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“The Meze Elite is one of the very best headphones in the world”

  • High-end loudspeakers come in a wide variety of interesting designs and unique aesthetics. True, we still see plenty of traditional “monkey coffins” – rectangular wooden monoliths with about as much character as a scarecrow. Yet we also find many counterexamples, designs oozing with unique visual appeal. See Rethm, Sonus Faber, YG Acoustics, Vivid, Estelon, or KEF’s top-level Blade and Muon designs. Not to say that traditional boxy speakers can’t sound amazing, but if possible, I always prefer something pleasing to the eye as well as the ear.

    Headphone designers have more constraints as far as interesting shapes and sizes, just by the very nature of the product. Yet we still see more creativity these days than ever before – more wood, metal, leather, carbon fiber, and other interesting materials, utilized with a deliberate sense of artistic appeal. See recent flagship models from Focal, Audeze, and HiFiMAN, or even Sennheiser’s perpetually-futuristic-looking HD800 series. Now contrast those with the older Sennheiser HD650 to see what I mean. Even within a particular brand – take Dan Clark Audio for example – we see a very obvious and significant evolution in material quality and visual allure from the early models to the current lineup.

    Romanian firm Meze Audio has arguably the strongest focus on industrial design of any headphone maker out there today. Everything is designed in-house as a marriage of form and function, with all models consisting of fully serviceable parts intended for the long haul. I’ve had a set of their entry-level Meze 99 Neo headphones in my home which have seen five years of heavy use (by teenagers no less!) and, short of pad replacements from time to time, they look practically new. Meze also emphasizes comfort and adjustability. What’s the point of building a great-looking, great-sounding headphone if people can’t stand to wear it for very long?

    The Flagship
    Meze Audio’s Elite (US$4000) is the firm’s newest top-tier model. It’s a full-sized, circumaural design, meaning it sits around the ears rather than on them and is thus more comfortable for long-term listening. It’s also an open-back design meaning it will not isolate the user from outside noise, nor will it stop your music from “leaking” into the room around you. It’s a very large, bulky headphone, though at 430 grams it is significantly lighter than many of its competitors. All this to say that the Meze Elite is intended for use at home in a dedicated listening situation rather than on a bus, airplane or in an open-plan office. Meze Audio makes in-ear monitors and closed-back models for use in those scenarios.

    The Elite builds on the design of the popular Empyrean (US$3000) which remains in Meze’s lineup and is still a compelling option (more on that later). At first glance, the Elite may appear to just be an Empyrean with a refreshed colorway, but there are actually multiple – and not necessarily obvious – updates that sum to something substantial.

    The chief external change, aside from that obvious new color scheme, is the newly designed set of “hybrid” pads. That name refers to their mixture of perforated Alcantara on the inside plus genuine leather on the outside, which is specifically designed for the Elite and not recommended for use on the original Empyrean (despite being physically compatible). Both Meze models use the same magnetic attachment system for the earpads meaning pad swaps take literal seconds – along with the similarly functional Campfire Audio Cascade, this is by far the best pad attachment method I’ve encountered in my many years of headphone use. The Elite also comes with a set of full Alcantara pads (identical to the pads that ship with the Empyrean) which have different dimensions and produce a subtly different sound signature. This means Elite users have a choice of two audibly different presentations, and can easily swap back and forth as the mood suits.

    The other significant change comes in the form of a next-gen driver design. Once again, Meze has collaborated with Ukraine’s Rinaro Isodynamics who designed the MZ3 isodynamic driver found in the Empyrean. After three years of research and development, Rinaro makes the updated MZ3SE drivers used in the Elite. This brings their new “Parus” low mass acoustic diaphragm built using a proprietary “ultra-thin biaxially oriented semi-crystalline polymer film”, and arranged in a rather unique and complex way for maximum sonic results. Meze discusses this in-depth and shows some fascinating driver pictures on their product page — worth a look for those wanting a more technical insight into the Elite.

    Fit, finish & comfort
    As previously mentioned, Meze places a very high value on the design aspect of their headphones. A closer look at almost any portion of the Elite reveals subtle details highlighting that attention to detail. From the CNC machined textures of the aluminum cups to the “just-right” tension in the pivot rods, the intricate patterns of the grills to the patented “suspension wing design” of the leather head strap (complete with “Elite” logo), every portion exudes quality. I’m no headphone designer, but I’ve had plenty of experience with expensive models where I had, shall we say, passionate ideas about what could have been done better. I have no such concerns with the Meze Audio Elite.

