Meze 99 Classics

Meze 99 Classics

Background

It was a curious moment in my recent history of trying out various headphones, the day I first put on the Meze 99 Classics. I already knew, judging from other reviews, that I wasn’t in for a neutral experience, but rather one with a “fun” sound signature. Yet again, I find myself reviewing such a headphone – but this time I ran into far fewer shortcomings than I have in the past.

The idea of this sound signature is that neutrality be damned, music is for pleasurable listening. They accentuate traits that sound enticing, vibrant and joyous at the sacrifice of an overall balanced sound. The ZMF Omni did this by having a very natural mids and bass-centric sound at the cost of slightly rolled off treble. The Fostex TH-X00 did this by having excellently deep and present bass, enjoyable lower-mids and extended treble – but it struggled to reproduce upper-mids and female vocals well. The treble also got quite harsh and sibilant to my ears at times. The Shozy Zero had a slightly bassy and mids-forward sound signature that did incredibly well with electronic music genres, but it too had slightly rolled off treble that prevented it from shining with other genres.

Knowing full well that the 99 Classics were out to achieve a similar listening experience, one that lies to you in terms of presentation but in a way you can easily forgive given certain parameters, I was honestly surprised – and in a good way. But more on that later.

Specifications (from the Meze website)

Transducer size: 40mm

Frequency response: 15Hz - 25KHz

Sensitivity: 103dB at 1KHz, 1mW

Impedance: 32Ohm

Rated input power: 30mW

Maximum input power: 50mW

Detachable Kevlar OFC cable

Plug: 3.5mm gold plated

Weight: 260 gr (9.2 ounces) without cables

Ear-cups: walnut wood

Build, Design & Comfort

I find the design of the 99 Classics to be a rather contentious issue in the headphone community. I rarely find any indifference toward it as individuals either seem to love it or think it is tacky. My first thought was “this is rather unique.” Given my biases in headphone aesthetics, the Meze offering fell well into my spectrum of appreciation because I have a strong affinity for wooden earcups. However, the reason I like the design goes beyond that. Out of all the headphones I have seen yet, this looks the most like something out of a steampunk setting, and that by itself is unique in a world populated with plastic and Beats style brand-shouting. If Corvo from Dishonored owned a pair of headphones, it would look a lot like the Meze 99 Classic.

On further inspection, you will not find plastic in its construction either. There are three visible materials to the eye – walnut wood, leather and metal. Apparently the construction does not make use of glue either, preferring screws. The slider adjustment is without any incremental changes, rather going for an approach where you pull the earcups into place, after which they hold steadily.

It comes in three color configurations: Walnut Gold, Walnut Silver (which I have with me) and Maple Silver. The Maple Silver makes use of white pleather, cables and metal in its design to complement the paler wood. If I had to choose between the three, I would choose what I have – the Walnut Silver. Once again, my bias is showing because I prefer darker wood in both the construction of headphones and acoustic guitars.  

These are very light headphones indeed. After bouts with the Hifiman HE-500 and ZMF Omni, the 99 Classics are very much an unencumbered fit on my head for long periods of time. The clamp force is a bit high at first, but adjusts over the course of a few days. The seal provided is a very good factor in its isolation, which is a great deal higher than the other full-sized headphones mentioned in this review. However, the earpads themselves are only big enough to just fit your ears. Mine just about make it and I have medium-large ears. As summer comes to England, I have found the pads to get quite hot on extended usage. Due to the extremely fitted design, there is less space for the ears to breathe – a tradeoff for an incredibly good seal and its musical benefits.

I could not find any discernible difference in earpad width on either side as they are quite uniform. Any distinguishing of the left and right channels will purely rely on the placement of the attached cable – which have the markings on them rather than on the headphones themselves.

Lying down with these headphones can be a bit awkward due to the metal ring on top. Leaning against a pillow or wall can be met with a sharp knock against it, making it so you have to re-adjust. Lounging around in these will take some getting used to.

Features

On that note, I am very satisfied with the two cables provided by Meze. One is a cable for portable use with your smartphone as it has a play/pause button attached and is at the preferred length. The other is 10ft and for home usage. Both cables terminate in 3.5mm, with a 1/4 adapter being provided in the box. They are lean, flexible and braided and will last a good while. There is no neck adjustment however. The existence of detachable cables alone is a big plus in my book and makes for easier transportation.

And speaking of transportation, the carrying case provided in the box is another feature I am quite impressed by. It is sturdy and quite handsome, ready for a home in any backpack for easy transport. The box itself is not easily discarded either, it too has a premium look to it.

Sound

A major reason I like my ZMF Omni Cherry is because of how it reproduces acoustic guitars. It has a very natural sound to it, making it an excellent pairing with acoustic songs. My first big, and lasting, impression from the Meze Classic 99 was just how well it did in this regard too. One of my favourite tests for a headphone’s capability in this field is to run my own recorded acoustic guitar playing through it. It had a similar natural feel that the Omni had, with the major differences being in how it was not as laid back and how the soundstage was far more intimate.

