Better Than the Meze Empyrean?
It's a difficult thing today to improve upon something that is already perceived as perfect or near-perfect. The necessity to always improve headphones and innovate with new technology can frequently come up short and lead to minimal generational improvements that can be considered negligible to the headphone audience. That's why back in 2019 when I reviewed the Meze Empyrean headphone it was considered the end-game: the stopping point for those looking for a headphone that will fulfill all their wants and desires when it comes to listening to their favorite music.
Well, I'm sorry to inform you that there is a new headphone champion.
Not just a champion, but an ELITE champion (see what I did there?). it might look like another Empyrean, but don't make the mistake of calling it the Empyrean Elite. No, it's just the Elite headphone. Meze Audio has produced yet more high-end sonic ear-magic, and the Elite headphone promises to make the Empyrean old news.
So if the Meze Empyrean is an end-game headphone, what do we call the Elite? End-end game headphones? REAL end-game headphones? I'll come up with something by the end of this review...
- Amazing fidelity and soundstage
- Great build-quality
- Reasonably light and comfortable given the size
- Superb styling
- Chrome design might be polarizing for some
"With ELITE, we've created something that transcends all barriers of headphone design and engineering and moves to a new, artistic, graceful level. Following in the footsteps of a successful partnership, together with Rinaro Isodynamics we managed to exceed our expectations once again and create something for the ages. It’s not mass production; it’s the craftsmanship that sparks the magic and wonder in ELITE, what makes it exciting, and these are values that we choose over any shortcuts."
-Antonio Meze, Lead Designer and Founder of Meze Audio
Materials, Quality, & Comfort
Much like the Empyrean headphones, the Elite is stylized in a similar fashion. The materials and craftsmanship of the headphones are second to none. According to Meze, each sculpted Elite and Empyrean aluminum skeleton takes about 20 hours to mill. The design is intricate and precise, and it's these little details that I really come to appreciate from Meze Audio and their attention to the premium quality of their headphones. One thing I will note about the Elite is that althought it is technically an open-back headphone, the sound bleed is not nearly as loud as other open-back headphones on the market. The design of the earcup allows for the spaciousness of an open atmosphere without the annoyance of sounding like mini speakers to anyone outside of the headphone.
The architecture of the headphone is unique and eye-catching. The way the different pieces work together and articulate are a sign of a well-constructed headphone with the intended purpose of long and enjoyable listening sessions. The headband is made from carbon fiber, and is incredibly strong but flexible, allowing for easy spreading of the ear cups for various head sizes. Also original to Meze is their ovoid shape ear cup design. Most headphones have either a circular, elliptical or even a rectangle design. Meze on the other hand designed their ear cup in an ovoid shape, understanding that the more natural shape of the ear should be mirrored by the ear pad or cup - even the driver too. Since the ear pad fits the shape of the ear itself, it allows for less "room" within the ear cup for sound to bounce around and get lost in. In other words, you have a more direct channel to the music. Meze carries over the "pressure distribution wings" headrest design from the Empyrean here as well, with the wide leather padding does well to relieve any uncomfortable pressure points. The design itself helps to fully surround the top of your head, distributing the weight of the ear cups. Personally, the only downside I would mention is the same as the Empyrean: the wider surface area restricts airflow on the top of my head, causing it to feel hot after long listening sessions. This would be alleviated by implementing holes in the headband for improved ventilation, but this is only a personal gripe as I tend to run "hotter" than the normal human (referring to body temperature).
The planar magnetic headphones aren't heavy, but they are bulky. The ear cups have thick pads that create a great seal and add to the overall comfort, as well as housing large planar magnetic drivers, so the larger size is understandable. The cups also pivot on a wider axis than any other headphone on the market. This isn't a bad thing, but a design choice that allows for the headphone to fit a larger number of heads to create that perfect fit. At times I wish the mechanism had more friction, realized when picking up the headphone from a table, both ear cups should be grabbed rather than just one. Of course, it's designed that way to be articulated enough to fit any size head, but it's worth mentioning regardless. This is easy for me to overlook however because once they're on my head it's easy to forget they're there if you're staying seated.
