Quality Headphone Gear for the Rest of Us Pt. 1

Meze 99Classics Headphones

I love writing about what we audio geeks call "reference-level" audio components. By reference-level we mean state-of-the-art, "reference" meaning close to referencing the real thing: The sound of music in real time and space. It's a way of saying: this component reproduces beautifully dynamic and realistic sounding music, or, I think perhaps more appropriately; it's what we consider the best in its product category. But with all that comes a rather stiff price tag...

Lately, I've been thinkin' about the fact that most, if not all of the personal audio gear I've written about here at Occupy either falls under that criteria, close to it, or, frankly, it's just too damn expensive for most of us - and I mean me too! I won't deny that being a writer/reviewer has its privileges when it comes to equipment. I get amazing deals! So I also wanted to cover some affordable products that don't merely impress me; but ones that I trust so much they're usually stowed away in my backpack daily! Here are a few things that I could actually afford, even if I wasn't a professional writer/reviewer - and not only could I live with em if I didn't have the bigger more expensive stuff: I do live with em! Check it out:

Meze 99Classics over-ear headphones + Acoustic Research AR-M2 DAP (article forthcoming)

Meze Headphones caught my eye via their Instagram page a few months ago, and ever since I saw the 99Classics I had to hear them.  These slickly wooden ear-cupped cans have this contemporary design flavor, while paying homage to precisely what the product name says: somethin' Classic. I say that as that was the first thing that came to my mind when I saw em on Instagram. I even said, as I often do: Those are classic. They incorporate the used-to-be considered old school Japanese-style suspended comfort headband - where there's a suspended band that goes across your dome, with arching poles that make a larger semi-circle above that band. So it's like you're rockin' a bit of a halo when you're wearin' em. That arch is greatly exaggerated on some cans, but I find it stylish on the 99Classics. They sport wooden ear-cups, available in a couple different shades, I would describe the wood on my pair as dark-Cherry (it's listed as Walnut on their site). They picked a sharp lil' accent on the cups; this small gold (painted )circular snap in the middle of each ear-cup. It sort of completes the classic look. Meze also says the character of the wood will change over time, so all our cans, us Meze devotees, will essentially end up with a pair of 99Classics that are unique in some way: Making them truly ours over time. Might sound a dose of marketing fodder, but I thought it was a nice little touch to point out. When I came across their successful crowd-funding campaign for these headphones I thought yep: This company's got soul. The way their copy read, the care they put into describing so many aspects of the headphones design and their philosophy, I got the sense that Antonio Meze might be one of the few who are truly aiming for a great balance: fine product and fair cost. That's just fuckin' tough, bottom-line. I think they bulls-eyed it with the 99Classics. And when I saw critics I admire like Mr. Tyll Herstens, a.k.a the Grand Puba, a founding father of the personal audio movement embrace em (check out his review on Innerfidelity for a superior technical review of the headphone) I was psyched. Plus: I received a bunch of compliments while rockin' the Meze 99Classics around Los Angeles, and that's a rarity - people actually lookin' up from their non-stop wi-fi interconnected worlds long enough to admire a set a' cans!

Gratefully, their performance is just as pleasing as their aesthetics. The 99Classics aren't Sennheiser HD800s or Audezes, nor should they be. However, they provide a level of musical engagement that reaches far beyond what their price-tag might indicate. That was a pleasant surprise to be brutally honest. I was a fan of their look when I started following Meze on Instagram, but I admittedly doubted if they would cut it as headphones that I'd consider "high quality" or even high-end in terms of  their sonic capabilities. Now, the Classics impressed me right outta-the-box, but it wasn't until I ran signal through em for about 120+ hours when their strengths really started to shine. Their bass was present, but, and this feels almost impossible to explain; I could tell there was more bottom-end thump in these headphones waiting to get out. After their initial break-in (which they're still doing BTW) that low-end punch broke through, and it's been a beautiful thing. I love em with underground electronic music, indie and classic rock, even with jazz; especially live jazz. The bass is tight yet controlled, so it doesn't muck up nuance and micro-dynamics. I also love my bass - so they suit me just fine. The midrange is wonderfully clean and textural. It's not too aggressive, but certainly stands out while remaining coherent. What I mean by that is: Most of the music lies in the mids, so, for me, if a pair of cans or loudspeakers don't get the mids right the rest is meaningless. I wanna hear and feel the pain, or the happiness in the vocals and the instrumentation. If the mids are muddy the emotive impact is greatly affected. The Meze 99Classics nail that most-important aspect of the music: The emotion, the feeling, the thing that keeps me chasing good sound. I'm going to provide a couple of sonic impressions below.

