With its combination of high quality sound, build quality, and affordable price point, the Meze 99 Classics have been the first taste of Hi-Fi personal audio for many people. With their unique look and dynamic low-end, they’re also served as a great bridge between mainstream consumer brands and boutique high-end brands. Five years on from their original release, let’s take a closer look at how the 99 Classics lived up to their name to, indeed, become classic.
The Build and Design
Having handled a number of headphones in the 99 Classics price range – from Bose and Beats to HIFIMAN and Audio-Technica – the 99 Classics clearly have some of the most premium materials and upscale feel of anything in their class. The wood earcups, the metal frame, and high quality polyurethane leather strap provide a clear contrast to the more plasticy or industrial designs, and help answer the question, “why would I spend over $300 on headphones?”
The included package provides a hard molded case, some cables and adapters, and a small cloth case for holding the cables. The included cables are 3.5mm and 3.5mm w/ mic, while the adapters include 3.5mm to 6.3mm and a two prong plane adapter. The cables are about what you would expect at this price point in terms of build quality. They’re a little on the long side, with a cloth wrap, and generally tangle resistant even if they get a little unwieldy due to the length.
The 99 Classics also have a couple of color options. Typically it’s a choice between gold and silver accents with a black frame and walnut ear cups, but there have also been a number of special editions. For this review, I had the currently available (as of the publishing of this review) special edition Maple Silver. Personally I have the walnut/silver variation, but the gold does have a certain jeu ne se quoi, and the Maple Silver is honestly tempting me to buy a second pair.
Right out of the box, the 99 Classics have a v-shape with strong bass boost, with the emphasis particularly in the midbass, a slow roll-off from the low mids into a strong, tight cut in the midrange, and then good presence in the upper mids and treble. The impact and dynamics are excellent, and the instrument timbre is very natural. The overall signature is more “bass-boosted” than truly warm.
Probably the weakest elements of the 99 Classics are related to it being closed-back. There’s a bit of the characteristic bloat in the low mids, and the soundstage is a bit small, sometimes leaving you with a closed-in feeling. Having the advantage of owning a pair of 99 Classics and not just spending a couple days with one, I can say with some authority that some degree of speaker burn-in occurs over the first couple dozen hours of listening which greatly improves the coherence in the bass and low mids, and greatly reduces any feeling of bloat.
Whenever a friend or extended family member is curious about headphones and Hi-Fi audio, I hand them my 99 Classics plugged into my iBasso DX160, and often play the high-res remaster of “Hotel California.” Why? Basically, it’s a familiar song with a million little details and nuances that most people have never actually picked up on before. The 99 Classics provide a clean, clear presentation of the opening guitar, a good sense of build-up when the rest of the band enters – including a nice tight impact from the bass drum – and excellent presentation of the various layers of guitars, percussion, and vocals as the song builds. Most people have also never heard headphones which can provide both a strong sense of bass impact and a clear presentation of the details in the rest of the spectrum. It’s a simple demonstration, and virtually everyone leaves impressed – or refuses to give me back my headphones while they thumb through Qobuz for more songs.
Lady Gaga’s “Stupid Love” helps demonstrate the 99 Classics’ tight, powerful bass impact. The main beat hits with power and ferocity that will leave you wondering if it’s going to hammer divots into the side of your head. While there’s a touch of dullness in the mids, causing the vocals to feel slightly recessed, and taking a bit of snap out of the snare drum, it’s not just about the bass. The synth layers are coherent and nicely layered, and cymbals have a nice sizzle at the top end.
The 99 Classics also shine with modern alternative and rock music. Listening to “Bad Liar” by Imagine Dragons, you get a softness in the vocals on the verse that you wouldn’t expect from more bass focused headphones. There’s a surprising amount of detail to be found from the texture of the guitars to the subtle layers of synth and background vocals.
Fans of groove heavy genres like soul jazz will also find a lot to love about the 99 Classics. On Galactic’s “Everybody Wants Some” there’s a tight punch to the kick drum and a powerful rumble in the bass. The intricate hi-hat work is crisp and clear. The horns come in with authority, but the peaks are never sharp or harsh. When the band brings it down a level, the imaging works surprisingly well at putting you in the room with the snappy drum groove, and unconventional piano playing.
I listen to my personal Meze 99 Classics all the time, but they’re not quite stock (more on that in a minute), so for this review I also pulled out a stock set as a clear reference point for the out of the box sound. I listened with the iBasso DX160 and the iFi hip-dac with both balanced and unbalanced cables. The hip-dac + 99 Classics proved to be an incredible combo with the price tag for both coming in under $500, making it a great pick for an affordable portable setup or a first foray into Hi-Fi audio.
Customization isn’t something that we typically cover, but there are a surprising number of options for tinkering. Various message boards and headphone sites provide a number of easy and interesting upgrades and customizations you can perform on your 99 Classics. In fact, the entire headphone is designed so that a user can disassemble and reassemble it with commonly available tools, giving you options for both customizations and repairs.
Customizations range from the obvious, like upgrading the cable, to the less obvious, like the fact that you replace the stock earpads with very readily available Audio-Technica M50x replacement ear pads – whether you want to change the color, try a different material, or see what effect earpads can have on the sound. I’ve even seen mods ranging from adding acoustic dampening behind the drivers to 3D printing new earcups. If customizing and tweaking headphones is something that you’re interested in, the 99 Classics are a great vehicle for that.
Personally, I have a set of M50x earpads on mine that give my ears a little more space and provide a mild enhancement of the soundstage, greatly reducing the closed-in feeling. I also have the Meze 99 Series Silver Plated Upgrade cable, which is just a touch brighter than the stock cable. Combine that with some light EQing on the DX160, and you can pull a more detailed, refined sound out of the 99 Classics without sacrificing their characteristic powerful low-end impact.
The Bottom Line
The 99 Classics are a true classic simply because they remind us Hi-Fi audio isn’t just about having the most accurate possible sound. Whether you want it neutral, analytical, or with a little extra bass, it’s about finding the best way to enjoy your favorite music. If you want headphones that combine Hi-Fi detail and refinement with a fun, musical tuning, and loads of physical, powerful bass, the Meze 99 Classics are what you’re looking for.