By Carl Seibert.
Not many years ago, if a high-end manufacturer introduced a new $4,000 flagship headphone, it would be “the best headphone in the world”. And that may have been arguably true until the next best headphone in the world came along.
Fast forward to 2021; Now we have at least a half dozen such flagships, and they’re all extremely good (as you would expect, really). But true enthusiasts know that the “best headphone in the world” – for your ears, your amp, and your music is down to taste. It’s the one that sings to you.
Technically, if the branding on the aluminum attaché case the headphones come in is to be believed, these are the “Empyrean Elites”. But everybody, Meze Audio included, just calls them “Elites”. Indeed, the Elites are a more refined follow-on to the well-reviewed and very popular Empyrean ($2,999).
I’m sure you’ve watched the early reviews on YouTube, so I don’t need to dwell on specs and features. Suffice to say that the Elites are well-built – sumptuously well built, actually. They’re good-looking, full-size circumaural planar magnetic headphones.
They feature a novel pattern for the conductive traces on their diaphragms that the company calls an Isodynamic Hybrid Array. It looks like a switchback mountain road at one end of the diaphragm and a spiral at the other. It’s said to help eliminate resonances and concentrate the emission of high-frequency energy in line with your ear canals, allowing the resulting sound to suffer the least degradation from the acoustics of the capsule.
At 32 ohms and 101 dB (1mW/1kHz) they’re easy to drive and could even sound good on some portable rigs. (Although, good lord, why would you?)
The headband consists of carbon fiber arcs and a hammock-like leather head pad that’s comfortable and non-slip. Another interesting design point is that there are springy reinforcements at the ends of the head pad that pull downward, putting more of the pad in contact with your head. This is to lighten the per-square-inch load and provide just a bit of spring suspension. In total, the ‘phones weigh 430 grams.
You would expect that the Elites would be comfortable, and you would be very right. At least for me they are. The Elites are among the very most comfortable headphones I have ever had on my noggin. This is no small matter. If you own a flagship headphone, you’ll want to wear it for long listening sessions. My skull votes ‘yes’ for the Elites. Make sure to listen long enough in an audition to confirm the same is true for you.
Shortly, I’ll attempt to answer the real question: “What do these cans sound like?” I’ll do my best to be transparent about my biases, tastes, listening skills (or the lack of), and equipment. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter a fig what I think or feel about the sound, what matters is whether these headphones sing to you, in your system, on your music.
That’s where we come in. We offer the opportunity for you to take a good listen, a real audition before you buy anything.
If you’re in the market for flagship headphones and you think the Meze Elites might be your cup of tea, give us a call and schedule an audition. You can even bring in your own amp and headphones for a thorough listen and comparison.
This is the point where I disclaim my biases. I can do that in two words: Commission checks.
You may be thinking, “What the entire heck? I’m reading a review by a guy at the HiFi store that sells these things? On the store’s website I’m reading this, no less?” To that, I say -Fair point. Consider, though, that in today’s media environment, most reviewers are seriously conflicted. Professional ones have to kowtow to manufacturers to get review sample loans. Social media reviews are usually as much about validating the reviewer’s purchase decision as anything else.
We’re a high-end stereo shop. We buy stuff from manufacturers. They have to kowtow to us! You validate (or don’t) our decision to carry a product with your credit card. Trust me, the boss cares tons more about what you and your credit card think about a product than what I write about it.
So, we’re in a pretty OK place here, reviewer conflict of interest-wise, or at least about the same place as most reviews you’ll read.
Now then, bearing in mind that, what you hear from a headphone may be very, very different from what I hear. I mean physically, the sound in your ear canal, not just sonic and musical tastes. So, what do the Elites sound like?
The short and obvious version: Like the music you choose to play through them and like the source components and amplification you use to drive them. In a relaxed, grainless, musical sort of way, not an analytical cold sort of way. They’re detailed, but let’s call it “nuanced”, not clinical, or strident.
They sound like what I think planar headphones sound like… Really good planars.
Now, I know I’ll be struck by lightning for saying this, because it’s glib to the point of recklessness, but think of HE-1000s and LCD-3s having a child. Then, the kid goes off to school, gets an education, and grows up. That is glib and reckless. I should be punished, I know, but I said it anyway because sometimes the first stupid thing that pops in your mind turns out to crystalize a point. Sometimes not. But nothing ventured…
I listened to the Elite on three amplifiers: The first two were my HeadAmp Gilmore Lite and the store’s Simaudio Moon 230 HAD ($1,700, We’d be happy to sell it to you). With those amps, I used the Moon’s built-in DAC for my listening, but most of my listening was done through my Woo WA6-SE and Neko Audio D100 MkII DAC.
