Class-leading comfort and build quality, Smooth and balanced tuning, Excellent long-term listenability, Exceptionally spacious soundstage, Great separation
Some may want for greater dynamics, Imaging could be sharper
Machined and weighted to perfection with a highly refined tuning devoid of peaks and dips, the Elite represents a triumph in high-end headphone design.
Though they’ve somewhat fallen out of fashion, I did start this hobby enthused with portable closed-back headphones. If you’ve ever looked into a pair, you’ll commonly see Romanian company, Meze’s 99 Classics popping up for recommendation. This was the product that put the company on the map, and it has an interesting inception. Antonio Meze, the man behind the brand, designed the perfect portable headphone for his own preferences and uses. Being fully serviceable, he designed it to last a lifetime. It was for these reasons that it resonated with customers. It then came as a shock when the company announced that they were working on a flagship open-back headphone. The Empyrean was one of the biggest launches of late and one that jettisoned Meze into truly prestigious territory. To realise their vision, they teamed up with Rinaro Isodynamics, using their experienced R&D team to design a bespoke driver dubbed the hybrid array driver – a planar driver with one diaphragm but two voice coils. And it was a success, as the Empyrean became beloved by many for its outstanding build and comfort alongside its warm, coherent tonality. Almost three years later, the company is proud to announce the Elite, a new co-flagship. The Elite uses the same base frame but represents an evolution of the driver technology produced in collaboration with Rinaro. The end result is a headphone that is even lighter, faster, more balanced and more spacious.
The Elite just launched for $4000 USD. You can read all about it and treat yourself to one on Meze Audio.
I would like to thank Alexandra from Meze very much for her quick communication and for providing me with the Elite for the purpose of photographing and review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review.
- Driver Type: Rinaro MZ3SE Isodynamic Hybrid Array
- Frequency response: 3 Hz – 112 kHz
- Sensitivity: 101 dB
- Impedance: 32 ohms
- Weight: 430g
Behind the Design –
Hybrid Array Driver
The big reveal on the original Empyrean that remains employed here. The Hybrid Array driver uses a single diaphragm but with a hybrid dual-side magnet array that creates a uniform force across its dual voice coil structure. The company reasons that having two motor systems allows them to direct a certain frequency range towards a specific region of the outer ear to reduce reflections and issues with phase cancellation. This consists of a large switchback coil designed to produce low-frequencies alongside a smaller spiral coil that fires mid and high-frequencies directly into the ear canal. The company reasons that this improves imaging and spatial localisation. The driver is placed within a reinforced polymer housing to provide additional structural support. In addition, the Elite was designed to be easy to drive.
However, we’ve already seen this tech on the Empyrean, what’s new is “Parus” which refers to the new low mass diaphragm material. This is an ultra-thin biaxially orientated semi-crystalline polymer film – biaxial refers to the production process whereby the film is stretched in two directions in order to aid strength and uniformity. The addition of heat further improves structural performance. The company is using a bespoke polymer that, manufactured using this process, achieves remarkable strength, stiffness and stability at an extremely low mass. This is a vital area of driver design as a lighter diaphragm is much more responsive. In addition, a stronger diaphragm experiences less modal breakup at high frequencies, both conducive towards a more detailed and defined sound.
As seen on the 99 Classics and Empyrean, the Elite is fully modular and serviceable, designed to last a lifetime. While some competitors can boast the same, many do not, and this is a great trend that deserves the support it has received. In the same vein, the company considered the material choice in order to provide the best tactile feel, comfort and long-term durability. The Elite has a CNC aluminium frame, black metal grill and carbon fibre headband. All components are then hand-assembled in Romania.
In addition to being a convenient method of swapping pads with a long service life, the magnetic field created by the pads was actually factored into the driver design itself. The company posits that the earpads offer magnetic shielding and increase driver power by 12% and sound output by 1dB. The included pads have also been altered relative to the Empyrean, now coming stock with hybrid pads sporting a genuine leather exterior with Alcantara inner. The Elite also comes with the original 30mm deep Alcantara pads as seen originally on the Empyrean.
