Best in show awards as they relate to sound quality – this publication gave them up several years ago. Experience tells us that they’re a silly side effect of a play act undertaken by commentator and (unwitting) exhibitor. Show-based awards flatter both parties whilst remaining meaningless for the rest of us.
This audio reviewer’s self-imposed brief for Munich High-End 2018 was not only to take a snapshot of what’s new and to go long on video in the process but also to un/cover and profile manufacturers whose work stands out as markedly different. Meze Audio is one such manufacturer.
Munich eunuch. The High-End Society’s promotional exhortations to “Listen to the music” were once again castrated by the show’s own success. The official head count is in: just shy of 20,000 attendees walked the floors of the MOC in 2018. Munich High-End was, once again, the busiest audio show on the calendar.
Readers need only scan the numerous videos posted by yours truly so far to hear the background din generated by so many bodies as well as the idle chit-chat and door movement that punctures the comparative quiet of dedicated listening rooms. Anything other than play-acted listening at events like this is close to impossible. Besides, with product designers on hand for in-depth conversations about the what and the why, listening can wait until the product comes home for review.
Providing us with the exception to prove the rule this year was Romania’s Meze Audio whose founder and CEO Antonio Meze has spent the last three years following-up on the runaway success of his 99 Classics & Neo entry-level ‘phones. At €3500, his forthcoming flagship Empyrean seeks out high-end listeners with deeper pockets to invert the 99-ers’ low-margin-high-volume sales model.
I took the middle position in Meze’s demo booth to give the open-backed Empyrean a quick spin…which then turned into the longest listening session put in by these ears at any audio show in the last eight years. Headphonistas came and went as Qobuz streaming from a Microsoft Surface (Pro?) and a Chord DAVE driving the Empyrean kept me glued to my seat for a full thirty minutes. Time that speaks to a significant degree of subjective listening pleasure but – careful now – communicates next to nothing of the Empyrean’s sound and how these cans compare to similarly-priced rivals. That’s what reviews are for. Thankfully, I have reportedly made the shortlist of commentators scheduled to receive a demo pair in June. Or July.
Antonio Meze isn’t in a hurry. He wants to get everything just so. The original idea to produce a limited run of 500 pairs was scotched once the feedback trickling in from recent USA/Japan show previews told him he’d likely sell more. Meze has since decided that Empyrean will ship in a range of limited edition finishes but in series, not parallel: a few hundred of this followed by a few hundred of that to keep customer FOMO in focus and designer engagement buoyant long after the first units land in-store.
Predictably, there’s a twist. The Empyrean’s planar know-how comes not from Meze himself but third-party manufacturer Rinaro who our Romanian thirty-something first met at IFA in 2016. Rinaro is a once state-funded Ukrainian company and research facility with a sharp ear/eye for planar drivers.
Rinaro has foregone the uniform zig-zagging trace pattern to favour an “isodynamic hybrid array driver” where the Empyrean driver presents as a pseudo two-way, minus the crossover. Patented by Rinaro, a curved switch-back pattern – implemented for its low-frequency efficiency – snakes downward before morphing into a circular coil that occupies the lower third of the diaphragm to add an additional fix point – positioned to more efficiently drive higher frequencies and feed them directly into the ear canal, thus minimising ear pad cavity bounce and delayed arrival. That’s none too dissimilar to the challenges laid down by the room to a loudspeaker.
The earpads’ magnetic earcup attachment facilitates easy snap-off-snap-on, allowing users to flavour the Empyrean’s voicing according to taste, but also – again patented by Rinaro – “pushes back the stray fields of the [driver] magnets” to increase driver efficiency.
Antonio Meze makes the list of playback pioneers not only because of his determination to create a planar headphone that connotes luxury inside and out — in his own words, to create “the most expressive, ultimate high-end headphones” — but because he and Rinaro collectively view Empyrean as part art, part engineering: a carbon frame and suspension springs promise greater long-term comfort and the lightweight earcups are constructed from sixteen distinct components, each milled from solid aluminium.
In this video, Antonio Meze expands on the Empyrean story from the relative comfort of his prefabricated MOC office:
Further information: Meze Audio