Meze 99 Neo Headphones Review

This review is posted here in partnership with The Headphone List. It was originally written and published by Ryan Soo of The Headphone List on April 23, 2017.

Introduction –

Meze has made quite the entrance into the audio field with a great reception to both their in-ear and over-ear headphone line-ups. I know a lot of readers are familiar with Meze’s 99 Classics, it was a great contender within the $400 portable headphone range that brought some unique features, a very appealing design along with highly competitive sound quality wrapped within lush tuning; immediately rocketing to the front pages of Head-fi. So I was immediately excited to hear that Meze had released a new headphone, the 99 Neo, bringing that same iconic design and sound within a slightly cheaper ($60 cheaper), more contemporary package.

Though personal experience with all of Meze’s products, I have found much to love within their warm, smooth house sound and keen eye for both attractive and pragmatic designs. But I also have extensive experience with a lot of the top performing portable headphones around this price, either through long-term loan or ownership, so I’m not too quick to fawn over the latest models. With that said, let’s see how the 99 Neo stands up to the best headphones in the business.

Disclaimer –

I received the Meze 99 Neo from Meze’s review tour. There is no monetary incentive for a positive review and despite receiving the headphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

 Accessories –

The 99 Neo comes within a nice box that thankfully bucks the low-key all black trend instead, with a tasteful white/grey scheme. The box magnetically latches open to reveal the headphones and accessories within a very nice hard case, the same included with the 99 Classics.

It’s one of nicest included cases I’ve seen in a while, perfectly fitting the headphones with a small zippered pouch for accessories/cables and a nice embossed metal meze logo up front. I would like a little more room to keep the cable attached to the headphones while in the case though the design of the 99 Neo’s does not permit the cable to be easily wrapped up anyway. In addition to the case, the 99 Neo comes equipped with a 3.5mm to 1/4″ adapter, gold-plated aeroplane adapter and two cables like the Oppo PM3. One is a 3M audio-only cable and the other is a 1.2M cable with single-button remote and mic for use with smartphones. Both are OFC with the same diameter, they were sonically identical in my testing and it’s great to see Meze including both cables from factory.

The 99 Neo really provide a nice unboxing experience. While the packaging might not be as lavish as something from Bower and Wilkins for example, the included accessories and the quality of those accessories are far more impressive. In particular, I believe that every portable headphone like this should come with a solid hard case and the one included with the 99 Neo’s is sturdy and pragmatic, unlike the fabric pouches that come with the Denon-MM400’s, B&W P7’s and Sony MDR-1A’s.

Design –

Those familiar with the 99 Classics will find solace in the 99 Neo’s almost identical design, carrying the same iconic looks and comfortable, ergonomic fit. Of note, they do have the larger, plusher earpads found on later 99 Classics revisions and I did find the Neo to be that much more comfortable than early 99 Classics that felt a bit cramped.

Visually, the 99 Neo compounds upon Meze’s fantastic craftsmanship and design with the 99 Classics; they are an evolution of the retro design popularised by the Sennheiser Momentum. The 99 Neo’s aren’t a compact headphone, but their tapered earcups and unique headband enable a surprisingly low profile fit on the head when compared to similar models despite having especially spacious earcups. The 99 Neo might look frail due to those thin headband rails and small earcup adjustment mechanisms, though in the hand, the headphones are very solid with a reassuring rigidity to every component. The unique headband mechanism also grants the headphones with a very low centre of gravity, making them far more stable on the head than even the Oppo PM3 and strongly clamping Denon MM-400; they are one of the only headphones that have stayed put on my head when lying down. But coming back to comparison with the Classics, while the leather textured PVA earcups on the 99 Neo do look great, they still fail to match the in-hand feel of the wooden Classics and feel inauthentic compared to the lambskin encased B&W and Bang and Olfusens. That being said, they don’t seem prone to scratches nor smudges and are perfectly well-finished.

When it comes to fitment, portable headphones have always struggled to find the balance between comfort, convenience and portability. The Oppo PM3 and B&O H6 are, to my ear, the best fitting portable headphones on the market, though the 99 Neo might just match them in overall fit, making them superior to headphones such as B&W P7 which had a stiff, thin headband and Denon MM-400 which had thin, shallow earpads. In fact, the 99 Neo is almost a combination between an at-home and portable headphone, working well for both due to their great long term comfort and isolation/tuning. This outstanding comfort begins with those swivelling earcups and absolutely fantastic earpads that are roomy even for those with large ears such as myself and stuffed with extremely plush memory foam. They’re coated in a soft, slightly grippy pleather that provides some extra fit stability but doesn’t feel as rubbery as that employed on the Denon MM-400’s nor as fragile as that used on the Sony MDR-1A’s (though I would assume that they wouldn’t age as well as real leather in the long term). The pads completely engulf my ears unlike the MM-400’s and ATH-MSR-7’s, forming a perfect seal with nice passive noise isolation comparable, if not slightly superior to other sealed headphones like the Denon MM-400 and B&W P7, but still a little less than class leaders like the Oppo PM3 and B&O H6. Comfort still isn’t perfect, the drivers protrude a little, just contacting my outer ear though I didn’t find this to be an issue unless I wore the headphones for days on end. Still, this isn’t something that affect the PM3’s nor the H6’s though they are far more comfortable than the Sennheiser Momentums and B&W P7’s.

