Meze 99 Neo
Meze is a rarity in the world of headphones and all audio equipment. It's unique that a small company focused on one type of product has gained so much attention, in just a few years. Okay, maybe it's not on a par with the biggest players like Sennheiser, AKG or Beyerdynamic yet, but probably this is not the point here. Factory located in the town of Baia Mare in Romania started from making simple, but nice headphones with ear cups made of natural wood. Is it just an interesting idea that hasn't been supported by any other success? Well, not exactly. The founder of the brand, Antonio Meze, had to think about everything in all its detail because today his company can be an example for other manufacturers.
Meze has not only taken care of the appearance of its headphones, but also the technology, sound, comfort, reliability, packaging and many other features every customer will notice and appreciate. All activities related to the promotion and sales were also treated in a comprehensive manner. Just visit the official website of the company to understand that Meze is a small but very efficient machine. Beautiful photos and videos, a bookmark with technical descriptions, links to company profiles in six different social media, a fully functional online store, and reviews that have already appeared in the largest magazines - it's all here. On one hand, it is hard to believe that all this has been accomplished in such a short time, but on the other, seeing the efficiency and professionalism of the Romanian team, I can only think of one thing - it must have worked out this way.
The company was founded in 2009 and from the beginning was run by people strongly associated with music. Today the team consists of a dozen people or so, but most of them still have strong musical connections. Even the guy responsible for contacts with the media and the general promotion of the brand plays a bass guitar in the metal band called Riot Monk. In most companies, a person working in such a position could even be a philosopher interested in aquarists, but here he's an active musician. So when we read that the idea was born of passion, this time it's pretty much true, not a lie published on the website of almost every company dealing with audio equipment. In the catalogue we find six models of headphones in different color versions, although in fact, three in-ear and three over-ear models are very similar. The company had already gathered some experience before. The 66 Classics, 73 Classics, and 88 Classics are still well-known in the audiophile environment. The real game-changer, however, was their successor - 99 Classics. Beautiful headphones with wooden ear cups not only looked great, but offered impressive sound as well. I know this because I had the opportunity to review the 99 Classics shortly after its launch. What's more, I still use them privately, so I was delighted to meet the latest model - 99 Neo.
Design and functionality
Some time ago the company announced a new model which breaks with the classic sound and one thing that has become almost Meze's trademark - wood. The parts made of this material certainly bring a lot of good stuff to the sound and look great, but they are also very demanding in terms of the production process. Seasoning of the wood needed for the production of ear cups in 99 Classic model lasts eighteen months. Bringing them to the required shape takes eight hours. Sandblasting, lacquering and polishing - another 45 days. These procedures have a big impact on the final price, and after all, not everyone wants to pay for a luxurious look.
I guess that the same conclusions were reached by the designers of the 99 Classics. In the new model wooden elements are replaced with plastic with an interesting texture reminiscent of leather. At first, I thought it was a bit like unnecessary savings. But wait... In fact, most of the headphones in this price range have plastic ear cups. Whether you look at cans made by Focal, Sennheiser, Ultrasone or HiFiMAN - it's basically the same story. Prices of decent over-ear headphones with cups made of metal, wood or carbon fiber are usually much higher. In the 99 Neo, we still have a metal headband, zinc jewelry, and leather pads. Changing the material from which the ear cups are made has allowed the company to lower the final price quite a bit - from $309 to $249. And yet we are talking about practically the same headphones!
When 99 Neo reached our editorial office, I couldn't resist to take them home and make a quick comparison with my 99 Classics. I was wondering if the lower price really only resulted from the elimination of wood or maybe it was achieved at the cost of quality or accessories I really liked in the base model. As it turns out, nothing like this happened. We get our 99 Neo in the same luxurious package, in which - apart from a few documents - we find a hard case containing the product. The shape of the cover is the same but its upholstery was changed. In my opinion, it's better. When we open the zipper, we see our headphones and a smaller, soft case for cables and accessories - a cable with a 3.5 mm plug, a large jack, and an airplane adapter. From the headphones' side, the cable splits into two strands. Both are terminated with smaller jacks. The left half is equipped with a remote control with buttons for controlling the smartphone or portable player. The remote is universal and - according to the manufacturer - works with iOS, Android, and Windows devices. Because the headphones are symmetrical, channels are marked on the metal ends of the cables. In fact, the only drawback is the need to stretch the cable, which in its packaging is rolled up tightly and bends for some time when taken out of the box. I think it would be a good idea to hang it somewhere for the night.
As for the quality and comfort, I could repeat everything I wrote about the 99 Classics. Even a quick comparison showed no difference. It's exactly the same design in which I very much like the wide belt that automatically adjusts to the size of our head. All we have to do is stretch the ear cups a bit and pull them down. That's all. During listening, I didn't notice any unpleasant things like the creaking of the elements of the headband. They are actually built as well as their appearance suggests. I know this because I have been using the 99 Classics for almost two years and they didn't cause any problems. I didn't always carry them in a case, and several times I was in such a hurry I threw them into my suitcase with other things. I was convinced that after a few hours, I would take out the headphones in pieces. But no - they looked just like new. I don't want to suggest that they are the toughest headphones in the world, but they can survive a lot. Now let's see how they cope with music.
