Wood is Good: Meze Headphones 99 Classics ReviewOctober 27, 2016
“Are those new? They look stylish.” “New headphones? They’re spiffy.” “Ooo, I love those.” I can’t make this stuff up folks. There’s been no shortage of compliments since donning the Meze 99 Classics headphone at my office. Yes, you read that right. Sometimes part of my reviewing process includes testing products from the cubicle of my nine-to-five. Music plays a big part in getting me through the workday—drowning out the chatter of my office mates is also an excellent test. But let’s get back to those compliments. When the look of your headphones catches the eyes of non-audiophiles, as in nearly 60-year-old finance guys and Gen X women, you know you’ve done something unique. That uniqueness is what’s helping put Romania’s Meze Headphones on the audiophile map.
Successfully spurred ahead by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in late 2015, Meze Headphones has been running at full speed since launching the Meze 99 Classics, a gorgeous closed-back wooden headphone that, simply put, sounds as unique as it looks.
“Silver and gold, silver and gold. Ev'ryone wishes for silver and gold. How do you measure its worth? Just by the pleasure it gives here on earth.” Burl Ives certainly didn’t have headphones in mind when he wrote these lyrics for the 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special (guilty pleasure; it’s a childhood favorite), but that song popped in my head the moment I saw the 99 in its gold and silver variants. Pleasurable indeed. The 99 is a prime example of #audioporn.
Silver and gold. Black and silver. Walnut and maple. With rich, luxurious finishes—and a $309 price tag—there’s nothing subtle about the 99. It’s eye-catching, it’s elegant, and it’s one of the most aesthetically intriguing headphones I’ve used. From the box, to the cast hardware, to the sustainably sourced wood, Meze Headphones founder and designer Antonio Meze clearly aimed to make the 99 a statement piece. The result is a headphone that’s robust and relentlessly refined—and also surprisingly lightweight (260g). Of the wood headphones I’ve owned, including premium Grado and ZMF models, the precision CNC-cut and hand-finished cups of the 99 stand out. Their satin finish and flawless grain is simply lovely. As a former percussionist that once had an affinity for raw maple snare drums, the silver and maple 99 makes my heart skip a beat.
Meze’s attention to detail doesn’t stop at the headphone itself. The 99 comes with a custom hard zippered travel case, gold-plated 6.3mm (1/4”) and airplane jack adapters, and two cables with a zippered felt storage pouch—a 1.2m portable cable with inline mic and remote and a 3m cable for your home listening room. Manufacturers often cut corners on cables, but Meze delivers a color-matched Kevlar-reinforced OFC cable that’s as refined from end to end as the rest of the 99.
All this attention to detail is all well and good, but does the 99 sound good too?
While the 99’s look is sharp and elegant, its sound is warm and inviting. And did I mention unique?
The 99 positions you as a backstage VIP, center stage, behind the curtain. Behind the curtain? Don’t let that statement be a turn off. What I mean is that the 99 is intimate in its presentation. The closed-back cups make for an up close and personal listening experience that leaves the music floating just a few inches around your head while the 99’s sonic subtleties draw you in, its warmth envelopes your ears, and its dark balance allows for listening well into the night.
The 99 has what I will call “well-rounded sound.” From its deep sub-bass, to its darker than expected treble, the 99 offers a smooth sliding scale of sound that seduces your ears. There’s not a hint of sharpness, sibilance or roughness, well, anywhere. The bass is boastful, perhaps a bit overzealous at times, but not what I would consider boomy. The mid-range is balanced, warm and robust. The healthy highs roll off in a nicely relaxed manner that, somehow, still sounds acoustically realistic. Revealing? Reference? Maybe not so much—the 99 seems too polite for those terms. But when you settle in and start listening to the music instead of listening to the headphone itself, the 99 becomes incredibly immersing.
When I say that the 99 places you behind the curtain, I realize that implies that it sounds veiled. I hesitate to use that term as it’s so often used in a negative or derogatory way in audio reviews. What I mean is that the 99 has a natural softness to it; it has all the instrument details, all the tonality, and all the accuracy that you could ask for, yet it’s all done so… soothingly—the 99 forces nothing on you; it’s never harsh or in your face; it’s well-controlled, almost as if it’s mimicking the recording session in the dampened studio.
For example, I expected the maple cups to give the 99 some bite—maple is usually a brighter sounding and resonant wood—but there’s no aggressiveness in the sonic signature of the 99. Time and time again it’s just smooth, smooth, smooth. The major perk here is that the 99 is a savior of shitty sound. It easily tames the sizzle of hot recordings and poor playback devices. In fact, it plays well with every music genre I threw at it—Bjork, Lucy Rose, The Cinematic Orchestra, John Butler, Glass Animals, Ambient Jazz Ensemble, etc., etc.—and it plays well with damn near every device, too.
With a rated sensitivity of 103 dB at 1 kHz/1 mW and 32-ohm impedance, the 99’s 40mm dynamic neodymium/Mylar transducers are so easy to drive that even the most basic smartphones, iPods and DAPs will push them to deafening levels. With that said, I found that amping the 99 made minimal differences performance-wise. I’m used to headphones performing vastly different from amp to amp, but that just wasn’t the case this time around, and I think that’ll be a welcomed trait by anyone looking for hi-fi sound without the desire to acquire other hi-fi devices. While there’s simply no denying that better quality amps and DACs produce better sound, the 99 lets you hear the gear for what it is while its own sonic signature stays pretty damn consistent. My only recommendation on gear is to skip pairing it with a high current amp because you will hear some current noise and background hiss.