This positive impression continues onto the exemplary headband which is by far one of the best I have used among the usual thin, stiff or inadequately padded units; portable headphones just have bad headbands in general. The 99 Neo differs in that regard, by employing a suspension system identical to that on the 99 Classics; it’s the type of basic convenience that makes a world of difference in daily use. While headbands like this are not unique in general, it’s still a very rare feature among portable headphones and Meze’s implementation works especially well. The headband itself is a thick, soft and slightly padded leather strap that conforms perfectly to every head shape. The suspension system automatically adjusts every time though elastic tension, guaranteeing a reliable fit without the need for a clicking or sliding headband adjustment mechanism. I found the headband tension to be just slightly higher than I would prefer though the large surface area of the band evenly distributes pressure and the elastic is sure to loosen up slightly over time. Clamp force was also well-judged but, being a portable headphone, they still clamp quite firmly. That being said, the thick, plush earpads disperse the pressure and clamp force is quite even throughout its range so they won’t clamp too hard on those with larger head sizes.

The cable is dual entry, unlike most other portable headphones that use a single side cable though it is removable, connecting via two regular 2.5mm mono connectors. Of note, the headphones are perfectly symmetrical which makes swapping the cable just a little easier. Both the 3M and 1.2M cables carry the same design with a tapered aluminium straight jack, braided lower segment with basic rubber sheathing above the y-split. The cables are Kevlar braided for longevity though they could still do with more strain relief near the jack. Thickness is well-considered for portable usage though the rubbery texture above the y-split does tend to catch on clothes should you want to route the cable through your jumper. Being a dual entry headphone, the 99 Neo also isn’t compatible with any kind of Bluetooth adaptor meaning that the headphone is not viable for usage with the iPhone 7 or other jack-less smartphones unless you can find a third party lightning cable.

So ultimately, the 99 Neo is a rather exemplary headphone in terms of fitment. Every aspect is incredibly well thought out and far more pragmatic than the vast majority of portable headphones that struggle with at-home usage due to over-emphasis on portability. The headband mechanism is unorthodox but finds great usability in simplicity while the super plush earpads and low COG enable both long-term comfort and stability when out and about. The headphones look the part too, with a design that is no less intriguing if less relentlessly opulent than models from B&W, B&O and Oppo. The plastic earcups do feel a little cheap but every other aspect of the headphone is solid.

Sound –

Though Meze’s website states a different impedance of 26ohms on the 99N vs 32ohms on the 99C, to my knowledge, the Neo’s employ the same 40mm dynamic driver as the 99 Classics that came before. As such, they pursue a very similar sound, if not one that is identical due to differences in housing materials affecting acoustics; perhaps the difference in impedance is an attempt to compensate for these changes. But for the most part, the 99 Neo performs quite predictably with a sound that is laid-back, warm and mostly familiar. They aren’t nearly as balanced as the Oppo PM3 nor are they quite as sculpted as the B&W P7, sounding more linear throughout their midrange. They are a very natural, dare I say analogue sounding headphones that retain the organic characters of the wooden 99 Classics despite employing ABS earcups. In fact, they are perhaps even more laid-back and warm to my ear. 

Tonality –

The Meze 99 Neo’s carry a tasteful L-shaped sound similar to that employed on earphones such as the Klipsch X10’s. However, the 99 Neo’s have no issue with end to end extension and treble prominence imbues the sound with a little extra crispness over smoother portable headphones like the Oppo PM3. The 99 Neo’s actually sound quite similar to the Denon MM-400 overall though they assume a slightly warmer, more laid-back tone with the Denon’s having a little more unevenness in the treble that creates a more aggressive sense of detail. As such, the 99 Neo’s can be described as having a darker tonal tilt with bass possessing the most emphasis.

