PSB M4U8 Bluetooth Noise Cancelling Headphones Review
Meet a headphone that gets the details right
What is the PSB M4U8?The PSB M4U8 is an over-ear, noise cancelling Bluetooth headphone. It also represents one of the few occasions where I have been able to review the successor to a product I have already tested. When it appeared six years ago, the original M4U2 was a very significant headphone. It was the first such product from PSB and, unencumbered by any tradition or preconceived ideas, made a very clever noise cancelling headphone. It was a milestone product for me as it was one of the first to use a microphone inside and outside the enclosure to better judge the noise cancelling effect. This dramatically reduced the ‘confusion’ that the inner ear can experience and made for a much more comfortable experience. I liked it very much and awarded the M4U2 a Best Buy.
Nothing stands still in this world (no, not even turntables) and a revisit of the PSB for another publication in late 2016 revealed how much this category had moved on. What was once state of the art noise cancelling felt a little crude and the idea of adding physical batteries to a headphone seemed curiously archaic. Products like the Sennheiser PXC550 (which won the test that the PSB was competing in) had features that the M4U2 couldn’t match.
As such, here is the next generation of PSB noise cancelling heaphone. As we shall cover, the spec is bang up to date and looks entirely competitive. At the same time, many of the very nice touches that made the original so impressive, look to have been retained. Is the M4U8 going to return to the front of the pack?
Specification and DesignThe M4U8 (so named because the original meant ‘Music for you too’ meaning this is ‘Music for you mate?’ - PSB isn’t telling) is a very clear evolution of its predecessor and some parts of it seem to have gone almost unchanged. It uses a pair of 40mm dynamic drivers that appear to be closely related to the M4U2. These are mounted in a closed back enclosure - which is logical enough when their use out and about is considered.
These drivers have been configured in a manner that is specific (or at least specific in the context of the process) to PSB. A process, called RoomFeel, is applied and is designed to make the M4U8 more closely mimic a pair of speakers in room. This means that were you to measure the PSB in the manner that a more industrious sort than I might do, the response won’t be classically flat but when you are wearing and listening to them, the effect should be less ‘direct’ and avoid the slight levels of fatigue that can creep in from the more up front presentation of some designs.
The manner which you can listen to the PSB is now in keeping with the requirements of the genre. You can use a conventional wired connection and use it like you would any other headphone. From here you can then switch on the RoomFeel processing and then, if your listening environment is noisy, you can activate the noise cancelling. New for the M4U8 is the ability to cut the cable altogether and use it wirelessly via Bluetooth. The good news is that PSB has fitted it with Apt-X HD ensuring that you have both effective lossless transmission and a small amount of Hi-Res capability too.
The manner in which the PSB powers this process has changed too. Gone is the (cleverly concealed) alcove for AAA batteries and instead you get a rechargeable unit with a USB cable for charging. This is much more in keeping with how the rest of the pack does this and the only real downside is that the fifteen hours of life on wireless is lower than some rivals and certainly lower than actual figures I have achieved with the Bowers & Wilkins PX. This is partly because some of the simply inspired cleverness that the PX has to its name like the motion sensitive power management.
Where the PSB does offer a big proposed advantage over rivals is the noise cancelling process. This uses four mics rather than two, to get a more accurate appraisal of the noise environment you find yourself in at any time. This is also able to let you make and receive calls with the PSB as well and there is a ‘listen through’ mode that lets you hear announcements and the like so you don’t wind up perpetually waiting on the wrong platform for your train.
This new technology comes wrapped in a headphone that looks very similar to its predecessor but this is no bad thing. For starters, if you put the Bowers and Wilkins PX on your head switched off with no noise cancelling applied and then do the same with the PSB, the amount of noise that the PSB naturally cuts out is much higher. Even allowing for them being fitted with exactly the same noise cancelling (and, as we shall cover, they aren’t), the M4U8 gives its processing a natural head start.
It is also exquisitely comfortable. The wide headband spreads the weight evenly and the enclosures have a surprisingly wide range of movement despite sitting flat on the band. Combine this with soft and well shaped pads and you have by far the comfiest of the nomad travel headphones I have tested, eclipsing the Bose QC35 as the design you would choose if you really will be wearing these for several hours a day.
This comfort is then enhanced by some genuinely clever touches. The cable to use the M4U8 as a wired headphone can be run to either the left or the right hand enclosure. This sounds trivial - in the scheme of things that ail the world, it is. On a long flight though, it’s the difference between having a cable cross over you or having it always sit to one side. The carry case is larger than some rivals but it is able to keep the headphones protected and offer enough space for you to store cables and other sundries in there. It’s a genuinely good piece of industrial design.
It is also a seriously well made one. Everything on the PSB feels like it has been thought about, handed to someone with a view to getting them to break it and then refined on the back of that feedback. Obviously, compared to genuinely high end headphones, it doesn’t have the same level of heft but it does feel that it is going to stand up to a busy travel schedule and come out the other side entirely intact.
