Given the convenience of high quality, closed back, noise cancelling, wireless headphones, why go down the alternative route that could be considered old school in the extreme? It’s something that Meze Audio has no doubt been asked countless times regarding its open back, wired 109 Pro headphones, especially by those who have never seen, or even heard them. If they had, it is unlikely that blinkered line of questioning would continue for long.
I came across Meze Audio in 2023 at the High End Audio show in Munich. This event is a bustling extravaganza of audio technologies where sensibilities such as price and practicality can be considered a bit banal – and nowhere more so than in the case of headphones. Meze stood out in more ways than one; the staff on the stand were a rare combination of knowledgeable, enthusiastic and friendly – no doubt something to do with the confidence they have in their products.
Our choice of model to review is the 109 Pro, not just for the quality but the individuality that you discover at every turn; the combination of materials that go into their construction, the technology, the brave individualistic design and, for others in the room, their somewhat selfish nature of leaking sound.
So, let’s get that one out of the way right now.
Open back headphones have been around since the 60s and were developed to produce a more natural open sound with many believing they deliver a higher quality performance than their closed back brethren. But this comes at a price; the openness of performance is in part down to the vented backs of the earcups so that the sound they produce leaks out to a degree that may well annoy anyone within a few metres. And it doesn’t take much to understand that if music is coming out through the cups, any ambient sounds are also going to make their presence known on the inside. Therefore, it’s pretty evident that the perfect listening environment is one where you are on your lonesome in a quiet space. Despite the 109 Pros being superb headphones in virtually every respect, if your room doesn’t suit the prerequisites, you may need to look at some the brand’s closed back versions instead.
Meze’s approach to design and technology is refreshing to say the least. If you were describing these to someone unseen you may get a raised eyebrow as to how such a mix of materials can hang together, let alone provide such a sumptuously harmonious whole. Dual thin matt black metal headbands held in place by copper coloured support stays; a vegan ‘leather’ cover to rest on your head; ear cups of sustainable, real black walnut (to help in the delivery of a natural sound) finished off with copper coloured end pieces and velour earcups that drip comfort.
Believe me, these are as far as you can get from the formulaic beigeness of the majority of popular headphone brands.
Within the lush, squashy velour earpads, the copper accenting is continued with the fine metal grill that covers the drivers. This is as close as you get to seeing the tech within but peek through the grill and you will see the in-house developed moving coil 50mm dynamic driver which in Meze’s words “allows us to push the boundaries of speed, accuracy and dynamic range.” We can only imagine that the attention to detail and carefully considered use of materials on the outside is replicated on the inside of these ’phones. For example, Meze explains, the driver has a Beryllium-coated dual-composite diaphragm of cellulose-carbon fibre composite surrounded by a copper-zinc alloy stabilizer ring to help improve the absorption of the vibrations.
These are not headphones of a shy, diminutive stature – they exude presence while at the same time being extremely conservative in terms of bulk and weight. In short, you can expect a delightfully effortless wear even for lengthy periods. The luxurious earpads certainly help with the comfort and with everything in place, you are ready to experience an engrossing, undistracted, listen.
And what a listen it is. The separation of instruments portraying a wide, three-dimensional sound stage is sensational and portrays a realism that is quite uncanny.
Orchestral music is an awakening experience where the space is carefully and clearly sorted into the various elements of the orchestra to provide a wide, totally absorbing soundstage. As an example, a new recording of Yuja Wang and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Qobuz, recorded as part of the Rachmaninoff 150-year celebrations bursts with life and exuberance – it is a genuinely uplifting experience.
The 109 Pros are not just about full-force, in your face, delivery; they are revealing in detail with all but the dodgiest of recordings. The subtleties flood through on the seemingly straightforward recording of Lana Del Rey’s, There’s a Tunnel under Ocean Boulevard that is brimming with nuances that pour through the more you listen to the tracks, yet nothing distracts you from that haunting voice.
