JVH conducted a match between Meze Empyrean and Elite and concluded that they were both winners. And yet, being equal, one is more equal than the other.
In April 2020, I published a comparative review analysis on Hificlube.net (where else?) under the title 'Meze Audio Empyrean - sweet auditory solitude.'
At the time, I complained to JLM, the Portuguese distributor, for not giving me enough time to listen. More than a year later, I finally received a pair of Empyrean to listen to at my leisure.
To compensate for the grievance, the Empyrean this time came with its younger brother, the Elite, or Empyrean Elite for that's what you can read on the magnificent James Bond aluminum suitcase (or is it a la Mission Impossible?), which transports the Elite safely from the factory in Romania to the lucky buyer in Portugal.
So, this is a double audition analysis of both the Empyrean and the Elite, the latter being Meze's current top of the range, not least because it costs an extra thousand euros, on top of the already substantial 3,000 euros that the original Empyrean costs.
So, here's the question: can the Elite be one thousand euros better than the original Empyrean?
I won't waste too much time on technical descriptions. Instead, I suggest readers go to the previous article on Empyrean. Everything you need to know is there. I will, of course, refer to the differences between the Empyrean and the new Elite.
Each color has its flavour
They're so similar that it is hard to tell them apart by touch alone with your eyes closed and the same earpads on. They are like twin brothers, only the grille colours and the thickness and material of the earpads change.
All you need to do is listen to find out which is which because they sound differently. That proves the axiom that newer models constantly contradict the virtues found by reviewers on previous products.
Some people call it the 'flavour of the month' review. I call it an evolution of what was allegedly perfect before. Is it possible to improve on perfection? Bear with me, please.
The outer filigree grille of the Empyrean (open back) and the adjustment rods are copper-colored, the inner grille is black. The Elite exterior grille and the rods are black, and the internal grille is grey; the Empyrean earphone frames are black; the Elite frames are silver, or rather, aluminum.
Note: the Empyrean Jet Black has black grilles and copper-coloured rods, but the most iconic is this one with copper-coloured grilles.
The double carbon support arch and natural leather headband are the same, differing only in the inscriptions.
The construction remains the best on the market. The solutions found for the suspension, support, and adjustment, the materials used, the design, the connections are all top-notch. Everything is at the same time beautiful, robust, well finished, and functional.
The technical solution for adjusting the headset extension and rotation is pure genius, and it works as if it were pneumatic. It seems infinitely adjustable and has no fixing points, however it always stays miraculously in place.
The otherwise excellent Hifiman HE1000 (one of the older models) looks like a gimmick by comparison. The 'leather' on the cushions starts to 'peel off' after a few years (the Empyreans' are natural leather). Nevertheless, when it comes to sound, Hifiman is on par with the best, as we shall see...
Another ingenious solution is using the magnetic field of the isodynamic drivers to fix the earpads, making them easy to replace - and we will see how the earpads are (very) important for the perceived quality of the sound.
The Empyrean is the magnum-opus of Antonio Meze, a Romanian industrial engineer with a taste for music and art, who teamed up with the ex-Soviet Rinaro group (now Ukrainian), a specialist in isodynamic (planar-magnetic) panels.
The secret of the Meze Empyrean sound thus relies on the Rinaro MZ3 isodynamic planar unit. Meze created the form (the solid aluminum frame and the oval earpieces with stylized grilles), Rinaro created the content (the isodynamic MZ3 unit).
The Empyrean vocal cords
The 'vocal cords' of the MZ3 are different from all competition. Instead of being arranged in circular, parallel, vertical, or horizontal rows between the plates supporting the magnetic structure, as in the Hifiman, they are labyrinth-shaped (bass) and spiral-shaped (middle and treble). The latter section is positioned closer to the ear canal. Hence, the hybrid denomination.
However, the Empyreans do not use two different transducers, like the legitimate hybrids o'Bravo or the Heddphone, for example. The Empyreans are pure single diaphragm magnetic planars! And you know how important it is that all sounds originate from the same acoustic plane.
Antonio Meze presented the original Empyreans at the High-End Show 2018 in Munich (see video below).
