This review marks somewhat of a milestone for this blog. While I’ve written a bunch of reviews up to this point, they’ve all been for products that I’ve purchased with my own, hard-earned dollars.
Then, a few months ago, I noticed on Head-fi.org that headphone manufacturer Meze Headphones was arranging a North American “tour” of their newest IEM, the 12 Classics. Those willing to write a review of the 12 Classics would receive a pair to evaluate. The reviewer would even get to keep the pair!
I was a little reluctant to sign on, fearful of the possibility of positive bias. Would getting “free stuff” make me more prone to write a review with a positive slant? Or, if I hated the 12 Classics, would I have the nerve to say so?
As you’ll see, all of this neurotic perseverating was for naught. The Meze 12 Classics are good, really good, and astonishingly good for the price.
First the obligatory unboxing photos:
I like the no-nonsense packaging of the 12 Classics. There’s a hook at the top for a retail store sales rack, and a box not much larger than needed for the phones and accessories. I am not a huge fan of wasteful, “luxury” packaging, but that’s just me. Notice, though, how the arrangement of the cables on the front of the box mimics the “trident” Meze logo at the top of the box. Nice.
The back of the box gives some nice technical information on the 12 Classics, along with the exploded view of its innards.
One side panel of the box.
And the other side of the box.
The inside is a refreshingly simple, functional affair, with the foam insert holding the earphones and the nicely embossed carrying case.
Here are the contents of the carrying case. You get one pair of Comply foam tips, along with a plastic bag containing…
…several pairs of silicon tips, including a dual-flange design, along with a cable shirt clip.
Design and Materials
Before we get to the most important part of this review – how the 12 Classics sound, of course – I want to comment on their physical design.
At any price, but especially at their “bargain” price of US $79, the 12 Classics are an exceptionally beautiful product. Take at look at this side view of the housings:
The walnut body of the earphone housing looks great, especially offset by the gunmetal grey aluminum end caps. Notice, too, the slight hourglass taper of the wood portion of the housing. This design note, the “hourglass” or concave surface, appears repeatedly throughout the design:
In the concave, outer surface of the end cap, decorated with the Meze logo.
In the subtle, hourglass shape of the mic/remote housing.
And in the concave, hourglass shape of the Y-splitter.
Additionally, the color of the cable jacket provides a beautiful match to the metal of the housings. A shout out, too, should be given to the tiny, light housings. I can’t imagine that anyone would find these IEM’s uncomfortable. They are definitely in the “you can forget you’re wearing them” category. Note, however, that these can’t be worn with the cable looped back over the top of your ear – they just don’t work that way.
Now, normally, I wouldn’t devote this much time and attention to the physical form of a pair of IEM’s. In this case, though, the consistently elegant design of these earphones tells you that someone took a lot of time and care designing the exterior of these things, suggesting that they might have taken equal care in their sonic design, too. So, is that the case?
A Digression and an Analogy: The Driver Wars
The Meze 12 Classics feature one driver per side: a proprietary, titanium-coated-mylar diaphragm, dynamic (as opposed to balanced armature or planar magnetic) driver, a tiny 8 mm in diameter.
That’s it? Just one driver per side, when so many IEM’s these days tout two or more drivers in each earpiece? Ah, you might think – no wonder they’re so inexpensive. Just one driver!
Not so fast.
Do you remember the “megapixel wars?” In the early days of digital photography (and still, today, to some extent) digital camera manufacturers did a lot to promulgate the meme that the number of pixels crammed into a camera’s sensor chip determined the quality of the images the camera could produce. In other words, the more pixels, the better. Over time this proved not to be true. In fact, the only sure advantage of more pixels was that a higher-resolution photo could be cropped and enlarged without becoming pixellated. On the other hand, it turned out that squeezing ever more pixels into tiny sensor chips often resulted in images with more graininess, digital “noise” and chromatic aberration (purple “fringing” around high-contrast areas of a photo). Gradually, savvy consumers learned that many other factors besides how dense the pixels were on the CCD chip( such as the quality of the camera’s lens) influenced the image quality one could expect. My aging but still excellent Nikon D50 DSLR, for example, is “only” 6 megapixels, but the image quality is still wonderful.