The most challenging part of reviewing the 99 is comparing it to other headphones. The 99 is so unique to my ears that quick comparisons to other staple headphones simply don’t do it justice. For instance, I commonly switch between headphones multiple times during a single track and replay certain parts with each one to do more critical comparisons. While I tried that with the 99, I found that it really ruined the experience. To really hear what the 99 does you need to spend time with it. But I know that most in this hobby are quick to judge and demand X versus Y comparisons. So here are a few things that I noticed when comparing the 99 to some other popular headphones.
Meze 99 Classics vs. Shure SRH840 and SRH1540: Closed-back. Darkish. Descending highs. I fully expected the 99 to sound very similar to the Shure headphones that I’ve recommended so frequently. I was wrong. The 99 bested my daily drivers in many ways. The 99’s bass extends deeper and hits a bit harder—more oomph if you will. Both the Shure SRH840 (review) and SRH1540 (review), in comparison, seem to be a bit more controlled and punchy, but only at higher frequency ranges. The 99 is clearly fuller sounding when you get into bass-heavy tracks—take Bjork’s “Hyberballad” for instance. The 99’s mids are also smoother and more linear, albeit more relaxed. Mid-range is Shure’s sweet spot, but compared to the 99, both Shure offerings push the mids more aggressively into your ears. This makes vocalists sound more forward and in your face, and while I like this with some tracks, on others I prefer the 99’s subtler approach. While the pushed mids also help with instrument separation and atmospheric space compared to the more intimate and closed-in sounding 99, it introduces some roughness and grain. As for the highs, the 99’s are even more rolled off and relaxed than either of the Shure headphones mentioned. Simply put, the Shures have far more zing in the treble region. I found the SRH840 and SRH1540 to both be more revealing of micro details than the 99, but this comes at the expense of slightly sharper highs, occasional sibilance and increased graininess (mostly with poor recordings). The easiest way to put it is that the 99 sounds far more organic and natural than either Shure. Surprising indeed.
Meze 99 Classics vs. Sennheiser HD650: The HD650 is a staple in the headphone community, so it only makes sense to offer a brief comparison. Much of what I said above about the Shures actually also rings true for the HD650 comparison, so I'll just add a few more thoughts. The HD650 is simply a very different headphone from the 99; it’s mid-centric, open-back and much more picky with amps. In a head-to-head comparison, you’ll find that the HD650 again lacks the smoothness of the 99. The HD650 also can’t touch the 99’s deep bass lines. In fact, the 99 manages to make the “lush” HD650 sound surprisingly thin. What the HD650 offers, however, is more attack, a far wider and more three-dimensional sound stage, and better instrument separation than what the 99’s closed-back design can muster. Overall, the 99 is more versatile; it’s a headphone that anyone can listen to regardless of musical preference whereas the HD650 excels with only certain genres and certain amplifiers. I won’t say that one is better than the other because they’re just too different in all intents and purposes.
Meze 99 Classics vs. ZMF Headphones The Omni: I don’t have The Omni (review) currently on-hand to do a direct comparison anymore, but from recent memory, the 99 sounds more like the ZMF Headphones offering than any of the others mentioned. Both the 99 and The Omni excel at being smooth operators. The Omni most definitely moves more air and has harder hitting and more emphasized bass; it also has slightly more upper-mid presence, sounds a touch more spacious due to the semi-open design, and has a bit more treble pop. But tonally, they both favor what I consider to be a thicker and darker sound, a more intimate sound stage, and both stray far, far away from being harsh or sibilant. If you like the ZMF Headphones house sound, the 99 might be a nice choice for your portable headphone needs.
If I could change one thing about the 99, it would be the ear pads—they’re simply too damn shallow. Give my ears some room to breathe, Meze! Seriously though, I have an issue with ear pads that touch the lobe and helix of my ears—especially during long listening sessions. I appreciate the sleek styling of the headphone itself, but the slim medium-density foam ear pads compress to the point that my ears press against the liners covering the driver housings. Their circumference also feels a bit cramped, as if they were stuck somewhere between being a large on-ear and narrow around-the-ear design. Are my ears too big? Do they stick out too far? I don’t think so, but your results may vary. The supple synthetic leather can also get a touch toasty, but perhaps that’s nitpicking.
Nevertheless, I have a theory that the 99 could benefit from a roomier, deeper and angled genuine leather ear pad. First, I think comfort would drastically increase. Second, a deep angled pad (think ZMF or Brainwavz ear pads) would move the driver away from the ear, which should help to open up the sound stage and treble clarity just a touch. If that proves true, the 99 would be supremely comfortable and incredibly balanced sounding. In other words, it would be very hard to best, in my opinion.
Ear pads aside, the 99 is incredibly comfortable. I find the elastic suspension strap to be better fitting than similarly designed AKGs or the Audioquest Nighthawk, and the clamping force and weight is comparable to the Sennheiser HD650, which I have no problem wearing for hours at a time.
Do a quick Google search for audiophile headphones and the top results will include the likes of Audeze and Sennheiser, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Meze Headphones soon sits among the top ranks. The 99 Classics’ organic and natural sound is truly special. It’s admittedly relaxed at first listen, but as soon as you stop thinking about what you might be missing, you’ll start hearing just how immersive it is. The 99 Classics is without a doubt a hi-fi headphone worth experiencing. Meze’s aim is for perfection, and while I won’t claim that the 99 Classics is the be-all and end-all headphone for everyone, its performance most certainly sets you on the path towards Audio Nirvana.
Here’s to hoping Meze Headphones forgets to ask for my review unit back.