Hardware Reviews

Meze Empyrean II is a headphone high

Meze Audio Empyrean II headphone review https://the-ear.net

Meze Audio Empyrean II headphones

Romanian headphones are, I have to admit, new to me; likewise, the idea of spending almost £3,000 on a pair. And yet that’s a comparable sum to my everyday loudspeakers and my former reference streaming amplifier, so it’s far from an outlandish amount, especially if it’s a principal source of musical enjoyment.

So it was with excitement that I opened the box from Meze Audio which contained their latest over-ear transducers, the Empyrean II. Cited as an improvement over the original innovative design, these planar magnetic headphones boast refinements of the brand’s isodynamic hybrid array driver design from Rinaro Isodynamics of Ukraine, that promises “a step-change performance”. Sounds promising.

Meze Audio

Meze Audio is the brainchild of Antonio Meze. He was searching for a pair of headphones that he could relate to in the same way he felt connected to his Fender Stratocaster guitar. His frustration led to the foundation of what’s become a high-end headphone maker with global distribution and, in 2011, Meze Audio was founded in Baia Mare, Romania. It began, like so many audio brands, in a small way by “acquiring knowledge by experimenting with parts already on the market, searching and researching for the right materials and engineering solutions in the quest for the perfect sound and feel”, he says.

Meze Audio Empyrean II headphone review https://the-ear.net

Then, in 2015, there was something of a breakthrough when, after years of development, its 99 Classics were launched to wide acclaim and international awards. “Today all our models, headphones and earphones, are developed in-house from the ground up, in the spirit of our original ‘no-compromise’ vision”, he proudly proclaims. At their launch, the Empyreans were billed as the world’s first isodynamic hybrid array headphones so I am looking forward to trying the ‘new and improved’ variant.

The Empyrean II’s fiberglass-infused ABS frames are the result of CNC milling, featuring a sleek black-matte finish with silver accents, and a redesigned aluminium grille with Art Deco inspiration such that the styling is unmistakable. Effort has been taken to minimise weight and pressure on the head to allow for lengthy listening sessions. Two sets of earpads are supplied: one leather, the other Alcantara, and I experimented with both.

Meze Audio Empyrean II headphone review https://the-ear.net

At the heart of the Empyrean IIs are isodynamic hybrid array drivers which combine individual switchback and spiral shaped voice coils in one driver. The work is subject to various patents registered in the US, EU and China.

The technical specifications are impressive, such as the quoted high frequency extreme of 110kHz; bat territory. Then there’s the magnet array; symmetrically placed on each side of the diaphragm, the neodymium magnets are arranged into a hybrid array to create the isodynamic magnetic field required for a uniform activation across the whole diaphragm surface. The diaphragm itself weighs just 0.16 g, quite incredible.

Not quite sure what an isoplanar diaphragm was, I turned to Meze’s website to discover that it has a switchback coil which is good for reproducing lower frequencies and which is positioned in the upper part of the driver. The spiral coil is more efficient at reproducing middle-high frequencies and so we find that directly over the ear canal, enabling more direct sound waves to enter the ear without any time delays.

Headphones or speakers?

So much for the technology and marketing, but how do these headphones sound? During my days in professional audio, I relied on headphones to balance live events when there was too much extraneous noise to use monitor loudspeakers. At other times, we would always have a pair of ‘cans’ plugged into the mixing desk, albeit not high-end variants such as the Empyrean IIs.

Meze Audio Empyrean II headphone review https://the-ear.net

Headphone listening is quite different from hearing via loudspeakers with room interactions audible. Each provides a unique and entirely different listening experience, and certainly neither is better than the other. Both can bring us closer to the music in ways the other misses. Loudspeakers produce a stereo soundstage in front of the listener whereas listening via headphones is binaural, creating an ‘in head’ soundstage.

The private world of headphones will be used by many as a supplement, in situations where speakers are inappropriate, such as not to annoy the rest of the household or the neighbours. They are also a boon in circumstances when you want to shut everyone else out, such as in a shared office or public area. For others there will be preference to headphones over loudspeakers and, indeed, such personal listening does have its advantages such as hearing more detail in recordings and the sense of an intimate performance taking place at close quarters.

Set-up and options

Empyrean IIs come in a sturdy plastic travel case which houses both sets of ear pads, but the cable needs to be removed before storage because it has a separate compartment. The review sample was supplied with three optional premium cables featuring braided silver-plated Furukawa copper. Each had a pair of four-pin mini XLR connections for the headphone end, with either a 3.5mm stereo jack, a 6.3mm jack plug for amplifier connection, or a balanced 4.4mm plug for use with dedicated headphone amplifier so equipped.

Having a 32 Ohms impedance, the headphones are not hard to drive and I paired them variously with a Hegel H190, my iPhone, MacBook, a dedicated Chord headphone amp and even a newly-acquired internet radio tuner, with varying results.

Swapping the ear cushions is quick and easy although I decided not to try each and every track with both options and stuck with the leather ones which I found to produce a better fit/seal around my ears. The Alcantara pads create a rich, dynamic sound; smooth and slightly warm with a full bass while the leather pads are clearly tighter in the bass and better controlled have an enhanced midrange presence and, to my mind, a slightly more natural sound signature. In essence I wanted the best of both worlds, depending on the material I was listening to, be it an analogue or digital source and the genre.

