Meze 12 Classics Review – Different ≠ Better

Introduction –

With all these “up and coming” brands seemingly emerging out of mist, it’s becoming harder and harder to stand out from the crowd. This is great for us consumers, it just means earphones are getting better and better, but for manufacturers, the market has never been so fierce. Enter Meze, an audio company that’s not new, but definitely not a veteran like Shure, Westone and Sennheiser. With their 99 Classics headphones they made quite a splash and now return with a similarly enticing in-ear earphone, the 12 Classics (not sure why it’s pluralized). With a visually striking design, luxury build and the promise of Meze’s tasteful signature sound, the $100 AUD 12 Classics sit at the apex of Meze’s earphone lineup. Big expectations lie on the shoulders of their latest product, let’s take a look.

 

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Meze very much for sending me the 12 Classics for review. These are not a personal purchase and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. I will be as objective as possible during my evaluation of the 12 Classics.

 

About Me – Some background, Gear of choice, Preferences and Biases

I generally prefer a slight v-shape to my sound, but still closer to neutral. I like a lot of detail and clarity, but can appreciate a smooth, laid back sound such as that on the X10`s. I prefer a more neutral midrange within a relatively tight tolerance, but I`m probably more forgiving of brightness over darkness. I`m not particularly treble sensitive and can tolerate large amounts without fatigue, though too much ruins the enjoyment. If I use a different eartip/pad/cover during the review I will note that and describe the sound changes.

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Accessories –

The unboxing experience is simple and well presenting, the white/blue colour scheme reminding me a lot of Denon’s packaging. The front face showcases the earphones and model number whilst the rear displays the specifications, an image outlining the internals of the earphones and a small frequency response graph. They also have the Hi-res audio approval stamp and a little logo denoting the inclusion of authentic Comply eartips.

Sliding off the top reveals the earphones in a foam inlet and the carry case just beneath. The cable is coiled just beneath the foam insert, Meze use a small reusable Velcro strap to fix the cable as opposed to a cable tie which is nice.

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The case contains the eartips and shirt clip. It’s a very practical carrying case of your typical zipper style hard case but it’s one of the most compact solutions I’ve seen.

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They snugly fit the earphones coiled around 4 fingers with an elastic pocket that comfortably holds the shirt clip and an additional pair of eartips.

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The stock silicone tips themselves are decent but I had a hard time finding a comfortable fit among the various sizes (S,M,L and Double Flange). They’re well moulded but the hard reinforcement coming off the stem at the front is quite hard on the ear and the rounded shape of the tips don’t sit particularly well. Luckily Meze provide a set of Comply T series foam eartips which gave me a great fit.

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Since I do prefer a slightly brighter sound, I prefer to use silicone tips at home. For the sake of this review, I will be evaluating the 12 Classics Sony Hybrids, I would suggest that most buyers who prefer silicone tips pick up a set, they work for most earphones and provide greater comfort and seal than most stock tips. I also gave the Spinfit CP100’s a try but the flexible stems made the earphones unstable in the ear, I wouldn’t recommend using them with any of the Meze earphones.

 

Design –

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Utilising real walnut combined with an aluminium sound tube and back-plate, the Meze 12 Classics look spectacular. Furthermore, this captivating design is executed through flawless build quality and the earphones feel similarly solid in the hand.

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With a reassuring weight, the earphones feel every bit as premium as any more expensive earphone, I would even say they have superior build quality to the Oriveti Primacy which had a small seam running through the centre of the housings.

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Oriveti Primacy with visible seam

The 12 Classics are devoid of any imperfections and the wood is mated perfectly to the aluminium with visible but not palpable seam. Every edge is sculpted in a very eye catching manner, the indented rear makes insertion simple whilst the subtly curved housings allow for similarly effortless removal.

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Despite being fully sealed, there’s also no driver flex which will aid longevity. The walnut has a rich tone which is well complimented by the frosted aluminium. The Meze logo adorns the outer face, it feels laser etched not painted. The use of a metal sound tube is also great for strength and rigidity, the metal mesh protector is similarly well finished, there are no glue marks or other indication of poor workmanship.

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Visuals and feel aside, the housings are moderately sized for an in ear, they’re neither small nor large but easily dwarf the Shozy Zero and Klipsch X10. Due to the tapered design and relatively shallow insertion, the aluminium back did also produce a hot spot at the back of my outer ear after listening for about one and a half to two hours. It’s noticeable but never excruciating, though they still lack the long term comfort of smaller earphones such as those aforementioned. Fit stability is good for a cable down earphone, whilst I doubt they would stay put during a run, they sat perfectly fine during my daily commute without requiring any kind of adjustment. Isolation is strangely average, they actually isolate less than the semi-vented Shozy Zero despite being sealed which I can only attribute this to the shallow fitment of the earphones. They still isolate enough for public transport, barely, but the sub-bass boost prevents the sound from becoming overly lean when out and about. I wouldn’t take them near a plane though.

