Meze 99 Classics
The sector of headphones and products designed to accompany them evolves so quickly as if they were invented yesterday. But in fact it's over a hundred years of history - the history of two loudspeakers connected by a stick designed to wear them over the ears. Sudden development of mobile devices seems to have pushed new possibilities into this invention. With the appearance of cassette decks, CD players, and finally DAPs, we saw a huge demand for headphones and now it has happened again thanks to smartphones and tablets. The looks of headphones became important too and many people started to pay attention to the quality of sound as well. Many new manufacturers found their place on this growing market. One of them is Meze offering outstanding wooden headphones.
The idea is not new. We have already seen wooden headphones made by Audio-Technica, Grado, Denon, AudioQuest or even Kruger&Matz. And yet, the Meze 99 Classics delivered to us seem to be quite unique, totally filling all actual trends. Though they are wooden, they do not look like museum piece. Their construction promises to be perfect for any environment - at home or outdoors, with suitable amplifier, tablet or smartphone. Meze's headphones look pretty spectacular in all the pictures and their designers ensure that all components are made perfectly. We have natural materials, friendly parameters and a few gadgets such as remote control with microphone or elegant case. Since all these features look so good, I started to think how the hell can a little experienced company make such things. Meze team affirms there is no mystery to it, only a good idea with a lot of patience which is necessary for the whole plan to actually become a reality.
The company was founded in 2009 by Antonio Meze. Besides him there are seven people in the team. Most of them are music lovers or active musicians. The main office is located in Baia Mare in Romania. In the catalogue beside the 99 Classics model we will find 11 Classics and 11 Deco in-ear monitors. These models are not the only ones which were designed by the company lately, but older models are not being offered anymore. The cause of this is probably the complicated construction of ear cups and the procedure of manufacturing all the wooden elements. The wood seasoning alone lasts eighteen months! Carving the shape of each ear cup takes eight hours and all its coating, varnishing and polishing takes another forty five days. The designers claim they could do it faster and less precisely but in their opinion to achieve the right visual effect and wonderful sound quality it is worthy to spend every hour and all their energy for carving the wood. Combine it with the quality of the materials and components, and you would guess that the price of 99 Classics should be around €700. But it’s not. This model costs €309. We just had to find out what it's worth.
Design and functionality
From the first contact with these headphones I got the feeling of holding something special. Meze is still not a popular brand but that's not the main reason. For many people the exclusive looks of these headphones alone would be a good enough reason to buy them. I am pretty sure if I took them outside, I would be the only one with such headphones on the head. Probably it can all change very fast as the price of 99 Classics wouldn't scare anybody off, but even if they get more popular, which I'm sure they will, the natural wood makes each pair one of a kind. After opening an elegant box we see a large, hard case. Besides the headphones, the box contains a separate pouch with accessories - two cables (1,2-m with remote control and 3-m without it), and airline adapter and a 6,3-mm adapter. The headphones look gorgeous, intriguing, perfect. Golden details such as company's logo on most elements indicates high built quality. All plugs and golden details are the same colour which is not that obvious even in some hi-end headphones. Thanks to smart construction in which the ear cups are connected only by two metal bars, the 99 Classics are not heavy at all. And as for the wood, you will enjoy just touching it and feeling of the headphones in your hands.
Instead of typical headband with length regulation, Meze designers decided to stretch out a leather headband with automatically adjusts itself to listeners' head. The maximum size was big enough even for me, which is good. Being closed-back headphones, the 99 Classics are designed to isolate us from the outside noise. It is not a total silence as in some models with active noise cancelling, but for headphones like these it's good enough. I also like the feel of the headband and its width. It makes it easy to adjust the headphones on your head. Ear buds don't have clear markings for the right and left channel - you will find these on the cable jacks. What it all means is that within just a few seconds after opening the box you would be able to put the headphones on your head and start listening. I connected them quickly to my iPhone using a shorter cable with a mic and remote, which can also be used with other devices, not only those made by Apple. Everything works absolutely fine, and still you have the feeling of having something special on your head, as if these headphones were designed just for you. For a company with just a few years of experience, this is a remarkable achievement.
Drawbacks? I see only two of them. The first one is the size of ear cups. It was a little too small for me. If the ear cups were just a 1/3-inch bigger, I could have said the 99 Classics are fully-fledged over-ear headphones. For people with smaller ears the size will be perfect, but for me they are something between over-ears and on-ears headphones. Having said that I do not want you to think Meze's are uncomfortable. If you have relatively small ears, they will be perfect. Otherwise you will simply deal with them as they are. The second drawback is the microphone effect brought up by rubbing the cable on the clothes for example. It is an often complain of closed headphones so perhaps I should not pick holes in it. It doesn't matter at home, but while walking outside, the rubbing noises will be heard in your ear cups. Advantages? All the rest. Really. These headphones are quite possibly my the most cheerful thing I reviewed last year. And I have to say, I love the silver version with light beige leather and maple wood. Shipping of this version will start in March so I guess wood seasoning will last a few more weeks. Beautiful thing.
