Review: Neumann NDH 20

Alistair McGhee gets his hands on the legendary microphone manufacturer’s first foray into the headphone market…

If you’re going to drop a name, drop a big one as Mick Jagger once said to me. In audio technology Neumann is one of the greatest and biggest names, with a microphone making heritage that stretches way, way back and a reputation for quality that stands undiminished by time. And now, Neumann have dropped a new product into the headphone market. The NDH 20 is the first headphone to sport the prestigious Neumann label and on reflection you might wonder why it took so long!

First consider that Neumann have been in the studio monitor market for over a decade now and their solutions have found their way into facilities across the world. Other monitor manufacturers seem to be more and more willing to make the plunge into headphones – think KRK, Focal and Adam, although we haven’t really seen much traffic the other way. Neumann’s sister company Sennheiser are a big player in the world of headphones with extensive experience in high end headphone design, and I know that high end Sennheisers have found a regular place in BBC orchestral recording and mixing.

However, maybe there’s a more widespread force at work, as more and more music is consumed on headphones. The ubiquity of mobile devices means that millions, or maybe billions of listeners are living their audio lives with headphones and the market for very high quality headphone reproduction is growing apace. And so, all roads lead to the Neumann NDH 20.

The Neumann’s arrive very well presented, the packaging is of a high standard and I love the hinged rather than sliding box. Inside you find a soft bag, a choice of coiled or straight cables and a mini jack to quarter inch adapter. Do I miss a hard case? Well yes I do but I’ll overlook that because the rotating and folding earpieces mean the NDH 20s will travel with you much more easily than say my Beyerdynamic 1990 Pros.

The NDH 20 is a substantial over the ear, closed back headphone that is finished to the highest standards. Making extensive use of aluminium and beautifully sculpted memory foam pads, this is a very attractive set of cans, with even the cheeky orange fabric covering the drivers adding some pizazz. The visual impact speaks of Neumann’s microphones which of course is no bad thing at all. I wonder if they could do them in that nice Neumann dark gray?

In use they are very, very comfortable and the over ear design means the sound balance is less influenced by position on your head – good choice. The isolation is excellent which of course is a killer feature for studio headphones and indeed for location work. Could the NDH 20 lure some location recordists away from the classic HD 25/26 set up? Time will tell. 

I asked Neumann about specifications and their response was most interesting – the NDH 20 has been designed by ear. The company didn’t start from scratch though, drawing on some elements of the Sennheiser HD 630 (yes the ones with the variable bass control), though the drivers are new (made just across the water in Ireland) and many components have been redesigned by Neumann. What no one quibbles with is the low distortion: class leading and certainly monitor quality. If you hear distortion using the NDH 20s, it’s on your recording mate.

With regards to frequency balance, Neumann’s aim was to match a pair of studio monitor speakers, not surprisingly a pair of Neumann studio monitor speakers. That of course makes perfect sense as you want your monitoring decisions to be uniform across your listening platforms. Sadly the arrival of the NDH 20s coincided with my room being under construction and I was without recourse to Tannoy or Harbeth monitors. However in the meantime I rely on Beyerdynamic 1990 Pros and Ultrasone Signature Pros and both of these headphones provide stiff competition for any new cans on the block.

So what do the NDH 20s sound like? The answer is very, very good indeed. Revealing, detailed and dynamic are just three of the characteristics – I can hear tape hiss on older recordings (yes I am that old!) that had slipped past me with lesser monitoring gear, and insight into layered backing vocals was a joy to behold. Clive Gregson’s acoustic picking and stunning songwriting moved me. These headphones are musical monitors. Of course, closed back headphones have a certain sound and it’s harder to build soundscapes outside your head. That’s where open backs like the 1990s or better still quality electrostatics really shine. However the NDH 20 is no image slouch and very much at the top of the table in terms of closed back designs. While the NDH 20 is good across the frequency band, the bottom end has a power, energy and extension that is frankly startling, thunderous even, which of course is going to win many, many friends in the punch and grind community.

But what about mixing? I remixed a demo on Neumann, Beyerdynamic and Ultrasone – paying close attention to the kick and bass. I was keen to find out how far from the established ‘monitor mix’ I would be. The end result I found surprising. Mixing blind on multiple takes I found myself within a dB on the kick and within two or three on bass with each of the headphones. And where the results varied between headphones, they were repeatable on each model. Consistency was certainly achievable and all the while the NDH 20s allowed the fine balancing that makes mixing so worthwhile.

In use, I found the Neumann’s almost transparent to wear. They are substantial but very comfortable. Their isolation for studio work is top notch and they feel like a purchase designed for life, to borrow a Manic phrase. Speakers and headphones are maybe the most personal of choices, but Neumann have clearly landed a quality product that competes well above its price. You shouldn’t spend this sort of money without a listen, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. If you’re going to drop a name in headphones, Neumann is now a big one.

Key Features

– Linear sound balance with high sound isolation

Excellent comfort for extended listening

High quality closed-back metal construction

Foldable design

SRP: $499 

The Reviewer

Alistair McGhee began audio life in Hi-Fi before joining the BBC as an audio engineer. After 10 years in radio and TV, he moved to production. When BBC Choice started, he pioneered personal digital production in television.