Meze Audio Empyrean II headphone review https://the-ear.net

The Empyrean IIs are large headphones, without any noise cancellation, and clearly intended for indoor use and serious listening. Although a bulky design, the weight is well dispersed through the over-sized headband and there’s no unpleasant pressure on the cranium. I found it no problem to wear them for extended periods without any issues, doubtless due to the combination of carbon fibre headband and separate leather headrest.

Sound quality

I left the Empyrean IIs connected to the Hegel H190 and a feed of Radio 3 through them for a week or more by way of running-in, although there is no instruction manual to give such guidance. Eventually it was time to audition. Listening first via the H190 this seemed to be a good match and I was immediately impressed by the overall sound quality of the Meze design. These are clearly top-notch headphones and capable of producing an engaging and dynamic presentation for personal enjoyment.

Listening to some female vocalists on the Empyrean IIs, among them Lisa Stansfield, Alison Moyet and Joni Mitchell, I was struck by the level of emotion portrayed through the Empyrean IIs. The overall sound quality was also on a level surpassing so many other designs and I began to appreciate the intimacy of headphone listening and its attraction. The sound was ethereal and sent a shiver down my spine, the tingle increasing with the artistic expression.

Meze Audio Empyrean II headphone review https://the-ear.net

The bass had surprising drive and punch, much more so than I had expected from an open-backed design. This came through with the likes of Yello, Christian McBride and the Himalaya soundtrack (1999). There was tremendous impact and a wide dynamic range being reproduced such that I was aware of each and every nuance of the recording. These are really rather special headphones.

Detail and clarity are also key facets of the Meze Empyrean II as I discovered on some of my favourite classical material, including Bach’s Magnificat (Collegium Vocale Gent from 2002) and The Tallis Scholars with Peter Phillips performing Allegri: Miserere. There was a lovely feeling of involvement with it almost whispering into the ears. The midrange was superb, so much so that I would be comfortable monitoring with the Empyrean IIs. The balance is warm and lush with a natural and well-balanced treble, whereas I know some headphones can overdo the highs. Here, the top notes are refined and sophisticated to generate a crisp and realistic sound.

Moving to speech material, I enjoyed so many of my favourite dramas via the Mezes, from David Suchet reading Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories, to the inimitable Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey in the BBC radio dramatization of Dorothy L Sayers’ mysteries. I was delighted by the sense of openness and airiness around the performers and the creation of a soundstage of great width and depth, placing everyone in just the right place to make the performance highly believable.

I also obtained delightful results when pairing the Meze with a Chord Electronics Mojo 2 headphone amp which managed to create wonderful pace and timing along with superb dynamics, although for human voice I have to say I preferred the balance from the Hegel (better presence) but then it’s a sound I am used to whereas the little Chord box was merely on loan.

Meze Audio Empyrean II headphone review https://the-ear.net

Before returning the Empyrean II headphones, I did try them in my Macbook, by changing to the 3.5mm cable which, at just 1.3m long, is sensibly shorter. I was pleased with the sound although the output stage of this PC is clearly not of audiophile quality. Nevertheless, there was a smooth and natural sound created with a slight warmth to the tone. Bass was notable for its lovely texture while the highs remained a key delight in the overall balance, even slightly pronounced at the time – a facet of the computer’s amplifier stage, I am sure. One live recording I enjoyed (Genesis: The Way We Walk) was particularly notable for conveying the venue atmosphere so well. Here the bass was deep and the pace and timing notable for their precision and speed. Overall, the concert was rendered so vivid as to be slightly surreal.

Conclusion

The Meze Empyrean IIs can be worn for extended periods without any discomfort despite their size thanks to that amazing headband. The sound quality was superb in almost every respect and better than expected in some. The emotional involvement was incredible, the refinement a delight and the soundstage placement remarkable. For me, the midrange was the standout and rendered human voice in an utterly believable manner. That said, the bass and treble were also outstanding. The only downsides are lack of portability, these are really a home-use design.

In the Empyrean II Meze have clearly produced a design capable of extreme clarity, amazing neutrality and fine spaciousness. This is a well-designed and superbly engineered headphone that should be high on the audition list for anyone looking in this price bracket; it’s a top-level headphone in so many ways.

Specifications:

Type: isodynamic, open-back headphones
Ear coupling: over-ear (circumaural)
Transducer principle: planar
Driver size: 102 x 73 mm
Impedance: 32 Ohms
Max sound pressure level (SPL): >130 dB
Frequency range: 8 – 110,000 Hz
THD: <%0.5 (in the whole frequency range)
Connector options: 2.5 mm, 3.5 mm (1/8 in), 4.4 mm, 6.3 mm (1/4 in), 4 pin XLR
Cable type/length: silver-plated or copper PCUHD/ 2.5m or 1.3m
Accessories: ABS plastic case with foam inserts and leather handle, two sets of earpads
Weight: 385 g (without earpads)
Warranty: 2 years

Price when tested:
£2,749
Manufacturer Details:

Meze Audio SRL
mezeaudio.com

Type:

planar headphones

Author:

Trevor Butler

Distributor Details:

SCV Distribution
T +44 (0) 330 122 2500
http://www.scvdistribution.co.uk

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