Before we dig into the 99 Classics, it seems fair to mention that on industrial design, albeit with a steam punk twist ready for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, there are the Master & Dynamic MH40 for an extra €100. They likewise celebrate premium materials and machining at a very high level and offer more colour/trim options. Visually simpler and smaller but leather/metal jobs too and for a similar price are the Aëdle Valkyrie 1 from France. If you know where to look, the lame old "must settle for plastic" dog if your budget be ±€350 no longer hunts. It's come down with the rabies; shot and buried. Expectations in this sector, about what your money should buy on visual luxury, have skyrocketed from the home-spun Grado look of yore. True, that says nothing about how anything competes on performance. Just so, desire to own stuff that exceeds raw appliance status like a printer or washing machine tends to feed on design, style and quality of materials. To be attractive to punters requires being beautiful. If it be spec'd and priced the same and just as reliable, even a prettier printer or washing machine will outsell its uglier competitor any day. C'est la vie. What exactly beauty means is in the eye of the beholder of course, hence our abundance of variety and choice. Superior industrial design simply speaks for itself even when a given form factor and style aren't for you. Ditto for sheer build quality. It communicates itself wordlessly to the eye, then to your touch and exploratory handling. If a maker falls short on these fronts or prompts outright objections, getting to the raison d'être of the appliance—being bought, used and enjoyed—may never happen.

That's where the "only the sound matters" brigade has completely and utterly lost their simplistic plot. Who wants to spend real money on ugly stuff just because it does the job? With hifi and particularly headphones, prettier alternatives now exist to welcome us to the real world where good enough on looks no longer is. Astell&Kern understand this, too. Even their Bluetooth remote shown above right embodies it. One fears for those products and makers that don't.

On sonic expectations, the only pre-arrival indicator was a graph from Meze's website. Without knowing how much smoothing had been applied, one still sees the typical presence region notch which here centres on 4kHz. Below it one notices a surprisingly even very gradual increase which ends up 9dB higher at 20Hz quite like an ideal in-room speaker response if more pronounced. Above the dip, 5kHz regains level, then sports the typical treble squiggles one also sees in all other headphone response graphs. My anticipation thus was for a mellow and warm well-behaved signature with powerful bass.

The first delivery attempt failed because the chosen courier didn't 'do' Switzerland to return the package to Romania. Now Meze switched to EMS and that company dispatched the package in three days. Cracking the enclosed fully branded retail box open...

... via its magnetic latch revealed that the 99 Classics were smaller than the stock photos suggested. Their oval not round cups won't be true circumaural for the big-eared lot but quasi on-ear. And no matter where I looked, I couldn't spot even the most subtle channel identifier on the perfectly symmetrical headphones. The pads were of equal thickness all around, the plug receivers in the middle pointing straight down. For starters, I used the orientation of the headband embossing to decide which cup to plug the properly marked left cable end into. I'd later use familiar music to confirm that seemingly reasonable hunch.