Meze Audio Empyrean II Headphone Review
Simon Lucas auditions an exceptionally capable pair of high-end planar-magnetic over-ear headphones…
Empyrean II Headphones
This company hasn't even reached its twelfth year of existence, yet has established a reputation for uncompromising engineering that stands out even in the rarefied market in which it competes. In the time that Meze Audio has been operating, founder Antonio Meze has consistently demonstrated what a restless and forward-thinking individual he is. And now, his new Empyrean v2 open-back planar magnetic over-ear headphones have arrived a full five years after the launch of the StereoNET Applause Award-winning product they're replacing. They are certainly not inexpensive, yet they are still not the most expensive design in the Meze Audio catalogue - for that, you need to check out the aptly named Elite.
The way these handsome headphones look is not as remarkable as how they are specified. It might be hard to believe, but it's true. Each Empyrean II earcup has a housing for a four-pin mini-XLR connection, but the manufacturer offers a total of five cables (three of 1.3m length, ending in either 2.5mm, 3.5mm or 4.4mm terminations, and two of 2.5m length terminated with either a 6.3mm jack or four-pin XLR). These come in a choice of either copper or silver-plated wiring; you get to select this when placing your order.
No matter how you connect them, these phones employ one of the most distinctive driver arrangements around. Meze Audio has, for a while now, worked in close collaboration with Ukraine's Rinaro Isodynamics, and these phones are fitted with a refinement of the MZ3 'isodynamic hybrid array' driver that Rinaro originally developed for the first Empyrean model. At the back of each driver is a hybrid magnet array arranged to create uniform activation across the whole surface of the diaphragm. At the front, there's a fibreglass-reinforced ABS frame. In between is Rinaro's 'isoplanar' diaphragm, which somehow manages to combine an active area of 4,650mm2 with a total weight of just 0.16g. This is made possible by a special manufacturing process that involves heating and stretching the isotropic polymer in transverse directions. The result is great structural strength, stiffness and stability despite the vanishingly low mass, the company says.
Rinaro's expertise is even more apparent in the diaphragm's dual-coil arrangement. On the diaphragm's upper section, there's a 'switchback' coil to deal with lower frequencies, with a spiral coil beneath it. The latter is more efficient at producing frequencies in the midrange and above, and its position means it's more-or-less directly facing the listener's ear canal. Meze says that this lets soundwaves enter the ear without time delay and overcomes the tendency for the soundfield to become hazy when the wavelength is shorter than the physical depth of the inside of the ear cushion. It reckons this arrangement is good for a jaw-dropping frequency response of 8Hz to 110kHz.
On the subject of ear cushions, the Empyrean v2 comes supplied with a couple of pairs. The first is the 'duo', a blend of leather at the base and Alcantara everywhere else – here, the intention is to facilitate a 'harmonious' tonal balance. The 'angled' alternative, meanwhile, is fully Alcantara-covered with a fine mesh over the grille; it's designed to deliver a “detailed, airy and accurate listening experience for the classic audiophile”, whomsoever he, she, or they may be.
The earpads attach to the earcups using Rinaro's 'isomagnetic' coupling technology. It enhances efficiency by using the demagnetising field generated by the driver to secure the earpads while redirecting the magnetic field back to the driver at the same time. Both pairs of earpads, along with headphones themselves, travel in a large, square, sturdily fastening travel case that for some reason reminds me of the briefcase containing Marcellus Wallace's soul in Pulp Fiction.
As far as the design that contains all this impressive engineering is concerned, Meze Audio is never knowingly understated. The aluminium earcup frame, for example, is CMC-milled and pointedly three-dimensional where it joins the sliding headband adjuster. The open-backed grille inside is perforated with a repeating, art deco-inspired pattern that adds more than a little visual interest. And there's nothing as pedestrian as a 'hanger arrangement' here. Instead, Meze Audio uses a patent-pending system of 'suspension wings' with a thin, broad leather headband. This means the contact point between headband and head is maximised, while weight and pressure are minimised; there are no two ways about it, these phones don't feel their full 385g even after hours wearing them.
