Meze 99 Neo: Multifaceted Beauty
Today we’re checking out another drop dead gorgeous product from Meze, the 99 Neo.
Meze is a Romanian company that stormed their way into the spotlight in 2016 with the 99 Classics. That headphone was (and still is) the perfect example of a marriage between design and performance. The simple but shapely form factor, modular design, and eye-catching walnut cups initially drew you in, then it won you over with a very competent sound signature. The 99 Neo keeps much of the same look and feel of the 99 Classics, but with some material changes that bring the price down, along with a slightly altered tune. A 249 USD, the 99 Neo is an extremely compelling product.
Let’s take a closer look!
A big thanks to Doina with Meze for the wonderful communication in arranging a complimentary review sample of the 99 Neo. The thoughts within this review are my own subjective opinions based on over a month of routine use of the 99 Neo. They do not represent Meze or any other entity. If you want to order your own 99 Neo, you can check it out here: https://www.mezeaudio.com/products/99-neo
For at home use the 99 Neo was powered by a TEAC HA-501 desktop amp or Radsone EarStudio ES100 with my Asus FX53V laptop sourcing music. For portable use, it was commonly run straight from my LG G6 so I could take advantage of the inline mic, or via the EarStudio ES100 connected over Bluetooth to the G6. Both the M0 and M1 from Shanling were also used. The 99 Neo is very easy to drive and sounds great from any sounrce I tried. Bass is a little tighter out of the TEAC, but I don’t think amping is needed.
I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. While I enjoy a variety of signatures in my headphones I generally lean towards slightly warm with elevated treble and sub-bass, an even and natural mid-range response, with reduced mid-bass. The HiFiMan RE800, Brainwavz B400, and thinksound On2 offer examples of signatures I enjoy. I generally listen at very low volumes, so keep this in mind when reading my thoughts on how an earphone sounds.
- Driver: 40mm
- Frequency Response: 15Hz – 25kHz
- Sensitivity: 103dB at 1KHz, 1mW
- Impedance: 26ohm
- Rated Input Power: 30mW
- Maximum Input Power: 50mW
- Weight: 260g (9.2oz) without cables
Packaging and Accessories:
The 99 Neo’s packaging is clean and elegant in design without much in the way of frills. The front contains a straight on shot of one side of the 99 Neo showing off the smooth curve of the spring steel headbands and new, black plastic, highly textured ear cups. The left side outlines a few features and special qualities, like the self-adjusting PU headband and power efficiency so it can paired with any phone. On the right side of the package you find a frequency response chart along with a comprehensive list of specifications. The back is my favorite part. The coloring changes to matte black with a wireframe image of the 99 Neo printed in a contrasting reflective black. Centred is;
MEZE 99 NEO
DESIGNED BY ANTONIO MEZE
It all comes together beautifully, perfectly exemplifying the subtle beauty of the design of the 99 series of headphones.
Flipping open the magnetically sealed flap, you are immediately greeted by an outstanding hard shell EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) carrying case. The case is curvaceous and form fitted to the 99 Neo, just like it was with the 99 Classics, However, here the exterior is coated in a much more durable material than the faux-leather used on the 99 Classics case variant. Inside you find the 99 Neo surrounding a velour pouch in which the accessories sit. In all you get:
Hard shell EVA carrying case
1.5m Kevlar thread OFC cable with mic and remote
Gold-plated 1/4” adapter
Airplane adapter (though this isn’t shown on the website anymore)
Velour cable and accessory pouch
It’s disappointing that the 99 Neo doesn’t comes with a second, mic-free cable as the 99 Classics did, but at least the mobile cable here was improved over the one provided with the 99 Classics. Cloth below the y-split, rubber above means microphonics are no longer an issue.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
The 99 Neo isn’t just a pretty face. The construction of this earphone is immaculate. The PU leather ear pads are thick and soft with a uniform ovular shape that wraps around the ear. They attach to matte black plastic ear cups that have an attractive pebbled texture. 99 Classics parts make a visible appearance here, since when you the pads are removed the baffle the driver is attached to is still stamped with the Classics’ part details. Other hardware, like the silver ring around the base of the ear cups, the surrounds for the cable port, the hanger connecting the PU head pad to the spring steel headband, and the centre cap that connects the headband to the ear cups, are made from electroplated, die-cast zinc alloy. It’s all put together with outstanding attention to detail, and much of it can be user replaced if broken since the 99 Neo, like the Classics before them, are modular.
Comfort is another strength of the 99 Neo. All of it’s qualities come together to be something wonderful. The rounded design, spacious ear cups, and the floating pivot design that lets the ear cups swivel and twist to spread what little weight there is evenly across the skull and around your ears. Some headphones create pressure points around the ear that gets extremely uncomfortable after a while. Not a problem here. If you enjoy binging on Netflix shows or listening to albums from to back, the 99 Neo is a good headphone to keep you company.
