Neumann made its bones on the microphone side of the audio business. From its 1928 founding by Georg Neumann, through its 1991 acquisition by the Sennheiser family-owned company, Neumann was synonymous with state-of-the-art German condenser microphones. A few years back, Sennheiser also acquired the German professional monitor company Klein+Hummel and moved it under the Neumann umbrella. Thus, Neumann became a top-tier professional speaker manufacturer. And now the company has entered the headphone market.
The Neumann NDH 20 is a closed-back dynamic (i.e. actual coned speakers inside) design, with some parts and tooling borrowed from the Sennheiser HD 630 line. On first glance, they look quite similar to the HD 630, with shiny aluminum ear cups and a sturdy metal-covered-with-rubber headband, plus the multi-hinged pivot system to assure a comfortable and semi-tight fit. Neumann says the NDH 20s use different drivers and are voiced differently; I didn’t have an opportunity to compare with their Sennheiser cousin, so I can’t comment on sound quality differences.
Let me cut to the chase and state upfront that these headphones sound good! They convey midrange and deep bass especially well, without a harsh sheen in the upper midrange that is common in many closed-back headphones. The treble is also comfortable and realistic. Stereo location cues are pretty good, but these headphones seem more center-focused than some others. The human voice sounded particularly alive and present, both male and female. Because the upper midrange and low treble isn’t exaggerated, and there’s plenty of audible low end, they might be described as somewhat dark sounding.
As for fit and feel, they sat comfortably and firmly on my melon. The ear cups were more than big enough to surround my ears, and the velour-type outer covering of the ear pads did not generate a sticky sweat-film after hours of listening. In short, I could wear these headphones for a full day of recording, mixing, or listening.
The NDH 20 is based on the Neumann KH series monitor's sound signature. I'm very familiar with the Sennheiser HD 650 headphones [Tape Op #43], so I spent a lot of time with both them and the Neumanns plugged into my various headphone amps while switching back and forth (the Sennheisers have a higher impedance; 300 ohms verses 150 ohms for the Neumanns, so some volume-control adjustments were necessary when switching between the two). I would say that both models convey the midrange accuracy about the same, but the Sennheisers are lighter in the bass and a little brighter in the upper mid/treble area. The Sennheisers are open-back, so the feeling of "air and space" is different. With the Neumanns, I felt like I was in a deadened control room, able to focus on my production workflow, and only that. That’s the goal of closed-back professional headphones: shut out the background, focus on the sound between the cups.
At $500, the NDH 20s aren’t cheap. But they are well-built, including touches like a twist-lock where the cable connects to the right ear cup. They are packaged with a coiled cable and a straight cable, and a screw-on 1/4-inch plug (the cables terminate in 1/8-inch plugs). They also come with a "silk" carry bag.
I still think the $1500 Focal Clear Professionals [#125] I reviewed in an earlier issue are the best-sounding headphones I’ve ever worn, but these Neumanns are pretty darn close. They tell the truth about the overall sound quality and stereophony, which is important for recording and mixing. I’m not sure I’d do fine-tune mastering with them alone, but I’d sure listen to what I was doing through the Neumanns because they’d tell if I was taking a frequency area or part of a mix too far afield.
Many recordings I love were made with Neumann mics, and I got a kick out of listening to them through Neumann’s first foray into headphones. The NDH 20s exude classy design, durable construction and demonstrate a history of knowing what reality sounds like – a worthy addition to the Neumann tradition.