Soundstage, Imaging and Separation –

When I first heard the 99 Classics, the first thing that stood out to me among the closed back portable headphones I had heard, was the exceptionally wide soundstage. The 99 Neo, perhaps due to the differing housing materials, doesn’t quite possess the same level of space though it remains one of the better performers in this price range, more akin to the B&W P7 over the more intimate Oppo PM3 and to a lesser extent, Denon MM-400. And despite having quite a warm, thick sound, the 99 Neo never sounds congested; it’s a nice presentation that flatters almost every genre of music from pop to rock to classical. That being said, while the 99 Neo does sound large, this thicker tuning does prevent the headphones from sounding particularly open or airy, something the B&W P7 and B&O H6’s excel with.

I also found the Neo to have quite a well-rounded soundstage, better rounded than the 99C due to their reduced width, resulting in impressive imaging performance. Though neither the 99C nor the 99 Neo has any issue with instrument placement and imaging, the Neo sounded slightly more coherent to me with precise instrument placement that made the B&W P7 and Sony MDR-1A’s sound vaguer. So overall, the 99 Neo’s are a warm headphone, though their large soundstage prevents congestion and separation remain quite commendable even when compared directly to some of the best headphones within this class. 

Drivability –

The 99 Neo’s were designed for portable use with a sensitivity of 103dB and an impedance of 26ohm, making them very easy to drive. They aren’t the most sensitive headphone I’ve tested but achieved similar volume to the Denon MM-400’s and Sony MDR-1A’s at the same level. They were also more sensitive than the planar magnetic Oppo PM3’s which I found to be one of the pickiest headphones among those I had on hand. They actually pick up a surprising amount of hiss from my noisier sources but even modestly noisy sources such as my Oppo HA-2 had no issue. The 99 Neo’s didn’t scale spectacularly with the sources I had on hand, sounding relatively similar from my iPod Nano, HTC 10 and Oppo HA-2, where the B&W P7 and Oppo PM3 scaled up considerably with my better sources. They did achieve some improvements with a slightly tauter bass performance and clearer midrange from my HA-2 though they will play happily from any decent smartphone or standalone DAP.

Bass –

The 99 Neo’s are one of the bassier audiophile orientated portable headphones, beating out the PM3, H6 and Denon MM-400 in terms of quantity. Luckily, they aren’t nearly as bombastic as the sub-bass boosted B&W P7’s nor are they bloated like the Sony MDR-1A. They are closest to the MM-400 in tuning, with a more linear bass boost that retains pleasing quality and definition with a slight bump in the mid-bass that provides a little extra fullness and punch. There is some midrange spill though lower-mids are never overwhelmed by bass and remain quite clear considering the extent of the bass boost. They also have really great sub-bass extension with rather outstanding definition of sub and lower-bass notes. Rumble is visceral and electronic genres of music have satisfying impact and slam without inducing a bass headache. While I would still prefer slightly more balance, the 99 Neo’s provide a very organic, natural listen that is adequately full when in a noisy environment but remains tasteful enough at home to maintain an enjoyable listen.

Of course, bass isn’t perfect and due to the boosted tuning, the 99 Neo’s do miss out on a bit of texture and definition when compared to more linear sets like the PM3 and MM-400. Bass also suffers from slight bloat and tubbiness, notes aren’t as taught as I would prefer though I’m sure many will enjoy the extra punchiness and fullness provided by the Neo’s bass response. When listening to music with rapidly transitioning basslines like Steve Conti’s “Call Me Call Me” or Toto’s “Roasanna”, the 99 Neo did well to keep up with complex passages without becoming overwhelmed like the looser P7. While bass drums didn’t quite possess the same PRAT as the super snappy PM3 and MM-400, the 99 Neo’s provide a great balance between quantity and quality, sub-bass notes didn’t get too muddy and mid and upper-bass provided a sense of fullness without imbuing a veiling character. So while bass is rather omnipresent due to the headphones accentuated tuning, notes don’t drone and remain articulate. They are an engaging headphone that values dynamics over transparency though they never overstep their boundaries in regards to bass quantity and bass quality will be sure to impress.

Midrange –

With a slightly darker tone, the 99 Neo’s aren’t the clearest sounding headphone though they don’t lack clarity per say. On poorly mastered or low bitrate songs, the 99 Neo does tend to sound a little muffled throughout its midrange, especially with genres such as hip-hop. That being said, the headphones also sound surprisingly clear when the track calls for it. For instance, the vocals in Vance Joy’s “Riptide” were appropriately forward and didn’t sound chesty or veiled at all. So rather than veiled, I would argue that the midrange is simply full-bodied, making vocals sound a little thicker. Instruments such as acoustic guitar really benefit from this, sounding rich and lush without coming across as bloated and the headphones retain enough resolution to flatter piano and string instruments. They actually had more clarity than the Denon MM-400’s but still fell short of the Oppo PM3’s and B&O H6’s which are both cleaner and more linear. That being said, the Neo’s had no dips or spikes in their midrange and all notes and vocals sounded natural if more full-bodied than neutral as opposed to the brighter B&W P7’s which had plenty of clarity and detail but also sounded unnatural and uneven with some vocals and instruments such as piano. Meanwhile, the Denon MM-400’s are still more balance throughout their midrange though, as aforementioned, they also had less clarity.