New to the Elite is the branding on the ear cup adjustment and the head rest. The silver and black color scheme really make the Elite stand out in a great way, looking indeed elite among the competition. The Elite also makes a small change to the size of the ear pads, making them slimmer which results in a sonic change from the Empyrean as well. Thinner ear pads results in a more immediate sound, with less room between your ear and driver (more on that in the comparison section). When it comes to overall comfort, the Elite headphones get it right. Strong seal, lightweight, even weight distribution, and a design that doesn't leave you doubting that it is a premium flagship headphone. The chrome color might be a turn-off for some, but it isn't as "fast-and-furious" in person. If you loved the Empyrean, then the Elite will tickle your fancy as well, with a similar design and overall styling. The small aesthetic improvements of the Elite however make it a supreme headphone, and deserving of the name. However, the true elite feature here is not the construction of the headphone, but how it sounds.
A TIMELESS STATEMENT OF HI-FI
“Empyrean was born from passion, curiosity, and innovation. As a business, we have allowed ourselves the freedom to experiment and take risks in search of the perfect sound. To generate something truly remarkable, one must dare to explore, and that’s what we did with Empyrean. We pushed and refined industry’ standards and achieved a true game-changer for audiophiles.”
-Antonio Meze, Lead Designer, and Founder Meze Audio
About Meze & Rinaro
Meze Audio: For the past 10 years, Meze Audio has been developing audiophile over-ear headphones and earphones renowned for their timeless design, pure comfort and engaging, vivid sound. From looks to technology, Meze Audio products are designed to surpass all short-living trends and become heirlooms, rather than just headphones. Today, founder Antonio Meze and his skilled team design and develop their products in Baia Mare, Romania, in the spirit of their original ‘no-compromise’ vision.
Rinaro Isodynamics: Rinaro originated in the USSR (today’s Ukraine) during the Cold War as part of a state-funded acoustic technology research program. With government backing and access to advanced testing facilities, the team was able to focus all of its efforts on planar magnetics. A field they have continued to innovate in for the last 30 years, since the collapse of the USSR. In the last decade, Rinaro have expanded their capabilities and capacity with the development of state-of-the-art R&D and manufacturing facilities in Ukraine and Poland. The new facilities have been a driving force in the creation of the revolutionary Isodynamic Hybrid Array technology found in Meze Empyrean and ELITE headphones.
Progression: The Science of a Unique Driver
Meze teamed up with Rinaro to create a unique planar magnetic driver design called the Isodynamic Hybrid Array Driver. The hybrid design combines two independently shaped voice coils within the same diaphragm which delivers a more selective acoustic performance to the various areas within the structure of the ear. The first part is the hybrid magnet array, placed symmetrically on each side of the diaphragm, neodymium magnets are specifically arranged to create an efficient isodynamic magnetic field. This magnetic field is required for a uniform activation across the whole diaphragm surface. The second part of the driver is the Rinaro isoplanar diaphragm, which is amazingly light with a large active surface area, resulting in a more dynamic auditory experience.
There are a number of benefits to the hybrid driver design. It reduces the overall weight of the driver design and creates very accurately reproduced audio just to name a few. The Empyrean and Elite driver combines individual switchback and spiral-shaped voice coils, their unique shapes allow sound to be targeted with more accuracy around the natural form of the ear. This unique combination generates an increased exposure of direct sound wave frequencies over the 10kHz range and improves imaging and localization by decreasing the impact of shortwave time delays caused by diffused field reflections.