    Comfort is subjective but for my larger-than-average head, the Elite is exceedingly pleasant. It is adjustable in just about every way one could ask for, and the 430-gram weight is on the lighter side when it comes to large modern high-end headphones. For reference, Audeze’s previous flagship LCD-4 weighed in at 690 grams, the Final D8000 Pro lists at 523 grams, the Rosson Audio RAD-0 sits at around 600 grams and HEDD Audio’s HEDDphone puts 718 grams on the scales. So while the Meze Elite is by no means a lightweight, it might prove to be light enough for those who had previously sworn off other flagships due to their weight.

    When joining cable to headphone, Meze Audio wisely uses the same mini-XLR connectors as Audeze, Kennerton and ZMF. There are other connection systems that also have merit, but with so many quality brands already using mini-XLR, I’d be happy to see it become industry standard for most full-size headphones.

    Meze Audio ships the Elite in a briefcase-type package, just as they do with the Empyrean. It has generous foam padding with sections cut out for the headphone, cable, and spare earpads. It may not look as extravagant as some of the wood “presentation boxes” we get with competing products, yet in terms of functionality, it is certainly more useful. I particularly like the spare rectangular cutout which is perfect for stowing a small-to-medium-sized portable player. Alternatively, one could fit in a dongle DAC or/or a spare cable (or two) in that space.

    When purchasing the Elite, customers are given a choice between 1.2 meter cable with a 6.3mm termination, 2.5 meter cable with a 3.5mm plug, or 2.5 meter cable finished with a balanced 4-pin XLR. In all instances, the cable uses the same oxygen-free copper with a black nylon jacket. It’s not the most exotic cable in the world but it looks nice enough, is well made, is reasonably flexible, and doesn’t easily tangle. As stock offerings go, I’ve seen far worse. Meze Audio does offer cable upgrades for those who might be interested, and compatible aftermarket cables are plentiful thanks to that mini-XLR connection.

    Associated gear
    My primary listening system consists of a Euphony Summus music server (US$2600) powered by a Keces S8 linear PSU (US$899). The Summus serves up tracks via Roon into a Stack Audio Link II network player with the matching Stack Audio VOLT PSU (US$1355), which in turn feeds a Wyred4Sound 10th Anniversary DAC (US$4499). After D-to-A conversion, signals are routed to my rotating cast of headphone amplifiers, including a Pass Labs HPA-1 (US$3500), Niimbus Audio US4+ (US$6500), and Cayin HA-6A (US$2500). An Equi=Core 1800 conditioner feeds balanced power to all components, and all cabling (including the HPX-1SE headphone cable used with the Elite) is from San Diego’s Audio Art.

    In order to properly understand Meze Audio’s goals with the Elite, it’s worthwhile to first discuss their Empyrean model to establish a baseline. Back in 2018, the Empyrean took the headphone world by storm with its plush comfort, inviting tonal balance, and over-the-top build quality. I’ll point readers to our publisher’s short film for further details, noting that I generally agree about the Empyrean achieving a reasonable compromise between sterile Sennheiser and at-times-overly-thick Audeze.

    Having established that, I periodically feel like something is missing from the Empyrean presentation. While always easy to enjoy, I am often cognizant of its missing technicalities, where the presentation may skew a bit closer towards the Audeze end of the spectrum rather than pure middle between richness and detail. In contrast, the Elite represents a rebalancing of those priorities, and to my mind ends up defining a better halfway point in between extremes.

    Make no mistake: this is still a somewhat warm, rich-sounding headphone, with a bit of low-end emphasis. But overall it is the more even-handed of the Meze siblings. The Elite has a dialed-up ability to reproduce fine detail, top-end air, transients, and spatial cues, making it dig deeper into the recording. At the same time, it still imparts a pleasing sense of weight and body, which helps avoid any trace of feeling dry or analytical.

    While I frequently bounce around between ear pad types with the Empyrean, I find myself using the Elite strictly with the newer hybrid pads. The resulting sound has superior low-end control which ends up producing the more punchy of the two signatures. The hybrid pads also give a distinctly superior sense of space and projection, where instruments really do present as coming from some distance away from the ears. The physically-thicker Alcantara pads cause the Elite to paint a larger image but it feels more like an indistinct “blob” of music. It’s less focused, and I have a difficult time translating the results into a convincing soundstage. I am still glad Meze includes both options as others may hear things differently, but for me, the hybrid pads are clearly superior.

