It’s very nearly a decade since Antonio Meze founded Meze Audio in Baia Mare, Romania – and it’s safe to say that his company has prioritised quality over quantity ever since.
Just have a look at the model line-up on the company’s website and you’ll see what I mean. Meze Audio’s entire product range runs to two variations on its Model 99 over-ear headphones (the ‘Classics’ and the ‘Neo’), a properly expensive (€3k) planar magnetic ‘Empyrean’ over-ear design, and the RAI Penta five-driver in-ear monitors that Mr Editor Sircom enthused about so fulsomely in issue #181.
And now there’s a fifth Meze Audio model: the RAI Solo. At roughly a quarter of the price of the RAI Penta, the RAI Solo is the in-ear monitor with which Meze Audio intends to engage with the mainstream.
Of course, one man’s ‘mainstream’ is another’s ‘disturbingly esoteric’ – and it’s safe to say the RAI Solo may not be the in-ear monitor the mainstream (which, let’s face it, is a fairly disparate group of people at the best of times) thinks it’s waiting for. It’s not wireless, it doesn’t have any active noise-cancellation, and there’s no sign of a control app. It rather looks like the mainstream is going to have to come to Meze Audio, rather than the other way around, after all.
RAI Solo may have been designed to sell at a price that can reasonably confidently be described as ‘mainstream’, but that doesn’t mean Meze Audio has sacrificed any of its increasingly obvious principles. RAI Solo is a combination of some pleasantly original thinking and the sort of rigorous engineering with which Meze Audio is becoming synonymous.
The housing of RAI Solo is a two-piece injection moulded stainless steel arrangement. It’s durable, extremely low-resonance, lends itself happily to mass production and – let’s not be coy – looks pretty good in its raw, brushed state. Meze Audio has achieved an agreeably anatomic fit with the RAI Solo – so while they’re far from the most lightweight earbuds around, they prove easy to wear for hours on end. In combination with the generous selection of eartip options Meze Audio provides, the RAI Solo are among the most comfortable in-ear monitors around.
Each earbud is joined to a 1.3m silver-plated cable using micro-miniature coaxial connectors. The RAI Solo are supplied with a cable terminating in a rhodium-plated 3.5mm jack, but the cable’s detachable nature means a switch to cable terminating in either a rhodium-plated 2.5mm jack or a gold-plated 4.4mm jack is possible. It’ll cost you, mind. The cable itself is ‘tangle-resistant’ – and if ever there was a piece of overtly disingenuous marketing-speak, ‘tangle-resistant’ might well be it.
For all the thoroughness of the engineering that’s on display here, though, it’s on the inside that the RAI Solo are arguably at their most impressive. Meze Audio is vocal in its disdain for the common-or-garden electrodynamic driver with voice coil attached – it reckons this arrangement invariably results in unbalanced vibration. And, let’s be honest, it may well be on to something. So instead, Meze Audio takes a different approach: it uses an electrically conductive driver membrane which, consequently, has no wires attached. The idea is that this 9.2mm driver produces a symmetrical, unified pistonic motion which, in turn, promises extremely low total harmonic distortion.
Given that any worthwhile smartphone goes without a headphone socket (that’s the ‘mainstream’ for you), the Meze Audio RAI Solo are connected to a 128GB iPod Touch 7th Generation and a Naim Uniti Star (which for some inexplicable reason has a 3.5mm headphone socket rather than the altogether more serious 6.3mm alternative). Between them, they serve up audio from streaming services, from solid-state storage, from a Cambridge Audio Alva TT turntable and from a Cyrus CDt CD transport.
Every test has to start somewhere – and in an effort to leave all subsequent directions open, this test starts with a bog-standard Spotify-derived stream of The Fall’s Who Makes The Nazis? [Kamera]. It almost goes without saying that this recording is determinedly on the rough-and-ready side, but despite the gimpy rhythm and ruthlessly forward midrange, the RAI Solo have sufficient powers of resolution to bring a little order to bear. There’s a significant amount of background noise on this recording, but even when dealing with this 320kbps facsimile the Meze Audio are poised and detailed enough to make its origin apparent. Lesser in-ear monitors may just attempt to pass it off as tape hiss, but the RAI Solo make it apparent that rather than plugging directly into the desk, at least one of these musicians is playing into a mic’d amplifier – and an overdriven amplifier at that.