When it comes to passively blocking out external noise, the 99 Neo is just okay. Without any music playing, outside sounds are still audible but lose definition and become muffled. You could still hold a conversation with someone while wearing the 99 Neo, but you’ll struggle to understand what they’re saying. Turn on your music, and as expected things improve. You’ll likely still need to increase the volume a bit to compensate if in a particularly noisy area, but otherwise they’re nice to use out in the world.
Overall, the 99 Neo is a beautiful headphone with outstanding build quality and decent passive isolation. My only qualm is aimed at the spring steel headband which if tapped lets off a ringing noise that easily penetrates your music. I don’t recall this being an issue on the 99 Classics. Then again, those were a tour unit and were only used when stationary, so the opportunity to experience that issue never really arose.
Pads: In addition to the stock pads, I gave the 99 Neo a go with Brianwavz’s Hybrid PU/Velour pads, as well as their full Velour pads. To my surprise, the Velour pads turned the 99 Neo into a complete bass cannon, the opposite of what I usually experience with that style of pad. It also closed in the sound somewhat, taking away the ‘impressive for a closed back’ airness the 99 Neo displays with the stock pads. The hybrid PU/Velour pads were the most balanced of the three as it toned down the 99 Neo’s mid-bass, gave the treble more voice and sparkle, and improved the sound stage further. I quite liked this combination and would recommend giving these pads a try. They’re also slightly larger and deeper than the stock pads and help make the 99 Neo even more comfortable.
Back in February of 2016 when I was given the chance to review the 99 Classics, they were the highest end headphones I had a chance to spend any significant amount of time with. Prior to that, the AKG K553 Pro I picked up from Massdrop held that distinction. The 99 Classics sounded similar to me, but addressed some of the shortcomings of the K553s, namely bass extension and treble peaks. The seven short days spent with the 99 Classics certainly made their mark as a benchmark product for me.
The 99 Neo shares qualities with the Classics but is a warmer, bassier experience and overall has a slightly darker tone that carries it pretty far from the sound of the K553 Pro. Treble extends well with good sparkle but is de-emphasized and rolls off at the top. This gives the 99 Neo a very easygoing, smooth quality to it that makes long term listening sessions a reality. On Steely Dan’s “Cuervo Gold”, cymbals hit with a soft, airy ‘tsst’ but remain detailed and well-textured. Notes are well-defined with a tuned weight that keeps the 99 Neo from sounding lean, yet the amount of air and space between instruments and effects remains open and layered. The effect is the same in the opening moments on King Crimson’s live rendition of “Night Watch” from The Great Deceiver with chimes continuously tinkling away in the background behind swelling cymbals. Despite being so laid back, the 99 Neo’s treble presentation is pretty phenomenal, though I can definitely see some wanting more emphasis.
The mid-range is slightly recessed but is thick and full bodied in a way that gives vocals a silky smooth, yet still quite crisp and detailed presentation. I really like how natural everything sounds too, from the out-of-tune violin playing in the opening of Aesop Rock’s “Big Bang”, to the intense guitar solo of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”. “Big Bang” also shows how nimble these drivers can be, handling Aesop’s uncharacteristically speedy delivery with ease. Don’t worry, the 99 Neo remains clear and articulate even with true speedsters like K.A.A.N. on “Still (pro. Cashflow)”. It’s a really liquid sounding mid-range that flows exceptionally well and in my opinion, really ties together the 99 Neo’s sound.
Bass on this earphone is elevated with a mid and upper focus giving the low presentation a very lush feel to it. Extension is good but there is some roll-off present before dipping into those truly visceral regions, as evidenced in the opening moment’s of Kavinski’s “Solli”. While texturing is good, it’s slightly loose and can show bloom on tracks that are already mid-bass skewed, like Infected Mushroom’s “Drum n Baasa”. At times the 99 Neo’s low end can be slightly overwhelming, though you can lessen it a couple dB by pushing the headphone forward over your ear. Want to maximize the low end, push it back so your ear sits at the front of the cup. Well, that worked for me. Your experience may differ. Alternatively, if you aren’t opposed to EQ the 99 Neo is receptive to alterations. For example, with my Shanling M1 I dropped 1dB at 62, 3dB at 125, 2dB at 250 and 1dB at 500. This gave the sub-bass a touch more presence, removed the bloom, and improved clarity in the mids by making them a touch more lean.
When it comes to sound stage I found the 99 Neo quite open and spacious for a closed back set of headphones, with excellent layering and separation. Imaging from channel to channel is clear and direct, but can be vague when it comes to finer movements. Something like the thinksound On2 shows greater precision in those instances. Love it for movies and music, but not as amazing for something requiring pinpoint accuracy, like gaming.
Overall, the 99 Neo is an entertaining set of headphones with a warm, easygoing signature. I really enjoyed it with classic rock and modern pop and EDM where it’s smooth presentation truly shined. It was also a joy with vocal focused music since there was zero sibilance I could detect.