First impressions? After all, it was supposed to be the cheaper equivalent of the 99 Classics, not its improved version! I didn't expect this... Listening once again proved that in the world of audio you cannot make premature judgments and focus on things we just assemble on the basis of previous experiences. My ears said clearly - this sound is great. What's more, I don't think the 99 Neo are any worse than their predecessor. Their sound is not flattened or washed out of natural color in the slightest way. Already in the first few seconds of listening, it was exactly the opposite. The new Meze headphones offer a full, well-balanced, organic and musical sound. In some aspects, they go even further than 99 Classics. They are a bit braver, more focused on dynamics and neutrality. Music is more vivid and concrete.
It seems to me that compared to the 'wooden' model, these headphones gently twist towards the studio-like sound. But only a little. The sound is more confined, the band almost perfectly equal, and the temperature of each instrument a little closer to what can be heard live. A bit of warmth was removed from the previous model, giving us consistency and smoothness that perfectly balance the dynamics and clarity of the headphones. You know what? I didn't expect it, but in my opinion, 99 Neo is a small but significant step forward. A number of different factors will decide which model to choose, including the type of our favorite music and personal preferences. But for me, the situation is clear - the new Meze product has slightly better balance, it has a bit more neutrality and realism, and gently adds dynamics and clarity without losing a pleasant musical temperature. All these 'slightly', 'a bit' and 'gently' create less emotional but more trustworthy message.
Besides, at this point, I could repeat everything I wrote in a review of 99 Classics. Because both models are really very, very similar. After a comparative listening, I came to the conclusion that the manufacturer didn't want to introduce a cheaper equivalent of his wooden headphones, but rather a modified version. Many companies do the same, giving us models with 'Pro' in their name. In the case of 99 Neo, it would be a little confusing because their sound is still far from dry, hard, studio manners. But in a sense, this is the goal. I don't always support the direction of neutrality and dynamics because it is easy to fall into the trap of boredom and monotony then, but in this case, the music has won. 99 Neo is closer to reality and objectively sound better, retaining most of the character of wooden ear cups. They should be called Meze 99 Classics Slightly Pro. The lower price seems to be only a side effect of these slight modifications.
As a supplement, I will share a few observations on 99 Neo with you. First of all, these are the headphones which will present their capabilities in conjunction with a good DAC or headphone amplifier, but they also perform incredibly well connected to a good smartphone or tablet. I took 99 Neo for the weekend and I was browsing Spotify using my iPhone 5S. Hardly a hi-end setup, is it? But I could not believe how good sound I heard from these headphones. After all, I didn't even use my AK70 with hi-res files. Compressed music straight from the cloud? That sounds like a failure. But no! If you want to buy headphones that you can use both at home and on the go, Meze is at the top of the best products of this type, next to the Sennheiser Momentum M2 or B&W P5 S2. The choice is whether we want to get great headphones for $249 or to cross this barrier and pay more for a different logo.
Build quality and technical parameters
Here I could paste everything I wrote about the 99 Classics. The only significant difference between these handsets is the material from which the ear cups are made. In the more expensive model it was natural wood, and here we have plastic. All other components are made of high-quality materials. We have a steel headband, leather pads and headband, as well as some metallic additives made of zinc alloy. They are not perfectly silver but have a slightly golden color, which gives these headphones a bit of a steampunk style. We also get a durable cable with a remote control that works with all mobile devices. The cable is made of OFC copper reinforced with Kevlar filaments. The manufacturer adds an adapter for a 6.3mm plug and an airplane adapter. The elegant, hard case is also part of the set. Headphones use 40mm transducers with mylar membranes and neodymium magnets. The ear pads use memory foam, which increases the comfort. As for the parameters, the 99 Neo should be easy to control even for an average smartphone. Their frequency response stretches from 15 Hz to 25 kHz, the efficiency is 103 dB, and the impedance is 26 Ω. This is also the only measurable difference between two twin models because 99 Classics are nominally 32 Ω.
Asus Zenbook UX31A, Marantz HD-DAC1, Astell&Kern AK70, iPhone 5S, iPad Air 2.
In the world of audio equipment, real bargains happen very rarely, and the market splits into two categories of products - bad and good, or, as one may prefer - cheap and expensive. When the price is attractive and the manufacturer claims they created a new model for a wider audience, it's almost always a giant failure. On the other hand, when we get a device that looks great and offers good sound, it will probably cost a fortune. In other words - we buy penny trash and pretend this is what we want, or we spend all our savings on an equipment that will actually meet our requirements. If audio manufacturers breaks out of this scheme, it is often not the way we want things to be, giving customers a bad and expensive product. Meze 99 Neo is an exception to the rule. Cutting the price was possible with changing one costly item and a few trinkets, and it didn't hurt at all. Neither the sound nor the looks or comfort. 99 Classics and 99 Neo models can be compared endlessly. The differences are minor, so each option will have its followers. Meze proved they can make a better product for less money, and the 99 Neo join our editorial collection of headphones with my personal recommendation.
Construction: dynamic, closed
Frequency response: 15 Hz - 25 kHz
Sensitivity: 103 dB
Impedance: 26 Ω
Cable length: 1,2 m with remote and mic
Remote: iOS, Android, Windows
Weight: 290 g
Manufacturer: Meze Audio