Meze Audio Empyrean by Arthur Stone
The Meze Audio Empyrean open-backed 'isodynamic hybrid array' headphone is one such product: exceptional audio quality; luxury design and features that assist ease of use – and a price tag to match! If we accept the physical quality of the product then it only remains to justify the price to ourselves, or in my case, to explain why, as a reviewer, I think the cost of admission to the Empyrean is worth it...even if you'd normally never consider even paying a tenth of the price.
To use an analogy to begin: the difference between the Empyrean and regular high-end 'phones is akin to watching a film on a TV in a modest domestic room vs a luxury state-of-the-art cinema. In addition, they do the everyday stuff just as well, providing high-quality representation from consumer devices in addition to high-end super-rigs. I really enjoyed using them to track, mix and edit with as well as general media and hi-def audio, and in addition to the 'big screen' experience, they are great for domestic or studio use. So comfy you might forget you're wearing them!
Although the design, craftsmanship, materials, and presentation is exceptional – the real value is not the hardware – it is the acoustic space where the listener dwells – the sonic theatre built of vibration - the Empyrean.
Meze Audio condense this into two words: vivid and immersive.
The Hardware: The Law of Moments concerns balance and weight distribution e.g. on a scale an apple can be counter-measured with corresponding weights on the other side of the scale. As soon as the Empyrean are picked up to wear it is obvious that “the Law” is involved in their design; this is further evidenced by wearing them. The design has allowed their weight to be evenly distributed and in such a way that the weight assists in holding them in place.
For the wearer, they feel light and non-clamping, yet when I leant forward (to full 90 degree tilt) they stayed in place without any downward pulling on ears. Like a velvet clamp powered by, gentle, but firm, gravity. This is a fine balance to achieve and another of the small, invisible factors that add up to a comfortable and non-distracting listen. The wide leather headband also has a luxury feel – not ridged tough leather that leaves indents in the skull – more like a soft felt. The weight on the top of the head is redistributed to gently hold the ear sections in place; also the hinge mechanism and width of headband spread the weight over a larger contact area.
The ear pads extend the distance from magnetic field (of the array) from ears and brain and the field is further reduced by the ovoid magnetic-coupler ring that attaches the ear pad to the chassis; this presents as a reverse polarity to the array and limits it's magnetic extension toward the ear. Neat system!
The distance between source and ear adds to a natural ambience within the acoustic space; as an AKG K702 user I like a sense of space and ambience so the Empyrean felt natural but more luxurious than my ears are used to. The ear cup (and the diaphragm/membrane) are ovoid to approximate the shape of the human ear, to ensure a flush fit and minimise wasted space inside the earpad.
Meze supply two pairs of earpads: real leather and faux-suede Alcantara. The leather has a polished, perforated inner surface (AFAIK this is for ventilation) whilst the Alcantara has a softer, material-like texture, and each has an impact on the sound in addition to being better-suited to the climate/environment and users comfort preference. As the leather earpad is smoother I heard there was a slightly more bright tone whilst the Alcantara was darker – but only very slight and in comparison to each other. The basic Empyrean character remains unchanged.
Price: $2999 US/ Euro 2999 2-year warranty.
From Meze Audio online shop. In black or copper. Inc. quality aluminium hard case with foam inserts, both leather and Alcantara (artificial suede) ear cushions, and a quality oxygen-free copper (OFC) cable with options for connection to device: 3.5 mm jack (1.2 metres length); 6.3 mm jack (2.5m); and 4-pin XLR connector (2.5m). All cables terminate in dual mini-XLR to headphones.
Cables can be upgraded as a cost extra.
In Use: After an initial adjustment to such high-quality I began to listen to known music for reference: some of my early DAW sessions never sounded so good before. Far better-sounding music than I previously realised as I was unable hear the music properly then and missed the texture, colour, and detail (dynamic and ambience) that was available if my monitoring were capable.
Then I used the Empyrean for some audio work: preparing stems of a percussion session to be sent to another studio. It was a real pleasure to hear. Weak or strong aspects of the recordings were evident.