You cannot see the main difference between the Empyrean and the Elite. But you sure can hear it. It's the new MZ3SE hybrid isodynamic active unit of only 75 gr. (total weight, including magnets) with the new Parus ultra-thin, low-mass, semi-crystalline polymer film diaphragm with a THD of 0.05%, response up to 112,000Hz (!!), and 32 Ohm impedance.
The reasonable sensitivity allows them to be powered even by a smartphone. Or so they say because JLM never sent me the necessary cable for me to try it on. Now that I think of it, my current phone has no jack input. Anyway, I think it would be a futile exercise. It makes no sense to pay 4000 euros for a pair of headphones to listen to music from your smartphone.
The Elite enjoys gourmet amplification, and I offered it a rich and varied menu: Chord Hugo 2, Ferrum Oor, Pass HPA-1, plus the PrimaLuna EVO300H! And they (both Empyrean and Elite) rewarded me with hours of aural pleasure; I dare even say, 'aural sex'...
...the Empyrean and Elite rewarded me with hours of aural pleasure, I would even say, of 'aural sex'...
Note: Although I requested it, I was also not supplied with a pair of balanced cables. The Pass HPA-1 has no balanced output (6.3mm jack only), but the Ferrum Oor does, and with the Hifiman HE1000, the difference is remarkable.
The Elite is faster, more transparent, and articulate
And what are the differences in the sound quality of the Empyrean and the Elite? They're so obvious that anyone can spot them straight away:
- The Parus diaphragm of the Elite is thinner and lighter, hence also faster to respond to percussive transients, and the sound is more transparent overall.
- In a naive first analysis, the Empyrean may even sound a bit' slow' and 'veiled' by comparison. But mind you: it is not.
- The Elite has better articulation and definition in the bass and more information (and extension) in the treble, so it sounds more informative and detailed.
- The stereo image of the Elite is broader and more focused, and there is a sense of more 'air' around players and instruments. This is what you get in return for +€1000. And that's not a small price to pay.
- The air in the Empyrean is a tad denser. There is sometimes a vague suggestion of 'opacity,' especially when compared with the more transparent Hifiman HE1000, including in the bass, which also boasts more extension than both of them.
...the Parus diaphragm of the Elite is thinner and lighter, hence also faster and more transparent too...
However the Hifiman HE1000 needs intensive parametric equalization to rescue the bass (+3 dB 30-60Hz), bring up the presence zone (+3 dB 1-2kHz), and contain excess treble (-6 dB 7/8kHz). Both Empyrean and Elite sound sweet and natural right out of the box. They also improve with parametric equalization, but it's not a sine qua non condition. And that is unbeatable as a sales argument.
Note: Be careful: parametric equalization is addictive. What sounds good one day may sound not so good the next day. I am already in my 10 th iteration of Roon parametric equalization for the HE1000! Use it as a starting point. Do not try it on the Empyreans!...
...Headphones are one of the most personal components in the hifi universe...
Headphones (and cartridges) are perhaps the most personal components in the hifi universe: to each its own. The relationship between headphones and your ears (and I mean the pinna, not just the ears) is so crucial that simply replacing the suede (Alcantara) pads with the leather ones and vice versa can radically alter your perception of sound.
And it's not just the material used for the earpads; it's also - and most importantly - their thickness.
The Empyrean comes equipped with leather earpad cushions almost twice as thick as the so-called hybrid earpads (leather on the outside and suede on the inside) supplied with the Elite.
Both the Empyrean and the Elite have the alternative of thicker suede (Alcantara) earpads. However, the Empyrean, so the experts say, sounds better with the latter and the Elite sounds better with the thinner hybrids pads. Well, I found out that the Empyrean also sounds better (and louder) with the thinner hybrid earpads that come with the Elite.
Tonal balance? That is the question.
After many experiences and long hours of listening, with a quick change of pads thanks to the magnetic coupling system (check if they fit well all around), I was shocked that I preferred the original Empyrean. The Elite is superior in all the acoustic (and technical) parameters, except the tonal balance!
