Meze 99 Classics - Review
Thank you to Meze Audio for sending me the '99 Classic' to review.
It has been a little while since I reviewed a pair of headphones, taking a break from the blog while doing heavy overtime. Now that I'm moving the old reviews over here I was almost ready to start reviewing the headphones that I've accumulated since. Then, out of the blue, I got an email from Meze asking me if I would like to review the 99 Classics. It looks like fate won't let me rest, so here we go... :)
My very first thought, as the music started flowing from the 99, was - 'Oh, that's a fun sound'. Anyone who knows a bit about the past few years of the headphone industry likely won't be surprised by that statement. Meze know what they're doing, they know how to appeal to the masses and they definitely didn't fail to impress the masses who need bass. Let's cut to the point here and ask the big question - do they do anything more, is there enough here to appeal to the more discerning headphone enthusiast? Yes, I really think so, and I can explain this more clearly in the following sections. Taking looks, build and comfort out of the equation the 99's can definitely hold their own. This is a well considered balance between 'excitement' and 'reference'.
When I first received the 99 I didn't know anything about the company or the headphones, other than they're both pretty new. I like listening to these not knowing what others are saying about them, but I'm also trying not to let my subjective experience be coloured by the physical presentation, either way. I first plugged them into my wife's iphone (direct) and listened to a few tracks on her music collection. I was pleasantly surprised and that feeling soon moved on to being very impressed. This is a V-Shaped response, but that's a good thing for this target audience and although I have nothing against that it can easily be overcooked and work less well for certain genres. This however, is kept nicely under control. It has some impressive bass without crushing all the low end detail, while the mid-range is not overly recessed, in fact it's often very enjoyable without any upper-mid harshness and it retains decent detail. To put that into perspective I found the bass less fatiguing than other very well regarded (& established) lifestyle headphones in this price range, which I will get into more later.
The Soundstage is not something that occurred to me initially, It doesn't impress much when driven from a phone, but that shouldn't shock anyone. I have never been very impressed by the soundstage of a well isolated headphone this size, especially one with good bass, but things do improve with good amplification. The fact that it rarely offends me is pretty impressive considering that I listen to a lot of open back headphones however. This headphone is well tuned to take good advantage of what it can, with what it has. The bass can feel a little 'one-note' at times, but this is inevitable given the response, which works well for many genres and/or environments (bass get lost in background noise). Neither of the above aspects are really cons however, neither is the fact that I would have liked more colour options in the design (eg. An all black or black / grey version could be nice). The cons I have mentioned below are very minor because I really can't think of much to say.
Fun Sound With Exciting Mid-Range
Non-Fatiguing / Inoffensive
Light & Comfortable
Sturdy, Well Considered Construction
Great cables (materials, lengths, plugs)
Nice Hard Case
Many Replaceable Parts
Headband Can Creak When Settling In
Some Cable Noise
Not much else
These headphones are happy with the low powered and relatively unrefined amplification of modern smartphones. The mid detail that comes though here is really not bad and the bass has good impact, although the latter can be a bit one-note compared to dedicated amplification sources. The iPhone (6s+) did slightly better than my Android phone (Galaxy Alpha), although I gather the latest Galaxy phones have improved their sound quality a touch.
From my Windows 10 hybrid (laptop/tablet) - the Samsung Galaxy Book 12 - the sound quality was really rather good. I get the impression that Samsung use the same DAC and amplification as they do with their newest phones here (better than my Alpha). This is great because laptops are generally far behind phones in audio component quality, but the BIG problem here was that the headphone volume output was limited to about 40%. I guess this is some kind of move to protect hearing, but I detest this kind of stupidity and unlike the EU Android implication (which is limited to about 70%) there seems to be no way to circumvent it here. Even though these headphones don't require much power I could not get the volume to a reasonable level. Bad show - Samsung, Windows, the EU and/or whoever is responsible for this infuriating bullshit!
Connecting the 99's to a desktop USB DAC/amp ($300) is where they Meze 99 really opened up. The bass gets a healthy increase of texture while it feels more expansive and can really kick when it needs too. It punches above its weight when remotely decently amplified, both literally because it's not a big headphone, but also metaphorically because it beats pretty much every other lifestyle, closed, bass-centric headphone that I've tried (again, I'll talk more about that in a bit).
