After the end of the Cold War, what was once a dead market for high-end audio has become a thriving scene with dozens of domestic manufacturers. Eastern Europe is not only supporting its own domestic consumer electronics industry but exporting reference-quality level equipment to the finest audio stores to the rest of the world. Brands such as Heed Audio (Hungary), Trafomatic Audio (Serbia), Kuzma (Slovenia), Thrax Audio (Bulgaria) and Meze Audio are taking on established giants and winning.
Based in Romania, Meze Audio introduced its first high-end headphones, the 99 Classics closed-back headphones, in 2015 and they almost immediately received an enthusiastic response from the Head-Fi community. At the time the high-end headphone market was becoming saturated with planar magnetic headphones and custom IEMs retailing for thousands of dollars, the Meze 99 ($309) were an over-achieving bargain. With their hand-polished walnut earcups, lightweight headband, and high-performance drivers, the affordable Romanian headphones were a much-needed glass of Tuica when everyone was demanding 18-year-old Aberlour.
Word spread quickly that the dynamic Meze 99 was a genuine alternative to established headphones from industry giants like Sennheiser, AKG, and Beyerdynamic. Meze Audio’s head designer and founder, Antonio Meze, admits that his quest to build himself a pair of great-sounding yet practical headphones turned into something far greater.
“It all started in 2009, when I was looking for a pair of headphones that I could relate to in the same way I felt connected to my Fender Stratocaster guitar,” Meze explained. “I needed a practical headphone that I could use because I was relocating extensively for work. It needed to fulfill my practical needs while also being a treat for my senses.” As an avid cyclist, Meze also found inspiration in his bicycles. “What I love about bicycles is that a lot of the mechanical engineering elements are perfectly visible and not hidden like in the case of most products today. I want my headphones to convey that same sense of beauty.”
Romania does not have a history of producing high-end consumer electronics, but a lot has changed in the last 30 years. “It has a fresh energy, ambitious people, and is finally a great space for new ideas to emerge. There were always a lot of creative and intellectual people, and our IT industry is booming. The truth is that the new Romania was created and is being sustained by the people and not the government. It is up to people like me to make things happen and that has given us the inspiration to compete with the big brands and challenge the status quo within the industry.”
The company eventually established themselves globally with a product line-up which, in addition to the 99 Classics ($309), includes an entry-level pair of closed-back headphones, the 99 Neo ($199), and couple pairs of earphones. But they were more ambitious and decided to dive into the planar magnetic category of headphones, putting them in direct competition with Audeze, HiFiMan and MrSpeakers (now known as Dan Clark Audio). It was a risky decision, considering the brand had built its business selling affordable, dynamic headphones.
The company’s first planar magnetic headphones, the Empyrean ($2,999), aren’t inexpensive but they are unique. The multi-year project to make them was a collaboration between Meze Audio and Rinaro Isodynamics, a Ukrainian company who’s been at the forefront of planar magnetic driver design since 1980. The two companies designed and integrated the first isodynamic hybrid array driver into the Empyrean headphones, and it has since sent shockwaves through the headphone industry.
The Isodynamic Hybrid driver is designed with a dual shaped voice coil array — a first for planar magnetic headphones — meaning its noticeably lighter than other planar magnetic headphones; spend ten minutes with a pair of competing designs and it becomes rather evident that Meze has made one of the most comfortable headphones in the world. The CNC-sculpted skeleton is machined from a single block of solid aluminum, and the headband and earpads offer the perfect balance of pressure and comfort.
The Empyrean headphones deliver when it comes to sonic performance. Everything that’s great about planar magnetic transducers — transparency, coherency, midrange resolution and soundstage depth — is present in the Empyrean. The overall balance is very even from top to bottom, and it does something with the human voice that you just have to experience for yourself.