Why the heck am I talking about digital cameras in an audio blog? Because the IEM equivalent of the megapixel wars seems to be the Driver Wars, a marketing proposition that suggests that the more drivers that a manufacturer has managed to cram into an IEM’s housing, the better it must sound. The result is that at both the very expensive high end (such as this six-balanced-armature driver-per-side custom IEM by JH Audio) or in more mid-priced territory (such as this “bargain priced,” 7-driver-per-side Chinese IEM) many shoppers assume that the number of drivers per earpiece is directly proportional to the sonic goodness of the IEM.
To quote the great George Gershwin, “It ain’t necessarily so.”
Consider home audio. The engineering challenge of integrating multiple drivers in home stereo loudspeakers is well documented. Using a complex, electronic crossover to dissect and distribute a musical waveform amongst several different drivers, each covering a different part of the frequency range, and then attempting to faithfully reconstitute that musical signal at the ears of the listener, is notoriously difficult. Most crossovers introduce phase and time distortions into the music that can make the music sound less coherent, less cut from the same cloth.
That’s why there a whole home audio subculture devoted to single-driver speakers, which can exhibit an uncanny musical “rightness,” especially in the midrange where most music (vocals especially) lives. And yet, there’s no free lunch in physics, and so, to quote from this old blog post of mine:
In the field of high sensitivity loudspeakers, a particularly interesting segment is populated by single-driver designs. This means just what it sounds like it should mean: single driver speakers use one driver to cover the entire frequency range. These drivers typically have very, very light speaker cones and powerful motor magnets. Why bother trying to make a single driver cover the entire audio spectrum? For one thing, a single drive speaker needs no electronic crossover network to divide up the frequency spectrum among specialized woofers, midranges and tweeters. This avoids all sorts of potential nastiness, including phase anomalies and the tendency of complex crossovers to suck power (which is one reason that single-driver speakers tend to be rather [low power amp] friendly). Also, providing a true “point source,” single driver speakers are cherished for their otherworldly imaging prowess. On the downside, single driver designs are often faulted (by those who don’t care for them) for having limited bass response, limited dynamic range and the tendency to produce harsh or “shouty” treble…
So, does the presence of more than one driver automatically equal better sound? No way. There are simply too many other variables (such as driver type and design, housing design and materials, crossover design and more) to make that kind of generalization. Thus I have purchased (and subsequently returned) several well reviewed, multiple driver IEM’s that I thought sounded dreadful (all boom and sizzle, so to speak) and I’ve heard several single driver designs that I loved. In the end, the number of drivers tells you very little about the musical goodness of an IEM. You just have to listen for yourself!
Which, at last, brings us to…
The Sound Of The Single-Dynamic-Driver Meze 12 Classics
I guess I should note here that I did all my evaluative listening with my iBasso DX80 DAP. I gave them about 24 hours of break-in before doing any serious listening. All files referenced below are lossless CD rips or high-resolution commercial downloads. That said,
I love the Meze 12 Classics. Without regard to price, they are a very lovable, listenable, coherent and musically satisfying pair of IEM’s. Factoring in their sub-$100 retail price, they are an astonishing bargain.
The 12 Classics do something important (to me) that you’d hope a well designed and executed pair of single-driver IEM’s would do: they nail coherence. Music flows easily, sounds like a performance (and not just “sound”) and allows you to relax because your brain isn’t working overtime to decipher what you’re hearing. They render the aural cues that we interpret as ambient space with uncanny nuance, and their ability to place musical elements (singers, instrumentalists) on an almost visual sound stage is very strong. You can really hear this facility with spatial presentation on well recorded, live recordings like Chan Chan from the magnificent Buena Vista Social Club. The sense “air” and space around the voices of the magnificent Ibrahim Ferrer and Eliades Ochoa as they joyfully rip into this slow number is just gorgeous.