Select Comparisons: All were used with their stock pads
Polk Audio Buckle: The 99 Neo and Buckle have very similar signatures. I’d say the 99 Neo is a direct upgrade though, given on a technical level it is so much better. The 99 Neo’s bass for one. It is more articulate and textured with a much more dynamic range. The Buckle comes across very one-note in comparison. The mids on the Neo are slightly more forward and lack the veil of the Buckle, letting fine details shine through that the Buckle masks. Treble in the Neo is slightly more emphasized, shows greater space between instruments, and shows more shimmer in cymbals which have a certain dullness to them through the Buckle.
When it comes to build, the Buckle feels rock solid though it’s not a looker and single-sized 2.5mm connector is a clear weak point. The mix of leather and aluminum is representative of the premium price they commanded back in the day. Comfort is good, but the hefty weight isn’t spread out quite as well as it could. The 99 Neo is definitely the more comfortable of the two, though passive isolation is better on the Buckle and it’s a little more compact and therefore better on the go. Neither fold up or lay flat though.
A-Audio Legacy: My Legacy was a blind buy on Amazon, one I have been thrilled with. It’s audio performance greatly exceed my expectations given it has such a loud and boisterous design, clearly aimed at those more worried about style than function. Since it has active noise canceling the alters the signature greatly, this comparison will be with ANC off.
The most notable difference between the two, one that is instantly apparently the second music starts playing, is sound stage. The Legacy is significantly more closed in and intimate, completely lacking the airiness of the 99 Neo. While it’s presentation isn’t as layered, the Legacy does present more nuanced imaging and separates instruments nearly as well. The 99 Neo has a more forward bass, but the Legacy extends deeper to provide a more visceral feel with slightly improved texture. The 99 Neo’s mids are thicker and more detailed with a more natural timbre. Treble on the Legacy has more shimmer and emphasis with similar extension and clarity.
In terms of build and comfort, I’d take the 99 Neo all day, every day. I love the Legacy’s design and the fit and finish is excellent, but it’s hard to call them attractive. Interesting is more appropriate. The use of heavy metals and a tight clamping force limits comfort long term, as do the pads which warmed up more and in a shorter period than Meze’s offering. In the Legacy’s favour, they do fold and the cups swivel up to make them more compact. Plus, they passively isolate much more effectively.
Campfire Audio Cascade: The Cascade is Campfire Audio’s first headphone. It’s a lot more expensive than the 99 Neo and maybe not a fair comparison, but it’s always nice to see just how well something competes with more expensive gear.
Like the 99 Neo it has a bass-forward signature, but to my surprise came across a bit more balanced. Note that I’m running mine without any of the acoustic filters in place. The Cascade’s bass has a better mid-/sub-bass balance with greater extension. It’s slightly quicker with a fair bit more control in the mid-bass than the 99 Neo, and as such is completely absent of the bloom and looseness the Neo can display at times. The Cascade’s midrange is leaner and more articulate with even more detail.Vocalists sit further back in the mix too, giving a more spacious feel to your music. I personally prefer the 99 Neo’s extra warmth and silkiness. I just wish it has the same clarity as the Cascade. The Cascade’s treble seems a bit colder and more prominent, while also being sharper and more accurate. At the same volume, it’s more fatiguing than the 99 Neo, though I wouldn’t call either of these fatiguing.
While the Cascade seems like it’s bulletproof, I have some concerns. The arms holding the cups on are aluminum and one was bent slightly out of the box. The headphone is quite heavy so if dropped, I would expect some damage. The Neo is much, much lighter and yet feels more resiliant. It also has the benefit of being user repairable, unlike the Cascade. The Cascade’s pads are real leather and it shows. They feel much more premium and are magnetically attached. Another plus over the Neo’s pads.
Finding a headphone that ticks all the boxes is a challenge. Maybe they sound amazing but look horrendous. Maybe they’re drop dead gorgeous but fail to impress in any regard when it comes to their sonic performance. Maybe they’ve got everything going for them, but are fragile. Maybe the cost of entry is astronomical. Where does the 99 Neo fall?
At around 250 USD they’re affordable. The materials used are durable and put together perfectly, though the steel headband can be noisy. Comfort is second to none, really. These are amazing to wear. The sound, while on the bassy side, is well-tuned with strong technical performance. There are very few headphones that I’ve come across that do so much right and so little wrong. Someone that’s looking to step up their headphone game without spending a bundle would do very well to start with the 99 Neo.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock – Skelethon (Album)
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (Album)
Elton John – Yellow Golden Brick Road (Album)
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Album)
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black (Track)
Supertramp – Crime of the Century (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Converting Vegetarians (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma (Album)
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (Album)
Massive Attack – Mezzanine (Album)
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors (Album)
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (Album)
The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy (Album)
Tobacco – F****d Up Friends (Album)
Felt – Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bone) (Album)