I was also lucky enough to receive the Hiby R6 portable audio player (from it's Indiegogo campaign) a couple of weeks ago. So far I have been able to spend a few hours with the Meze 99 connected to that! Unfortunately I haven't been able to test the Meze 99's balanced cable here, but I might soon so if you are curious about that check back soon. The R6 adds a bit of warmth by default, which is disappointing (although it has EQ settings). This is not ideal for the Meze 99, but there are a couple of noticeable improvements over my main desktop rig (which cost more than the R6). The soundstage felt wider with the R6 and despite the low-frequencies feeling overpowered they did also feel more detailed once I got used to them. Once I have spent more time with the R6 and a bunch of other headphones I will write a full review for that (I have also been listening to the HD600 with a balanced cable here for example).
Here's a list of some music that I listened to with these headphones which I will use to help me describe their sound.
'Bulldozer' by Machine Head - Heavy music like this suffers the most from a v-shaped response to me because they tend to lose the detail and effect from the bass guitars. This is where I feel the Meze 99 does a lot better than the competition (mentioned below) because it keeps much of that detail. Tonality like this is still not ideal however. If this is your favourite genre then it might not be for you (if you're not happy with or able to play with the EQ). I do prefer the B&O H6 for this genre alone, but I feel that the Meze 99 is slightly more versatile and certainly a lot more fun for other tracks.
'My Baby Just Cares For Me' by Nina Simone - I was a little worried about the response here because the vocals are pretty subtle and having them recessed further could kill this song. I was really pleasantly surprised however. The warmth suits this track beautifully and the vocals don't get lost at all. If you're listening to these songs in this order just be careful with your volume transitioning to the next track because it can easily blow your head off!
'Flying Spaghetti Monster' by Doctor P - I'm partial to a bit of bass and this track easily shows off the "Fun" side of these headphones. The low frequencies are wonderfully varied here and kick like a mule. It sounds great out of a phone, but better amplification send it to the stratosphere at higher volumes, just be careful with your hearing because it can be so addictive to keep pushing it up. The contrast with the high frequencies on this track is also great.
'Billie Jean - Single Version' by Michael Jackson - This song has some great imaging, it was one of the first tracks that my wife put on when I demonstrated these headphones to her and the first thing that she mentioned was how good the soundstage was here. This was being played from the Hiby R6 and I totally get what she means. The soundstage doesn't sound nearly as wide direct from the phone, although the rest of the sound is not vastly changed between the two sources for this track.
'Tremble' by Lou Rhodes - This melody feels great here, with smooth vocals and detailed acoustic guitar sounding beautifully rendered. Like the previous track it benefits from the quality amplification that's able to throw the soundstage further out.
'Harder Thank You Think' by Public Enemy - Another songs that is perfectly enjoyable with the Meze 99's presentation, but a little like heavy metal I feel like it could be improved with a more open sound, as long as you can listen to it at home with zero background noise.
There are a lot of headphones competing for the lifestyle category in this price bracket. This was popularised by Beats, although the more knowledgeable listeners generally reject their 'endorsement over sound quality' approach out of hand and rightly so IMO, so let's let's discuss some other models that are in the same league.
The Sennheiser Momentum is similar to the presentation of the Meze 99. I really wanted to keep the Momentum but ultimately its sound was too v-shaped and warm. In this regard the Meze 99 is like a very refined version of the Momentum. Although over-ear the original Momentum (not the small one) did cause me some pain after a couple of hours as it pressed the tips of my ears slightly. The Meze 99 doesn't do this to me at all.
The Bowers & Wilkins P7 also has a v-shaped presentation, a little like the Meze 99, but like the Momentum the low end got a little too much emphasis and this didn't suit enough of a range of genres for me. Although the P7 is not much heavier that the Meze 99 they felt like they were for some reason. Thier lower profile is probably better for wearing outside, but they also don't have a lot of space in the cups for larger ears (like all the headphones mentioned here), which bring some comfort issues for some.
I had high hopes for the V-Moda M-100 sound quality throughout their early production. From the hype I was expecting a frequency response close to what I now love in the Bang & Olufsen H6, but alas it was not meant to be. Instead of going for something more 'reference' they followed the incredibly v-shaped response of their lower priced DJ headphones. This was more emphasised than either the Momentum or B&W P7 and the vocals were so recessed that I found them frsutrating. I wrote them a terrible review and sold them on (although I kept the custom pads). If only they had the sound quality from the Meze 99 I would have been nowhere near as harsh, even if that's still not what they promised. I do miss the M100 for that sexy chassis design, but they had similar comfort issues to the Momentum for me as well.