The sound of the Meze’s goes into the “fun” tuned realm, with a major element of doing so being its slightly boosted bass. The bass extends quite far down too, undoubtedly aided by the isolation provided by the seal. After switching back and forth with the Fostex TH-X00, I found that it was the second deepest sub-bass in my current headphone collection after those. I never found it to be too much, too overbearing or too artificial. Instead, it has a very punchy sound signature with a lot of oomph to it that goes immensely well with electronic music genres. I don’t hear any bleed into the mids either, the separation is quite clean. However, the bass has a slight earthy quality that removes from any sense of cleanliness, with a tiny bit of distortion that isn’t audible on most recordings. However, I find that this might aid the sound signature rather than hinder it as it is a very organic sound.

The mids are very, very impressive. I would sing an ode the lower-mid magic that is taking place that allows the reproduction of acoustic guitars to be so inviting, similar to the Omni but a bit more energized - to the slight detriment of a natural touch. There is a smoothness to the midrange that insists on reproducing the body of vocals, both male and female, quite amply with quite stellar clarity. If a song, such as Stairway to Heaven or In the Air Tonight, chooses to build up slowly - you will hear each and every instrument addition in the mix and be able to discern it quite aptly. I find this a feat on a headphone with this narrow of a soundstage, with this isolated and closed of a design. I do not know if it is the walnut wood cups, but it feels like the midrange has more room to breathe than a plastic pair of headphones would. Therefore, separation is quite good to say the least.

The treble is the region I slightly feared for before I put these on for the first time. I had heard good things about the bass and mids, but in my experience such characteristics are often at the cost of the high end. It would either feel too artificial and forced, be too rolled off to make way for the other frequencies or be too sibilant. Interestingly, it was none of these things. It does not venture into problematically sibilant territory and neither does it seem to linger around, banging on a ceiling limit that would stifle cymbals and other instruments that make use of treble.

I would even go so far to call this a balanced pair of headphones, to an extent. Yes, the bass is a bit boosted – but it does not take away from just how well the other frequencies are represented. A  pleasant low-end, coupled with a warm and accurate midrange (vocal harmonies and the like showing with ease) and a comfortably extended high-end makes this a definite fun listen. The only detraction in terms of how it presents sound would be the soundstage. I’m not a designer, but I feel that it couldn’t be helped much with the closed design – which also lends to just how impressive it is that the mids separate so well.

This is one of the few headphones I have come across that I can recommend for all genres of studio-recorded music. Live recordings could be heard on open cans, for the soundstage and the like, but a well-recorded studio track will come out and play just fine on the Meze 99 Classics. I don’t face trouble from older genres like classic rock any more than I do with electronic dance music. It just does it all so, so well for its price range.

Amping

Rated at 32 ohms, these headphones are not hard to drive at all. Meze themselves allude strongly to this because they provide the play/pause switch on the shorter cable for smartphones. I did however try them with my three amplifiers on hand to see what differences occurred. All were fed from mySchiit Gungnir USB Version 2 DAC.

Schiit Magni 2:

Simply made louder. The same effect can be reproduced by the volume knob on your portable player of choice.

Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon:

Sadly, the sensitivity of the Meze is such that I heard the first-run Liquid Carbon power issue – with a slight hum intruding on my listening. I did gauge that the sound was overall warmer, as expected from the amp.

Venture Electronics RunAbout Plus:

Now this was impressive and the pairing I chose for listening to the Meze from now on. The portable RunAbout Plus does not emit much power on paper, but in practical usage it is a little powerhouse. Its signal has a tiny touch of warmth and sweetness to it, but it is overall quite articulate. It greatly aided the strengths of the Meze’s – particularly in the midrange and its stellar pairing with acoustic guitars.

The bottom line of this, to my knowledge, would be that it does not require amping, but it can benefit from it with the right pairing. Of course, as efficient volume can be easily achieved, you could obtain a magical sound signature with your DAP of choice as they all have their own characteristics that are brought to the table.

Comparisons

Bass Quantity: TH-X00 > Classic 99 > ZMF Omni > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > HE400i > DT990 > HE-500 > HD600

Mids: HE-500 > HD600 > ZMF Omni > Classic 99 > HE400i > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > TH-X00 > DT990

Treble Quantity: DT990 > HE400i > TH-X00 > Classic 99 > HE-500 > HD600 > ZMF Omni > ZMF Vibro Mk. I

Soundstage: DT990 > HE-500 > ZMF Omni > HD600 > HE400i > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > Classic 99 > TH-X00

Comfort: DT990 > TH-X00 > HE400i > HD600 > ZMF Omni > Classic 99 > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > HE-500

Aesthetics: Classic 99 > TH-X00 > ZMF Omni > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > HE400i > DT990 > HE-500 > HD600

Lightness: Classic 99 > DT990 > TH-X00 > HD600 > HE400i > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > ZMF Omni > HE-500

Conclusion

There is no two-ways about it, colour me impressed by the Meze 99 Classics. Yes, the clamp and earpad warmth will take some getting used to, but the sound is very impressive for the pricerange in which it sits. Aesthetically, whether you love or hate how it looks, it is unique and that alone is something to be considered with just how many headphones are being designed and released every year as the audio industry blossoms and grows further.