An ultra-premium flagship should make a statement, and this is exemplified as soon as you open the box. Inside is a brushed aluminium suitcase with locking hinges and a great clasp mechanism with integrated locks. Meze Audio, Rinaro and the designated model number are all laser-etched into the front of the case – do note that this pre-production unit says Empyrean Elite but this will not be the case for retail batches. The headphones are snugly and safely contained within inside a laser-cut foam inlet. Below the headband lies the Alcantara earpads and to the right are the two audio cables, single-ended and XLR. It is truly an unboxing experience and the addition of two cables is much appreciated given that many high-end headphones still don’t come with a balanced cable.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fine craftsmanship on display, you can spend hours studying its details. The Elite, like its predecessor, is a product of near unrivalled vision and meticulous realisation. Its shapely form and intricate machining proudly announce the care and time that went into its design. Meanwhile, the raw aluminium leaves each CNC pass visible, a reminder that each unit takes over 20hrs to machine and construct. While I personally found the richer colour schemes available on the Empyrean more visually arresting, the cleaner aesthetic of the Elite is more befitting of its similarly more elegant approach to sound reproduction. Antonio Meze reasoned that he set out to produce a headphone designed to last a lifetime and I do not doubt it for a second.
In the hand, the Elite provides the impression of superb quality but at the same time without relinquishing functionality or practicality. The earcups are enormous and very accommodating of a variety of ear shapes while contributing to the unique aesthetic. The same can be said for the headband which employs a unique, highly effective suspension system and carbon fibre chassis which is lighter than the usual spring steel. The cups have heaps of dual-axis adjustment and each mechanism including the stepless sliders is extremely smooth and perfectly weighted on either side. The entire headphone is metal or carbon fibre save for a small polycarbonate ring just outside of the earpads. This means that when folded flat, the aluminium cups don’t scratch each other, a great touch.
At the bottom are angled mini-XLR connectors for the dual-entry cable. This is a rather ubiquitous connector meaning aftermarket cables are easily swapped onto this headphone and Meze offer first-party upgrade cables too. The stock cables showcase passable quality. They aren’t quite as nice as the braided D8000 Pro cables, but I do prefer the Meze cables over those from many other competitors so I can’t be harsh here. They have a soft matte jacket above the Y-split and an internal braid with fabric sheath below. The connectors are all metal with a very high-quality feel. Though not the most substantial, it can be argued that the cables contribute in part to the lightweight feel of these headphones.
Fit & Comfort –
Weight & Comfort
This was an area where the Empyrean excelled, and the same experience is upheld here given that the Elite shares its exact dimensions and weight – 430g which is on the reasonable side for a full-size high-end headphone, especially one with such large planar magnetic drivers. While this does mean the headphones can tip if you move around, Meze has done a superb job at managing this. If you haven’t experienced these headphones in person, the large dimensions certainly don’t prepare the listener for the superb comfort they are able to achieve. I am confident these are the most comfortable high-end, full-size open-back headphones on the market.
Headband & Earpads
Much of this can be attributed to the trick headband design which enjoys a lower clamp force and thick leather strap that spreads their weight over a large surface area. However, the pressure distribution wings contribute to this impression too, these are spring-loaded wings on either side of the strap that allow the sides of the headband to better conform to individual head shape and, in so doing, share the weight. This makes Meze’s headband design feel especially accommodating and natural to wear. They are honestly effortless and form zero hotspots for me even after an entire day of wear.
Furthermore, the earpad openings are very large and should easily encapsulate larger ears. The stock pads have a supple fine grain leather with Alcantara interior. They are thinner than the original Empyrean pads at 25mm deep. I didn’t have an issue personally but those who do should have no problem with the Alcantara pads that offer a more accommodating 30mm depth alongside a more breathable feel for summer. Both pads employ heat-activated memory foam stuffing that conforms to individual head shape over time. The result is an incredibly comfortable and impressively stable-fitting headphone even without excessive clamp force or snugly fitting earpads. If you tend to struggle with headphone weight or hotspots be sure to give the Elite or Empyrean a try.