Meze 99 Classics Headphone Review

IMG_4017COMPANY: Meze

MODEL: 99 Classics

COST: $309 USD (approximately $400 CAD at time of writing)

TYPE: Closed, Dynamic, Over-Ear

DRIVER SIZE: 40mm Neodynium

FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 15 Hz – 25 kHz

EFFICIENCY: 103 dB

NOMINAL IMPEDANCE: 32 Ohms

WEIGHT: 260 Grams

COLOURS: Sustainable wood ear cups: light maple with silver accents and beige ear pads or walnut with gold accents and black ear pads

INCLUDES:

Headphone Adapter – 3.5 mm to 6.35 mm and 3.5 mm to dual airline 3.5 mm.

Headphone Cable – 1.2 meter OFC (Oxygen Free Copper) with single button remote, and 3 meter OFC.   Both are 3.5 mm with dual sided 3.5 mm mono connectors to ear cup and are Kevlar covered. Cables are white or black depending on color of model.

High quality padded cardboard box.

Clamshell hard-sided carry case with zipper closure and color-match logo.

Small zipper pouch to store cables and adapters.

 

Build, Aesthetics and Comfort

IMG_4010What’s the first thing you think of when I say “Romanian hi-fi audio?” If it isn’t headphones, perhaps it should be.

Smaller, boutique companies perhaps need to try harder than the established juggernauts. In this case it is very obvious how this benefits the consumer and how it drives innovation and greatness. Antonio Meze (pronounced “meh-zeh”), company founder and designer of the 99 Classics, has worked on creating anything from ski poles, to bottles, to cell phones for other manufacturers. Now he’s designing products under a company bearing his own name, and the 99 Classics certainly bears all the hallmarks of a labour of love.

In the best way, these remind me of vintage JBL speakers. They exude the perfect industrial mix of wood and metal. Clearly designed to be admired and not solely listened to. Sure, there are other speakers out there that sound great and look fine, but only with their grills on. 1970’s JBL knew that the listener wants to take off those grills and see the modern design and quality of the hidden bits. They knew that while you rocked out, you would admire both the beauty of design and the roaring beast of sound. The 99 Classics are no different in this regard.

I’ve written before that the Sennheiser HD598 “offers a distinctive design focused on luxury and refinement”, and I meant it. However, side-by-side with the Meze 99 Classics, the overall impression of the HD598 is one of plastic, and plastic just doesn’t impress with any sort of intrinsic value, not like the solidity and feel of natural wood and metal. The Meze headphones make the HD598s look and feel like a bit of a toy in comparison

These headphones remind me why I fell in love with music playing gear in the first place. The tasteful design sensibilities are seamlessly integrated with the headphone’s structure. There is a wonderful balance (and not compromise) of form and function. This starts with the high quality packaging, the abundance of included accessories and of course, the headphones themselves.

Meze proudly declares that there is neither plastic nor glue in any part that the user interacts with – actual screws hold everything together. This strengthens the luxurious impression, but also creates a headphone that can be repaired (much like the quality items of yesteryear). Wood, metal and high quality synthetic leather is what you feel and see. Of note, the synthetic leather ear pads are very comfortable but on the warm side (expect to be a bit sweaty after an album on a balmy day). Perhaps an option for HiFiMan Focus style pads (leather exterior with velour on the skin touching side) would offer a better balance and remain a bit cooler. The foam in the ear pads appears to be memory foam, but it seems to rebound much more quickly than Sennheiser Momentum ear pads.

Sizing is done via an elastic suspension headband that automatically adjusts depending on head size, and overall it works perfectly: pop them on your head and they fit first try. Tension is perhaps just ever so slightly strong.  A metallic skeleton frame hovers above the suspension band and creates the clamping force (which is slightly on the tight side as well). I applaud the thin profile and appealing curve, it is a FAR more attractive design than the similar one employed by HiFiMan. One drawback is that the design is non-folding so they cannot be made more compact for travel. In many ways these remind me of the first generation Sennheiser Momentum (another easy to drive, mobile, sealed headphone of similar cost) from the thin, stylish design, to the shape and size of the ear cups and non-folding construction.

