One way to get the measure of the M4U 2 is try it on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” from saxophonist Tim Ries’ Stones World: The Rolling Stones Project, Vol. 2 [Sunny Side Records]. On this album, as on Ries’ earlier The Rolling Stones Project, the objective has been to provide wildly inventive and yet still quite recognizable jazz/world-music re-creations of popular Stones rock classics—old and well-loved songs made brand new again. For “Under My Thumb”, which was recorded in Puerto Rico, Ries tapped the talents of an all-star Latin jazz ensemble and the results are, through a capable headphone at any rate, simply breathtaking.
The song is driven forward by an intensely syncopated, very high energy Latin percussion section and electric bass guitar, with melodic lines supplied by a red-hot horn section and Ries’ sax, with the whole works capped off with snarky Latin vocals served up with just the right amount of Jagger-esque swagger. Right off the bat, you notice that lower frequency instruments have plenty of weight, depth and punch, yet are not even vaguely loose or sloppy-sounding. On the contrary, bass transient are—please pardon the pun—“tight as a drum” with tons of crackle and snap. The horn section in general, and Ries’ sax in particular, have excellent tonal purity and a lovely burnished glow, but what is particularly gripping is the sheer amount of “bite” and dynamic energy they provide—qualities the M4U 2 capture with impressive vividness and transparency. Finally, we come to the vocals, which are so jaunty and irreverent that seem almost to have the feel of Antonio Banderas channeling the spirit of Jagger himself. Again, the M4U 2’s do a great job retrieving each little inflection and point of emphasis, making the vocal lines sound much more lively and realistic. Can the M4U 2s do low-level details? Yes, they can as you’ll see if you listen to the very end of the track, where you’ll hear the now distant voice of the vocalist (who has stepped away from his mic) saying softly, but with palpable satisfaction and pride in the ensemble’s performance, “Yeah, man… …that’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
To get a better sense for what the M4U 2s could do, I put on one of my favorite orchestral test/demo tracks, the Sir Neville Mariner/Academy of St. Martin in the Fields performance of Gordon Getty’s “Plump Jack” Overture [Pentatone, SACD]. Though just a little over twelve minutes long, this composition manages to showcase most of the sections and many of the moods a full-scale symphony orchestra, making it a very useful vehicle for evaluating audio components of all kinds. Frankly, many headphones have proven less than satisfactory devices for reproducing the sounds of orchestras at play, either because they lack adequate subtlety, detail, tonal purity, dynamic clout, or some combination of the above. But happily, and impressively, the M4U 2 had no such problems, demonstrating a terrific ability to adapt to the requirements of the passages at hand. As heard through the PSBs, loud, low frequency percussion passages sent deep but clear waves of base energy into my ear canals, while seconds later lighter-hearted string and woodwind passage tapped the headphone’s openness and transparency to capture a more ethereal and delicate feel. Granted, some of today’s very best $400 passive headphone can, if fed by appropriately sophisticated source components and amps, eek out a slightly more open and revealing presentation overall. But among real-world headphones that don’t need outboard amps, etc., the M4U 2s offer an almost unprecedented combination of power, control, and openness. Few passive headphones, and no noise-cancelling headphones that we have yet heard, can match the M4U 2 in these respects.
Consider this noise-cancelling headphone if:
• You want what may well be the best-sounding noise-cancelling headphone on the planet—one that truly puts music first.
• You like the idea of a self-powered headphone that offers two Active modes, giving you the choice of engaging noise-cancellation or not.
• You want a headphone that offers the smooth, accurate, neutral voicing of a fine loudspeaker system and that makes a really credible attempt to re-create the kind of low-frequency room gain that loudspeakers enjoy.
• You want an active headphone whose passive mode actually sounds good and thus is more than an afterthought thrown in just in case the batteries fail.
Look further if:
• You are a purist and like to push sonic limits; a handful of passive headphones in this class may offer higher absolute performance limits, but note that to tap those performance capabilities you’ll likely need to spring for a costly, high performance outboard amp.