The same goes for the placement and separation of the background singers in Traffic Jam on James Taylor’s (Live) double CD set. It’s quite thrilling.
The 12 Classics also do a great job with tonality: a sax sounds like a sax, a voice sounds like a voice, an orchestral string section sounds woody and sweet and a guitar sounds like a guitar.
The frequency extension of the 12 Classics is remarkable, especially considering that they’ve chosen to go the single driver route. The low end, while not exhibiting the ultimate in tightly controlled bass, goes quite deep, with plenty of grunt and rumble when called for. My favorite “bass test” track is Negative Girl from Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature CD. The opening ten or so bars of that tune feature some tasty lines played on a five-string electric bass guitar, with some extremely low notes. It’s quite impressive how well the 12 Classics render those very low bass notes!
This facility with lower frequencies also does great things with percussion. For example, I was stunned with what the 12 Classics did in rendering the deep, yet tuneful THUD of the huge drumbeat that opens Hotel California on The Eagles Hell Freezes Over live CD. And again, they do this all with a single, carefully tuned and executed dynamic driver.
At the high end, the 12 Classics feel extended, but without the upper-midrange spike (masquerading as “detail”) that can make some IEM’s painful to listen to. My “test track” for this is Lorde’s Buzzcut Season from her Pure Heroine album. The vocals are very closely miked and Lorde’s voice is definitely EQ’ed with an upward tilt. The test comes near the beginning of this (wonderful) song, when she sings,
I remember when your head caught flame
It kissed your scalp and caressed your brain
Lesser earphones with a “fake detail spike” will render the sibilants in “kissed,” “scalp” and “caressed” as virtual icepicks to your eardrums. Ugh! The 12 Classics get this just right: “hot” but not abrasive. I’ve listened to $300 IEM’s that couldn’t get this right.
Midrange, too, where most of our music lives, is excellent. Vocals sound great – warm, human and alive.
What’s Not To Like?
Alas, nothing’s perfect. Here are a few areas where I think the 12 Classics fall short:
- The cable is markedly microphonic. The texture of the insulation has a somewhat rubbery quality, which bodes well for long term durability but seems to have a role in increasing friction and thus transmitting and amplifying any noise generated by the cable rubbing against your clothing. The included cable clip should help with this, but I wish it weren’t that necessary.
- The L and R channel markings on the housings are nearly invisible. They are embossed on the outside of the light grey strain relief tube underneath each earpiece and are very hard to discern. This problem is mitigated by the fact that once you realize that the microphone is attached below the right channel earpiece, the need for R and L markings is not as great. Still, in a product this thoughtfully designed, it’s a bit of a surprise.
- The selection of ear tip sizes could be a little more varied. I have pretty large ear canals and the only tips that give me a good seal are the largest silicone tips. Both the Comply foams and the dual flange tips don’t cut it for my aural anatomy. Hardly a deal breaker, especially at this price, but something to be aware of.
- Soundstage width: I’m still pondering this one. It’s quite good, actually, but not as cavernous as I’ve experienced with some other IEM’s, such as my KEF M200’s (which, to be fair, retail for more than twice the price of the 12 Classics). But truthfully this is only a relative “minus” in comparison to some other IEM’s I’ve heard that are soundstage width champs. And at this price, it’s hard to complain.
I said it before and I’ll say it again. I love the Meze 12 Classics. Without regard to price, they are a very lovable, listenable (for hours on end without fatigue) coherent and musically satisfying pair of IEM’s. Factoring in their sub-$100 retail price, they are an astonishing bargain.
As always, I love it when my readers comment on a post, so feel free to do so. Until next time, be kind to others and enjoy your music!