You don't spend this much on a pair of headphones to attach them directly to your crappy old laptop, do you? Of course not. So, to find out exactly what these phones are capable of, I duly attached the supplied cable (a 6.3mm unbalanced number) to an iFi iDSD Diablo headphone amplifier, attached the 'duo' earpads (they're somehow more comfortable), and cued up a range of music…
A 24-bit/96kHz file of Grapevine by Weyes Blood sourced from an Apple MacBook Pro running Colibri software shows the calibre of these headphones. Their poise and tonal balance are what immediately impress. There's an unforced naturalness, a sense of complete correctness, about the way the Empyrean II delivers the recording that is completely convincing. From the deep, substantial and controlled bottom end to the confident, bright and open top, the tonality is beautifully judged, and detail levels are generous. The most fleeting and marginal events are identified and contextualised, given the appropriate weighting and integrated into the overall presentation with great precision. The control of the attack and decay of individual sounds is such that the rhythm is expressed with absolute positivity, the rolling tempo has appropriate momentum, and the unity of the arrangement is unerring.
Better even than this, however, is the way that these headphones communicate through the midrange. Yes, detail levels remain high and insight is forensic. Yes, the balance struck between 'substance' and 'energy' is immaculate. But it's the eloquence of the vocal line, the character and attitude and emotion that is so remarkable. Natalie Mering is an accomplished singer, sounding like an implausible combination of Karen Carpenter and Harry Nilsson, but via these headphones she's entirely and only herself. Her manner and her technique are explicitly revealed – and all in the most unshowy, matter-of-fact way.
These phones glide from the bottom of the frequency range to the top in a singular and unbroken line, with no area given undue prominence and no area understated. They have the sort of broad dynamic potency to put a significant distance between diminuendo and crescendo, and the alertness to make obvious the tiny harmonic variations apparent from one snare-stroke or string-pluck to the next. The soundstage is spacious, properly defined and three-dimensional, but not in a forced 'spatial audio' kind of way. Rather, they make it simple to identify an individual element of a recording from its 'left/right' and 'front/back' position relative to the other contributors.
Switching to a lo-fi MP3 file of Car Seat Headrest's Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales allows these phones to explain their attitude just as fully. They're not about to tart up poverty-spec content like this, but neither do they sneer at it. Naturally, there are across-the-board drop-offs – detail levels suffer, the soundstage loses some of its certainty, and rhythmic positivity is undermined somewhat too. But, nevertheless, the dynamic variations are given plenty of expression, retaining the nature of Will Toledo's vocal prowess along with his undoubted commitment.
There's a dedication to recreating the music's entertainment value apparent in these headphones which is by no means a given, even at this price. The commitment to fidelity that any number of competing designs demonstrate can often be at the expense of energy, excitement and all the other stuff that some so-called audiophile headphones dismiss as a bit beneath them. But although the Empyrean v2s have unarguably high-end credentials, there's nothing po-faced about them. Instead, they give every impression of enjoying music for its own sake, rather than aspiring to be a tool of analysis. This is most apparent from a listen to I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives by Television Personalities. Although a CD-quality file via TIDAL, this ramshackle recording is palpably beneath the majority of pricey, well-specified, hard-wired over-ear headphones – yet these phones engage with it enthusiastically.
Overall then, the Meze Audio Empyrean II headphones may be very expensive, but they are decidedly special. This is a seriously well-designed and thoroughly executed product which gives an absolutely top-tier rendition of recorded music, regardless of how good or bad it may be. As such, if you're in the market for a dream headphone design, these are well worth auditioning.
Simon was editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine and website and has since written for Wired, Metro, the Guardian and Stuff, among many others. Should he find himself with a spare moment, Simon likes publishing and then quickly deleting tweets about the state of the nation (in general), the state of Aston Villa (in particular) and the state of his partner’s cat.
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