I pulled up Miles Davis In A Silent Way: absolutely awesome deep vibrant bass in the centre: full, warm, tall. The delicate hard-panned keys and percussion had plenty of room in the almost 360 degree soundstage, but still connected to the action at the centre. Again like watching a big cinema screen. Over the next days I used them as my main 'phones for typical daily audio tasks and activities: from tracking to mastering to leisure listening to Skype calls. In a sense, there is a point where the price becomes irrelevant: it is just a tool that is used.
I wouldn't describe them as being a flat reference: the representation is straightforward without any electronic or component 'perceptual filter' that is coating all the sound – no sonic homogeneity that is identifiable whatever style or type of music is played. Each new track is uniquely-heard. However, the overall ambience, the theatre in which the music is heard, does have an Empyrean character, not a reverb but more of a general resonant ambience or spatial architecture from which the sounds emerge. It is (necessarily) very subtle, and each different brand or model of headphone must possess this attribute (of how it's physicality impacts the perception of sound) – Empyrean does this so well.
To reach for the cinema analogy again: the film on screen, the sound, the contrast between screen and room lighting/ambience, is all perfect as the creators intended – but this is no standard cinema, it is a luxury cinema with the best screen resolution, refresh-rate, dynamics, colour representation, and contrast; the sound is an exemplar of professional audio standards; the listener is sitting in a climate-controlled cocoon with exotic upholstery. No popcorn-munchers to distract. Nothing blocks the view to the screen except the ice-cream lady arriving with your choc ice in the intermission.
One big insight from using them is how good my existing music projects sound; I'd never heard them through such a high-quality monitoring system. Sure, I'd make some tweaks (especially upper bass/low-mids) revisiting the mix with Empyrean but the source material just sounded a lot better than with other headphones and monitors I've used.
I realised that plug-ins (or hardware) are not necessary to fix things; what is needed is better monitoring to hear what is good in the first place.
Origins in the Aether: The word Empyrean (noun and adjective; name and description) traces back to the Latin language many centuries ago; it refers to: the firmament; where celestial beings hang out; the pure light of creation. This is such an apt name; it does feel like listening within a heavenly (audio) realm. Perfection.
As seen in Gustav Doré's illustration of Dante's paradise – the Empyrean, the angelic figures are stylized in the milled metal cut-outs; even the headband section forms this shape. These types of distributed motifs are often seen in supercars such as Lamborghini or Bugatti, where a thematic symbol becomes part of the design structure e.g. hexagons, X-, or Y-shapes. Another supercar crossover is the carbon-fibre headband superstructure: lightweight, strong, flexible.
Engineering and Manufacture: Meze Audio was founded in Baia Mare, Romania, in 2011, releasing the iconic 99 Classics in 2015. This video shows the machining process whereby the headphone 'chassis' is milled from a solid block of aluminium/aluminum : D
The Meze website has great coverage of the design and engineering with photos and diagrams which detail the process. Very well presented.
Rinaro and Isodynamics: The word 'isodynamic' can refer to a vector of equal magnetic intensity – in this case, the point where the sound emerges from. Rinaro manufacture the diaphragm/driver in Lviv, Ukraine, using techniques developed over decades from state-funded research into planar magnetics.
Essentially the diaphragm is a polymer membrane with thin conductive metal embedded that is held (and invigorated to produce sound/pressure waves) within the neodymium magnetic array. The polymer material allows the lightweight membrane (0.16g) to be rigid and respond quickly whilst having a large active surface area (4650 mm sq).
When a audio signal, an electrical current, is passed through the conductive material embedded in the membrane it too produces a magnetic field that interacts with the existing static magnetic field array in which the membrane 'floats.' This causes the membrane to vibrate, creating air pressure waves that the ears hear as sound.
Rinaro adds a complex (organic) pattern within the membrane and this is designed to compliment the shape of the ears and physiological mechanics of human hearing. The ovoid-shape mirrors the ear; the diaphragm is less of a point-source than regular headphones and what the ear hears is more akin to a 3-way or multi-way speaker system.