The entry-level HeadAmp was being asked, probably unfairly, to play well above its league. However, it brought to the table HeadAmp’s signature super-taut bass and tonal honesty. On it, the Elites bass was like the Gilmore Lite’s own – crisp and quite powerful. Tight. The Elites revealed some grain in the upper mids in this amp that lesser headphones wouldn’t. It wasn’t obnoxious, but you could tell that planning to spend a fair bit more than $500 on an amp to pair with headphones of this level would probably be a pretty good idea.
The solid-state Moon DAC/amp put in a fine showing. Solid, full bass, smooth, well-detailed mids, and honest treble.
The Woo/Neko combination is all about the midrange. World class, detailed, smooth, nuanced, touchable, single-ended triode midrange. The Neko is a bit less than the tightest in the bass and the Woo rolls off a bit at both frequency extremes. Which tells you a lot about my musical and sonic priorities and prejudices. Yes, I’d love some beefier bass – wouldn’t we all – but until I can find a DAC that delivers the Neko’s mids AND killer bass for less than four times what the Neko costs, I suppose I’ll just get along.
In my “serious” listening I compared the Elites’ rendition, track for track, with my own Focal Utopias (with Elear earpads).
I sometimes like to use terms like “starkly different” when comparing headphones. Like, say, when comparing these two headphones. Or say things like “does a great job on small-group jazz”, maybe in a slightly freighted sort of way. When we’re talking about flagship headphones, we have to keep our heads about context. There’s not much real estate at the top of the mountain. One neighborhood is pretty close to the next, even “Starkly different” flagship headphones really sound pretty much the same.
And we shouldn’t read too much between the lines on something like “it’s good with small ensembles” (the Elites are, by the way). When I say something like that here it means just what it means, it is most definitely not code for “gets congested when the music gets loud”. These are flagships. $4000 headphones don’t congest… The very thought of it.
Some listening notes.
On “Alone Together”, from Grant Green’s Green Street, my first note commented on the “purr” of bass strings. Just because the Neko/Woo combination doesn’t do superlative bass transients doesn’t mean the reproduction of standup bass can’t be fun.
The bass came up again listening to “‘Round Midnight”, on Scott Hamilton’s ballads album. Here, the Elites pulled me into the body of the instrument, rendering the wood, air, and strings in a palpable, almost tactile way.
The beautiful golden tone of Hamilton’s tenor saxophone was presented enchantingly. “Turned it up. Twice.”, I wrote.
I noted that I was hearing more air than metal in the horn. There was nothing about that in the notebook from the Focal’s go at the same piece, but it’s not too much of a stretch to consider it an implicit comparison. I did note that the Utopias produced better bass transients and drive on the cut. Through them, though, Hamilton’s sax had less of that enthralling inner detail and texture. “Less luxurious”, I wrote.
A theme that appeared repeatedly was that the Mezes’ presentation was of a whole made up of contributing but easily discernible parts, while through the Focals I heard individual threads that wove together to make a whole. My notes mention individual notes in the Hamilton, musical lines, massed strings and woodwinds in Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony playing Scheherazade. Or voices harmonizing in the live version of “Dixie Chicken” on Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus.
I did note a couple of times how naturally I found myself following individual lines through the Elites. So, it’s not at all like they didn’t resolve the detail. The way they did so just felt a little different.
Which way is your way? On a given song on a given day? A good audition is in order. To paraphrase 1960s Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, “you’ll know it when you hear it.”
The Elites’ “humanity” came up a few times, as with Green’s guitar on “Alone Together” and Mark Knofler’s voice on “Donkey Town” from All the Roadrunning, his collaboration with Emmylou Harris.
On the “Donkey Town” track, there’s a tiny break in Knofler’s voice in the first verse, (was that audiophile-grade phlegm, Mr. Knofler?) the Elites nailed it. Which is to say that I could hear the itty-bitty little detail in the first place and that it was presented in the proper context – pretty insignificant. But it contributed to the overall impression of a real human being singing. Knofler’s voice had that tactile quality that helps the illusion of recorded music. If you can suspend disbelief and think – no that you can feel that you’re listening to human musicians, the electronic machinery can fall away, and the music becomes real. Those times are why we buy flagship-level gear.
Interestingly, while I only took notes while listening through my own amp, I found a notation that I remembered the harmonics of Knofler’s voice being better through the Moon 230 HAD.