One of the problems with conventional planar magnetic arrays comes from reflected signals entering the ear canal with different time delays, thereby worsening the focus of 3D sound imaging. Combining different voice coil configurations makes it possible to create a better sound intensity distribution across the sound wavefront at high frequencies when directed at the auricle and ear canal. The switchback coil is better at reproducing lower frequencies and the spiral coil is better at the mid-high frequencies.
The Flagship Rinaro Isodynamic Hybrid Array Driver - ELITE Improvements
With a custom, newly designed driver created by Rinaro Isodynamics, the Elite is the result of three years of research and development through which Meze Audio strived to create a powerful, lifelike, and immersive experience that awakens the senses of the listener.
- Ultra Low Distortion: Total harmonic distortion (THD) measures under 0.05% in the whole frequency range.
- Lightweight: 75g combined driver weight designed to create a headphone that offers prolonged listening sessions.
- Ultra-High Resolution Audio: Upper frequency limit of audio reproduction is 112,000Hz.
- Rinaro Parus Diaphragm: An innovative low mass acoustic diaphragm constructed on an ultra-thin biaxially oriented semi-crystalline film.
- Easy to Drive: 101dB @1mw/1kHz; 32ohm - Can be driven by almost any source without the need for amplification.
- Patented Isodynamic Hybrid Array Technology: One of the most sophisticated and advanced planar magnetic technologies in the world.
The MZ3SE driver builds on the pioneering technology of the flagship MZ3 driver found in the Empyrean headphone. The innovative Isodynamic Hybrid Array technology delivers a more selective acoustic performance to the various areas within the structure of the ear. Advances in diaphragm materials have opened the doors to even higher resolution and accuracy of the sound reproduction, setting a new benchmark in headphone design.
The new driver behind the Elite features Rinaro Parus, in an innovative low mass acoustic diaphragm build on an ultra-thin biaxially oriented semi-crystalline polymer film. This, combined with the signature Isodynamic Hybrid Array Driver technology, allows sound waves to be targets with more accuracy around the shape of the ear, producing natural sound transparency as a wide, articulate soundstage. The polymer is produced with bespoke sequential biaxial lengthening technology, a process that involves stretching the polymer in transverse directions at elevated temperatures to improve structural performance. This results in a complex semi-crystalline micro-structure developing in the material, which exhibits remarkable strength, stiffness, and stability, combined with an extremely low acoustic mass.
So how does that translate into the sound quality and performance of the Meze Audio Elite headphone? The tuning of the Meze Elite is what you would expect from a flagship reference sound: tight and accurate bass response for an open-back headphone and clear and detailed high-mids and high frequencies which add a great amount of definition to the overall sound. The headphones are quite balanced, but what stands out to me most is the amount of detail that is present despite the Elite not being analytical. Usually more forward sounding headphones are tuned to bring out more detail in your music, and even though the Elite is not forward sounding, details and clarity are ever-present. We'll get into direct comparisons of how the Elite differs from the Empyrean in the next section, but the tuning combined with the quintessential Meze soundstage make for one of the best open-back headphones I've heard.
Due to the incredibly wide soundstage, classical and jazz are going to sound expansive and expressive. Full separation of the orchestra sections is clearly defined and the imaging puts you fully inside the action; French horns in the back left, stand-up basses on the far right, woodwinds in the middle - it's impressive, to say the least. Mahler's Symphony #2 in C Minor is a perfect example of how the low-frequency response of the headphone is tight and refined, but the headphone has enough "space" in it so that the other sections are clearly heard even in loud and bombastic parts. The Elite puts you on the conductor's podium. It gives you the 180+ degrees of total orchestral spread, but clear enough that you can hear each row of instruments, giving you an impressive depth with the wide soundstage. The opening of the symphony really makes the headphones shine. The strings start off with a sudden fortissimo note then decrescendo-ing to a whisper while the low strings take over with their staccato lines. The fact that I can hear both these louder staccato parts AND the almost inaudible sustained high strings simultaneously is incredible. Other headphones just don't have the separation to be able to do this effectively without experiencing it firsthand in the concert hall. I can hear where the Elite's drivers are a substantial improvement in tuning over the original Empyrean especially in this kind of genre. It's night and day.
