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Headphone SQ Roundup : Meze 99 Neo, Grado SR225, Focal Clear

Meze 99 Neo

These headphones have a pleasant midrange quality which isn’t edgy at all and which is relatively well balanced as all things audio should be. It makes you think they are much more expensive on that score. Tonally they are impressive too.

The Meze 99 Neo headphones are very well made and stylish and if Gucci did headphones…………… Comfortable and not too weighty, in this sense intended for long listening sessions.

They go deep with bass also. I tried them with a Yamaha WXC-50 streamer playing Tidal and music from a network drive across various formats. The DAC is a Chord Qutest and the headphone amp a JDS Labs Atom Amp which, straight out of the box, really hits the crap running of proverbial headphone amp performance.

My ‘little big sister’ was around so I asked her to tell me what is best to her of these three, why so, and which is more expensive. This was before I gave her the lowdown, in a rather audiophile way, of what to look out for.

Her view, like mine, is that the bass is a bit jumbled when it gets more complicated on some fast house music. This was obvious when we tried John and Sasha Digweed’s Renaissance album. It’s not that it isn’t impactful, but just not dynamically ideal. Listening to a baritone vocal, some of the midrange is bleeding into the bass and obviously with other elements in music with similar frequencies.

Listen to a bit of light classical, these headphones are good at showing off the capable midrange and also with slow acoustic music. I actually thought it’s only where bass is très vite do they slightly stray.

If you prefer bass as exuberant as a bass guitar to polite bass of an acoustic guitar, then these headphones will be the ones you might try. They might float your boat very well at this price.

If on the other hand you aren’t a bass head then maybe they aren’t the natural choice. The Qutest DAC allowed me the option to change incisive/warm filters to suit my personal preference in tuning bass, but regrettably this didn’t go far enough.

But this all said, these headphones are relatively inexpensive at £200 and for this we can’t expect the world in performance terms, against something like the last pair in this article. On the whole they are OK performers but not the best by any stretch.

What I reckon of these headphones.

Grado SR225

Keeping to the same streamer / DAC and headphone amp set up, these older headphones are quite a different proposition to the Meze’s. They now come in the SR225e model and I wanted to try a comparison to the Meze’s to present an alternate house sound.

They are less weighty in bass, which isn’t a disadvantage if that’s your cup of tea. Bass weight in headphones is always a compromise between outright depth and scale and ease-ability in long term relaxed, non tiresome listening.

They are nowhere near as comfortable as the Meze’s with slightly irritable foam pads and the wire to each headphone is easily twisted like wire spaghetti! They are very light though.

This reduced bass weight makes bass more dynamic and fast. Perhaps unsurprising when on a relative bass score, in difference to having Brian Blessed shout in your ear with the Meze’s, it feels more like Theresa May doing so.

The Grado’s have a level of detail authority unlike the Meze’s, as well as depth into musical recordings in a natural way, with an ethereal quality to soundstage. Playing something like Elvira Madigan by Mozart, they are really shown off.

This all said, they do have a slightly forward quality to peaked up mid range and higher frequencies too, so not to everyones taste. Using the warm filter of the Qutest DAC was more ideal with some types of music.

They might be on an equal footing to the Meze’s in some peoples view, because treble and bass balance is so important to musical refinement and enjoyment. It could be argued the Meze’s do that slightly better but undoubtedly the Grado’s take you to greater depths in the detail of music and is that more important? Take your pick!

It was interesting my sister picked them out as being best of all the three by their characteristics. She is not an audiophile and this approach is often common. A trick of affordable audio maybe? The very best audio gear does balance better, but still gets the detail in. Cue Focal Clear headphones……

Focal Clear

A rebranding exercise with the Focal’s for a bit of fun

In comparison to the other two, the Focal’s are in a different price category. However the adage you get what you pay for, cliche maybe, rings as resoundingly here as an annoying ring tone.

Comfort wise you are pampered with their leather headband and microfibre covered ear cushions of chamois leather feel. They are weightier but given the champagne reception quality here, no biggie.

