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Meze 99 Classics Headphones

06-25-2020 | By John Zurek | Issue 109

A little over a year ago I was making my way through the headphone hall at AXPONA 2019, and spotted the Meze Audio booth. I wasn't familiar with Meze, but their offerings looked interesting and I enjoyed listening to their 99 Classics for a few minutes. In the past year or so I've been leaning towards closed back headphones, and remembered the experience I had with the Mezes in Chicago, so I got in touch with the folks at Meze, and they promptly sent me a review sample of the 99 Classics.

Meze is relatively new on the scene, but this small Romanian company has made a big splash in a short time. Although they offer six models of earphones and headphones, this review is dedicated to the 99 Classics, arguably their most prolific product.

On first glance these headphones have a bit of an uncommon look due to the outside steel spring that mates the headband with the walnut ear cups. It took me a while to get used to the design. After a week or they grew on me, and now I really like looking at them on hanging from my metal headphone stand. After wearing them a bit, I began to appreciate the soft memory foam ear pads. These, coupled with the functional headband design, facilitate comfort for long listening sessions and are said to "deliver even pressure for any head size."

Meze 99 Classics Headphones

After I started to settle in with the 99s, their top-notch build quality became apparent. I would expect this level of detail from kilobuck 'phones, but for $309? The first thing you notice are the walnut earcups. Meze says the procedure of shaping just a single pair of earcups takes up to 8 hours. The whole process of sanding, lacquering, and finishing lasts 45 days. Each wooden ear-cup of the 99 Classics is precision carved on a CNC machine, then hand finished and polished. Add cast zinc alloy hardware with electroplated coating, the stamped manganese spring steel headband, and it's hard for me to believe that Meze can sell the 99s at their very affordable price. Of course, they could be well built, but if the sound doesn't work … we'll get to that.

What's included with the 99 Classics? Well, the cans of course, but you also get a hard EVA carrying pouch, 1.2m thread Kevlar OFC with mic and remote cable, 3m thread Kevlar OFC cable, 6.3mm gold-plated jack adapter, an airplane jack adapter, and a cable pouch. The EVA carrying case is the perfect travel accessory.

I did most of my listening via my HIFIMAN 802s portable player with the Power II amp card option. It's an excellent sounding player that easily drives my power-hungry planars, although its user interface leaves a lot to be desired. It can accommodate a large library, only limited by the size of the SD card you use. And even though it's a portable, it sounds better than many full-size headphone amps I've compared it to. My current over-the ear non-travelling phones are the HIFIMan HE-560s ($899) that need some solid power to make them come alive, hence the 802s player. Their isolation is minimal. My current IEMs are the JH Audio Pro 13s. The 13s travel well, are easy to drive, and are my go-to monitors when I'm playing music in the studio and some live gigs. At $1099 they're not cheap, but they are reliable and have been a great tool for years. 

I concentrated on an evaluation between the JH Pro 13s and the 99s. Maybe not a fair comparison since the Pro 13s (v1) go for $1099. Although the Pro 13s are not a headphone, they do offer great isolation which the less expensive HE-560s do not, so I thought this would be the best assessment with what I had in house. I consider myself a casual headphone listener. I am not a headphone zealot, and will never own $6K headphones. While I'm still serious about the sound of my headphones, I prefer to listen to my 2 channel stereo if possible. 

I cued up an old favorite, "Only In it For the Money" from Jimmy Smith's Dot Com Blues. Might as well get this out of the way. I thought the Pro 13s would smoke the 99s. Not so. The Pro 13s were more neutral. The bass was tighter and had slightly better definition. They played a bit louder (113 dB sensitivity/28 ohms impedance vs 103 dB/32 ohms impedance for the 99s), I had to go up 2 clicks on the volume control to match. But overall? I preferred the presentation the 99s gave me. I heard Harvey Mason's very dark ride cymbal like I've never heard before. Details were present that the Pro 13s did not give up. The lively experience the 99s provided got me moving. This first comparison was startling, and it gave me a mischievous grin.