Even in rock music, you can feel the power behind the Elite headphones. U2's Where the Streets Have No Name is an anthem to my soul. One of my favorite tones of the song is the delayed guitars and synth in the intro - the soundscape they create is an ethereal amalgamation of building intensity and emotion that gets any listener excited about what's to come. The bass drives the song with eighth notes pretty much the entire time and I can hear the intonation of each stroke through the Elite headphones. Again, the separation here makes the music sound bigger and livelier than other setups I've listened to. Sigur Ros' live Inni album is also an experience. Sigur Ros is a band from Iceland and if you haven't heard them do yourself a favor and go ahead and put them in the queue. I don't know what it about their music but with songs like Hoppipolla and Vid Spilum Endalaust they capture the wonder and amazement of being a child again. Their music can be simple like a lullaby at times whilst still having complex and multiple layers to their instrumentation. The vocals are put in the forefront despite it being big on rhythm and loud choruses. The vocals are falsetto half the time, but having them balanced or not burried in the other instrumentation is nice for a change. Other headphones cover up the falsetto quite easily albeit unintentionally due to the vocal change in softness and intonation. The Elite headphones handle this with ease with lots of help from the great soundstage and large, accurate drivers.
Dervish is one of Ireland's best bands, and their The Great Irish Songbook is a moving album bringing in a lot of guest talent for some more traditional Irish tunes. The Galway Shawl brings on Steve Earle and Vince Gill for a solid rendition of the classic song. The Elite shows off the great low end accuracy on the stand up bass here, along with the intimacy of the picking on the mandolin and guitar. The three part harmonies are spread beautifully on top here like seasoning on a fine steak. All instrumentation and layers coming on the final chorus isn't chaotic and claustrophobic as I've heard it before, but full and lively, as it was meant to be. The separation and soundstage were already elite from Meze Audio, but now the drivers are truly something to experience and create for a special listening experience that doesn't compare to other flagship headphones on the market. Great job Meze.
Mahler - Symphony #2 in C Minor
U2 - The Joshua Tree - Where the Streets Have No Name
Sigur Ros - Inni - Vio spilum endalaust
Dervish - The Great Irish Songbook - The Galway Shawl
So how does the Elite headphone compare to the former flagship Empyrean? One word: More. The Empyrean headphones are already great in bringing out elements that get lost and covered up in smaller or tighter soundstages. In my earlier review of the Meze Empyrean, I called them a work of art and a true end-game headphone - and that still holds true today despite the new Elite. Priced at $2,999, the Meze Empyrean is still among the top-tiered audiophile high-end headphones on the market today. It’s an immaculately crafted work of art that also just happens to sound amazing. The headphones are a delight to wear for long listening sessions; the weight and distribution are just right. Sonically, the Empyrean is nothing short of an endgame headphone. I highly recommend supplementing them with a Silver Dragon cable to balance out the EQ curve of the stock cable. It will really help the Empyrean become more transparent.
At the end of the day, The Meze Empyrean is an impressive piece of equipment. My favorite quality of these headphones is the soundstage. I’m still picking up aspects of songs that I know like the back of my hand and hearing new things through them. That to me is part of the fun of being an audiophile: rediscovering old music and breathing new life into these songs day after day. It never gets old. The tuning of the Empyrean is varied enough to appease most listeners but they are definitely on the warm side of the sound signature spectrum.