The 99 Neo’s also have pretty great detail retrieval even if their more natural, darker sound favours smoothness over aggressive detail and clarity. This was highlighted during The Cranberries’ “Linger”, where the Neo’s did a fine job picking up the subtle clicking of picks on strings that are easily lost among portable headphones. So while resolution is actually quite impressive overall, they don’t bring details to the fore like the B&W P7 and especially Oppo PM3. I think the Denon’s are probably the closest competitor to the Meze’s, and in terms of midrange performance, it’s a pretty fair trade-off with both being equally enjoyable and tasteful to my ear. These are simply different manufacturer’s twists on the same kind of sound. 

Treble –

With a somewhat L-shaped tuning, the 99 Neo’s do produce a more laid-back treble response, though they have very good extension for a portable and don’t miss out on the higher details. Listening to my usual treble test songs, Radiohead’s “Creep”, “Paranoid Android” and “No Surprises” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, and the 99 Neo’s produced one of the better performances among my portable headphone collection. The B&W P7’s have a really nice treble response with air, sparkle and extension, for lovers of a brighter sound it is one of the strongest performers within this price range. On the opposite end of the scale, the PM3 and MM-400 are more natural and also more in-line with the 99 Neo. High-hats had nice sparkle without sounding overly thin while cymbals had shimmer and realistic texture. High notes were missing that last bit of air and openness that the P7’s provided though treble notes sounded less rolled off than both the PM3 and MM-400’s. Treble notes were actually quite clear despite the thicker nature of the 99 Neo’s sound and the slightly boosted treble crispness does well to balance out the more relaxed nature of the headphones. Again, in terms of tuning, natural is the word I would use to describe the 99 Neo’s treble performance. And though high-notes are still not forward in any way, they are quite even throughout; portable headphones usually have a lower treble spike to add the impression of detail making the 99 Neo quite a rarity. While I still would have preferred slightly more air and quantity, the treble tuning is really well done on the Meze’s with great extension, linearity and texture.

Verdict –

I went into this review quite the sceptic. The 99 Classics were simply too well-reviewed, I was suspicious and my expectations were too high, making them seem inadequate upon real-life testing. And as with anything, a true testament to greatness is retained quality under scrutiny, something one could argue that a one week review tour cannot offer. But I’ve maximised my time with the 99 Neo’s, they are an important product in an ever increasing market, and I’ve found that the Meze’s are too laid-back to be immediately impressive anyway; especially when compared to the gorgeous B&W P7’s or B&O H6’s and even the very revealing Oppo PM3. But strip away the initial “wow factor” of these headphones and the 99 Neo retains its charm through its well-rounded sound while the P7 and H6 come off as somewhat unnatural. That’s not to say that the P7 or H6 are bad headphones, not at all, but they are no longer the best around; that title goes to the next generation of innovative portables, the PM3, MM-400 and now, the 99 Neo.

And I do feel that all of these headphones are quite mature in their sounds. All of their respective manufacturers set out with intent actualised through different styles of tuning which will no doubt match different buyer’s preferences; the H6 and P7 for those who love clarity and the MM-400 and 99 Neo for lovers of a more organic, natural sound. However, the fit on these headphones is not nearly so developed and a lot of these manufacturers have struggled to adopt an over-ear form factor, many coming from a rich heritage of speaker design over portable gear. And again, long term usage reveals the shortcomings in design that a brief listen may not. Luckily, the 99 Neo is quite exemplary here too. While it lacks the unrelenting rigidity of the P7, H6 and PM3, the Neo is more ergonomic, has the best headband and forms no hotspots. It’s also a very unique looking headphone that bucks the usual design trends that tend to homogenize “fashion” headphones into minimalist leather clad omegas, with a retro inspired design that’s an instant modern classic.

Overall – 9/10, Meze have proven that you don’t need lambskin leather, stainless steel accents or chromed chamfers to create an appealing design, nor do you need complex folding mechanisms to achieve portability and a reliable fit. But perhaps, most pertinent to this review, Meze have provided us with a great, natural, organic sound that demonstrates how linearity is just as impressive as neutrality. Meze set out to recapture the magic of the 99 Classics at a cheaper price, within a more contemporary shell and that’s just what they’ve achieved with the 99 Neo.