The Ultimate End Game
By Ricky Kovacs
Very rarely do I consider audio gear a true work of art. This might be one of the few exceptions.
The word Empyrean means relating to heaven or the sky (adj), or in particular, the highest part of heaven (n). Now I don’t know what the highest part of heaven is, but I would imagine there’s some pretty cool stuff there.
em·py·re·an /emˈpirēən,ˌempəˈrēən/ *
-relating to heaven or the sky. synonyms: heavenly, celestial, ethereal.
-heaven, in particular, the highest part of heaven. synonyms: heaven, the heavens, the sky, the stratosphere.
*Definition from OXFORD/Lexico
That’s probably what Meze was going for when they selected this name: the idea that the Empyrean would open up aural dimensions of space and time or at least take you to new heights of sonic enlightenment. The sheer craftsmanship and detail of the Meze Empyrean put it in a category all its own. From the materials being used to the incredible sound, does the Empyrean holds its own against the other top dogs in the audiophile headphone world? I used the Mr. Speaker Ether 2 and the Audeze LCD-4 for comparison, two of the top open-back planar magnetic headphones at Moon Audio. Sitting right in the middle price-wise, let's see if the Meze Empyrean is a true end game headphone contender.
What's In the Box
The Empyrean comes in a very nice aluminum briefcase, with a solid and sturdy handle and double latches, it feels executive and exclusive from the start.
The inside of the case is surrounded by foam to protect the headphones and accessories. The earcups on the headphones can rotate and lay flat, allowing the case to remain thinner than the option of having the cups remain vertical. Between the earcups, Meze has included a set of alternative ear pads, made of a soft, velvety material called Alcantara rather than the real leather ones attached to the headphones. It’s more of a preferential aspect to choose which padding you want to use. I preferred the leather pads because I felt they created a closer seal around my ears than the velvet ones. A braided 10-foot stock cable is included, featuring 4-pin connectors to the headphones and your choice of a balanced TRS 1/4" or 4-pin XLR amplifier jack to your source. You’ll also find the paperwork and complimentary reading materials next to the headphones.
The Players - Meze Audio and Rinaro Isodynamics
The Empyrean is the product of two passionate companies coming together to explore what is possible beyond their individual capabilities. The result is a no-compromise headphone embodying Meze’s daring aesthetic and user-centered design approach and Rinaro’s experience in research and development within the field of planar magnetics. Rinaro, a somewhat progressive audio company, has at the heart of its technology, a research and development team that has been at the forefront of planar magnetic development since the 1980s. What originally started as a state-funded initiative with a focus on innovation has now entered a new chapter of audio progression with the opening of a cutting-edge industrial facility in Ukraine.
Materials, Quality, and Comfort
I could write an entire book on the materials and craftsmanship of these headphones, but I won’t. Writing words can hardly do these things justice. They are art. The ear cups are a highly precisioned CNC sculpted chassis, milled from a single piece of aluminum. According to Meze, each sculpted Empyrean aluminum skeleton takes about 20 hours to mill. You can see a video of the milling process for the Empyrean at the end of this review.
Looking at the close detail of the earcup, you can tell it is a time-consuming process for such precision. The headband and cup design is surprisingly light but feels strong and durable after wearing it for many hours. The machining marks give the aluminum a nice textured look when viewed under the right light. The coloring treatment is also unique – coming in a greenish/grey. We had a poll around the office here and about half thought it was more green than grey and vice versa. I personally thought our model looked greener than the product images online. Regardless, it’s a distinctive color that will surely stand out among the crowd.
The cups are an ovoid shape and are a special design detail of the Empyrean. Most headphones have either a circular, elliptical or even a rectangular design. However, Meze designed their ear cup in an ovoid shape, understanding the more natural shape of the ear should be mirrored by the ear pad – and even the driver too. Since the earpad fits the shape of the ear itself, it allows for less “room” within the earcup for sound to bounce around and get lost in. In other words, you have a more direct channel to the music. The ovoid shape also allows for a smaller driver size compared to other planar magnetic headphones, resulting in reduced weight and longer listening sessions without ear fatigue.
Changing the pads on the Empyrean is also a very satisfying process. The pads are attached via a magnet system which keeps the pads snug, but also prevents the possibility of breaking or tearing parts like on other headphones. Gently pry the pad off and they should remove themselves allowing you to attach the ear pads you are switching out. The pads themselves are attached to a ferromagnetic plate which channels the demagnetizing field back into the driver – increasing the efficiency by 1dB or 12% and deflecting 95% of stray fields away from the head. This is all part of the final tuning and performance of the hybrid array diaphragm; it's a great system all around.
As an open-back headphone, the backside grill on the earcups is my absolute favorite part of the headphone aesthetically. The holes and patterns are so tediously machined and ornate that I can get lost looking at it if I didn’t listen to so much music while wearing it.
The headband is made from carbon fiber and incredibly strong for how flexible it can be. You can see the carbon fiber design mixes well with the other premium materials used in the headphone. I personally consider the leather headrest to be somewhat of a polarizing design. Meze calls them “pressure distribution wings:” these patented suspension wings increase the leather headrest’s contact surface area with your head and relieve uncomfortable pressure points. The design itself helps fully surround your head, distributing the weight of the ear cups.
