Budget Audiophile Earbuds?
I’ve always been a fan of Meze Audio. Their headphones have a classic and retro-inspired aesthetic. To a certain extent, they remind me of Grados — functional headphones that look and sound good, without excessive visual embellishment or over-colored tones.
Grado has an interesting price strategy. Their high-end reference headphones like the RS1e and PS1000e cost $695 and $1,695. On the flip side, their entry level headphones like the SR60e cost less than $100. It’s a great way for headphone enthusiasts to get a starting feel for the signature Grado tone.
Likewise, Meze Audio offers an entry-level audiophile earbud (around $59 for the 11 Neo in gun-metal grey), and a more premium version with walnut casing and copper-clad voice coils for around $79 (12 Classics). For those who dig the Meze tone, they can upgrade to their flagship product — the 99 Classics in Walnut Gold or Silver.
Then and Now
I had the opportunity to demo both the 11 Neo and 12 Classics in February 2017. I was so impressed with the tonality of both earphones that I ended up getting a set of the 12 Classics for myself.
When I acquire new headphones, I try to give myself some time with them before writing a review. I’ll listen to them, often times switching out with other earphones to get a feel of how my new toy compares. It’s a good way to judge them objectively once the initial honeymoon phase is over.
It’s been almost six months. How do I feel about the Meze 12 Classics? Is it really the best earbuds under $100? I’ll describe the separate frequencies and build quality in the following section. For now, I’ll describe the tone as best as I can.
Overall Tone Assessment
The Meze 12 Classics’ sound is forward, natural and lively without being too aggressive. It has an airy and spacious tone, and instruments sound open. Detail is very good, and without aggressive instrument separation that can make music sound over analytical.
This audiophile earbud has a balanced and natural sound without any particular sonic spectrum emphasized over the rest. There is no V-shaped EQ or overly colored tone. But make no mistake, the Meze 12 Classics doesn’t have a flat sound — it’s just that certain frequencies are fine-tuned for a more lively feel.
Fat, Fun and Warm
The Meze 12 Classics isn’t muddy, dark or dull. It has a fun and lively tone that sounds fat, forward and dynamic, yet manages to retain a sense of warmth. Its full and tight tone tracks instruments well, and keeps up with rapid transitions or complex breakdowns.
The problem with some audiophile earbuds that try to avoid a V-shaped EQ is they end up with a hard midrange that can sound uncomfortable and overly edgy after a while. Not so with the 12 Classics.
Musical and Lively
The Meze is fun, lively, and juicy sounding. It’s not exactly the most transparent or laid-back IEM, but it doesn’t pretend to be one. Instead the Meze 12 takes the music and reproduces it back to you just the way the producers intended, while layering on musicality and realism with a tinge of sweetness.
If you’re looking for a flat-sounding IEM (for monitoring) or something with a darker and veiled tone, then the Meze isn’t for you. For everything else, you’d be hard-pressed to find an audiophile earbud better than the Meze 12 Classics.
The bass is meaty but not bloated. There is no overly emphasized boomy low-end or bloated mid bass. Your tracks will have a strong and defined low-end for a balanced yet big sound.
The Meze 12 Classics has surprisingly articulate and well-tuned mids for a full-bodied sound. There is no boxy, hollow or peaky mids. Its punchy midrange creates a juicy tone.
Kudos to Meze for avoiding the typical commercial V-shaped EQ midrange. They pride themselves for creating natural-sounding headphones. Mad respect to them for doing the same with the 12 Classics.
Treble is bright and clear without excessive sibilance. It’s got a brilliant presence that allows instruments like cymbals and high-hats to breathe without harshness or sizzle. Crisp and clear is what I like about this IEM. There is no high-end rolloff as well.
The Meze 12 Classics has good separation without instruments sounding congested or overly spread out. There is good definition and resolution for an unmistakable audiophile tone. I’d say the 12 Classics pairs well with music with plenty of attack and instrument breakdowns.
I’m impressed with the overall build considering the Meze’s affordable price. The walnut housing is supposed to age over time. It’ll be interesting to see how this audiophile earbud’s tone evolves naturally.
The in-line microphone on the right cable makes it easy to identify between the left and right earbuds. On the in-line control is a single button operation for play/pause, skip to next, and jump to previous. The tangle-free cable is easy to unwind, and the gold-plated straight jack is a nice addition.
Those looking for the best earbuds under $100 will be happy to know that Meze didn’t skimp on accessories. The Meze 12 Classics comes with 4 sets of eartips (including 1 double flange) and a set of comply foams. This should be more than enough for casual listeners. Serious audiophiles will have fun customizing the Meze to their own fit. My personal preference is fitting the 12 Classics with SpinFits.
Also included is a cable clip and a travel pouch for storing the earphones and eartips while travelling.
Cheap earphones are common. Sometimes you get audiophile earbuds that sound great but are poorly built. Other times, you get something with plenty of accessories and looks great — basically everything you’d want in an earphone, except the tone is uninspiring and sterile.
That’s why I have to hand it to Meze Audio for creating an audiophile earbud that looks good, sounds great and is built well. All that for an IEM that costs less than $80. It’s frankly the best earbuds under $100.
It’s also convinced me to demo its big brother, the 99 Classics with full walnut earcups. I’m surprised the Meze 12 Classics isn’t getting more love than it should. If you’re reading this, help to spread the word around. Affordable and great sounding earphones do exist!