Meze 99 Classics Headphones

Introduction

I’ve been using my UE6000 headphones on a daily basis since I reviewed them in June of last year, despite the fact that they largely let me down as a “do it all” replacement for my previous Denon NC-800 noise cancellers. The UE6000 on the surface is a similar headphone to the NC-800, with stronger bass response at a cost of some overall refinement, but the noise cancelling circuitry in the UE6000 is so poor that I left it turned off after trying it a few times, leaving just the passive isolation of the sealed over-ear design.

Since buying the UE6000 I’ve been on the lookout for something with better performance at a reasonable price, and I hit a bit of a Goldilocks problem there, with the various sub $400 models either being too small, or too heavy, too uncomfortable, having poor frequency response, or some combination of the above. I was therefore intrigued with the possibility of reviewing a brand new $309 headphone from a new company, originally launched through an Indiegogo campaign. If the big guys weren’t getting it right, why not give someone else a turn?

Going Hands On

As expected at this price, the 99 Classics come in a nice, heavy wall foam lined cardboard box. Inside you’ll find a molded hard shell carrying case, the headphones themselves, and a small zippered pouch containing the 1.2M cable with mic and single button in-line remote, 3M audio only cable, ¼” fullsize headphone jack adapter, and an airline adapter for anybody that still actually uses those things.

Going to the campaign website, it’s clear that Meze is trying to do things differently, certainly at this price point anyway. Instead of mass produced plastic parts, the wooden ear cups are carved on a CNC machine and then finished and polished by hand. The result is a nice Mocha brown color with a soft matte finish on my black and gold trimmed review sample. The headphones are also available in silver, with a lighter, more blond wood trim. The rest of the design is like a more attractive AKG K702. Twin metal arcs sprout from the center of each ear cup and hold everything together, with support provided by a softly padded suspension style headband.

The ear pads are a comfortable pleather material over memory foam, and I didn’t experience any heating issues after wearing the headphones for a few hours at a time. The size of the pads may be a sticking point for some folks, however. My ears are on the smaller side, and the pads on the UE6000 are just big enough for my ears to fit inside. The pads on the 99 Classics are smaller still, putting them in the “tween” bracket of not quite over-ear, not quite on-ear models. If you’re explicitly looking for an over-ear model you’ll need to look elsewhere. That being said, I normally find on-ears to get very uncomfortable at the 1hr+ mark, but I had no issue wearing the 99 Classics for extended periods of time. The suspension headband does a great job at keeping the headphones secured in place while keeping the actual feeling of clamping force to a minimum. Nice job there, Meze. I should note that the pads are easily replaceable, along with every other part of the headphone, as the company is keen to point out.

 

One area where I would like to see an improvement is the cable, more specifically the two small leads that extend from the Y-splitter and connect to the bottom of each ear cup. These leads are very microphonic – lightly running your finger along the woven outer cover produces a distinct “sssshh, sssshh, ssshhh” sound in the ear, and simply turning your head (and thus sliding the cable on your shirt a bit) is enough to clearly hear the cable. This is something that could easily be fixed since the cable is not hard-wired, however, since the input sockets are so deeply recessed into the cups with no extra clearance, any third party cables are out. I would like to see Meze offer a basic, rubberized cable for those who may be bothered by this issue.

The Listening Experience

At a claimed 103dB/mW and 32 Ohm impedance, the 99 Classics should be easily drivable from just about anything, and indeed that was the case, with my Samsung Galaxy Note able to push them to ear-splitting volume levels. Meze advertises a “balanced natural sound” and points to what appears to be an extremely flat target response curve, with just the usual dip in the ear’s sensitive zone. So do they sound super flat and balanced? Not exactly.

If your lexicon includes the phrase “dat bass,” you’re going to like these headphones. Which is not to say that they’re lumpy ear thumpers – they’re not. Kicking things off with Wilderun’s excellent Sleep At The Edge Of The Earth, the 99 Classics rendered the restrained acoustic opening track “Dust and Crooked Thoughts” nicely, with more detail and certainly a much wider, more enveloping soundstage than I’m used to from the UE6000. Instruments and vocals on “And so Open the Earth” were nicely separated, which is no easy feat given the album’s heavily compressed mix.

