John Darko's announcement then wrapped like so: "And those time-related costs are why the Empyrean Elite headphones will sell for US$4'000." If your last brush with headfi was back in January 2009 when Sennheiser's HD800 released at a then jaw-breaking £1'000 which TechRadar called "undeniably expensive", you'll already have fought palpitations over Elite's ask. 12 years have passed since the HD800 was new. Now Elite is far from alone at costing four times more. Yet consult TechRadar 2021 for their best headphones of the year and coverage for over/on-ear models tops out at £369 for a Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro. That's until we get to their luxury category where we find a lone Focal Stellia at £2'762. For reasons to buy them, Radar list stunningly precise sound, an open soundstage and the opulent design. The lone reason to avoid them is being extremely expensive. There's no mention of the €3'000 Empyrean, $3'380 HifiMan HE1000 V2, $4'000 group of Audeze LCD-4z, Dan Clark Audio Stealth, Focal Utopia or Kennerton Thror, $4'500 Final Sonorous X, $5'495 Abyss AB-1266, pending €5'800 Camerton Binom-ER, $6'000 Ultrasone ED5 Ltd Edition 5 and HifiMan Susvara or $6'400 T+A Solitaire P. What about the $18'000 HifiMan Shangri-La, $40'000 V-Moda Crossfade M-100 or $59'000 Sennheiser HE1 Orpheus hiding in the wings? Topping out at now unabashadely blingified options that actually exist would be the $80'000 Onkyo H900M 20-carat diamond edition and the $120'000 Focal Utopia by Tournaire. Here famous jewelers festoon available surfaces with precious stones and gold. If you can do it with sneakers, why not headphones?

Back on firma terra, opulence stops short of diamonds. Just so, expectations for luxurious and aspirational have changed. Today my original HD800 looks positively pedestrian, its crumbling black foam criminal. Since its days, 3D printing has made huge inroads for what's possible to model, prototype and execute¹. The rise of bona fide industrial designers either at the helm of companies like Meze and Node Audio or as members of large corporate teams like Focal, KEF and Sonus faber rebooted what's viewed as fully dialed appearances.


¹ "A few years ago, Leif Johannsen, Ortofon's chief officer of acoustics and technology, was tasked with designing new products to commemorate the company's 100th anniversary, in 2018. Ten years ago, to celebrate Ortofon's 90th, he came up with the radical A90 moving-coil cartridge, which used Selective Laser Melt (SLM) technology to laser-weld together microparticles of stainless steel, layer by layer, to produce a 3D-printed metal body whose shape would have been impossible to machine." [from Michael Fremer's review.]

Even if actual performance keeps up, it nearly predestines smaller enterprises or those without costly access to real industrial designers and/or advanced tech and machinery to work more steam punk à la big Abyss or Kennerton.

Within this sector, Meze belong to a very small cadre of trendsetters. Working at the bleeding edge of design and execution comes at a price. Yet Elite would never have seen the light of day had standard Empyrean sales not shown an audience which appreciates this difference and is happy to foot the bill. Elsewhere we'd get crinkle-paint punched metal perf to vent a driver's back. Meze give us a far more intricate pattern which is CNC machined turn for turn to burn up costly shop hours. And so forth. Further props are due the proven teamwork with Poland's Rinaro [above] who have altogether filed for 60 different patents on their collective IP and previously helped Oppo with their planarmagnetics. They took isodynamics to the next level with their now trademark hybrid trace pattern for Meze's thin-film diaphragm. Elite's Paros membrane now becomes the next level of the next level which wraps up our intro notes.

Brevity as the goal of hip? Perhaps elsewhere; because we're not quite done yet.

