I split my time between two lovely places: Devon ( green undulating countryside, rocky coast) and Norfolk, my partner Nikki’s home (big skies, brooding salt marshes). Getting a music fix in Norfolk and with decent sound quality is problematic. My 2 channel system – Ayre and Harbeths – Isn’t luggable and besides, requisitioning someone else’s lounge room for loudspeaker listening risks a bloodbath (think Games of Thrones’ Red Wedding).
Cue the need for a semi-portable system, one that doesn’t require sell-a-kidney levels of funding but nevertheless satiates my habit in whatever oasis of peace I can find. Agreeing with Darko’s DAP-days-are-over approach, my phone and tablet serve up the digits losslessly via USB Audio Player Pro to a Dragonfly Black (bought on impulse with the lingering regret that I didn’t go Red. ) A pair of wired Sennheiser Momentum on-ear completes the chain; incremental outlay £160 (thanks to Sennheiser’s Outlet store). Very nice too.
And yet it doesn’t quite get out of the way and let the music through, something is limiting my engagement. Only slightly, but how to go that final (yeah right) step higher?
Intuition says better phones. Closed; leaky ones don’t fit the brief. And being fussy about comfort, over-ears are preferable. Wired as well; better sound. Step forward serendipity; the Meze 99 Classics.
Based in Baia Mare, northern Romania, Meze was formed in 2009 not until 2015 did the company’s first product, the 99 Classics, see the light of day. Darko first caught them at CanJam SoCal 2016 where designer Antonio Meze had broken the 99-ers down into component parts:
At £289 / US$309 / €309, Meze’s 99 Classics are neither cheap nor stoopid expensive. On-trend Beats can sell for similar cash. As can noise-cancellers from Bose, Sony etc. The 99 Classics have one foot firmly in the real world.
For the money, we get a straightforward pair of closed-back phones. Per the video above, they are well built and nicely styled. They don’t do that origami trick and fold down to nothing; nope, a hard case is provided to usher them to your next destination, with room for the Dragonfly Black and OTG lead.
We get two cables: a 3.0m length for home use and a 1.2m length with in-line volume control for use with smartphones. I stuck with the longer one for its greater flexibility; for me, the Mezes are too big for street life.
Old school headphones for old folk? No way.
The Meze headphones ooooze understated class. From the matt-walnut finished earcups through the silver fittings and the simple black-steel headband, to little touches like the neatly braided cable. On attention to detail Meze nail it. The gold option is slightly glitzier but still a long way from bling. I found zero issues with fit, finish, and build quality. The fact that these headphones can be fully deconstructed should repair ever be needed is also handy.
The 99ers are also comfortable even on my Shrek-and-a-half sized head. Clamp pressure is moderate but acceptable. The ear cups fit over my (medium sized) ears just so. Notable are the soft PU leather / medium-density memory foam pads that in use connote a warm feeling. I’d prefer velour but concede that such a switch up were it to happen would alter the phone’s tonal balance. Bottom line: I adapted nicely to the Mezes and forgot about their physical presence after hitting play.
Sensitivity is good, everything I used to drive them worked well. That included my Moto G phone, an Arcam rHead, the AudioQuest Dragonfly Black, Meridian Explorer 2, Mytek Liberty, and briefly the Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital. Sources used were an Android phone (analogue and digital outputs) and Allo USBridge. I ran the Mezes in for 40 hours.
The sound? In a word: lovely. Slightly on the warm side of neutral but not overly so. A mid-range that’s just right and treble that’s a smidge rolled off but always communicative. The Mezes seems to tap music’s soul. If I’ve just described a well-sorted valve / Class A sound then so be it.
The 99 Classics are good on detail but not the gratuitous sort where the tonal balance is artificially tipped up. We get a good sense of what’s going on in the music without being taken down to the bone. Consider the delightful bassy vocals that emerge 4’30” into Van Morrison Healing Game (and new to me). As was the complexity of the arrangement on The Crusader’s Street Life, we note nothing superfluously added to the subjective enjoyment factor. Coloured? Yes. Bad? Deleterious? No.
Comparison with the Sennheiser Momentum on-ears was instructive. Sure, the Mezes have a more substantial, weightier tonal balance (darker if you wish, I always did prefer Sennheiser 650s to 600s). Moreover, the Mezes have a richness that the Sennheiser’s lack, the Germans invoking respect more than emotion; and ultimately lacking the Romanian’s ‘palpable’ parlour trick.
The 99s aren’t without fault, their bass sometimes draws a little too much attention to itself. Deep yes, controlled…. not always. The better the upstream elements – recording, source, amp – the less of an issue it is, and besides, a little low-cut EQ in UAPP / Roon allowed me to season the end result according to my own taste. There’s no EQ setting for ‘extra soul’!
I attempted to trip the 99 Classics up by stacking the musical odds against them; heavier tracks like Bettye LaVette’s Things Have Changed playing directly from my phone via Tidal (no EQ). I failed; the Mezes remained highly engaging. Subjective? Yes. But who sits down for a restaurant meal to pick apart its ingredients? Not me.
This brings us to an important point: that the 99 Classics are hugely flexible. At the top of my source quality scale, playing MQA via USBridge through the Mytek Liberty and, later, the Arcam rHead, the Meze clearly resolve the differences between the Mytek and the Arcam.
And yet – and this is a big one – the Meze still sounded quite lovely playing Tidal straight out of my smartphone’s considerably weaker headphone socket. It’s a Moto G3. Slightly softer, less detailed, but still thoroughly engaging, a sound that wouldn’t have me fretting that I’d mistakenly left the Dragonfly Black at home whilst on a fortnight’s holiday. Crucially, the Meze cover a lot of use cases; and do so with a certain degree of source agnosticism.
My old school pal Derek thought similarly. As a musician and recording engineer, he looks for different things from headphones, needing more treble than the Meze provide, pointing to acoustic guitar and symbols as presenting pleasantly instead of accurately. And yet Derek really dug the sound of the Meze overall, noting their nod to warmth and engaging gestalt when compared to his studio Audio Technica ATH-M50s and Beyerdynamic (model not specified). I’m not sure I agree with his assessment that the Meze sound ‘chocolatey’ but he and I found ourselves on the same wavelength when talking about the 99 Classics.
I’ll leave the last word to Teodor Currentzis, whose Tchaikovsky 6th performance has rightly been described as devastating – the Russian composer’s tortuous life captured in one symphony. Soon after its first performance he allegedly took his own life. The Fourth movement is the very definition of despair. As I write this I’ve just listened to the Third movement, the peak before the fall, emotions rising to repeatedly higher levels, the soul battered by the sheer force of the orchestra. Currentzis evokes the highest response, as do the Mezes. I sit here emotionally depleted, the adrenaline subsiding, cheeks stained, the heart calming slowly.
For a sub-£300 pair of headphones to evoke such an emotional response is impressive. And that’s my point: the Meze ‘phones are for those who demand an emotional experience when listening to music. The 99 Classics might not be the most accurate headphones out there but for the right listener, they deliver proper engagement whether driven by smartphone or full head-fi system. Colour me smitten – because a neutral sound doesn’t suit every listener.
Further information: Meze Audio