Meze 99 Classics Headphones

Next, I listened to "Jango la Maya" from Richard Bona's Bonafied. Love Richard Bona's  singing, bass playing, and writing. Also love his contributions when he works with other musicians like Mike Stern. Once again, the outcome was basically the same. The Pro 13s were more neutral, with somewhat tighter bass, and on this cut the dynamics were marginally better. The 99s, on the other hand, gave me a more delicate interplay from subtle bongos and congas, blending with the elegant vocal harmonies. I also felt they were ever-so-slightly less grainy.

So far, the Pro 13s behaved much as would be expected from a "professional" product, a tool for making music and analyzing it. I have used them for pleasure listening as well, and I've never been unhappy. But, after comparison, I came to prefer the 99 Classics for HiFi listening because they gave the music a naturally exhilarating, more organic quality. The Pro 13s were serious, the 99 Classics were fun.

Next, I cued the Tokyo String Quartet's "Allegro Moderato" from Ravel's String Quartet in F Major M.35. I really enjoy  impressionistic music and art. Give me Ravel, Debussy, Renoir, Cezanne, and I'm happy. As I listened through the Pro 13s I heard the bass register of the cello really shine as it anchored the piece. When I switched to the 99s, I felt energized, excited. I heard more sustain, more rosiny bow-on-string sound. I felt like conducting. The resonant woody tone of the violins, viola, and cello really shone, and I think the 99s walnut ear cups were at least partially responsible for this earfest. 

A little blurb about those ear cups from Meze: "…all the wood that we use in our headphones is strictly harvested from sources with certificate of origin. That is, mature trees that have reached the end of their life cycle. This way, we are helping the environment and we're giving the old trees a chance to shine one more time in the shape of Meze headphones."

To my ears not all components can play legitimate music, which is what my conducting professor used to call Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionist, 20th Century etc. genres. Some HiFi types call it the classical test. Some components / systems do fine with pop or rock, but lose steam when you play works from the serious composers. When it works it's the mark of a superior component. The Mezes excelled at legitimate music and inspired me to load more of on to the HIFIMan 802s.

I was hoping to try the 99 Classics in the recording studio on one of the occasional demos I get hired for, but with the current distancing rules the one session I had scheduled for May was cancelled. Maybe next year. While trying the 99s with my HP Elitebook laptop, I discovered they were not only easy to drive from the computer's simple headphone output, but was surprised at how involving they were from this humble source. The sound from videos was more compelling, alive. They also did well with my 12-year old iPod, and my Motorola Android. Not quite what I was experiencing with the 802s mind you, but listenable.

So far the 99 Classics were such an overachiever I decided to see what a really good aftermarket cable would do for them. Meze sent me a few of their own 99 Series Silver Upgrade cables, but the 3.5 mm that I really needed was not available because of current global supply issues. So, I grabbed my DanaCable Lazuli Reference that normally sees duty with my HIFIMan HE-560s. Once again, I was not prepared for what I heard. This cable just made the 99 Classics stand up and speak like I never thought possible. Every parameter improved. Bass was tighter, more present. Vocals took on a more palpable quality. The highs were much smoother, any hint of grain removed. Honestly, it was hard to believe how well the 99 Classics accepted the challenge. Like putting a nitrous system on your unassuming little 4-cylinder grocery-getter. The DanaCable transformed the 99 Classics into a headphone that could run with the big boys and kick butt. Is it wrong to pair a $300 headphones with a $1200 cable? Maybe, but I wanted to see how the Mezes would respond. With a good source, these headphones really shine. Add a great cable and go further up the ladder. I love a component that keeps getting better when ancillaries are improved. 

Overall balance was outstanding, with great dynamics. Bass was solid and generous. Midrange was sweetly present, and the highs were detailed and sparkling, but easy on the ears. The 99s have a pronounced sense of pace and timing that propel the music into the zone that audiophiles love. No need to think about the system, just enjoy the music.

The Meze 99 Classics checked so many of my boxes: Comfortable, superior construction and materials, easy to drive, great isolation, easily upgradeable by cable or source, worked well with all types of music, and most importantly, a sound that performs far above its humble price tag. Color me impressed. I expected to enjoy these over-achievers from Romania, but at the risk of being repetitive, I was just not prepared for how exceptional they are at this price. Not perfect, but I don't know of a way to spend $300 on quality audio and be happier. Great engineering from Meze results in high value, quality, and performance. This pair is not going back to Romania. Enthusiastically recommended.

Meze 99 Classics

Retail: $309

Meze Audio