Continuing that comparison, one of the main complaints about the original Momentum Over-Ear headphones was the small cup size, which was not friendly to those folks with larger ears. The space within the 99 Classics’ cup is of approximately the same height as the Momentum and about 10-15 mm wider. Depth is also on the shallow side, something to be aware of if you struggle to find headphones ample enough to contain your ears. While I’m lucky enough that I can wear Momentums comfortably, the Classics fit me perfectly and do offer noticeable if slight, amount more room.

Overall, IMG_4019these are a very comfortable pair of headphones with light weight, soft ear pads, and reasonable clamping force. Isolation from outside noise is about average for a headphone of this type. Microphonics from fabric wrapped cables can bother some folks, but wasn’t an issue for me. Another point of interest is that left and right are not marked on the headphones themselves, this is determined by how you insert the marked cables.

Of note, the web site is excellent with pictures, descriptions and videos detailing the build and design. It is well worth visiting to see how these headphones are put together. Nothing is hidden behind the proverbial curtain and Meze certainly seems proud of their creation.

Sound Signature and Quality

The similarities to the Sennheiser Momentums continue, although in every way, I’d have to say the 99 Classics are the superior sounding headphone. Both are relatively neutral and without fatal flaws in tonal balance, clarity nor dynamics. The overall tonality of the 99 Classics is exceptional with a great balance of depth, mids and highs, while maintaining accuracy and excellent imaging. The soundstage isn’t enormous like with some high-quality open backed headphones, yet placement of instruments in the mix seems very coherent, positional and not crowded. Dynamics are very good (although not as punchy as planar type headphones provide), however the 99 Classics’ exceptional efficiency means they can be easily driven to dynamic levels from a phone or portable player and do not require an amplifier to enjoy. Where vocals on the Momentum sound a bit recessed (although very even), on the 99 Classics they come much more to center stage.

Midrange

Vocals remain coherent and even in tone regardless of music style. They incorporate well with the higher and lower frequencies, remain solid and clear, and offer a bit of punch and contrast to the background. Unlike the Momentums, the midrange on the 99 Classics offers an even sound pressure with the highs and lows (the Sennheisers are more recessed). Rich sounding in the lower-mid frequencies, they remain smooth and transition perfectly into the lower bass notes. Overall impression is of good speed and detail.

Treble

Treble transitions seamlessly from the mid-range frequencies and remains clear and quick sounding across the board. I found no harshness, and I wouldn’t describe these headphones as particularly bright, a good balance has been achieved with the midrange and bass.   The overall impression is intimate yet energetic.

Bass

I tend to prefer an open headphone sound, and to me the bass response of the 99 Classics sounds slightly emphasized. It doesn’t appear to be boosted, just is perhaps a tad loose and not quite so tightly controlled. That being said, bass doesn’t overwhelm the mix and it certainly does create a fun sound signature. Extension is good, reasonably deep and punchy, and the drivers seem capable with most music styles. The lowest notes may create a bit of minor distortion or flutter, but this is not noticeable on the vast majority of songs, and wasn’t ever alarming. The overall impression was engaging and enjoyable.

ConclusionIMG_4014

Although certainly a cliché, as a Canadian, I can’t help but see the number 99 and think of the finest hockey player of all time. Gretzky embodied all the characteristics that truly made him ‘the great one’. To put on the number 99, is to have a lot to live up to. Amazingly, this little company from Romania has done it in the world of audio with this simply tremendous headphone.

They’ve made a comfortable, sealed headphone that can be used portably and is somehow an almost perfect balance of form and function. The 99 Classics are undeniably beautiful in both construction and in sound. They provide an energetic, vibrant experience and do so in a truly luxurious style. They sound great with basically any type of music and look terrific anywhere headphones are welcome.

I’d like to personally thank the great folks at Meze and specifically the awesome Lorand Czibere for providing a pair of 99 Classics for me to review.   I look forward to where this company is headed.

Style, I’d like to introduce you to substance. Oh, I see you’ve already met.