DESIGN & BUILD
There is a lot to be praised here. At a basic level the headband design resembles the elastic, twin band support used by many AKG, Audio Technica models. Going with a tried and tested structure/support here was very wise. The materials, colours and design flourishes that Meze have come up with are striking. If you don't like the gold there is a version with silver accents as well. It's also worth noting that many of the parts (pads, plugs, cables, pouch and headband) can be replaced and are available to order on the companies website. There is also a balanced cable option. This is very commendable and I hope that the support for this design continues into the future.
The gold accents were a little flashy for me at first, but after a day or so it won me over. I have to admit that the combination and distribution of colours here is a nice balance in either silver or gold, although I am curious what a softer gun metal accent would do to this design. When I took the headphones to work and had them on a headphone stand someone asked me if they were just for show. I'm not sure just why they would think that, but it's a good sign that the design is striking and different.
The first thing that struck me when I took the headphones out of the box (again, this is me not knowing or reading anything) was that I couldn't tell which side was left and right. It actually doesn't matter and is decided by the cable. I didn't expect that from headphones in this price range. Speaking of the cables - I like how you get a long and short cable in the case. The latter has standard iPhone controls on the side. Since I am getting the Hiby R6 soon I am also trying to get hold of the balanced cable, but Meze only make this to order so tend not to have any in stock. I will update the review if I manage to get one.
The hard case is a nice addition to the package too. Because of the headband design (which never needs adjusting), you can throw it in here very easily. Once you have the cables in the pouch it's a very quick process indeed and it looks pretty too.
The wood is a really nice element in this design. If it's responsible for any of this bass balance then it's a touch of genius, but who cares if not... it's pretty. I have to confess to walnut being my favourite wood colour and texture, so perhaps I am biased here. The surface is so smooth that I initially mistook it for plastic, that's an impressive finish! Another material that I was really impressed might sound a bit inconsequential, but with was the cable
I doubt that the Meze 99 Classics' weight (260g / 9.2 ounces) will offend anyone. They're not a huge pair of headphones, but they feel lighter than I expected when I picked them up. There isn't much weight in the main metal headband structure, yet it feels pretty sturdy. My only issue here is that the metal always touches the surface when you put them down, so you might need to be careful of scratching both the headband and whatever you put them on. The top of my head can be sensitive to some headphones (although it's more about pressure than weight - I'm fine with the Hifiman HE-500's but not the AKG Q701 for example), but I had no issue with these at all. The lower elasticated leather support is easy to get a good fit with and distributes what little weight there is very well. The pads are described as "PU leather with medium density memory foam" which describes the feel of them spot on to me. They're definitely not soft, but I haven't had any issue getting a good seal even though I wear glasses. The clamp pressure is moderate, more than some and I thought that would cause long-term comfort issues with my glasses, but I've not noticed any, so this seems to play nicer with my glasses than any other medium sized headphone that I've tried so far, especially impressive for closed back headphones.
I like almost everything about these headphones. Looks will always be subjective, but the design works for me more each time I see it. The build quality is superb, the case is nice and the available spare parts are great. Weight and comfort are also very good aspects of this design (for me) and I don't imagine most people having any issues there either. All these elements are icing on the cake, because the sound is where this model really shines. This is a very well thought out, all-round package, but the sound quality alone easily justifies the price to me.
Although I would have personally preferred a little less emphasis in the low frequencies this is bit of a nitpick. I see this presentation working well for most people and in most situations/environments. Even for me this issue is largely fixed when driven from some decent neutral amplification. Several well known manufacturers have successful models that embrace the v-shaped presentation but most feel overzealous compared to this and I think Meze deserves a lot of respect for getting the balance between reference and "Fun" so right, especially so early on in their history. I find this response to work very well across a wide variety of genres, from classical to EDM to Jazz.
I think Meze will struggle to follow the 99, but as I write this I see that their next headphone is shooting for the high-end. I hope the 99 is a sign of things to come because this is easily the best closed headphones that I have heard for the price.
Posted 10th March 2018