Meze Headphones is a newcomer to the headphone scene, though you wouldn’t know it if you gave their full-size 99 Classics Gold headphone a look and a listen. If there was ever a situation in head-fi-dom that gives cause to the maxim “don’t judge a book by its cover,” the 99 Classics might well be it. I know I was guilty of running afoul. I thought that Meze was competing more on looks than performance. Time to eat some crow.
The 99 Classics have quite the distinctive appearance. The review sample came dressed in walnut and gold trim. Personal preference left me feeling that it might look slightly out of place in the office. Meze offers two other combinations – walnut / silver and maple / gold. Out of the three, I think the walnut / silver is definitely the most elegant.
The walnut ear cups are satin finished and smooth to the touch. Their size was on the smallish side, which reminded me a lot of the Sennheiser Momentum. And like the Senns, I had to move the ear cups back so that the backside of the my earlobe just slid into the opening. The ear pads didn’t sit against the nape of my neck like most full-size cans do, but I felt that I got a good seal anyway. (This was also borne out in the listening – you’ll understand later.) The ear pads themselves are fairly thin and firm.
Clamping force provided by the steel headband is comfortably snug. I didn’t feel like my head was clamped in a vise, nor was I worried that the headphones would fly off my head if I had to suddenly look up from typing on the keyboard. Height adjustments are automatic, there’s an elastic band hidden in the leather wrapped head pad that lengthens or shortens as you move the headphones down or up. They’re also quite light – definitely comfortable enough for long listening sessions.
A great feature is the fact that the earcups are symmetrical – left and right only exist when you plug in the cables. The left connector has a slight ridge to let you know by feel which side you’re grasping. The only quibble I have here is that the cable is fairly microphonic. It’s probably not much of a concern when moving about, but can be a little distracting in a quiet environment.
Another set of cables with mic and volume controls are included, as well as a 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapter, an airplane adapter, a microfiber pouch to hold the loose items, and a stylish rigid carrying case to keep everything together.
Overall, I was very pleased at the level of fit and finish that the 99 Classics displayed. Meze clearly did their homework here.
Now, build quality is one thing, sound quality is another. Here, the 99 Classics deliver… mostly. The tonal balance and articulation of the midrange and treble is simply exquisite. On “I’m Old Fashioned” from Blue Train, Coltrane’s opening exposition had a nearly perfect blend of warmth, inner detail, and air. Fuller’s trombone and Kelly’s trumpet also possessed a warm glow that would match the performance from much more expensive headphones. Cymbal strikes didn’t devolve into tizz and fizz. Drew’s piano solo sounded expressive, warm, and eminently human. The Meze was clearly punching above its weight class in these frequency registers. Bass, however, came across a little too juiced. It didn’t quite strike the right balance as the mids and highs did, electing to telegraph weight and tone at the expense of relaying the finer points of Chambers’ technique. Swapping in “Al vaiven de mi carreta” from Afrocubism, the bass sounded nicely filled in and better balanced with the rest of the mix. Vocals were spot on and images well delineated, but I noted a lack of depth to the presentation.
Pumped up bass can sometimes prove to be an Achilles’ heel on classical music. I cued up ‘Jupiter’ from Charles Dutoit’s interpretation of The Planets, and encountered a decidedly pleasant surprise. In this case, the bass response of the 99 Classics imbued the presentation with a concert hall-like feel. In other words, it made the headphone sound bigger than it actually was. The presentation was very immediate – you definitely have a front row seat with the 99 Classics. Spatial resolution was good, but again it was in the traditional sense where images appear in a straight line from left to right through the head. The 99 Classics proved their worth in the deft way it handled the dynamics of the orchestra while finessing the sonics with detail and air. Impressive. Moving on to Chesky’s release of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, I detected a slight unevenness during Wild’s opening run on the keys, possibly due to the tipped-up bass. Strings possessed good body and pizzicatos had a clear pluck with a halo of tone following soon thereafter. However, the 99 Classics struggled to fully reproduce the acoustic of the performance hall.
The slight unevenness in the lower registers held the Meze back from consistently turning in stellar performances on modern pop and rock. On “Ship to Wreck” from Florence + the Machine’s latest album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the bass line and kick drum were a little too phat, but still tuneful. And I registered no complaints on the portrayal of Welch’s vocals – smooth and with a hint of warmth. When I listened to “Intervention” from Arcade Fire’s second album, Neon Bible, lower notes from bowed bass had a slight emphasis while the kick drum was a touch overbearing. Contrast this with “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, where John Paul Jones’ bass line was more prominent than usual but still believably balanced within the mix. The 99 Classics also turned in a satisfying performance on Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge” from her latest album, 25. Vocals were neither sexed up nor toned down, snare hits possessed good snap and air, and cymbal strikes were portrayed with clean timbre. But another track on that same album, “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” had the lows sounding a bit overhyped.
I also noticed that the 99 Classics seemed to shine on the AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2 rather than my Sonett 2 / C-5xeMP, so most of the impressions I’ve laid out are from the former setup rather than the ‘he-man’ rig. I detected a slight bit of chestiness around Joao Gilberto’s introductory vocals in “Girl from Ipanema” with the Sonett 2 in charge, along with a more resonant character to plucked bass and guitar notes. Perhaps the lower output impedance of the DragonFly controlled the drivers better.
The NAD VISO HP50 has been somewhat of a benchmark in relatively affordable sealed headphones. It has a slightly warmer sound signature and the midbass displays a propensity for coloring the sound just a hair. Its midrange and treble clarity are a small notch down from the 99 Classics, which seem to capture inner detail a bit better. However the HP50’s offer better bass control, whether driven from a tube or solid state amp.
The Oppo PM-3 is a step up in price and a slight jump in sound quality. Its midrange is creamy smooth, but treble presence is a little softened next to the 99 Classics. The Oppo also takes a step back from articulation in favor of tone, but offers a more even-keeled presentation. The Meze counters with a more dynamic, impactful experience.
Meze clearly has a very competitive headphone in the 99 Classics. I feel that if the bass response was dialed in just a bit more without touching the midrange and treble, they’d have an instant classic in their hands. For now, I think the 99 Classics work best for the closet basshead with a low output impedance amp who doesn’t want to sacrifice midrange and treble refinement. My bet is that probably describes a lot more audiophiles than they’d like to admit.
Headphones – Audeze LCD-XC, NAD VISO HP50, Oppo PM-3
Amplification – AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2, DNA Sonett 2
Sources – AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2, Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP
Cabling – Analysis Plus Pro Oval Studio balanced, Analysis Plus Pro Power Oval
Power / tweaks – Bryston BIT 15, UpTone Audio USB REGEN