Elsewhere, midrange fidelity is sufficient to extract some perceptible meaning from the inimitable stream-of-consciousness ‘vocalising’ that was always Mark E Smith’s stock in trade. There’s even a degree of air around his voice, the suggestion of an area of security even as the ramshackle musical arrangement threatens to engulf him.
One grinding gear-change later and we’re listening to a 16bit/44.1kHz CD copy of Jackson Browne’s For a Dancer [Asylum]. There isn’t a pair of headphones in the world that wouldn’t be more at home with this material, and sure enough the relative lack of provocation gives the RAI Solo a chance to properly express themselves. Low frequencies prove deep (perhaps not the 18Hz deep Meze Audio is claiming, but deep nevertheless) and agile, with plenty of detail regarding texture revealed and nice straight edges leading into and out of individual notes. Integration with the rest of the frequency range is adept, yet bass information keeps a respectful distance from the midrange, which has plenty of room to stretch out as a result.
Browne doesn’t have the world’s strongest or most expressive voice, but there’s character in there and the RAI Solo do a fine job of revealing it. The finest details and subtle harmonic variations in pitch and timbre are all served up.
The top of the frequency range is given an even more thorough examination by a vinyl copy of Grouper’s AIA Alien Observer [Kranky]. This is a hazy, gauzy and altogether opiated album, but the Meze Audio freights treble sounds with ample substance and lets them glint through the drone. They stay properly defined around the edges, too, even when the overall sonic signature of the recording gets especially vague and amorphous. What attack is summoned through the course of the LP is given proper expression, and when it becomes stripped back to just multi-tracked harmony vocals (as it does on the almost-title track) there’s just enough bite to the upper register to offer proper drive.
In fact, the RAI Solo want for virtually nothing where drive and attack is concerned. An MQA file of The Comet Is Coming’s Summon the Fire [Impulse!] absolutely powers forward, grinding horns and squelching analogue synthesiser sounds to the fore. It’s a dynamic, wide-screen presentation with enough competing elements to pose a stern test – but the Meze Audio remain unarguably in charge. Their wide, deep soundstage is properly defined, and the dynamic peaks and troughs of the tune are tracked faithfully. No matter if it squeals from the back of the stage or honks from the front, the RAI Solo give it precisely the space and emphasis it requires.
The Meze Audio aren’t, perhaps, the last word in rhythmic expression – they’re no wallflowers, not by any stretch of the imagination, but the lack just a touch of the dancefloor certainty that their best rivals can muster. Unless you exist on a diet of 120bpm floor-fillers, though, you’ll find the RAI Solo more than capable of cutting the occasional rug.
For all of their clever specification, their unarguably painstaking construction and, most importantly of all, their exemplary performance at the price, though, it’s just slightly difficult to know who exactly the Meze Audio RAI Solo are for. No one wears in-ear monitors in the home, do they? Certainly not IEMs on a 1.3m cable. At this sort of money, mainstream punters are going to want wireless earbuds, if for no other reason than their smartphones don’t have physical headphone connections. And those music-lovers judicious (and well-heeled) enough to have invested in dedicated music players will be wanting something a little more upmarket, like (for instance) the Meze Audio RAI Penta. I’m not sure what that leaves these capable, good-looking and well-made headphones. Solo?
- Type: In-ear monitor
- Drivers: 9.2mm UPM (unified pistonic motion) dynamic driver
- Frequency Response: 18Hz–22kHz
- Impedance: 16 Ohms
- Noise cancellation: none
- Distortion: < 1% at 1mW/1kHz
- Accessories: protective hard case; 3 pairs soft silicone eartips (S, M, L); 3 pairs double-flanged eartips (S, M, L); 2 pairs deep insertion double-flanged eartips (M, L)
- Weight: 20g
- Price: £229
Manufacturer: Meze Audio
UK Distributor: SCV Distribution
Tel: +44(0)330 122 2500