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Moving down to the cable, I really like the smooth, ever so slightly rubbery texture and generally beefier build. It’s not removable like the SE215 but few are around this price and the 12 Classics cable is a lot better than those usually installed on such earphones anyway. It’s pretty thick for an earphone cable yet remains very pliable if not super supple with a slightly springy quality. Combined with the smooth texture, the cable does resist tangles very well.

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Meze also implement a nice single button remote with integrated mic. The mic sounds fine, at least as good as that on my HTC 10, coming through nice and clear. The single button remote functions on both Android and IOS, allowing users to play/pause and skip tracks. The button is easily discerned and has a nice click.

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The jack and y-split are outstanding with a matching gunmetal aluminium finish and flexible strain reliefs on all terminations that are good but not the best I’ve seen. The earphones terminate in a gold-plated straight 3.5mm plug that’s tapered like the housings to aid traction on removal. I would have preferred a right angle plug seeing as this is an earphone designed for smartphone use but at least the plug is of great quality.

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Microphonics are somewhat concerning however and cable does transmit above average amounts of noise, but still less than the Klipsch X10’s and ie800’s. Meze do include a shirt clip but I would still like a chin slider at the y-split.

Overall I have no real qualms with the build quality, the 12 Classics are right up there with the best regardless of price. In terms of design, the shape of the housings is very practical but did produce some comfort issues for me. I would like to see a slightly shorter housing in the future or perhaps one that is less fluted at the rear. The limited noise isolation is a concern but should suffice for daily use if you don’t mind turning the volume up a notch or two more than usual.

 

Sound –

I am very rarely immediately impressed by an earphone out of the box, I let the signature grow on me and think on the quality of the sound over an extended period of listening, usually a month, sometimes a lot more. Since I only had a week with the 12 Classics and 11 Neo combined, I had to be a bit more economical with my listening. Both actually sounded kind of strange out of the box, not uncommon, a few earphones have done this to me in the past; my Klipsch X10’s, for instance, changed radically in the first day of listening but have remained pretty much the same over the past 4 years. The 12 Classics in particular sounded very hollow whilst the 11 Neo sounded just slightly metallic and congested. So I let both burn in for around 75 hours and also let my ears adjust naturally to the sound. I didn’t listen in-depth before doing this so whether the sound differences noted are due to any physical changes or are simply attributed to “brain burn-in”, I’m not certain, it simply eliminates burn-in and potential sound improvements over time so I can judge the earphones as they are (perhaps especially pertinent with the 12 Classics since their walnut housings are especially susceptible to sound changes over their lifetime).

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So how has my experience with the Meze’s latest earphones developed? After a little more listening, I really like Meze’s 11 Neo; they’re very linear and balanced with a lot of technical ability, I’ll have a review up for them shortly. It also affirms that Meze make good dynamic drivers and understands how to tune them. The sound on the 12 Classics, or my perception of it, has also changed for the better since I unboxed them, yet the titanium 8mm dynamic driver in the 12 Classics still produces a sound that is neither linear nor balanced, not in the slightest. Instead, the 12 Classics pursues a more dynamic v-shaped sound signature with reasonable success and just a few caveats which I’ll address in more depth later on.

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In terms of pure tonality and tuning, the earphones are quite distinctive and deviate a lot from pretty much any other headphone/earphone/earbud I’ve listened to. For better or for worse, the Meze 12 Classics combine a very engaging, dynamic sound signature with plenty of raw technical ability. They provide a real listening experience that’s unique in a lot of ways, I suppose with a name like “12 Classics”, this is precisely what Meze was striving to achieve. From bottom to top, the earphones have a large sub-bass boost which slopes downwards in emphasis towards the lower midrange leaving mids unclouded and clear. The midrange is recessed behind the rest of the sound but not to the point that any details are lost, of course they still aren’t as linear as the more neutral earphones around $100. Treble is natural, not neutral. It’s perfectly present in the mix but doesn’t draw attention. This produces a nicely detailed listen that isn’t fatiguing nor boring, I think the high end is generally well considered, just on the smoother, more sedate side of neutral.

Soundstaging is great overall despite the more tame treble response. Due to the strangely hollow, slightly recessed midrange, the soundstage has a lot of space, both in width and depth, especially for a closed earphone. Separation is also very good, the earphones have an almost exaggerated sense of space surrounding each instrument due to the unique tuning. Imaging is also quite accurate for the most part but again, due to the tuning, some notes can sound falsely distant and others overly intimate, I’ll detail the tuning in depth in the individual sound sections below.