…I was shocked that I preferred the original Empyrean…
I have to admit I hear less detail with the Empyrean, but what I do hear makes more musical sense to me. As a result, I'm not so tempted to split the sound into bass, mids, and treble. The Empyrean sound is more cohesive, warm, and comfortable in the long run because it sounds more like an organic whole, more of a one-piece, less (dare I say it?) mechanical.
The Empyrean upper bass doesn't have the same definition and articulation, I admit again without any reluctance. Still, it provides a better foundation for the mid registers, which gives more drive, hence intrinsic energy to the sound.
Of course, this conclusion defies the prevailing technical orthodoxy (the Elite measures better in impulse tests). Maybe that’s because I used two headphone amplifiers of choice: the Ferrum Oor and the Pass HPA-1, both of which are incredibly neutral.
...always listen to open planar headphones in the quiet of the night. The difference is, uh, like night and day...
For example, with the PrimaLuna EVO300H, the Empyrean can sound a little 'rounded'; even with the excellent Chord Hugo 2, some tone 'voluptuousness' is also apparent. The option for the Elite is a legitimate choice in these cases. It sounds tighter.
Take note: critical listening of open planar headphones should always be done in the quiet of the night. The difference is, uh, like night and day.
Now, in the hope that you are still with me, I should present a list of at least a dozen records of various musical genres and digital formats, preferably rare or little known to readers, to show you how thorough my analysis was.
I listened to everything but LP (sorry, analog squad). From CD, SACD, MQA to high resolution. From Wagner to Haydn. From Solti to Gardiner and Pinnock. From Dylan to the Beatles. From Carlos do Carmo to Mariza. From Benjamin Clementine to Blake Sheldon.
In good company
But I will choose only one record: Simone, 'In good company' (live), Flac 44/16, Tidal. Not for the sound quality, but mostly the musical quality.
The CD was recorded live at Teatro Guararapes in Pernambuco. Besides an enthusiastic audience, it has everything one needs in music: samba, Latin rhythms and percussions, rock, blues, romantic and sensual songs - and applause, a lot of it, and well deserved.
In the important parameter of 'sensuality', both Empyrean and Elite justify the high price they ask for them. And yet, the 'old' Empyrean seems to convey with gusto that sensual epidermic sensation of listening pleasure, while packing a lot of rhythm to enhance further the emotional feeling, in songs like 'Passion':
Vou ficar até o fim do dia
Decorando tua geografia
E essa aventura em carne e osso
Deixa marcas no pescoço
Faz a gente levitar
(I'll stay till the end of the day
Decorating your geography
And this adventure in flesh and blood
Leaves marks on the neck,
Makes us levitate.)
‘You can't imagine the pleasure I feel singing here...’, Simone shouts out to the crowd.
Yes, I can, Simone, and you can't imagine the pleasure I feel listening to you singing with the Meze Empyrean. Even though I must admit that the Elite also has got something of a heaven/And a body more precise/Then the fairest of mortals:
Tem um não sei quê de paraíso
E o corpo mais preciso
Do que o mais lindo dos mortais
Do you really need a conclusion? I think it leaps out in front of your eyes, or better still, your ears.
The Elite is an undeniable evolution; it is superior in all technical parameters and a strong candidate for Best of the Year 2021. But I am conservative, and - personally - I prefer the well-tempered tone of the Empyrean.
So, everything I wrote about the Empyrean in April 2020 stands, including the 9+ rating out of 10. For both now. I'll save the 10 for the Elite II. Or would a 10 mark be within reach of both had I used balanced cables, which I didn't get from the distributor before the editorial deadline?
Do not miss the next episode.
Note: English translation revised and adapted by the author from the original review in Portuguese, published in 03 December 2021
We have the pleasure to announce that Meze Audio Empyrean and Elite were awarded ex-aequo by Hificlube.net Highend Headphone of the Year 2021.
Product under test:
- Meze Audio Empyrean Elite – 4.000 euros
- Meze Audio Empyrean – 2999 euros
- Distributor: Grupo JLM
- Manufacturer: Meze Audio