This design will fit comfortably on a large number of different shaped heads with minimal movement due to the wide headband. The only downside was the wider surface area covered compared to other headphones as I felt that they were restricting airflow on the top of my head. This could be an issue if you listen to music in a warm room, but overall, it’s a small nitpick on a great design.
As we’ll see below, the overall driver design leads to the comfort factor as well. Meze and Rinaro designed their driver to be powerful yet incredibly light to reduce the weight as much as possible. And they are light. At first it was a bit of a turn off for me. At times the only thing that reminded me I was wearing headphones was feeling the leather headrest hugging my noggin’. Sometimes I like being able to feel the “weight” of what I’m wearing and listening to. The headrest and the carbon fiber band not only help distribute the weight around my head, but I can really feel them working together to reduce the pressure points of the cups around my ears.
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
The Science of a Unique Driver
As mentioned earlier, 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 driver combines individual switchback and spiral-shaped voice coils, their unique shapes allows 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 better at the mid-high frequencies.
The Stock Cable Experience
I’ll start off this section with the stock experience, that is, my experience with the Empyrean and the braided Meze Audio ofc cable. The cable seems to be made very well, featuring a quarter-inch balanced connector to source and 4-pin XLR connectors to the headphones. They had tight connections to everything I plugged them into. The cable is braided from the source connector to the headphone L/R cable split, in which the remainder of the cable is wrapped in rubber. Overall it is a nice presentation for a stock cable.
After spending some time with some song favorites, I was left wanting more definition. The Meze cable definitely has a curved natural EQ. The low-mids and bass were enhanced while the highs were raised but not necessarily pronounced or clear. The natural mids were all but missing in a lot of the music I was listening to, causing feature instrumentation to feel lost or buried. One particular song, “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac was quite disappointing, hearing Buckingham’s vocals competing with the panned backing vocals and his guitar solo getting buried by the bass and acoustic guitars. The biased EQ was problematic for several genres, but the midrange was reduced in almost everything I tested it with.
Depending on the kind of music you listen to, this may or may not be a problem for you. All was not lost, however; I found a solution.
The Dragon Cable Experience
I paired a Moon Audio Silver Dragon to the Empyreans. We have a plethora of Dragon Cable options, but the Silver was the best match, given the boost in the low end with the stock cable. High and mid-frequencies are often the first to be lost, and the Silver Dragon ensures that this range is fully available to the ear. It has a more analytical sound signature and it was the perfect choice to tighten up the bass and low-mids, offer more mid-range and allow the high and high-mids to be more pronounced. Another added benefit of the Silver Dragon cable is that it offers a natural dB boost, increases the soundstage and provides overall clarity to the music. The Empyreans are a great pair of headphones on their own but combined with a Silver Dragon cable they are a true end game audio solution.
I was genuinely surprised at how much the Silver Dragon did to open up the Empyreans, more so than I’ve experienced with other headphones in the office. That EQ curve with the stock cable was now balanced out, offering a tighter and more resolute listening experience overall.
You’ll also want to take notice that the different pads will also slightly affect the sound of the Empyreans. The Alcantara will enhance a little more low-end warmth, deepening the overall presence. The leather pads will provide a more neutral sounding tone, much like how I have been describing the overall headphones thus far. Small adjustments, but adjustments, nonetheless.
Open Back Design Details
The Meze Empyreans are an open-back design headphone. Open-back headphones are usually known for their wider soundstage than closed-back headphones. The Empyreans have a tremendously wide soundstage with great positioning of the instruments and vocals. Combined with the Silver Dragon cable, the instrumentation and voicings in the mix are allowed to breathe and perform all on their own.
As a musician myself, I've played on a large variety of stages from small-town pubs to arenas and amphitheaters, and I equate my first few Empyrean listening sessions as a musician playing on a huge stage for the first time. Starting out as a band you’re playing in small dive bars where you’re literally standing on top of each other for space, and then once you make it to an arena show you have ten feet or more between you and your bandmates. The Empyreans are the arena show. Listening to some high-resolution audio files from some of the Beatles mid-to-early records, it’s interesting to hear the stereo mixes on such a wide soundstage. Because the Beatles don’t use a lot of instrumentation on their earlier records, it’s a lot easier to hear imperfections in the performance. Hearing small tuning impurities during “Getting Better” on Sgt. Pepper was driving me crazy: the piano is slightly detuned from the guitars and the pitchy-ness of the backing vocals throughout. It’s not that I haven’t heard it before, but the increased soundstage just exacerbated the issue by allowing each voicing to have more “room” to stand out. It’s an interesting phenomenon. In a strange way, it makes me appreciate the music even more; hearing and knowing it's flesh and blood behind the music and not processed digitalized perfection.
I will say classical and movie/game scores sound phenomenal on the Empyreans. If you listen to music that has a lot going on, a lot of instrumentation or a wide frequency range, you should be quite satisfied with the Empyrean headphones.
