband noise (although softly, remember, I told you these headphones have a great seal). With the noise cancellation switch turned on, the bulk of the noise below 1-2 kilohertz or so went away – only a bit at the high end remained. And maybe it’s just me, but I perceived a bit of a boost in frequencies around 1-2 kHz in the program material when I hit the switch – I might have found this a bit distracting while listening in quiet surroundings, but it seemed entirely appropriate in noisy surroundings.

Repeating this test with lawnmower sounds yielded similar results. Excellent cancellation, and a slight but very tolerable coloration in program material that enhanced frequencies that suffered from the external noise. I could see myself happily listening to my favorite tunes all the way across the country – or across the pond.

Travel tunes with no compromises

I think you could say I liked the PSB M4U 2’s. In fact, I’ll say it: these are my favorite noise-canceling headphones I’ve experienced to date. They don’t suffer from the same slightly stifled feeling so many headphones in their class exhibit. To the contrary, they’re open, bass-forward without being unfocused or obnoxious, well-extended and overall, extremely pleasant to listen to. Plus, they are comfortable, mobile phone friendly and easy to manage while sitting in a coach seat. Somehow, I think these will have a hard time staying in stock.

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