On “Where or When” by Diana Krall (from her Quiet Nights album) there are some sibilants that can spit on some gear. On these particular headphones (both of them) I had to mop up after both of the solid-state amps, but not so the Woo. Through the Elites, the close-miked sibilants were there, to be sure, but they were well enough resolved to be taken for, well, sibilants, rather than an assault.
I played “Where or When” just to hear how the sibilant matter was handled. But my notes for the Elites say, ”Track over so soon?”. To be fair, the notes from the Utopias also have an entry that says, “Listened all the way through when I didn’t intend to.” Hmmm… Once again, flagship gear. The Mezes are revealing of source components and recordings, but they let you know in a pleasant, considerate way. Rather than browbeating you about it.
From “Bad Little Doggie”, on Gov’t Mule’s Life Before Insanity album, there’s a note that politely wonders whether I made sure to choose enough “good recordings” for the session. Revealing, but not all Princess and the Pea about it, the Mezes let the less-than-ideal recording get the musical job done.
“Adequate” recording notwithstanding, “Bad Little Doggie” demonstrated drive and power (I know you’ve been wondering since that comment about small ensembles at the beginning of the review). There’s also a note about “toe taps” for this track.
On the much better recording of “Dixie Chicken”, the notes mention head-bopping and other foolishness. So yeah, the Elites do rock. They do drive. They can be propulsive when called upon.
The “Dixie Chicken” notes include “Very fine!” to characterize the timber of Bill Payne’s piano and a complement on the Elites sense of “space” – in quotes because this is a live concert recording. Any “space” there is artifice. Nevertheless, it sounded fine. To my way of thinking, the top octave of the Mezes sounded just great. Extended, but relaxed and natural. Full disclosure: I should say “the top octave that I can hear”. I’m male and ancient.
By way of comparison between the two pairs of headphones, there were several notes about the more prominent top end of the Focals. Sometimes, it was a good thing – “shimmer”, and sometimes not a good thing – “sharp”. While the Mezes just stayed the course.
Again, we shouldn’t overstate this. We’re talking about two products that stand next to each other on the teeny little space at the top of the headphone mountain. They aren’t really all that far apart.
The note was during Scheherazade, but it applies throughout: The Mezes threw a soundstage (head stage?) that was bigger than the Focals, mostly in height, and a little better side to side. Neither headphone draws an expansive out-of-head sound space, in my opinion. But, in fairness, that’s not something I dwell on at all.
Meze also includes an alternative set of earpads with the Elite, this is really nice of them. They know some/most/nearly all buyers are going to want to roll earpads, and this isn’t a trivial consideration. Earpads for headphones at this level are usually a couple hundred bucks.
The extra earpads are the Alcantara pads from the Empyrean, Alcantara is a high-tech synthetic suede – our resident Porsche-phile tells me you can pay extra for an Alcantara interior when you order your Porsche. Good to know. The standard pads are a hybrid – an Alcantara interior and a (real) leather exterior. The Alcantara earpads are considerably deeper than the stock ones.
A very cool and much-appreciated feature of the Elites is that the earpads are held on by magnets. You don’t have to worry about tearing your flagship headphones apart trying to pry earpads off. I also want to note here that virtually the entire structure of the Elites is held together with screws. The idea being that they are easy to disassemble and repair. Just in case. Nice.
The deeper suede earpads sounded pretty much as you would expect. There was some roll-off at the top and some extra plump in the mid to upper bass. While your mileage, and for that matter, mine on another night, may vary, the Alcantara tonal balance didn’t feel quite “right” to me.
What was unexpected about the Alcantara pads was how much fun they were. On Waiting for Columbus. Lowell George and company had me dancing around the den! Don’t try to picture this; you don’t want to. On points, in comparison to my own reference headphones, I’d say the Elites bested the older Focals more often than the other way around. But comparisons are not what really matters.
You can only listen to one pair of headphones at a time. And at this level, most of us can only own one pair at a time. What counts is that the Elites are comfortable, in both senses of the word, and could, for a pretty extended session, beguile me into feeling that I was listening to real music.
It would be disingenuous of me to sign off with the standard “These headphones are highly recommended”. I sell these things, after all. So, I’ll say this. If you are in the market for a pair of flagship headphones and it seems like these might float your boat, they’re absolutely worth an audition. Call us and we’ll set one up for you.
Carl Seibert is a HiFi Specialist at Boca Tech HiFi, a new high-end audio store in South Florida. BTA HiFi is a division of the well-established Home Theater provider Boca Tech and Automation. Boca Tech HiFi will strive to be the premier provider of audiophile equipment to the tri-county area and a destination for audiophiles to enjoy conversations about music and good sound. Carl really spends a lot of time under headphones, preferably, really good headphones.