For those of you unfamiliar with the way we do things here at OccupyHifi: Impressions are when I write sonic commentary describing the experience of listening to a certain song/track through the headphones (or other gear in some cases). I do the Impressions "Live" - which means I'm writing while I'm listening to the music in real-time or: I do it the classic way - I listen to the music, take notes, and collect my thoughts later when I write em down. Here are some Impressions using the stylish Meze 99Classics:

Blitzen Trapper - "Furr" - Furr (Live Impressions):

This is the song that turned me into an instant Blitzen Trapper fan. When I heard this masterpiece of modern Americana folk music in 2008 it literally re-instilled my faith in the singer/songwriter movement. Times were a bit dry there for awhile IMHO. There's a special kinda warmth here, between Eric Earley's doubled wavy vocals and the airy guitar rifts, framed with a distant harmonica and outdoor party-like sounds. The music sounds like a jam at a great Summer house party. With the wrong cans that vibe can be easily crushed. The 99Classics articulate Earley's voice beautifully, and its a voice I know well. I can hear and feel his mellow, silky sway. The bass pounds and I can hear the skin of the drum. The dimensionality is spacious and precise. Sounds are easily picked-out, but they're also seamless. This is how to nail that warmth factor I mention above. There's plenty of air and dynamic contrast. I highly recommend checking this song out through the Meze.

Daft Punk - "Give Life Back To Music" (Live Impressions):

My review of Random Access Memories is the shortest of my writing career. I said: They sound like a 1970’s cover band from the future, but since they weren’t actually here in the ‘70’s, they only know how to play the music as a band from the future! - This is especially true on this, the introductory track to the album. The kick drum, the soaring guitars, the bass line, it's all so damn funky and organic, but too damn exacting and tight for seventies musicians (no insult intended, but there were alot more 'ludes goin' around back then, know wha' I'm sayin'). The pace and slam sound electronic, and I don't mean it lacks emotion, quite the opposite actually, though if you're not into electronic music you may not understand, but... Dance music,  whether being played by live musicians, DJs, or via various machines, it's got a drive to it that's tribal at its essence. It just makes ya wanna move. The kick, the bass, and the guitar lick are what makes this track so booty-shakin' good. If your headphones are not responsive or capable of fast transient attack, tracks like this fall dead. The Meze not only handled this with ease, but I caught a case of the "hit repeats" after the first spin. Wonderfully rendered, from top to bottom.

Associated Equipment List:

Cypher Labs Sustain84 tube headphone amp
Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC
Amarra for TIDAL via MacBook Pro SSD Retina
Nordost & Double Helix Cables

Death Cab for Cutie - "Brothers on a Hotel Bed" - Plans (Live Impressions)

I just love this song. As a matter of fact, I love this whole freakin' record. Ben Gibbard and co. were at their very best during Transatlanticism and Plans. The subtle intensity of their emotive power pop is so immediate, so palpable. It's like sonic valium for the soul. This song opens with these sparse piano lines surrounded by these shadowy effects that sound like a high school band (or big band) shuffling around in an auditorium down the hall, getting ready for a performance. They're not playing, just moving around. It's spacious and captivating, and the 99Classics are reproducing this fine lil' touch with precision and much-needed liveliness. Gibbards voice is so distinct, it's a great acid test for headphones or speakers. Meze got the voice right, and so the song ebbs and flows wonderfully. His vocals blends nicely with the keys and guitars as long as the headphones are resolving enough to convey that fluidity. This is not an easy task to accomplish, getting this record right, especially with a simple mobile rig. The Classics continue to impress me with their truthfulness, especially at this price. 

The Chemical Brother - "Wide Open" - Born in the Echoes

This LP's been part of my regular rotation since I reviewed it here at OccupyHifi. I wrote a short column about this track actually, it moved me so much. It's one of those things: I hear this track and I think about another time in my life. A time of full dance floors, DJing with dear friends, traveling, and dancing my ass off. But, like all things, it couldn't last forever. Bangin' this track takes me right back there, and so how bad can that be? But the cans gotta have balls - pardon my French - but they have to hit hard. The Meze needed to loosen-up, but after that break-in period, they're bumpin' without over-hang. The mids are super-smooth, creating a silky blend of infectious keys and pounding kick-drums. If you're anywhere close to my age (early 40s) and you appreciate good dance music this track should hit you in your gut. The Chems are soundin' sweet, and I'm just rockin' the Meze, the amazing lil' COZOY Aegis headphone amp/DAC (up next in this series) and my iPhone playing TIDAL

Associated Equipment List:

iPhone 6 runnin' TIDAL
COZOY Aegis USB headphone amp/DAC

With its stellar looks, high-quality carrying case and accessories, and especially its sonic prowess, the Meze 99Classics are a STEAL. Plain and simple. I'm glad they caught my eye via social media months ago, and I'm psyched to see many of my peers in the personal audio community welcoming this enterprising company. I hope they experience great success. They should, because they shine above many of the rest in that crowded segment of headphone culture. I look forward to hearing more gear from Meze! BRAVO....

Price: $309


** BTW: If you're in Orange County next weekend, March 19th-20th and you got some time - don't miss Head-Fi.orgs CanJam SoCal 2016! It's the premier headphone event of the year in the United States, and I'll be there geekin' out - covering the event for HiFi+ Magazine and Positive Feedback (I'll also be lendin' a hand at the Cavalli Audio booth) . Plus: MEZE HEADPHONES WILL BE THERE!!**