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In terms of driveability, the 12 Classics are identical to the 11 Neo which made comparisons a breeze. With an impedance of 32ohms and a Sensitivity rating of 101 dB, the 12 Classics are very easy to drive but not the loudest earphone around. They’re pretty much identical to the Sennheiser ie800’s in terms of sensitivity which makes them similarly if not slightly less sensitive than the average earphone. They’re also similarly resistant to hiss, I didn’t notice any noise at all on my Oppo HA-2 even when listening on high-gain nor was there any background hiss when listening through my HTC 10, very good. The sound does seem to be slightly source dependent as they sounded slightly thinner through my HTC 10, but otherwise almost they were almost identical. Most portable sources will have no issues driving the Meze 12 Classics to sufficient volumes. They saw little benefit running through my Oppo HA-2 as opposed to my HTC 10 and amping is not required but will produce very small improvements to the sound, namely the midrange becomes more natural.

 

Bass –

Sub-Bass has great kick, all notes below 50Hz slam with real visceral impact, however the boost does make the bass response sound ever so slightly boomy. Mid-bass is less emphasised but still slightly accentuated in reference to more neutral earphones. As a result, bass is very punchy until notes descend into the lower and sub-bass regions where things start to get a little looser. However though relatively quick decay, bass remains tight enough and actually reveals a surprising amount of texture. Due to the leaner upper-bass response, mid-bass notes are also especially defined, coming through with great definition. The tuning isn’t linear but does strike a good balance, providing an entertaining if not particularly accurate listen. For instance, the Shozy Zero and Klipsch X10, both of which have somewhat similar low-end boosts, sound more organic and natural but lack the definition of the 12 Classics. The 12 Classics also have fantastic sub-bass extension which is unmatched by the single armature X10 and micro-driver Shozy Zero. This effect is enhanced by the sub-bass boost which mostly stays out of the way when not required but provides a lot of slam in well-mastered songs. I think the visceral bass response will work for a lot of listeners, especially since the boost is mostly confined to the very lowest notes, leaving the bass response bloat free and very textured. The uneven tuning will bother those who have heard higher end gear but quality is technically superior to the vast majority of earphones around this price.

 

Mids –

The midrange is interesting, not necessarily in a good way but some listeners might find it to their liking based upon individual preferences. The midrange deviates a lot from neutral, it’s the most sculpted midrange I’ve heard in a long time. Whilst it is sculpted, it is consistently different insinuating that the midrange is generally free of any peaks or troughs even if it is not particularly linear. Both lower and upper mids sit slightly behind the bass and treble making for a very dynamic sound but smaller midrange details can get lost in the mix. My biggest issue with the midrange is its thin body, both of the upper and lower midrange, which makes vocals sound hollow and lifeless. In culmination with the V-shaped tuning, midrange notes sound not only distant but also slightly metallic and unnatural, upper mids are even sibilant and raspy with some songs. Simply put, to my ears, the midrange simply sounds off. This is mainly an issue with tuning however as the quality of the midrange is actually quite good. For instance, there is plenty of detail, especially for the price and clarity is very good partly due to that thinner, slightly brighter upper midrange and lower treble. In addition, the midrange actually suits electronic music quite well’ anything synthesised benefits from the clarity of the midrange without being overly hampered by the thin body. So whilst the midrange does sound good, the tuning will definitely limit genre versatility.

I was just contacted by Lorand from Meze who recommended I try some “manual burn-in” on the 12 Classics. I’m honestly not sure how to explain it so I’ll put his own instructions below:

“inhale and blow air in and out of them with power a few times. I just take the nozzle in my mouth and do it a couple of times. I like to call it “manual burn in” because sometimes the driver needs a bit of convincing. Yes, it is a bit unorthodox but maybe the problem is because the driver could be “stuck”  

To test out the effect of manual burn-in, I applied pressure to the left driver only and compared it to the right one. Whilst not an ideal way to compare sound changes, the left driver had become slightly more sensitive than the right driver, so perhaps the driver really was stuck? I gave the right driver the same treatment until both were even in volume and compared them with the Meze 11 Neo for a few hours. Honestly, the actual sound changes are subtle, the midrange is still thin but it no longer exhibits that hollow quality it initially had. Vocals are still recessed and female vocals in particular retain a slightly raspy character. The midrange is by no means “fixed”, but the difference is appreciable and I would take this sound any day over how they were before. I’m not sure I would recommend doing this on a personally purchased unit, but it does indicate that the earphones could naturally change in the same manner through regular burn-in. If you want to speed up the process, this is certainly a very interesting method in doing so. I have changed the cons in the review and sound rating accordingly but I will note that this is no magic fix and the midrange still sounds less natural and more metallic than that on the 11 Neo. All of my other opinions on the sound remain unchanged, perhaps the treble response is slightly more present but otherwise the bass response is pretty similar and the soundstage is still just as spacious.