It takes a lot of research and development to achieve this – and the (plausible, natural) frequency response from 4Hz to 100,000Hz – and to my ears, what Rinaro have achieved is admirable and extraordinary. Combined with Meze Audio's design and engineering expertise we can begin to see the value in the technology.
Why I think the Empyrean are worth the asking price: Now I'm no expert with top-end headphones (say $1000+); I've reviewed and used high-end 'phones ($500-1000) and those are my main points of comparison (along with high-end monitors). My main concern was not to be fooled by some artificial, over-hyped soundstage: any deception would probably be revealed in the low-mids, upper-bass (e.g. 140 - 500 Hz).
I've used and reviewed planar electrostatic headphones previously: the Audeze LCD-1's. The Empyrean have a more advanced diaphragm and I hear this as an expanded dynamic range across the frequency spectrum (e.g. easier to distinguish a softly-strummed acoustic guitar amongst busy drums; or, more room for the bass); the soundstage is also considerably larger (more points of definition) and more natural.
In part, the larger, ergonomically-designed (to fit ear obliquely) earpads explain the spaciousness. There is even more distance between ear and diaphragm than AKG K702's. There is also an elaborate electronic/driver system.
There are also classic design features: the cantilever-style headband with expensive carbon-fibre; the milled aluminium shell and chassis connection points; professional inputs and high-quality cable; magnetic ear pad connections with in-built magnetic-field dampers - plus the technical specs for the audio.
Like any great product, all the individual features work together and add to a sum greater than the total of parts. I realized that these headphones have their own space and character (characteristics that software tries to emulate) and this sonic quality was not the product of hype or trickery but rather as a result of careful design and engineering, of top-quality components and materials, the best engineering standards. The milled aluminium ear shell is as much a part of the soundstage as the diaphragm, as the listeners ear and brain. Everything adds up to an emergent sonic property – the Empyrean.
(Perceived) Criticisms: No stand or obvious way to briefly store the Empyrean during a session. The design emphasis is 'on-head perfection' rather than sitting on the desk well. Meze sell a 'headphone couch' at $140 and I'd be tempted to get that but with a little imagination other everyday objects could be used e.g. a dummy head.
The truth is that these headphones deserve special treatment: to be used and stored away safely in the custom hard case – although that would miss their beauty as a work of art. A glass display cabinet would be fitting. You could listen with them anywhere but, like a Fabergé egg, they're not designed to be chucked around or dropped on the floor. Anyone smart enough to buy will figure it out.
Regarding the price: yes, it's a big chunk and seemingly-unaffordable for a sizeable % of the Gearslutz demographic; but it's worth it. High-end and professional audio products are a snip compared to other professions and pastimes. A huge chunk is spent on the materials and manufacture. Meze are not skimping on quality. Also, we need icons to aspire to and the Empyrean is one.
Coda: Whichever part of the Gearslutz demographic you inhabit, make it a mission to own/use these iconic products. Your music and enjoyment of it, will improve significantly.
Sound quality: 5/5 Once bitten forever smitten. There's no going back once you've heard flawless, comfortable, non-fatiguing audio of Empyrean quality. Suitable for a variety of studio tasks and domestic duties.
Features: 5/5 The sound is there, and the comfort. Extraordinary tech specs. Cool (OFC) cable and choice of connectors. Quality aluminium hard case. Vegan option.
Ease of use: 5/5 A bit floppy (like an unruly long-eared rabbit) but entirely natural and well-behaved once on the head. Designed to be worn and not on the desk. Professional connections. Usable long cable that doesn't transmit any noticeable rubbing/vibration into the headphone. Suitable for use with domestic media devices (3.5 mm jack option).
Bang-for-Buck: 5/5 The price is justified (in my opinion) by the design/materials/craft and the sonic outcome. Start saving now...
Technical art and photos: courtesy of Meze Audio and Rinaro Isodynamics; additional photos by Arthur Stone.
Artwork credits: By Gustave Doré - Alighieri, Dante; Cary, Henry Francis (ed) (1892) "Canto XXXI" in The Divine Comedy by Dante, Illustrated, Complete, London, Paris & Melbourne: Cassell & Company Retrieved on 13 July 2009., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93403