Combine this with soft and well shaped pads and you have by far the comfiest of the nomad travel headphones I have tested
How was the M4U8 tested?The PSB has been tested as a wired headphone into a Chord Electronics Mojo and Poly combination and then wirelessly via Essential PH-1 smartphone (that offers Apt-X HD compatibility) as well as an iPad Air. Testing was undertaken at home, walking around outside and at a soft play centre on a Saturday morning - a stern test of any noise cancelling. Material used has included lossless and Hi-Res FLAC and AIFF, Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer with some on demand TV from iPlayer and Netflix.
Sound QualityOne consistent aspect of the description of sound quality you can expect from speakers in this category is that when you use them in standard wired mode, they have to give ground to a conventional headphone at the same price because of all the other gubbins that comes with them. It is strange to relate then that the M4U2, one of the original and oldest speakers I tested that could be said to be part of it, never really got that memo. Its performance in wired stereo was always extremely good and the positive news is that the M4U8 doesn’t mess about with that.
Kicking off with the 24/44.1 download of Twin Shadow’s Caer, the PSB combines a delicacy that some of these designs can lack. George Lewis’ stunning vocal turn is clear, well defined and has a three dimensionality that can elude closed back headphones of any type. This is underpinned by bass that manages to be usefully weighty and deep. It might not be the absolute best £300 home headphone you can buy right now but it is certainly in the same race.
The real surprise comes when you activate the RoomFeel. Let the record state that while I am not a true luddite, I do often find sound enhancement features like this to be a short and awe sort of thing - impressive in short bursts but wearing over longer periods. The PSB is not like that. Sure, it does have an immediate ‘whoa!’ effect on sound but this never tips over into becoming tiresome. Does it sound like a pair of speakers in a room? No - at least not like my speakers in my room. Does it manage to remove some of the feeling of congestion from the performance? Yes, unquestionably.
With RoomFeel running, the PSB strikes the right balance between realism and fun. I probably wouldn’t want to try and master something with it switched on but it gets stuck into Dead Can Dance’s Toward the Within, a reference recording and one that I know very well indeed, in a manner that doesn’t have me unhappy at the presence of effects I don’t think should be there. Choosing my words carefully because the two systems are not the same and not trying to be the same, RoomFeel is up there with Dirac live in the way it behaves. It works with the signal and gently massages it into better things rather than bludgeoning it into submission.
The only limiter for the PSB is present with RoomFeel off and on. Compared to the Bowers & Wilkins it lacks the last ounce of rhythmic engagement. This is a hard thing to pin down exactly but where the PX has you involuntarily nodding along with something like the immense Here by VAST, the PSB is a little more matter of fact. It never sounds slow or dull but it never feels quite as much fun. How much this will matter to you is going to come down in part to how much of a timing obsessive you are but it might be worth a test if you can.
Switch to Bluetooth and the performance of the M4U8 stays admirably consistent. Noise levels are kept low and that same ‘right but better’ performance that RoomFeel imbues is present here as well. Pairing is easy thanks to some audio prompts and the connection is entirely stable once established. In keeping with other Apt-X HD products we’ve looked at, the performance is unquestionably Hi-Fi. If you listen to Tidal via a wired connection with RoomFeel engaged and then move to Bluetooth, the performance does not change, you are simply free from being cabled to the device.
The other good news is that the PSB’s noise cancelling is very, very good indeed. The effect is more benign than some other models in the category and it does seem to make good use of that extra isolation in that the tonal shift between noise cancelling being off and on is fairly small (with the obvious proviso that RoomFeel is present in both modes and you can’t run noise cancelling on its own). The upper registers are a little recessed but not by much. It’s only when you realise how much noise the PSB is knocking out that you realise that accepting a little roll off is going to be acceptable.
For those of you who haven’t been blessed with small children, a soft play centre is a challenging space. There are louder noises - a space launch or a pitched battle between two tank armies for example - but the frequency range over which it is very noisy is extremely wide and more challenging than simply drowning out engine noises in a plane cabin. The M4U8 handles this with aplomb. It can’t make screaming children vanish (nothing can) but it drops the incoming noise levels by an extremely impressive amount. The PSB makes listening to Nils Frahm in a soft play centre possible and in terms of technical achievement, that’s up there with powered flight and indoor plumbing. Sure, it lacks the witchcraft that is the Bowers and Wilkin’s voice passthrough but, in a truly noisy space, I know which one I’d rather have.
The PSB makes listening to Nils Frahm in a soft play centre possible and in terms of technical achievement, that’s up there with powered flight and indoor plumbing
- Exceptionally comfortable
- Well thought out noise cancelling
- Excellent performance, especially with RoomFeel engaged
- Shorter battery life than some rivals
- Looks a matter of taste
PSB M4U8 Bluetooth Noise Cancelling Headphones ReviewThe M4U8 is a very clever device and represents some confident and clever work on the part of PSB. They have taken and retained everything that was good about the M4U2 and corrected pretty much everything that needed to be corrected. The result is a headphone that is the easy equal of anything in its category and one you need to audition if you need new travelling hardware. It can’t quite deliver the knockout blow to be the best in its class but the M4U8 is a superb travel headphone that comes Highly Recommended.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £229.00
Ease of Use9
Design and usability9
Value For Money9
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