The Elite fixes what those people didn't like in the Empyrean. They provide more detail, more clarity, and definition across the board. More. The Elite adds more perceived energy to your music due to the re-tuning and changes to the driver. It will appeal to more analytical and forward-sounding signature lovers, but I still wouldn't classify the Elite as a forward or analytical headphone. It still retains enough low end and warmth from the isodynamic driver array to be one of the most versatile reference pair of headphones on the market. To boot, the Elite driver is much more efficient to drive than the Empyrean, so if you're without a dedicated headphone amplifier then the Elite would be the better option. Another notable feature that differentiates the Elite are the thinner ear pads. This results in a different air pressure inside the ear cup than the Empyrean, ultimately changing the sound and inner acoustics. Like the shape of the ear cup design, it gets you closer to the music. It's a small change that results in a big improvement in sound. All these upgrades go a long way to making sure the Elite headphone is not just a pretty new paint job.
The Dragon Cable Experience
The Meze Elite comes with your choice of cable, and although the cable build quality is good, the sound left me wanting. The stock cables come with gold connectors and a braided cable - overall a very nice presentation and they'll get the job done.
In my testing session, I paired the Meze Audio Elite with the Silver Dragon Premium Cable for Meze Audio Headphones. High and mid-frequencies are often the first to be lost, and the Silver Dragon ensures that this range is fully available to the ears. It has a more detailed signature, which is a great way to tighten up the bass and the low-mids, offer more mid-range, and allow the highs to be more pronounced and clear. Another added benefit of the Silver Dragon cable is that it offers a natural dB boost, increases the soundstage, and provides detail to the music. The Silver Dragon Premium headphone cable opens up the soundstage as well, providing more room and better imaging than the stock cable. Meze does offer some upgrade cables as a purchase option, but ultimately the Meze Elite Headphone combined with the Silver Dragon Premium cable makes for a true end-game pairing and a sound that can hardly be beaten.
The Elite Headphone from Meze Audio is in a class of its own. Keep in mind that this is not just a new paint job for an Empyrean: the driver has been re-tuned and enhanced to provide more clarity and details that the Empyrean didn't provide. As far as construction and materials go, not much has changed here, so if you're a fan of the original Empyrean then the Elite will feel right at home.
Does the Elite headphone deserve its lofty price tag? Absolutely. Sonically, it sits right at the top with the other audiophile flagship headphones. I really enjoyed them with classical, jazz, alternative, and rock in particular. The question becomes, what do you do if you already own the Empyrean? After spending $3K on a headphone, is it worth the upgrade and the difference in sound? If you are looking for a true upgrade, get the Elite. If you want more detail and clarity from your Empyrean, get the Elite. If you want the better and more efficient headphones without having to purchase an additional headphone amp, get the Elite. Meze Audio makes some of the best headphones on the market, so just get the Elite.
What's in the Box
- Meze Audio Elite Headphones
- Suitcase: high-strength aluminum suitcase with foam inserts
- Two sets of ear pads included: one Alcantara + one Leather & Alcantara Hybrid
- Cable options (one included - chosen on product page):
- 3.5mm OFC Standard
- 6.3mm OFC Standard
- 4-pin XLR OFC Standard
Open Boxing Video
Video Review (Coming Soon)
- Driver Type: Rinaro Isodynamic Hybrid Array® [MZ3SE]
- Operating Principle: Open
- Ear Coupling: Circumaural
- Frequency Response: 3-112,000 Hz
- Impedance: 32 Ω
- Nominal SPL: 101 dB (1 mW / 1 kHz)
- Maximum SPL: > 130 dB
- Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): <0.05% (in the whole frequency range)
- Weight: 430 g
MZ3SE Driver Specifications
- Geometrical Shape: Ovoid
- Size: 102 mm x 73 mm
- Weight: 75 g
- Casing: Fiberglass reinforced polymer
- MAGNET ARRAY
- Type: Isodynamic
- Size: 75 mm x 49 mm
- Magnetic Flux: 0.35T
- Type: Rinaro Parus® [MZ3SE]
- Active Area: 4650 mm2
- Weight: 0.011 g
- Acoustic Mass: 7.5 kg/m4
- Lower Frequency Limit: 3 Hz
- Upper-Frequency Limit: 112,000 Hz