 

Highs –

The high-frequency tuning of the 12 Classics is one of the better aspects of the sound; treble notes sound great even if they are a little uneven overall. Treble extension is also good but rolls off through the upper, treble sapping air and presence from micro-details residing in the upper extremities. Lower treble has a slight accentuation resulting in instruments such as cymbals having a forward presence in the sound. As a result, details pop a little more creating quite an engaging listen. Middle treble is more or less neutral in quantity whilst upper treble is a bit flaky, the very highest notes such as high hats can sound somewhat truncated and miss that last bit of air and definition due to the roll off.

This is as critical as I can be however, and for a $100 earphone, the treble response offers plenty of impressive qualities. Brief comparison to other similarly priced earphones I have on hand reveals that the 12 Classics extends further and resolves slightly more detail than the brilliant Shozy Zero and is superior in almost every way to the more expensive Klipsch X10 and Shure SE215, both of which aren’t even comparable. Despite this, the treble still doesn’t compete with more expensive earphones, I think the $300-400 price range is somewhat of a sweet spot before diminishing returns kicks in big time. The Oriveti Primacy for instance, whilst three times the price, suffers from no roll off, resolves more detail and presents this detail in a more refined manner; I’m not saying that these earphones are directly comparable, I’m just putting the performance into perspective. So overall, whilst the 12 Classics don’t outperform their price range, they sit comfortably at the higher end of the pack, performing very well for a $100 earphone.

 

Verdict –

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The Meze 12 Classics presents brilliantly with it’s walnut/gunmetal housings and sounds similarly intriguing. Whilst the tuning is a little too sculpted for my liking (specifically the midrange), a lot of buyers will have no issue with the 12 Classics and it does start to sound a little more natural as you acclimatise to the sound. Beyond tuning, the raw technical ability of the earphones are a standout in this price range; they have plenty of detail and dynamics, with a spacious soundstage to top it all off. Ironically, the 12 Classics thrive with any kind of electronic/synthesised music but end up sounding slightly unnatural with most other genres. If you’re looking for a detailed, non-fatiguing earphone with visceral sub-bass slam and a focus on clarity and definition, the 12 Classics deliver in spades. If you want a more neutral listen that retains the quality of the 12 Classics sound then Meze’s own 11 Neo is a fantastic choice.

Accessories – 8.5/10, Nice unboxing with a reusable Velcro strap to keep the cable neat. The included carrying case is compact and protective with a pocket for additional accessories. The stock silicone ear tips are uncomfortable for me but others seem to be having more luck, the included Comply tips work wonders for ergonomics.

Design – 8.5/10, Visually stunning and functionally brilliant, the earphones are easy to handle and have a stable fit in the ear. Comfort is as subjective as always but I would guess that a lot of listeners would have some form of contact with the sharply angled rear of the earphones forming a hotspot in the outer ear over long listening sessions. The build is fantastic, the cable is great and the inclusion of a remote with mic is extra practical for smartphone listeners. The cable is quite microphonic but the included shirt clip mostly alleviates this issue.

Bass – 7.25/10, Great sub-bass extension and slam, textured mid and upper bass responses are nice and punchy with plenty of definition. Slightly boomy.

Mids – 7.25/10, The tuning is a little off, thin body makes the midrange sound hollow but also spacious. Quality is great with nice clarity and detail retrieval. Sits slightly behind the bass and lower treble.

Treble – 7.75/10, Nice extended treble response, rolls off at the very top. Well detailed without fatigue or excessive sibilance, upper treble sounds slightly truncated. Nice body and resolution.

Soundstage, Imaging and Separation – 8/10, Great overall, the soundstage has a lot of space with copious width and a decent amount of depth too. Separation is impressive and imaging is generally accurate.

Verdict – 7.5/10, The Meze 12 Classics are a well-rounded set of earphones around the $100 AUD price mark. They have fantastic build quality, a very capable if not versatile sound and are quite ergonomic to top it all off. The bass and treble performances are particularly impressive if you don’t mind the extra sub-bass boost and slight treble roll-off but the unnatural midrange will prevent a higher score. Meze already have the 11 Neo for those wanting a more neutral sound, the 12 Classics rather sounds much more dynamic and unique. If you want something new, a visceral audio experience unlike any other, you will find it in the 12 Classics, but manufacturers pursue balance for a reason.
The 12 Classics is currently available from Amazon for $79 USD, please see the link below for the most updated pricing and availability:

Meze 12 Classics GunMetal premium high fidelity wooden earphones IEM’s (Gun Metal Grey)

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