They are just profoundly accurate to source of all others and OK you might say how can I be comparing headphones of different classes? Well one thing is for sure, it provides a useful window into what these Focal’s do and how much more they lean towards a reference standard.

They are tuned to be neutral and offer good detail, at the same time bass response is so natural and accurate in depth. Give them some classical like Chopin’s Nocturnes and it doesn’t get much better than this in balance echelons.

They maybe are not quite as fast with bass as the cheaper Grado’s. With Happy Cycling by Boards of Canada they can’t quite keep up with the intonating bass line of this track. Nor with Jumbo by Underworld. That said, I’m mindful the Yamaha streamer and Chord DAC are capable here, particularly the Chord. However it would be hoped the Focal’s would respond to different quality amplification better and to this end I hope to experiment with a more powerful Schiit Jotunheim headphone amp too (where I will append this article). At the moment the Focal’s are receiving just under a watt per channel from the JDS Labs Atom amp.

Unusually, or maybe not so, the tracks I’m playing back take on their characteristics in my HiFi system, a much pricier set up. So much so, I can discern the quality of the recording, or its format, more obviously. The other headphones here just cannot achieve this anywhere near as well. These Focal’s are more than speaker substitutes, and with a capable streamer, DAC and headphone amp, a more affordable option to boot. In fact you might even go so far as saying it’s unlikely you’ll get musical quality for speakers around the same price.

JDS Labs Atom Amp / Qutest DAC / Yamaha WXC-50 streamer

Traditional audiophiles should invest in headphones like these as much as 2 channel. Just a touch faster and it would be hard to envisage, without reference to other pairs, how headphones could perform any better in a system comprising great electronics. But let’s hold that view until a more powerfully dynamic headphone amp can be sourced.

Peaking my interest and some, I thought I’d try using an Innuos Zenith MkII source which is ridiculously quiet with its triple linear power supply and other tech. This translates into electrically noiseless music. The Zenith has a much lower noise floor and in my HiFi system this equates to depth into music, and deep bass. The difference is somewhat marginal between these sources using the Focal’s, but bass is faster with the Zenith when I tried Underworld’s Jumbo again. Given the capabilities of these headphones, I’d expect to get more out of a source when swapping to better amplification.

I did use an inexpensive inline Nickel headphone amp from Periodic Audio, which isn’t really suited to these headphones as they really need very good drive to perform their best. So don’t be thinking they can be paired to any old music player or phone, as they can’t. I really think they are for serious home listening in a quiet environment.

What worked extremely well is a pairing of a JDS Labs Atom Amp with an iPhone and Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt acting as pre amp and DAC. Sound quality was similar as with the Chord Qutest DAC / Atom / Yamaha WXC-50 pairing, if maybe not quite as dynamic with bass.

Bet your bottom dollar ?

Obviously the Focal’s are in another class, but given the Meze’s are just more bassy than the Grado’s, they will appeal to a certain type of listener. The Grado’s take you into the layers of the music more and undoubtedly have great insight.

You make the choice but whatever you decide, have fun doing it!!!

Price

Meze 99 Neo – £200
Grado SR225e (current model) – £185
Focal Clear – $1500 / £1500 / EUR 1500

Manufacturer details

Meze
Iuliu Maniu str., Nr.38, 1st floor, amp.2, Baia Mare, 430131, Romania
Email : info@mezeaudio.com
Website : https://mezeaudio.com

Grado
4614 7th Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, US
Contact : https://gradolabs.com/company/contact
Website : https://gradolabs.com/headphones

Focal
Website : https://www.focal.com

Written by Simon Price

I'm an audiophile who likes faithfully reproduced audio and sharing experiences with others. I am primarily interested in products; their looks, functionality and features, and most importantly how they sound! My reviews are not overly technical and I don't use pretentious language, as I believe great audio is non exclusive and to be enjoyed by all! It's all about the music!

Headphone Amp/DAC shootout – AudioQuest DragonFly Black, Red and Cobalt, Cyrus Soundkey, & Chord Mojo

Periodic Audio : Carbon IEMs and Nickel Headphone Amp