The depth of bass is clean and considerable without ever being overpowering, demonstrating its presence when required. The overall balance from the upper registers to the low is perfectly reproduced so that you are never left with the feeling that there may be something else to be discovered within the recording. Everything is served up with authority and musical precision, without ever sounding harsh or clinical.
The source proved to be important. Plug the 109 Plus straight into the headphone jack of a Macbook Pro for example, and the sound is somewhat bland, not dreadful, just unexciting. Step up to a low cost Ifi Go Bar USB DAC/ headphone amp and the transformation in depth of musicality and clarity is immediate. Go further with a dedicated headphone amp or a streaming amp with a good quality headphone stage and you are really into the upper echelons of enjoyment and reward.
Perhaps as expected, the 109 Plus delivers its peak performance with fine, hi-res material. And while they are never going to act as a blue pill to recordings of a lesser standard, they still handle these with ease, letting you enjoy the music rather than focus on the limits of the recording.
Thankfully, for the sake of hearing health, the 109 Pros do not need cranking up to the maximum to provide pleasure. Even at moderate volumes, the details, subtleties, refinement and engagement are constantly demonstrated.
Get over the fact that you might be an annoyance to others in the room due to the sound emanating from the earcups, and equally make sure you are fortunate not to be in an environment that is not excessively noisy (because that will be annoying for you) and you will find yourself pretty much on the road to listening perfection.
As an object of desire these rank highly, the design is absolutely gorgeous in looks, design and everything in between. There’s a touch of the steam punk about them but none of the tattiness, the careful assimilation of different materials combines to produce something that is a work of envy and close to masterful.
The comfort factor also ranks very highly, which is a little surprising since there is no adjustment for the headband. Try them on and you will soon discover there is no need for such, they fit like the proverbial glove with no hint of excessive pressure on or around the ears and that comfort endures for as long as you wear them, even for hours at a time.
It’s become elbow room only in the £700 - £1000 price band for headphones these days, with entries from Mark Levinson, Focal and Dali to name check but three; all great travelling companions, all boasting wireless ease, noise cancelling (to greater or lesser degrees of success) and charging cycles that should take you at least from one continent to another before needing to replenish the power.
Meze has taken an entirely different route, eschewing those ‘conveniences’ for a distinctive, at-home, luxury approach. The 109 Pro comes into its own in circumstances which may not be the right fit for everyone. The wonderfully expressive sound quality produced by the open back design not so much desires a quiet environment, it is an immovable prerequisite. You need to be sure domestic appliances or the TV are not operating and other members of the household aren’t going to pack their bags because of the nature of the sound leaking from the cups.
Tony Allen Secret Agent
From one of the hundreds of ‘made for headphones’ playlists on Tidal, the Nigerian drummer’s fabulous 2009 track rightfully earns its place; a truly memorable experience of having a guitar gently setting a groove in one ear, complemented by the driving rhythm on the bass in the other and a powerful brass section spreading between the two.
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons Shostakovich: Symphony No. 2 'To October'
Written when Shostakovich was 21, this is a crazy bit of work, very far from his greatest and with a beginning that is so quiet it is just on the cusp of audibility. The 109 Pros handle this super-deep but also incredibly quiet opening with the subtlety it needs, but with their open back nature, if a nearby dishwasher is going through its cycle, the effect is spoilt
Taylor Swift Blank Space (Taylor’s version)
One of numerous recent Taylor revisitings, the 2014 classic album 1989 has been reworked. Wonderfully crisp and sharp even before you get to the lyrics. Plenty of thumpy bass, and a love-it-or-loathe-it vocalisation, taking the original and adding more, in a totally unobtrusive and cohesive execution. What you are getting is more Taylor and, with the 109 Pros, that sounds just sublime.
The 109 Pros produce an excellent captivating sound, with a level of comfort and design that sets them apart from the herd. The big ‘if’ is that you need the right listening environment to really enjoy them without alienating others due to the characteristic open back leaking of sound.