    Let’s talk about equipment synergy. The Empyrean is not terribly difficult to drive, and the Elite’s next-gen driver is even more efficient. With a sensitivity rating of 101dB/mW and an impedance of 32 ohms, you can achieve worthwhile results with a modest headphone amplifier, DAP, or even a smartphone (assuming you can still find one with a headphone jack). That’s quite a contrast from many of the competing planar magnetic designs which demand stout amplification. That said, the Elite is a highly resolving headphone that will really scale up when using better gear. Quality, not quantity, is the order of the day when it comes to amplification. Upstream components like DACs and transports also play a part – those can tip the scales significantly when dealing with a headphone of this caliber.

    I achieve excellent results across the board when using my trio of reference headphone amplifiers. The Elite allows the distinct flavor of each device to shine through. Certainly more so than the Empyrean, which tends to stay more in character regardless of amplification used. This means the Elite is a bit of a chameleon. With the Pass Labs HPA-1, I hear a bold, organic sound, with the classic Pass tone known and loved by so many. Meanwhile, the Cayin HA-6A, running in triode mode with KT88 tubes, imparts a seductive glow, particularly in the midrange. Not as punchy as the Pass, this is nonetheless highly enjoyable as a great example of lush vintage tube charm. Lastly, the Niimbus US4+ opens up the Elite substantially, with extreme insight and resolution top to bottom. Even so, the polished nature of the Elite means this combo doesn’t suffer from information overload. Need to compare/contrast the sound of two DACs? This is the setup to use.

    Reaching into my collection, I come out with three similarly priced competitors, to help bring additional context to what Meze has achieved with the Elite.

    First, the Audeze LCD-24 Limited Edition (US$3500). I have yet to lay hands/ears on Audeze’s new LCD-5 flagship, but the special made-to-order LCD-24 makes for a good stand-in. It was launched after the original LCD-4 and the later LCD-4z as an experimental model aiming to “refine and improve” those designs both in terms of sound and weight. This was done by revisiting some of the design methodologies from the original (and wildly successful) LCD-2, whilst applying the engineering improvements gleaned from the decade-plus journey between then and now. The result would theoretically marry the technical prowess of the newer models with the beloved signature of Audeze’s early offerings. Things didn’t quite pan out that way but I actually consider it a good thing – the LCD-24 is perhaps the most balanced-sounding Audeze headphone I’ve yet experienced.

    Audeze is definitely heading in the right direction when it comes to weight reduction. The LCD-4z is significantly lighter than the original (very heavy) LCD-4, and the LCD-24 still manages to shave off a bit more from there. Despite those improvements, I nevertheless find the Elite more comfortable. While it is lighter than the Audeze by a good 110 grams, I don’t think that’s necessarily the only factor. Meze’s head strap, ear pads, and general weight distribution just feel better to my head. The result is that the Elite practically disappears when I wear it, while I am always aware of the LCD-24’s presence. Again, the LCD-24 is not uncomfortable per se, but the Elite is truly top-of-heap in this regard. Note that with the next-gen LCD-5, Audeze has completely redesigned all aspects of the headphone, and this time it actually weighs slightly less than the Elite. I suspect that may be a closer competition.

    As far as presentation, the LCD-24 is not terribly far off from the Elite. Both headphones live in the general region that many users would consider “neutral”, as that term is always open for interpretation. For me, the Meze falls slightly to the warmer side of that balance, whilst the Audeze counterbalances in the other direction. It focuses a touch more on detail and top-down information retrieval, whereas the Elite lays a rich sonic foundation first and builds upwards from there. Both models are extremely capable and the differences are small enough to where system synergy can mostly close the gap either way – at least as it pertains to tonal balance. However, no matter what gear I try, I can’t get the Audeze to portray such a large, convincing performance space the way Meze’s flagship can. When I also factor in comfort, where Audeze is “acceptable” but Meze is superb, the Elite ultimately takes the lead.

    Next comes the Kennerton Audio Thekk. Another planar magnetic design, the Thekk sells for somewhere in the low to mid-US$3000 range depending on the choice of wood finish. As with all of Kennerton’s headphones, it has a beautiful hand-crafted appearance, with the rich wood cups giving a sort of steampunk vibe compared to Meze’s industrial art look. Both are pleasing to the eyes and very well made, but the Elite ultimately feels more premium in terms of design and build. Kennerton manages to undercut Meze by weighing 40 grams less which contributes to their comfort, though once again weight isn’t the only factor involved. The Elite has more points of articulation for adjusting fit and while the Thekk does work well on my particular head, I can see the lack of swivel to the cups as potentially causing issues for some users.