Also, due to the nature of the outside design on the ear cup, I was surprised at how much they prevented leakage. I mean, they are open-back headphones, so the sound is going to escape, but they were nowhere near how loud other open-back headphones get at specific volumes. It is likely something to do with the overall design of the machined aluminum, having more surface area to trap the sound inside the ear cup.
Comparisons to Other Planar Magnetic Headphones
How does the sound signature compare to other planar magnetic headphones? We'll compare the Meze Empyreans to the Mr. Speakers Ether 2 and the Audeze LCD-4. Both headphones are planar magnetic and open back designs like the Empyreans, and should be considerations if you are looking for a quality pair of planar magnetic headphones in the $2000-$4000 price range.
The Audeze LCD series is known for its resolute and signature sound. It might take a few listens to get used to the LCD signature, but Audeze has improved much from their previous LCD iterations. The LCD-2 and 3 were very dark in presentation, then Audeze came out with the X and XC models - giving more of a forward tonality, with closed-back and open-back variations (X'C' for closed). The open-back headphones will give a wider presentation to the sound whereas the closed-back headphones will offer a taller soundstage. To bring both their LCD-2 & 3 and LCD-X and XC fans together, the LCD-4 was released as a no holds barred meld of the 2 signatures to provide one of the best reference phones ever. The low end is responsive and the presence in the bass is dynamic, really extending itself when needed with precision and weight. The LCD-4's have added resolution in the top end. Some might find the mids to be more recessed than other headphones, but its a great headphone for bass-eccentric genres.
The Ether 2's, on the other hand, are a little thicker in the midrange. It's the darkest headphone we sell here at Moon Audio. You'll notice that the higher midrange has more presence in the mix, whereas the lower midrange has extended weight to help fill out the low end. The previous iteration of the Ether headphone was perceived as more analytical in nature by some, and the Ether 2 is certainly more balanced overall; very musical. They have a smooth, less aggressive sound signature that lends itself nicely to most types of genres.
That being said, when compared to the Meze Empyrean headphone, if you are looking for a more neutral sound that will pair evenly with most types of music, then the Meze Empyreans are the way to go. A lot of this has to do with the dual hybrid driver design of the Empyrean. Meze implemented a planar driver at the top of the driver which provides more of the wider soundstage. The bottom of the hybrid utilizes a dynamic driver which provides a more directional presentation into the ear canal. You really get the best of both worlds here.
The Ether 2 is the most forgiving headphone based on the darker sound. The LCD-4 is the least forgiving and will let bad recordings shine through. The LCD-4 is also the heaviest of the bunch as the Audeze LCD line is hefty, so if weight is a concern for you, this might be something to think about. You'll find the Mr. Speakers much warmer than the Empyreans and they're also the lightest headphone of the three yet extremely comfortable. The Meze is more of the all-around best bang for the buck between the 3 headphones in this review even though it's more expensive than the Ether 2 as it does so many things right and checks so many boxes in terms of performance, value, and sound quality.
Empyrean Colors - Gun Metal (L) and Black Copper (R)
Priced at $2,999, the Meze Empyrean is 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 Empyreans are nothing short of endgame cans. I highly recommend supplementing the headphones with a Silver Dragon cable to balance out the EQ curve of the stock cable. It will really help the Empyreans become more transparent. I’ve seen reviewers use these for almost any application, which only supports the overall fidelity and quality of the product. It’s good for just about everything.
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 the Empyreans. 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 Empyrean stands out from the crowd of other planar magnetic headphones. The tuning is varied enough to appease both analytical listeners and musical ones. Like the kitchen sink, it will do well with any genre of music thrown at it, and the nice thing is that it’s versatile enough to perform well with both mobile and home setups. I’m not sure if I would personally want to use the Empyreans as my travel cans, however.
Ultimately, I think everyone will find a reason to like the Meze Empyrean. I don’t know if they’re related to heaven in any way, but Meze has made a quality end game headphone that most people will be very pleased with.
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Driver Type: Rinaro Isodynamic Hybrid Array
Operating Principle: Open
Ear Coupling: Circumaural
Weight: ≈ 430 g
Color: Dark Grey with a Green Tint
Frequency response: 4 - 110,000 Hz
Impedance: 31,6 Ω
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): >0.1%
Nominal SPL: 100 dB (1 mW/1kHz)
Maximum SPL: >130 dB
Geometrical shape: Ovoid
Size: 102 mm x 73 mm
Weight: 82 g
Casing: Fiberglass Infused ABS
MAGNET ARRAY Type: Isodynamic
Size: 75 mm x 49 mm
Magnetic Flux: 0,35 T
DIAPHRAGM Type: Rinaro ISOPLANAR®
Active area: 4650 mm²
Weight: 0,16 g
Acoustic mass: 10,7 kg/m4
Lower frequency limit: 4 Hz
Upper-frequency limit: 110.000 Hz
Case: High-strength aluminum suitcase with foam inserts
Two sets of earpads: one real leather, one Alcantara
Cable: 3m OFC cable ending with 1/4" jack