(Pocket-lint) - Depending on how deep you've travelled down the rabbit hole of audio products, there's a good chance you've not heard of PSB Speakers. And even if you have, there's an even smaller chance you'd automatically assume the company makes headphones to wear on your head. After all, one typically associates the word 'speaker' with free-standing home audio equipment.
So when we heard of PSB's M4U 8 headphones - apart from thinking the name isn't exactly catchy - our first thought was one of curiosity. Priced in and around the ballpark of other well-renowned big names in personal audio, we requested a pair with the question posed on our lips: just how do these over-ears sound?
Plastic and faux leather
- Measures: 200 x 200 x 70mm
- Weight: 342g
- Fold inwards to stow
- Removable battery cover and Micro-USB port
When it comes to design, PSB's approach definitely seems to be function over form. The M4U 8 doesn't have the most svelte or seamless design, let's put it that way. The arms and the outer casing of the headphones are built from a hard plastic, which isn't at all seamless.
The middle pill-shaped covering on the exterior that features the PSB Speakers logo rocks from left to right, while the bigger cup rocks up and down. Both combined mean gaps in the design. But on the flip side, these design decisions also mean the earcups can shift to fit the angles of your head, providing a good seal around the ear.
Combined with the really well padded, imitation leather-coated earcups, that means a fit that's generally quite comfortable. In the summer heat, it's hard not to get warm, sweaty and enclosed, but in milder temperatures these headphones make for easy long periods of wear.
The main problem with the PSB design is their heft and balance, particularly the latter. We found that if we moved a bit too much and we hadn't fitted the band across the correct part of our head, the headphones would feel a little like they were shifting out, or at worst, would slip down. Proper adjustment was an essential.
What you don't see immediately is that the main part of this outer plastic covering is removable. The idea being that you can get to the rechargeable AAA batteries inside to swap them out for freshly charged ones, without having to plug them in.
The problem, however, is the execution. Not only does this create yet another gap - which means easy access for any moisture and dust - but it's also rather tricky to remove. It requires some force, and sometimes feels like you could almost break the thin plastic shell by bending it a bit too much in an effort to get the internal clips away from their catches. There's a reason most headphones don't have removable batteries, and we feel this is it.
It's not at all entirely bad however. Sometimes function over form is a good thing. A fine example of that is the set of controls on the right earcup. There's no fiddly touch-sensitive pad anywhere, just three individual switches that are super easy to find and use.
The lower rocker switch and the upper one both have a spring-back mechanism, so always return to centre when you've used them. The former is used for skipping forwards and back, or can be pressed in to play or pause the track. The latter is the volume switch.
As for the middle switch, that's to switch the headphones on or off, or activating the active noise-cancelling (ANC) filter to help cut out the droning noise of airplanes and trains. As well as the three primary controls, there's also a Bluetooth button, which doubles as an LED light. Press-and-hold it to pair and you're ready to go.
While we've obviously found things to criticise on the PSB M4U 8 noise-cancelling cans, there are still some high points. For instance, the headband is really generously padded, covered with a soft and supple leather, similar in feel to the padding around the earcups. And once on and well positioned the PSB pair does a great job of shielding you from the outside world, like being in a soft, warm, audio blanket.
Still, we'd like it if more attention was given to travel. Being quite large, and fitting in a fairly large semi-hard shell case, these over-ears are nowhere near as portable as something like the Master & Dynamic MW65, or the Bose 700 Headphones.
Noise-cancelling, performance and battery
- ANC with switch for activating
- Bluetooth or wired use
- 15 hours of play time
As you'd hope from a premium pair of headphones, the connectivity and battery performed as reliably as anything else on the market. We wouldn't expect to have any issues with Bluetooth connection in 2019y. The M4U 8's connection was flawless regardless of the environment.
PSB Speakers promises up to 15 hours of music playback from a fully charged battery, and our testing indicates that's not far-off the reality. We never sat for one long 15 hour session trying to drain, but adding up all the shorter sessions seemed to indicate you should expect 13-14 hours between charges.
Now, while this is fairly decent it doesn't quite compare to some of the other big-name brands. For instance, we got more than 20 hours of play from the Beats Studio 3 Wireless. Still, it's more than enough to get you through a week's worth of commutes, presuming you travel for a couple of hours to work each day.
Even without the noise-cancellation activated, we found the snug fit, padding and closed-back means outside noise is pretty well cancelled out. In fact, it surprised us how much we couldn't hear without even turning on ANC! With it clicked on, the noise-cancelling system cuts out even more of that low rumbling and high-pitch hissing noises. It's like being wrapped in a cocoon of music and is very good indeed.
- 40mm drivers, closed back
- 20Hz - 20KHz frequency response
- 24-bit aptX HD
The one thing that PSB absolutely nails is the sound quality. It's full, clear, and really well balanced. Bass isn't too overpowering, but is prominent enough and well controlled. The usually ignored mids see backing instruments lifted, while vocals are crystal clear and treble is kept in check. There's no distortion, despite being loud and dynamic, and they're not harsh in any way. It's a winning combination.
This fantastic sound is particularly good for tracks with plenty of real instruments. Listen to the orchestral version Joni Mitchell's tear-jerker Both Sides Now and you'll be swept away by the swelling, stunning instrumentation in the background. The orchestral recording sounds simply divine. You get the clarity and an almost piercing effect of the soprano sax solo, while still being able to enjoy the subtle string work and slow bass notes. It just sounds good.
Even more modern tracks with electronic instruments benefit from the quality sound engineering offered by PSB's engineers. Listen to Haim's If I Could Change Your Mind and the clarity and prominence of the vocals is great, but at the same time the more subtle synth in the background is given more prominence than it might from a lot of other headphones. It helps really colour the track, giving it a whole new lease of life.
Similarly, the RoomFeel sound - as PSB calls it - tries to emulate the feel of listening to songs with a high quality stereo system, and that means that there's lots of clarity and ring where it should be. As a popular example, the acoustic guitar intro to Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day feels like each note is given the room to breathe, and the hard-hitting snare later is snappy and sharp, all the while the vocals remain clear.
On the whole, then, you can probably already tell that we were pretty blown away by the sound quality. Like a handful of other truly superb headphones, it made us appreciate our favourite songs in a whole new way, while the clarity and lifting of subtle detail made us want to go listen to all the music we've ever heard all over again - just to see what we missed first time around.
PSB M4U 8 might not be a name that rolls off the tongue, and the design might not win any awards for style, but put these over-ear cans on your head, listen to your favourite songs, and you'll be blown away by the sound quality. And that's the reason anyone wants to use headphones, right? To relive their favourite tracks in a whole new way.
The problems all come from the design though. Long sessions may leave your ears sweaty. The clunky design feels like these cans might slip off your head. The use of AAA batteries in adifficult-to-open compartment isn't a great solution either.
But you kind of forget all that a soon as the music starts. With stunning balance of frequencies and so much detail, the M4U 8 seem to have this magical ability to extract all the soul and emotion from a track and implant it directly into your brain through your ear drums. Rework the design and that would make for an unbeatable pair of headphones.
Bose QC35 II
One of Bose's biggest advantages over most noise-cancelling cans is the portability. These don't have premium styling, but are supremely portable, light and comfortable. Of course, noise-cancelling is the real reason travellers flock to buy these though.
Sony has updated the 1000X headphones three years in a row, taking an approach as aggressive with product launches as it is with cutting out external noise. Design tweaks add quality and refinement to these headphones, while a new-and-more-powerful chip provides the grunt to cancel out more noise. The result is fantastic, and makes it easily one of the best pairs of noise-cancelling headphones around.