Toronto-to-Tokyo Travel Test: PSB M4U 2 Headphones

There's an old saying about not knowing a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. Likewise, you don't know how well a set of headphones will travel with you until you take them on a 14-hour flight from Toronto to Tokyo, which is what I did on October 30 with the PSB M4U 2 headphones.

PSB headphones traveling

First off, I quickly came to admire the durability of the pill-shaped carrying case that PSB supplies with the M4U 2s. Right after I got out of the car after getting to the airport, I dropped the case on the ground, but I picked it up instantly and couldn't see a scratch. Then I bumped and thumped it more times than I wanted to as I made my way through check-in, security, and the boarding of the plane. I even sat on the case at one point since I forgot I threw it on the seat as I was stowing my luggage, yet I didn't crush it. As I look at it now, it's fine. I'd imagine that over time the abuse will begin to show, but it's obviously a tough outer shell, which is what it needs to be.

As for the headphones, when I originally unpackaged them I hadn't considered the importance of having left and right cable sockets. But I found out that they're handy because you don't know which side of the seat the plane's jack will be on. Good thinking.

The M4U 2 headphones feature three modes: Passive, Active, and Active Noise Cancelling. Passive mode bypasses the internal amplification, and I was pleasantly surprised that there was enough power coming from the plane's entertainment system to drive them well. That means if the batteries run out and you don't have replacements, the M4U 2s are still useable. Active mode, which uses the built-in amplification, was quite a bit better -- higher volume, improved heft in the bass, and better clarity throughout the audioband. Still, with both of these modes the roar of the engines was quite noticeable. Suffice it to say that the earcups alone aren't that much help for blocking out sound.

This is where the Active Noise Cancelling mode comes in. With it switched on, the sound of the engines dropped by at least 20dB, which is a significant amount, and I could barely hear the voices of passengers around me. The result was that the program material, whether it was movies or music, was much clearer and easier to hear than with the other modes. Without a doubt, providing you haven't run your batteries down (I went through two sets of AAA batteries for the entire flight -- four batteries altogether, which isn't bad), you want to use Active Noise Cancelling mode on a plane.

Insofar as comfort goes, the M4U 2s never hurt my ears or head. But after about two hours of constant use, my ears would get a little warm, so I'd take the headphones off for a few minutes to cool down before resuming. That's not unexpected, since it is something directly coupled to your head, meaning heat is being trapped.

DAS with headphones

Perhaps most important is that the earcups, while getting a little warm, didn't make me sweat like so many others have. I have no idea why this leather-looking material didn't make me sweat like mad, because it looks like it should, but that didn't happen, so high marks there. In fact, high marks all around for the PSB M4U 2 headphones because they seem to have it all in terms of build, durability, sound, and functionality. Consider their $399 asking price a good deal for everything offered with this very complete headphone package.

As for what I watched and listened to -- tons of stuff, so credit again to Air Canada's inflight entertainment system for providing good content. It was also the first time I really loaded up my laptop with music, movies, and TV programs, which I also used a lot. But I won't bore you with the details since there was so much I watched and listened to that I can't even remember it all right now. Still, I do feel compelled to mention a fabulous documentary I watched called 20 Feet from Stardom, which chronicles the careers of some of the best female background singers from the 1960s to today.

At the beginning of the film, Bruce Springsteen talks about the distance between the background singers and lead singers as not only a literal thing, but a figurative one, saying that it's a difficult, complicated walk that background performers have to make to become the star. In fact, as the film illustrates, it might as well be 20 miles in most cases, since the transition from background to lead singer is usually next to impossible to make, even if the background singer is far more talented than the stars he or she works for.

20 Feet from Stardom

Overall, 20 Feet from Stardom is fascinating, mainly because of the stories of the singers, but also because within the stories are rich bits of music history. For example, there is a part that fills in the details about how that famous female backing vocal in the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" came to be, including how the line "just a shot away" was created. Previously, I had no idea where that moment in the Stones' history came from, and you might not either, which is exactly why music lovers everywhere should watch 20 Feet from Stardom. The film offers tremendous insight into the music many of us grew up on, and it shows respect to some of the most influential but least-known singers of the last 40 years. It's amazing what you discover with headphones on an airplane.

Doug Schneider
Publisher, The SoundStage! Network