That’s the word that came to mind when we first pulled the Romanian-made MEZE 99 Classics out of their carrier case. It’s not a reaction that most audio equipment inspires, and definitely not a reaction inspired by most headphones.
Oh sure, different cans have different styles. The no-nonsense brutalism of the German manufacturers. The mass-market reliability of the Japanese. The 60s radio engineer chic of Brooklyn’s Grado. The high-end, Phillipe-Starcked-leather-covered wireless crowd. These are all good looks, even desirable ones. But very rarely does a pair of headphones make you give a low whistle of appreciation. Very rarely does one cause you to turn it from side to side in your hands, admiring the finish, taking in the quality of the construction and the details.
Audio quality, we should point out, doesn’t actually have anything to do with this. To be honest, the more effective a pair is at conveying accurate sound, the uglier it is likely to be. Just look at the headphones from Stax, a company that makes very fine audio equipment which closely resembles waffle irons. Fortunately, the 99 Classics get both right. They look, and sound, incredible.
Let’s just pause for a moment and consider exactly why these made us want to run our hands over them.
Open the magnetic-tabbed box and lift out the rigid, shaped case. Take a moment to admire the metal MEZE logo button. Unzip it, and take a look at the headphones themselves, the open portion under the headband filled with a cloth bag containing the cables and jacks. From the very start, you know you’re going to enjoy this.
It’s the earcups that draw your attention. Ours were made of very fine-grained maple wood, soft to the touch, housing leather cups that feel like soft butter. Even the padding inside the cups, which protects the drivers, has a reassuring give to it. The solid metal headband, with its almost spider-like support design, has minimal screws, and is smooth all the way across the top. An elasticated headband - more buttery leather – sits below it, with the name of the model subtly embossed on the top.
It’s the details that make the difference. Not just the exact pull of the headband, or the grain of the wood. It’s things like the tiny tactile ridge on the left cable jack, allowing you to easily find the correct side without looking for an L/R indicator. It’s the very subtle MEZE logo on each side, perfectly placed, visible without being obnoxious. Real thought went into these, and in an industry where design is secondary to audio quality, that’s a rare thing.
It’s rare for us to fall in love with a pair of headphones before we even put them on, but how could we not? And when we did put them on, our love only got deeper. These headphones are incredibly light, at only nine ounces, and even after prolonged listening sessions, they didn’t even feel like they were there. The comfort is just sensational.
That’s not to say there aren’t some puzzling decisions. While we do love the texture of the Y-shaped cable, we don’t love the in-line microphone. Firstly, it’s located in an odd place, a few inches down from the left mini-jack. A far more logical place would be for it to be at the connecting portion of the Y, which is where we found our hands straying, although we do appreciate that that might impact call quality and increase costs. It also – and we can’t quite believe we’re writing this, in 2016 – doesn’t have a volume control. MEZE include a second, much longer cable, this time without microphone, so clearly intend the cans to be used in stationary situations, such as with a good amp. But for a pair that all but begs to be shown off, the lack of a volume control is a total mystery.
For the record: Along with the two cables, the headphones have a standard 3.5mm jack, as well as 6.3mm and airplane connectors. And it is worth saying that while they are exceedingly comfortable, they do have a rather large and bulky profile, unsurprising given that they are over-ear. This, unfortunately, means that they lack portability, but depending on what you’re looking for, that may not be a bad thing.
While the 99 Classics don’t quite make it into the ultra-high end audiophile arena – much as we are sure that MEZE would like them to - they are still some of the best sounding headphones we’ve ever listened to for this price. Other headphones recall mosh pits at metal gigs, or bawdy flamenco dancers. The 99 Classics? Ballgowns and tuxedos, baby. Waltz. Tango.
Many headphones often swing too far in one direction, offering either sound that is incredibly warm, sacrificing precision for color. Or they swing the other way, being too orientated towards the studio, delivering transparent, legal sharp audio that, while laudable, doesn’t always do the music many favours. The 99 Classics get the balance just right. In fact, balance is the key word here. No matter which genre we listened to, nothing felt overpowered, no frequencies felt overhyped or pushed to one side. There was nothing but clarity.
It goes beyond that. While the high-end felt like it lacked a little character (it would be nice to hear a little more emphasis on vocals, for one thing) it made up for it in so many other ways. The overall impression we got was an elegant, very precise set of electronics that had been calibrated perfectly. The stereo spread was superb, and although the highs weren’t quite there, we still got some fantastic level of detail. The bass had weight, but never dominated, working in the background like an overweight chef at a five-star restaurant.
Frankly, what MEZE have been able to achieve here is quite astonishing. The drivers are dynamic neodymium/mylar - in audio terms, that’s as ubiquitous as wheels on a car - and only 40mm in size, decent enough but certainly not hinting at the oversized drivers of the likes of Audeze. The sensitivity is unusually high for a pair of mid-range headphones, at 103dB, meaning you don’t need as much power to drive them (hence, why they’re perfectly capable of handling phone audio, although they absolutely sing if you plug them into a good amp and DAC).
Call quality was, as is the case with almost all models released these days, perfectly acceptable. No dropouts, minimal distortion. Then again, if you buy these headphones purely for the call quality of the in-line microphone, you are a vandal and a philistine.
Should You Buy Them?
These are our favourite headphones of 2016 so far.
Not the best, or the most impressive, but unquestionably our favourite. They do almost everything right, and they are absolute pleasure to use. They are everything we want a pair of cans to be.
We should stress that we don’t think they are overpriced by any means – if anything, we’d be happy to pay more for them – but that doesn’t change the fact that $300 is a fair amount of money for something that you won’t find it easy to leave the house with. If, however, these two things are of no concern, then yes: you should totally buy these.
They are, just in case you missed it, exquisite.
Superb looks, balanced sound, light weight.
Strange in-line mic.
When you want headphones that look as good as they sound.
Louder, nastier, fully Bluetooth capable, and with a lot more metal. You could argue that the sound is better, too, and you get active noise cancellation. If you can live without those features, pick the MEZE. If not, you know what to do.
We are massive fans of Hifiman here at TMS, and we think the HE400S some of the finest open backs you can buy. They are larger and not quite as well-appointed as the 99 Classics, but are still a worthy choice.
Breaking Down The Specs:
|Headphones||Price||Type||Driver Size||In-Line Mic||Cable||Sensitivity|
|MEZE 99 Classics||$309||Closed||40mm||Yes||Removable||103dB|
|Definitive Technology Symphony 1||$397||Closed||50mm||Yes||N/A||Unknown|