Further listening to the album, what I heard in terms of the response curve from the 99 Classics did not seem hugely different from the UE6000 – just much better executed across the board, which goes to highlight the importance of the difference between frequency response charts and actual listening. The UE6000’s somewhat elevated bass response came at the cost of its ability to reproduce fine, mid focused acoustic details, something that the 99 Classics don’t struggle with. In other words, the 99 Classics come pretty close to nailing what I consider to be the ideal “metal approved” response of a gentle downward arc from bass to mids to highs, as opposed to the typical “U” or “V” shaped response. No sucked out mids here, and to my ears, no EQ necessary.

In terms of soundstage, you’re not going to fool yourself into thinking you’re listening to high-end open headphones, but even at moderate volume levels, the 99 Classics can extend the sound beyond the confines of your head, at least in terms of width. Depth is more limited, but that’s a limitation of just about every sealed design out there. With the 99 Classics easily proving themselves with typically compressed fare, I decided to give them a real challenge with Kauan’s superb new album, Sorni Nai. Here, the UE6000 was simply outclassed. The 99 Classics showcased the windswept background, swirling synths, and haunting piano notes of “Akva” with aplomb, giving the track an emotional impact that the UE6000 could not match. The bass response was right where I wanted it, present and full without intruding on the midrange or calling too much attention to itself. The highs from the 99 Classics are definitely more present than those on the UE6000 which are almost buried, but still to my ears a bit on the soft side of true neutrality, which given the state of current production standards is preferable.

With no real sonic complaints to report from my phone, the final step was to see if the 99 Classics had any extra performance waiting in the wings that could be unlocked with a much higher quality amp and/or DAC than what’s in my Galaxy Note. Enter the Hifiman HM-901. To check for any audible differences between the two devices, I skipped the compressed stuff and went straight to Steve Rothery’s masterfully engineered 2014 instrumental album, The Ghosts Of Pripyat. The opening track, “Morpheus,” has a very slow, low level buildup, and it highlighted one key difference straight away – the noise floor. The 99 Classics are highly efficient headphones, and I heard a distinct background hiss during the song’s initial buildup from my phone that was not audible at all on the HM-901.

Beyond that, I the HM-901 seemed to do a better job than my phone of separating the individual instruments in the mix, with highs a bit more forward and present and a wider soundstage. Take these impressions with a grain of salt though, as this was a sighted comparison, and I had no way to quickly switch between the phone and HM-901 with a perfectly level matched output. Did I prefer listening to the HM-901 over my phone? Yes. Was that because I expected the HM-901 to sound better, rather than it actually sounding better? I don’t know. All I can report is that I heard fairly subtle but distinct improvements from the HM-901, and they were consistent and repeatable. When listening to the UE6000 on the other hand, I couldn’t hear any real benefit at all from the HM-901. Your individual mileage may vary. You definitely don’t need a powerful amp or a high-end DAC to enjoy the 99 Classics though, you can reach at least most of their full potential with your listening device of choice.

That’s a Wrap

I really had no idea what to expect from the 99 Classics when I first put them on, and I’m happy to report that I think these headphones are right up there among the best headphones available in the roughly $300 price class. I can’t claim to have heard everything out there, with the NAD VISO HP50 and Sony’s newly revised MDR-1A in particular being two prime challengers that I have yet to experience. Neither of those headphones are as distinct looking as the 99 Classics though, and if you prefer a suspension style headband to the traditional ratcheting arm type, well then your search is over.

While listening to Sorni Nai, Pripyat, and other albums, I had to keep reminding myself to critically listen for the review, which was a very good sign. It was all too tempting to just sit back and enjoy the music. The 99 Classics obviously don’t fold up, and they probably aren’t as rough and tumble ready as the UE6000. Passive isolation is pretty good, probably somewhere in the range of 10-15dB, but I don’t think I would recommend using them on the subway or during workouts and such at the gym – they’re too nice for that. For listening at home, at school, at the office, or other generally stationary situations where isolation from outside noise is desired, the 99 Classics would be an excellent choice. I just may buy a pair myself.

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