Hi, long time lurker, first time poster here. Just splodged an outrageous amount of cash on phones and thought my experience might help other newbies. This might ramble a bit, so I'll apologise in advance.
Before getting into the kit, this is the first time I've ever gone all-out on headphones, so it's been a real learning experience for me and I've loved it. I've learned a huge amount and I think this might be helpful for those starting out....
- First, I've worked out now that headphones are site-specific. I guess Jedi level head-fi folk know this, but I sort of didn't. So it's pointless saying the PSBs are better than this or that; it all depends where and how you're going to use them. Ideally if you're auditioning them you should do it in the environment you'll use them (tricky for plane flights and stuff, but you know...)
- Second, read the stuff on Head-Fi and elsewhere from experienced guys on headphone design, especially open v closed back, IEM v noise cancelling and all that. It'll save a bunch of time.
- Third, do audition them. It's better (I think) to have a smaller choice and hear them properly than to hit and hope. I walked out with a completely different setup to what I intended to buy.
So that's good. My situation - I have a perfectly good pair of Denon in-ear 560R canalbuds, and I like the sound. But I'm spending increasing amounts of time on long train journeys and flights, and frankly I don't like having them shoved in my ears for more than about half an hour, even with Comply foam tips. So I'm in the market for noise-cancelling 'phones, or at least noise isolating ones. Preferably around-ear not on-ear.
That's job 1. Job 2 is that the rest of the time I do the bulk of listening at my desk, on Spotify Premium, through a Logitech Skype compatible on-ear headset. The sound is remarkably OK, considering. But I want better. No need for n/c in the office, but got to be closed back as no-one else wants to hear my 'eclectic' tastes.
I suspect this is not too different to what lots of folk want - something good and isolating for travel, and something that gives great reproduction for when you're sitting still.
So for job 1 I narrowed it down to the PSB M4U2 (£300) and Bose QC15 (£279), having tried and rejected Monsters, Beats and all the rest of the commonly available lot. Now, I hate Bose as much as anyone, but the n/c on the QC15s is like witchcraft, it's seriously impressive. However, I desperately wanted to like the PSBs given how nice everyone is being about them. I managed to track down a demo pair in Hifi Corner in Edinburgh, and did an A/B between them.
First thing to say is that the sound on the PSBs is better than the Bose. There's no doubt. The mids are fuller (except in n/c mode), the highs more refined and the bass a bit (only a bit) less muddy. I think the bass may sharpen up when they run in. I only ran them in active and n/c mode from an iPhone 4S with reasonably high bit-rate MP3s rather than Lossless files. The audition list was as follows:
- Killswitch Engage - When Darkness Falls (massive, battering start which exposes the ability to separate bass, drums and geetar and a big chorus with high tenor vocals to pick out the mids / highs)
- James Yorkston - Midnight Feast - acoustic folk with lots and lots of backing instruments and vocals. Bass is acoustic too and tests out articulation really well
- Tom McRae - A is For... lots of top end woodwind, nice brushed snare, good test for spaciousness
- Sigur Ros - Saeglopur - SR just throw everything at it including some huge bass along with piano and twinkly bits, so a good all round test
Right. So the shocker to me was that the PSBs were NOT that much better than the Bose. The bass still rolled off / wallowed a bit and the articulation in the barrage at the start of the KSE track was average at best. Plenty of bass (less than the Bose but no problem) but not well articulated at least to my ears. The mids were much better than Bose and the top end was a little restrained but fine. That's in active mode. In N/C mode the presence of some of the mids went away and it was much more V-shaped than the feted flat profile the PSBs are meant to have. For the JY track I thought they struggled; too much bottom end, not enough separation through all the voices and instruments. I thought both these tracks were handled OK by both phones, with the PSBs edging it but not knocking it out the park.
Right now I was starting to doubt my own existence and was saying to the guy in the shop, 'is it me, or is the Bose not ****?' He was grinning...