As far as I understand the design and quality of Meze's headphones, the sound of the 99 Classics was still a big question for me. In my opinion it was the most difficult element in the whole puzzle. Watching the website of this young company, with all the nice photos of beautiful models wearing their headphones I got the impression that Meze must be something more than just a good idea supported by enthusiasm of their engineers and a professionally organized production process. What you see there are days, months, years of work not only on the product, but all of its environment as well. But is it enough to develop a truly great sound? I was thinking about this because even some companies with longer experience and catalogues the size of phone books had accidents before. Tortured by my own doubts I connected the 99 Classics to my phone, played some random tracks from my playlist and... I could not believe my own ears.
Oh wow, my friends... Apparently we are dealing with people who know exactly what they are doing. After all I have just opened the box and taken headphones which had not been used before and likewise they have been playing compressed music from my smartphone. But even so, the sound of 99 Classics was fantastically natural, well balanced and audible. Reaching a conclusion that everything was just fine with the sound took me just a minute. I only had time to listen to three or four tracks I know very well, and I already knew there was no failure here in terms of tonal balance, dynamics or resolution. During this first, very short listening session I was even able to recognize that there are some very interesting touches in the sound of these headphones, especially in the midrange. No harsh treble, no over-exuberant bass, no lack of details as well. And when it comes to new brands and their products, usually at least one of these flaws can be heard. For me the critical area is always located somewhere between mid and high frequencies. You can often hear some problems with the drivers, enclosures, dampening materials and so on. The designers often have two solutions to mask these issues. They either suppress the sound in this area making it all blurry and dark, or they leave the harsh mid-high range saying that the sound is clear and full of details. Yes, but it doesn't matter if it's also flat and unpleasant. With the 99 Classics you won't experience anything like this. That is why during my first listening I turned my attention to this area and made a quick conclusion that the sound is linear and clear without coloured artefacts or some other results of correcting mistakes by adding other problems to the sound. At this point it was also easy to hear the result of using the wooden ear because the sound was natural, but still quite warm, organic and very, very nice in general.
Encouraged by such a nice beginning I decided to warm the headphones up for a few days. After a hundred hours of playing I assumed they were ready. The second listening session was more serious - I used Marantz HD-DAC1 D/A converter and hi-res files. 99 Classics surprised me again. I already knew that their sound is good, but how good? As it turned out, I didn't quite realize it yet. This time the sound was not only neutral and coherent, but also supported with full, deep bass and very clear high frequencies. What's also worth mentioning is that Meze's headphones sound very nice but do not recreate music in their own manner. They are really close to complete neutrality, with just a slight touch of tube warmth. Their timbre can be associated with loudspeakers using paper cone drivers but that's all, with no further distortion. Low frequencies are exposed in delicate way but again do not take this as a vulgar boost. 99 Classics offer a meaty bass but they don't forget about the control and timing. The same can be said about the other end of the scale. It is highlighted and full of details, but not uncompromising or clattering.
What headphones can compare 99 Classics with? The most obvious model which comes to my head is the Sennheiser's Momentum M2 AEi. Not only both these models are offered at almost the same price, but also their sound character is very similar. I would have a real problem to choose between of them. I even asked people from Meze if any of their engineers had worked for Sennheiser, but they said no. Romanian designers claim the only key to their success is a long-term process of mixing and matching components and then fine-tuning their headphones. If it can lead to making something as cool as the 99 Classics, it's totally fine by me.
Build quality and technical parameters
Meze 99 Classics are dynamic, closed-back headphones with wooden ear cups. You will not find any plastic here besides some bits and pieces as cable endings. In order to find more elements like these you would have to get inside the cups where frames holding the drivers were made of plastic. But your eyes will only see metal, leatherette, steel and golden zinc alloy. To maximise comfort of wearing the headphones, headband and ear cups were filled with memory foam. The remote with a microphone has only one button which does different things depending on how many times you push it. It will work with most mobile devices using iOS, Android on Windows. Both cables - short and long one - were made from OFC copper and strengthened with nylon fibre. Inside each ear cup there is a 40 mm driver with mylar membrane and neodymium magnet.
Asus Zenbook UX31A, Marantz HD-DAC1, T+A E-Serie Power Plant Balanced, iPhone 5S, iPad Air 2.
Looking for headphones for €300 you can chose to keep things simple and pick something from the catalogue of the most recognizable brands. Nobody will ever say that Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, AKG, Bose, Denon, B&W, Focal, Grado, Harman or Philips make poor headphones. Each of these companies make such products - well-built, stylish, designed to work with phones, tablets and laptops, or - if you want to achieve better sound quality - a small DAC or DAP. To be spotted, every new company has to offer something unique or at least very, very good. In my opinion 99 Classics are exactly that. They look beautiful, sound great and are much more exclusive than other headphones of this type. For me it is one of the most interesting models in this price range. Highly recommended!
Construction: dynamic, closed
Frequency response: 15 Hz - 25 kHz
Sensitivity: 103 dB
Impedance: 32 Ω
Cable length: 3 m (without remote) + 1,2 m (with remote and mic)
Remote: iOS, Android, Windows
Weight: 290 g
Manufacturer: Meze Audio