I’m mostly about the sound quality however, and I respect this headphone most of all for how effortlessly it goes with my vast and diverse music collection. I would wear this on a flight and not miss my other headphones at all as a playlist continues on – each song being well served.

Song Impressions

Equipment used: Foobar200 WASAPI Event > Schiit Wyrd > Schiit Gungnir USB Ver. 2 > Venture Electronics RunAbout Plus.

All tracks in lossless FLAC in at least 16/44.1

Aerosmith – Dream On (2012 Remaster)

The low end reminds me of when I listened to this song through the TH-X00, but with more lush and present mids and overall balance. While the soundstage is not as vast as the HE-500, there is no confusion in the instrumentation and overall sound structure.

a-ha – Take On Me

A punchy and immediate listen due to the low-end representation, but without losing the warmth and smoothness of the vocals or the delicate background acoustic guitar and cymbal patterns.

Nine Inch Nails – Closer

The Meze absolutely conveys the attitude of this song. The deep bass extension aids the heartbeat drum beat while the mids and highs accentuate the swirling synthesizers and cymbal loops. All the while, Trent Reznor’s tortured vocal takes centre stage. Great listen due to the Meze’s strengths.

Black Sabbath – Planet Caravan

Geezer Butler’s bassline drives this song but never intrudes into the vocals/mids. The pleasing mid-bass is at work here. The soundstage, while constricted, does reproduce the separated and panning instrumentation quite well – particularly the hand-struck drumming by Bill Ward.

Prince – Controversy

From the first hit, you know the Meze means business due to how this funky track’s bassline just digs deep and steady as the drums accompany it. As the clean-guitar work on the right track strums, quite clearly, you can clearly hear Prince’s vocal and the repeating voice going “OOMPH” in the beat.

Childish Gambino – Heartbeat

I always turn to this song when I want to test sub and mid-bass response. Compared to the TH-X00, which handled the sub-bass frequencies effortlessly and quite impressively, the Meze doesn’t dive as low but does a far better job with the rest of the frequencies. Also, the snare sounds a lot more immediate – with more body bouncing off the vocal as the song continues.

Chris Isaak – Wicked Game

Once again, the Meze 99’s impress me with how they reproduce acoustic guitars. Couple that with the fact that the midrange brings forth the sultry vocal so well makes this a great listen. If I had to find a flaw, it would be that the backing vocal “this world is only gonna break your heart” is slightly less pronounced than on some other headphones like the Omni or the HE-500 – which are in different price categories. This is one of my favourite songs of all time, and I really appreciate what the Meze can do for it.

Clint Mansell – Lux Aeterna

The mids shine further on this track due to how well they manage to separate the different string tracks, an important and distinguishing feature because of how easily overlapped they can be on some headphones. The percussion has a lot of impact due to the bass impact, helped by the seal.

Coldplay – Clocks

While the soundstage is constricted, it is notable that this highly layered track maintains a good amount of separation in its presentation. The vocal absolutely soars, as it should.

Daichi Miura – Unlock

The TH-X00 reproduces the vocals in this song in a sibilant manner so I was glad to see that the Meze absolutely did not. The rest of the instrumentation is well served, only hampered due to the soaring and reverb-laden nature of the song and just how well it does with a large soundstage.

Eminem – Without Me

While the synth bassline doesn’t sound as incredible as on the TH-X00, the tradeoff is that the instrumentation is much more immediate and clear – especially the vocals/rap.

Fleetwood Mac – Dreams

A song I re-visit with every new piece of gear and one I know as well as the back of my hand. While it is much more intimate than the Omni and the HE-500, the superb separation the Meze possesses aids greatly in the vocal harmonies of the chorus. The acoustic guitars and vocals sound warm and are well distinguished from the bassline.

Peter Gabriel - Flood & Mercy Street

I choose both these tracks because of how intricate the instrumentation is. The 99 Classics do really well with both, particularly in the shimmering cymbals/percussion of mercy street and the acoustic guitar in Flood. Coupled with just how nicely the vocal harmonies ring out in both, this is a great listen.

Metallica - For Whom the Bell Tolls (2016 Remastered)

The Meze properly represents the fire and brimstone production of this thunderous track. The drums hit hard and he guitars absolutely bite as they should, all while Cliff Burton's basswork is audible beneath it all. I'm especially impressed with how vibrant the cymbal crashes are in the mix.

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