The PSBs were definitely better on the more sparse, acoustic Tom McRae track. Lots more room, better sense of soundstage, but they still sounded a little too full at the bottom end and a lot closer to the bass-heavy celebrity-endorsed stuff we all love to hate. And on Sigur Ros the tops felt a bit lost as the cans struggled with the sheer breadth of what's going on. All of this is in active; switching on N/C made things slightly worse, but bearably so. The Bose handled both OK, but the highs were a bit harsh, especially considering that this was an ex-demo set that had been burned in. The PSBs were brand new.
In terms of N/C, if you want to have noise blocked without music playing, you need the Bose. The PSBs don't really do much. With music playing, both were good, but in quiet passages I could hear what was going on outside with the PSBs but not with the Bose.
The Bose do exactly what you'd think, but I was surprised at how palatable it was. The highs are shrill a bit, the bass is muddy a bit, the mids aren't as well developed, but the N/C is awesome. Sitting in a listening room or in your office or your living room - no way. On a train or plane - more than reasonable as long as you can shut your mind to the price.
Here's the thing that decided it for me. The PSBs are big. Really big. And heavy. Really heavy. They weigh 362g to the Bose 193g. That doesn't sound much, but it does make a difference. The travel case for the PSBs, while really nice, is about twice the size of the Bose. You couldn't fit 'em in a briefcase. And I reckoned that after maybe an hour or so the weight would get to me. The Bose, by contrast, are so light you really don't notice them.
So it's about the job they're there to do. I want my travel phones to be portable, light, good at n/c and have good sound reproduction. Bose wins on 3 of those 4. The last one goes to PSB by maybe 25%, if that makes sense, but honestly I can't see how I'd use them. The n/c is not that great, the sound is good but clearly taking on the Beats/Bose MP3 market rather than an audiophile market and they weigh a tonne.
So - and I hate myself for this - I bought the QC15s. I know, I know. But for travel, in a noisy environment, they have good enough sound, the n/c is good enough to help you sleep (esp with earplugs under the cans - bliss), and they are very travel-friendly. I am hugely ashamed of myself, but it had to be done.
So that was job 1, but job 2 was still there and neither the PSBs nor the Bose would do that job. Neither gave the faithful reproduction or sense of space I wanted.
Enter the Sennheiser Amperiors. We plugged these in and oh my goodness. What a sound. They look horrendous and I wouldn't take them from room to room, let alone on a train, but they KILL both the PSBs and Bose stone dead. I listened to an MP3 on my iPhone, and it was night and day with both the n/c sets. Then I listened to a Linn-supplied FLAC file at some ridiculous bitrate through the guy's laptop and it was sublime. But it still lacked something, felt like they could do more.
Enter the Arcam rPac - £150 for a combined headphone amp/DAC, and this lifted the Sennies to a new level on the FLAC file and also high-bitrate MP3 through Spotify. Amazing sense of the band being in the room with you, incredible separation of all the instruments, what felt like perfect sound to my untrained ears. I'm sure open-backed Grados or whatever do better, but this was a revelation to me in terms of headphones; the closest I've come to my speakers at home.
The Amperiors are on-ear, but very light and comfy. I think they probably are durable, but they just don't look it. In fact, they look like the work experience guy designed them, but who cares when they sound this good.
And this finally helped me understand - right tool for the right job. I'm a lot poorer, but I have the Sennheisers plus the Arcam rPac for the office. Everything I listen to there will be a joy. When cooped up on trains and planes I have the Bose and every time I feel the highs are too harsh or the lows too wallowy I'll enjoy the fact that the environment around me has become silent, and for walking around town I have my Denons so I don't look like a prick who's asking to be mugged.
I don't know if any of this is useful, but it's the review I wish I'd been able to read before walking in to the dealer today. Anything else folks want to know about the PSBs, QC15s or Amperiors, just ask. Cheers.