    When it comes to sonic performance, the Thekk comes across as quick and precise in nature. It has a somewhat lean and lit-up tonality, with superb resolution, yet doesn’t go so far as to become abrasive as the Sennheiser HD800. The Thekk frequently serves as my go-to headphone when listening to complex jazz, busy bluegrass, or highly technical death metal – three genres that prioritize speed and composure under the heavy demand of complexity. Interestingly, Meze’s Elite is able to match and at times even exceed Kennerton’s technical prowess here. Listening to Ezra Collective, Crooked Still, or Meshuggah, the Elite stays completely unflustered, unraveling complex rhythms and carving out well-defined layers for each instrument. It does so with a richer tonality than the Thekk but is also quite impressive when it comes to quickness and resolution. And if I switch to something which benefits from more prominence in the nether regions – System 7, EPMD, Matumbi, SpectraSoul – the Elite has a more rewarding signature with its palpable impact and superior low-end physicality. That makes it the more versatile performer and, once again, my preferred choice in the comparison.

    Finally, the Elite has some in-house competition in the form of its older sibling. As mentioned previously, Meze wisely keeps the Empyrean (US$3000) in the lineup, as its warmer, more relaxed presentation is still a major crowd pleaser. Obviously fit and finish are identical between the two models, and at times I may actually prefer the low-key colorway of the Empyrean over the flashier Elite.

    The Empyrean signature is rich, smooth, and somewhat relaxed overall. It has an obvious boost in the bass and even midbass regions, which can make for a somewhat syrupy experience. And I mean that in the best way possible! While other headphones like the Thekk or LCD-24 may outdo it in terms of speed and microdetail, the Empyrean nevertheless has a uniquely inviting tonality where I just sink into the music as if it were a comfy pillow.

    For those who enjoy the Empyrean presentation but find themselves wishing for more speed, immediacy, top-end air, and overall balance, the Elite may just be the perfect headphone. Meze has really done a great job taking that striking Empyrean sound and molding it into something more accomplished and mature. I also appreciate that in spite of the improvements, they didn’t lose sight of what so many (including myself) love about the original model. We get advancements in dynamics, transient response, microdetail, tactility, and treble realism in general, without losing that effortless sense of smoothness. It would be easy to go too far and become sterile or boring, but I’d say Meze nailed the evolution perfectly.

    Although I personally find it superior, the Elite may not be better for everyone. Some people don’t want the more balanced signature, and would rather stick with the enchantingly smooth and creamy Empyrean for their sonic voyages. Or, perhaps their take on “neutral” is different than mine, and they actually hear Empyrean as the more balanced headphone, with the Elite being too caffeinated for their liking. Either way, the Empyrean remains an entirely viable choice, and more fiscally responsible as well. With both models being relatively easy to drive, that US$1000 price difference could buy a very respectable system with which to enjoy the Empyrean. It could also buy a lot of music, or pay for years of streaming services if that’s your preference. So while I do feel Elite is the superior headphone, I also think Meze did the right thing by keeping both options available. The Empyrean is still an excellent choice and perhaps a better fit in some cases.

    The Meze Elite makes a strong case for being one of the very best headphones in the world. I’d go so far as to say if we judge based upon design and build quality, the Elite has no rivals, save for its sibling which shares the same exterior. Looks and comfort are both subjective, but I would personally place the Elite at the top of the pile in those categories too.

    What we are then left with is sonic performance – an area in which I also find Meze’s flagship extremely compelling. It manages to evolve the loveable Empyrean signature into something more technically accomplished, without losing its soul in the process. It’s a remarkable achievement that pairs easily with a wide range of audio gear, musical genres, and recording quality, making it perhaps the most “accessible” option in this rarified segment of the headphone market.

    Just to recap: the Meze Elite is a high-end headphone with no compromises in comfort, no questionable build choices or reliability issues, no absurd amplification requirements, excellent industrial design, and a sonic presentation that is both technically impressive and musically appealing. Sounds like a winner to me.

    Further information: Meze Audio

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    Written by John Grandberg

    John Grandberg is a US-based audio journalist who has been immersed in the scene for over a decade. A recovering percussionist, he has a particular affinity for headphones and associated gear.

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