With Elite, Meze give us their Empyrean's original Alcantara ear pads which makes them a microfiber blend of polyester and polystyrene. They also give us an all-new Alcantara/leather hybrid. By trapping air around our ears, such pads act like miniature rooms. That defines them by shape, size, wall thickness and relative loss-to-reflection behavior across the bandwidth. Like with single-driver Cube/Voaxtiv type speakers, there's no crossover to set the target response. For that Antonio and team had to fall back on mechanical solutions. That's where tuning with ear cushions belongs. For the user, easy swaps are key. By exploiting their motor's stray magnetism, upscale Meze pads pull off and reattach without fasteners. In fact they reflect magnetic stickum back at the drivers to increase their sensitivity. Because the spiral portion of the voice coil sits at the oval diaphragm's lower end, its mid/treble output aims directly at the ear canal. For this strategic directivity, Meze claim reduced time delay from usual reflections, hence a cleaner impulse response for more precise timing and with it, superior imaging. The switch-back bass coil sits higher. While this division of labor could suggest a 2-way, it's purely mechanical to involve no crossover. Where the diaphragm's behavior is obviously locked in, how it translates to the ear is still influenced by the confined space the ear pads create. Changing those will thus have an effect on the frequency response, possibly even perceived damping. Pick the one you like better.

Elite hopped onto a DHL truck in Romania's Cluj on a Monday and arrived at my Irish door the following week Tuesday for a solid week of traveling via Budapest, Brussels, Dublin and Shannon. Unboxing proved how all the photos really weren't Photoshopped. Like the Empyrean, Elite really did look intensely dialed and luxurious. Applying a macro lens magnified to what ends Meze's machine shop takes things. Watch makers talk of different grains, polished micro ridges and sundry surface texturing. So does Elite if you look close enough!

Given high voltage sensitivity, it only took a few clicks on Bakoon's AMP-13R gain setting to fly high above the SPL clouds. First impressions were very basic but telling. Elite still felt more like an ultra-suave planarmagnetic massaged for extreme smoothness than the more lightning-y resolution-first HifiMan Susvara or Kennerton Wodan. Those bridge the gap to typical electrostats. Of all their models, Kennerton's designer had picked Wodan after I stated back when that the SR1a then Susvara were my favorites. Secret cravings for the lush chocolate life had long been satiated then killed off by Audeze's pre-fazor LCD-2. Elite remains chunkier through the mids than Susvara and fatter down low. Elite's upper bandwidth still won't reach the ribbons' insight and especially dynamics but was more open, airy and shimmery than Final's D8000. I suspect that this new illumination and speed with its airing out of the midrange's prior warmth is the biggest change of the Paros membrane. If so, it's why the Empyrean remains with the program. Some like their cars and partners tuned for speed. Others prefer more curves and comfort. There are many degrees between. On that scale, my vintage LCD-2 live at the far edge of heaviness. Final's planars sit above them so a bit closer to the light. That's also where the Empyrean belonged. Elite parks itself above the D8000, Susvara above them and with some distance, Raal at my very top.

If you're a comfort listener, my ribbons could seem like adrenaline junkies: impressively athletic but nothing to settle down with. If you play more centrist away from early Audeze/Oppo planars and Raal ribbons on either side, Elite with its hybrid pads could strike a perfect balance. The original Alcantara pads are warmer so more opaque and just a bit ripe. They probably move Elite a bit closer to the Empyrean. Either way, Elite continues with Empyrean's prioritizing of beauty. Coming down off my SR1a, I heard added richness, mellifluousness and honey. Against that reference, raw and 100% unfiltered don't come to mind yet. In that context, Elite still applies a bit of foundation makeup. For that I'll call it a just minor romantic. With my first take done, let's get specific. First up, Final's D8000 vs. Elite off a COS Engineering H1, both driven 2 x XLR3 balanced. Source was a Win 64/10 HP Z230 work station with J.River and Qobuz. A Vermouth Reference USB cable hit Audiobyte's battery-powered Hydra X+. That passed reclocked digits up to 24/96 on local files or full-resolution Redbook off the cloud to the COS via a Chris Sommovigo S/PDIF cable: high end streamlined?