Meze Audio crafts headphones that both look and sound amazing, and are perhaps best known for their over-ear headphones like the 99 Classics and Empyrean, but they’ve also taken a number of forays into the IEM world. While they’ve delivered some great tunings and designs, none of their IEMs have quite captured that perfect balance of soul and performance that made the 99 Classics and Empyrean such big hits. Enter ADVAR, their latest IEM. With a single dynamic driver and a gorgeous design, will ADVAR capture that spirit and become a true classic?
Build and Design
With a mix of a smooth polished black aluminum and copper, ADVAR has a style that looks modern and antique all at once. One might even be forgiven for seeing a hint of steampunk aesthetic. The shell is small and lightweight, with contouring that makes for an easy, tight fit. As is noted on the box and on the IEM shells, ADVAR is made in Romania, and it’s clear that Meze takes a lot of pride in its design and construction. The cable is Meze’s Rai Series silver cable, which has a soft feel, is easy to handle, and tangle resistant.
The package is well put together, with a premium presentation. After opening the box, the IEMs are on display on the top, with the case, cable, and eartips in a compartment underneath. The case is again inherited from the Rai Penta, and the eartips are the ever popular Final E Series. The highlight of the whole package, for me, was what at first appeared to be a keychain added as a bit of case candy, but it’s actually one of the most valuable items in the IEM-lover’s arsenal: an MMCX cable remover. Honestly, the fact that: 1) it works really well, 2) I lent my own MMCX remover out and never got it back, and 3) it’s also a nice looking keychain – means I’ll just be ending the review here and giving ADVAR a 10/10.
Not really – of course – as nice as a high quality MMCX remover is, the sound is the real highlight here. ADVAR provides a balanced, warm sound signature that’s incredibly addictive, with the sort of “Empyrean in an IEM” sound Meze fans have been dying for. ADVAR definitely hits hard, with the sort of slam and physical presentation that you’d expect from a single DD IEM with a 10mm driver.
In terms of spatial delivery, ADVAR does a good job of keeping the music out of your head and providing a sense of three-dimensionality, but the soundstage is moderately sized at best. There is a good sense of positioning and depth with the space. The resolution is also good and provides a natural-feeling attack and decay, but the microdynamics aren’t a particularly strong aspect.
The bass on these hits hard and goes deep, and there’s certainly some bass emphasis, but not an exaggeration. Strong slam and great dynamics across the lowest end. As you move in the low mids, the separation is good with no bloat or bass bleed, and it has good character and texture in bass instruments.
The midrange is slightly pulled back but still delivers strong detail with natural, if slightly warm, timbre. Vocals feel well placed, and midrange instruments like piano and guitar are balanced well in the mix. The treble is largely smooth, with that little bump in the upper ranges that adds some air and gives some energy to cymbal crashes and a little bit of bite in violins.
One thing in particular that stood out to me as I was listening to a variety of rock and metal spanning the last 50 years as part of my evaluation of ADVAR: it feels like special attention was paid to guitars. The full range of guitar tones, with the timbre, dynamics and delivery of guitars is a highlight of ADVAR’s performance, and makes this IEM a strong pick for fans of guitar driven music – whether it’s acoustic, classic rock, grunge, or metal.
Speaking of guitar, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s cover of “Little Wing” demonstrates ADVAR’s ability to deliver nuance and range in guitar playing. You get the playing dynamics from the crystal clear tone to the little bit of dirt that’s added from hitting the amp a little harder when SRV really digs in. Small aspects like pick and fret noise are present to add character to the music, but not distracting. The rest of the band sounds great behind him too. With a nice snap to the snare, and a tight punch in the bass drum that blends nicely up into the bass guitar.
Throwing it way back, Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)” gives you a taste of what ADVAR can do with a more complex arrangement and blend of instruments. The drums, of course, sound great, with that classic tom tom beat having a nice thump and good resonance. The clarinet sticks out nicely in the mix throughout, and in the busier sections, the separation between the various brass and wind parts remains coherent. Even in the cacophonous passage near the end, the presentation has just the right balance of energy and cohesion, while remaining smooth overall.
