Room with a view

RoomFeel makes PSB headphones sound more like loudspeakers. Now they are wireless with noise-cancelling, does this spoil the effect?

A Swedish headphone reviewer, an American headphone reviewer and an Australian headphone reviewer walk into a bar. As the drinks evolve into dinner, talk turns, unsurprisingly, to headphones. “If you could have only one pair of headphones,” asks the charmingly elfin American reviewer, “what would it be?” All three consider carefully, before the Australian (your writer here) suggests the M4U 2, made by Canada’s PSB Speakers. “Yes!”, concur the Swede and American, who offer no further advance on this suggestion. So that’s quite the international recommendation.

But times have moved on. The M4U 2 was — and still is, as it’s still available — a cabled headphone that can play in a passive mode, or with active circuits engaged, and thirdly actively with noise cancelling. With the market now firmly focused on wireless operation, the new M4U 8 adds Bluetooth to the equation, along with controls to operate your source device when in wireless mode. The Bluetooth includes the higher quality aptX codec for Android devices which include it. There’s no mention of AAC.

Otherwise the design appears identical to the M4U 2, which is a good thing for audio quality, though does maintain the one thing which likely puts people off these fine headphones — their size. They’re undeniably big, and they do exert a light inward pressure on the head which effects a good seal for their leatherette cushions, but which can feel slightly oppressive on an Australian summer’s day. But that’s it for the negatives. Even their size is neatly finessed for storage, with the headband folding inwards on each size to make them nicely compact either loose in your bag or in the sturdy provided case.

Otherwise everything is delight. Take the controls when in Bluetooth mode — none of your tricky-to-master touchpads here, PSB has put a pair of little rocker switches on the right headshell. The bottom one can select last/next track or you can push it for pause/resume; the same switch answers or terminates incoming phone calls. The top rocker switch is for volume up/down (with no annoying beeps until you hit maximum), and an extra trick — when you press it the external microphones are fed through in what PSB calls ‘Transparency Mode’, so you can hear what’s going on around you.

The M4U 8 has four of those microphones for noise cancelling, and two for clarity in making calls. The noise-cancelling is highly effective at removing low frequencies to silence the roar of plane cabins and train noise, and passed also the hardest commute test of bus noise, with neither judder nor variable engine noise causing the noise-cancelling to break down, as is common even on premium designs.

Best of all is the sound, which is rich and full, almost entirely free of bloat in the bass, and wonderfully musical. PSB’s Paul Barton was the first we encountered to introduce the idea of ‘RoomFeel’, where the active modes aim to add the warmth and space which loudspeakers would normally deliver through room reflections, but which headphones conventionally remove from the listening experience. This is not simply EQ, rather it imparts a transfer function which energises and drives all genres of music rather thrillingly. With the M4U 8 the effect was a little heavier than from the M4U 2, which sounds a little cleaner in direct cabled active comparison, but then most will use the M4U 8s wirelessly, so we did our main listening that way.

PSB has done a great job masking any quality issues from Bluetooth. Vocals are crisp, music big and energetic without trangressing any frequency band. Matt Johnson growled his woes stage-centre on The The’s Global Eyes, unphased by the massive bass and guitar riff building beneath. And there was very little difference in tone when engaging noise-cancellation — a fraction extra deep bass perhaps, nothing signficant at all. And the noise-cancelling itself was excellent, while the M4U 8 also proved good at reconnecting automatically when powered up.

Other thoughtful features — in passive mode the cable can plug into whichever headshell is most convenient. They can Bluetooth-pair via NFC to save you going through your phone’s settings. They’ll quickly re-pair automatically with your phone when you switch them back on. They can play via USB from a computer, which lets you charge them back up at the same time. Very unusually you can access their internal AAA rechargeable batteries and, in years to come, replace them if need be. Also a longevity bonus, you get a spare set of earpads.

So the only question is whether you like the size and fit of the PSB M4U (music for you) design. For sound quality, ease of use, noise-cancelling, wireless operation — the M4U 8 headphones proved entirely unimpeachable.

PSB M4U 8 Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones
Price: $599

Type: Dynamic, closed, active noise-cancelling
Modes: Cabled/Bluetooth/USB
Driver: 40mm
Impedance: 32 ohms (cabled, nominal)
Quoted battery life: 15 hours (active)
Weight: 342g
Contact: Convoy International
Telephone: 02 9774 9900
Web: psbspeakers.com.au