When I saw the announcement of the NDH 20 headphones, Neumann’s first pair of headphones, what struck me as interesting is that while Neumann are owned by Sennheiser, they are pro audio companies and both make products aimed at the high end, their products largely complement each other rather than competing with each other. Both Neumann and Sennheiser make quality microphones but Neumann mostly make large diaphragm studio condensers and Sennheiser make wireless systems, Ambeo surround mics, dynamics, lavaliers and shotguns. Of course there is some overlap but not much. Looking at transducers which go the other way, whilst Neumann make excellent studio monitors like the KH 310 and KH 80DSP, Sennheiser make some of the most respected headphones available. I had always assumed this was by design rather than accident but the release of Neumann headphones makes me wonder.
So when finally I got hold of a pair I was keen to find out whether they were worthy of the Neumann name or whether they were an ill advised attempt to confer some reflected glory from Neumann’s mics onto some average headphones, particularly as the market for headphones is enormous compared to the market for mics.
What’s In The Box
I needn’t have worried, these headphones are definitely not an exercise in empty styling or branding, these are some really nice headphones! They come in a presentation box which is too nice to dispose of, boxes like this of course add to the experience and make you feel good about your purchase but, like Apple products I always feel conflicted about what to do with the box. The headphones come with a good quality, black drawstring bag, which even has rounded corners to add to the feeling that the details have been covered. This is all I’d ever need to protect the headphones but I’ve got a feeling that box would still be around for a long time.
In the box we find the headphones, which ship with the two detachable cables unattached, which made us wonder whether anyone has assumed they were bluetooth and tried to figure to how to pair them! The 2 detachable cables are a straight 3 meter cable and a curly cable which has a 1 meter straight section at the headphone end, this is a good compromise and I found I used it in preference to the straight cable. Both cables attach to the headphones via a subminiature locking mini jack at one end and at the other a 3.5mm jack with a screw on to the included 1/4” adaptor.
The NDH 20 Headphones
Enough about boxes and cables, what about the headphones? The headphones themselves are reassuringly expensive feeling, the construction is impeccable with much aluminium in evidence. These are closed back headphones, something I’ve always regarded as a necessary evil, and the cans themselves are textured aluminium with a beautifully engineered, all metal, one-sided attachment to a pivoting mount which rotates through 90 degrees allowing the headphones to be stored flat. The rubberised trim on the headband isn’t structural, there is a sprung steel band which extends to accommodate a larger head with a satisfying ratchet action.
Something I missed at first is that when extended, the metal ends of the headband snap out and pivot to allow the headphones to be folded one on top of the other for stowing in the drawstring bag. The inside of the cans is a bright orange, which as well as fitting the corporate colour scheme also breaks up the austere black and silver. The pads themselves are memory foam covered in a synthetic material, which comes across as somewhere between suede and moleskin.
In terms of fit and comfort these headphones are a pretty weighty 390g, that’s the best part of a pound. The pressure exerted by the headband is firm and the excellent foam pads result if a good fit which, as well as holding these quite heavy headphones in place, probably negates the need for Keith Moon style gaffa tape headbands here, meaning that these headphones do an exceptional job of keeping exterior noises out. When positioning mics whilst listening via a pair of DT100s or similar I’ve long had a technique of reaching over the top of my head with my left hand to hold the right hand headphone tight to my ear. Doing it this way means my left shoulder presses my left headphone against my ear meaning that I can press both cans hard to my head to hear the mic over the bleed. It looks odd but it works. That just isn’t necessary with these headphones.
They claim to attenuate by over 34dB at 4 KHz and I can well believe it. Finding the sweet spot on acoustic instruments is a breeze with these and you’re in with a fighting chance on a drum kit. And of course the greater the attenuation the quieter the headphones can be meaning that the temptation to thrash your ears is reduced accordingly. All very good stuff. As these headphones are so good at keeping sound out, it follows that they are also good at keeping sound in, headphone spill and click track bleed are both significantly reduced.
So how do they sound? This is of course a very subjective area but as someone who dislikes closed back headphones and regards them as something to be used and then taken off again as soon as possible, these headphones were going to have to be very good indeed to stay on my head. My issue with closed back headphones is that compared to open back headphones, which always feel so much more… erm, open, closed back headphones always sound congested, as they inevitably will do, to some extent, as you are placing a closed cup over each ear. Clearly this bothers me more than most, as closed back headphones are undeniably popular with people who use them purely for listening as opposed to recording.
These Neumann cans sound extremely good. Comparing them to a variety of alternative closed back models I have, they were significantly better and without going too far into semi-meaningless descriptions of the sound, I’d describe the character as particularly good through the midrange. Vocals and especially reverbs were presented beautifully, the bass performance is deep but not at all over the top. I was very aware of bass transients right at the bottom end with kicks and acoustic basses coming across in a way which inspired some confidence that what I was hearing down there was reliable and meaningful. The top end is restrained. It’s all there but the scooped, all top and bottom sound which is common in some closed back headphones wasn’t at all in evidence. These headphones sound very good indeed.
In a piece I wrote a couple of months ago about the NDH 20s, I examined the effect impedance has on the performance of headphones. The NDH 20s are a relatively high 150Ω. This seems a good compromise between performance and compatibility with the largest range of devices, if they were genuinely high impedance then lesser headphone amps, and certainly mobile devices would start to struggle.
So when it’s time for these to go back will I miss them? I can honestly say these are the best closed back headphones I’ve used. My misgivings about closed back headphones still apply, I find them constrictive and uncomfortable and as I live in headphones my choice will always be for open back headphones unless I need to use closed back but that isn’t a comment on these closed back headphones, it’s a comment on all closed back headphones. For those times when I need closed back either to keep sound in or out then there isn’t a pair I’d choose over these. The fit, sound and construction are all second to none.
Do I have any criticisms? Yes, one, though it is possibly very specific to me. The cable plugs into the right hand headphone. My preferred way of working is to have my interface on my left and with the rather grippy rubberised lead crossing my body this was a source of cable borne noise which I found distracting. It sounds like a small thing but one of my principal objections to closed back headphones and especially IEMs is cable borne noise. All of my other headphones have their cables entering on the left side and this was the first time this had ever presented itself as an issue. I found I wore the headphones the wrong way round quite often, which while acceptable most of the time is a little odd. Whether or not this would bother you probably depends on whether your headphone socket is to your right or to your left.
At around $499 a pair these are definitely towards the top end of the headphone market, as such we probably unlikely to see many studios buying multiple pairs to provide to musicians while tracking which strikes me as a pity because many of us invest large sums in esoteric equipment which probably has far less effect than a marked improvement in the quality of headphone monitoring would on a typical tracking session, particularly the excellent isolation offered by these headphones. As a top quality pair of cans which will cover everything that could be asked of a pair of studio headphones, the NDH 20s deliver and while undeniably not cheap, I would say they are worth the price. If I have to wear closed back headphones I want a pair of these.