Back in the 21st century…Post Malone’s “Sunflower” gives you cascading layers of rhythm and synth that range from 808 accents in the top to bass hits that go all the way down. ADVAR delivers detail and strong separation of the layers at the top, along with brain-shaking bass impact. In the midrange, the vocals can feel slightly “in your head” at times, but the synths in the middle have a smooth organic feel to them.
Florence + The Machine’s MTV Unplugged performance gives you a more intimate – if not exactly stripped down – look at the band. Listening with ADVAR, you’ll find yourself flanked by strings, with the lead vocals right in front of your face. The guitar, piano, and drums are nicely laid out on the stage. The blend of acoustic instruments is brilliantly presented with a warm, yet natural timbre. ADVAR feels very much at home with this sort of modern folk blend.
One of my go to test tracks for a headphone or IEM’s ability to deliver slam and impact with speed is “In the Court of the Dragon” by Trivium. The song is aggressive, a little bit brutal, and features drumming that might make you wonder if Trivium drummer Alex Bent has an extra arm or two. ADVAR delivers the whole thing with absolute brilliance, and it reveals how well the bass is tuned and balanced. There’s just the right amount to give you the impact and power you crave, but not so much that you end up with bleed, muddiness, or congestion in complicated passages. You get you the heavy guitars and bass guitar doubling the 64th note double bass drum rhythm with speed, impact, and coherence.
Comparison: Campfire Audio Vega, Kinera Norn
ADVAR is definitely in a price range that provides some stiff competition, with there being quite a few great IEMs in the $500-$1000 range. To get a better idea of where ADVAR sits, I checked it out alongside one of my favorites in the $500 range – the Kinera Norn – and Campfire Audio’s single DD champ, Vega.
In terms of the build, design, fit, package, and all that, each had its strengths and weaknesses. I found ADVAR to be the most comfortable of the three. Norn is a little bigger and bulkier, with a thicker stem that might not be ideal for listeners with smaller ears. Vega is similarly lightweight and small, but the configuration of the nozzle made it just a bit tougher to get a good fit and seal. ADVAR’s stem is shorter, making for an easier fit, but not so short that it falls out easily. In terms of the package, Norn gives you the most, with a selection of eartips, a case, and a balanced 2.5mm cable with 3.5mm and 4.4mm adapters in the box. Vega is close behind, with the only difference being that it only comes with the standard 3.5mm cable, rather than Norn’s array of connections. ADVAR has a nice presentation, but the package is the most basic – save for the life changing MMCX remover.
While ADVAR and Vega are both single DD and Norn is a 5-driver hybrid, they all reside in a similar sonic territory. Each has a different take on a v-shape signature, with more or less emphasis in different areas. Vega is the most “basshead” IEM of the three, with a bigger bass shelf that gives you brain-shaking bass at the cost of some bloat and bleed up into the lower mids that does impact the clarity and separation. Norn has the least bass of the three, but also feels a little pulled back in the lower mids. ADVAR hits in between the two, with an emphasized – but not exaggerated – bass, that moves into strong textured low mids.
With vocal and upper range presentation, Norn’s balanced armature drivers give a crisper delivery than the other two fully dynamic driver IEMs, but can be slightly prone to sibilance. Vega’s vocals are more pulled back by comparison, while ADVAR balances things nicely. ADVAR has a warm, emotive vocal presentation that provides detail and character without sibilance or edge.
In trying to find the key characteristics of each, Vega’s is very much the combination of powerful bass delivery and natural timbre, and Norn is the balance of fun and detail that it can deliver at its price, but what really makes ADVAR stand out to me are its emotive qualities. Going back and forth between the three, ADVAR’s vocal and guitar presentation felt not just natural or accurate, but it created an emotional response from the performance that the others couldn’t quite match.
The Bottom Line
ADVAR is an absolutely killer IEM, and it really does capture aspects of the 99 Classics and Empyrean, distilled into an earphone. If you’re looking for an IEM that excels at pop, rock and jazz, with a warm, emotional presentation, ADVAR should absolutely be on your list, no matter what your budget is.