4 Things to Love About the Neumann NDH 20 Closed-Back Studio Headphones

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Neumann is famous for its microphones, making some of the most beloved classic capsules of all time. In recent years, the company has garnered praise for its line of studio monitors. Now, we have a pair of referencing-grade headphones for listening, mixing, mastering, and more, in the NDH 20 Closed-Back Studio Headphones.

Neumann NDH 20 Closed-Back Studio Headphones

The company set about making these headphones with two sonic goals in mind: to achieve a sonic picture similar to its line of studio speakers, and to fashion a listening experience devoid of nasty midrange build-up, which can be a hallmark of closed-back headphones.

Neumann also did its darnedest to keep these headphones comfortable and, in this, has been successful: the gravity of the cans is distributed across your head evenly, so the weight never feels like a burden. The foam earpads, thickly fashioned, envelop the ear most comfortably; they do not induce the claustrophobic, sweaty experience of a prolonged listening session in closed-back cans.

I decided to put them through real-world demands in listening, editing, mixing, and mastering. Let’s see how they stacked up.

1. Listening: A Balanced Treat

Any hi-fi forum will snarkily tell you every link in the chain matters: your headphones will change depending on what’s driving them. So, I took a listen to the NDH 20s in both consumer and mixing contexts.

For my consumer tests, I used an iPhone with a lightning to 3.5mm cable, streaming tunes from the Internet. For the mixing appraisal, I used our in-house Apollo Twin, monitoring wav files. I used my customary referencing tunes, songs picked for their tonality, dynamism, and spatial field.

Let’s start with the mixing test first: Right off the bat, the NDH 20s impressed me with their stereo separation and treble response. Everything is crystal clear throughout the high-midrange and the high end, yet nothing is overly hyped or harsh. In terms of separation, the quality resembles an open-backed headphone more than any closed-back cousin. Each sonic element was wonderfully delineated in space, but not stretched to artificiality, the way a closed-back can often smear the image.

The sound doesn’t feel compartmentalized in either ear. The image is placed in front of you, yet remains stereophonic in the best ways, like a good pair of speakers. This is what you hope to engender from an open-back experience, not a closed one; hats off to Neumann for achieving this kind of separation.

In terms of revealing the transients, these headphones deliver something more than heft or precision: they are truth-tellers—they make plain, to my ears, the distortions often found in modern masters. These distorted transients often sneak right by on closed-back cans.

Like many open-backed headphones, the NDH 20s have a way of focusing the midrange, where the vocal lies. The phenomenon almost feels like a frequency bump to the untrained ear—but it isn’t; this is the clarity that comes from each element satisfactorily inhabiting its own space in the sound stage.

As for bass, at first I missed that low-end wallop. Like many open-backed headphones, these cans are unhyped in the bass; if you’re not used to the low-end response of unhyped headphones, they can feel initially underwhelming. But then you begin to hear the bass differently. You start to understand what’s actually happening down there. Many manufacturers sweeten their low end. They do this to give you the “umph!” of a frequency band more often felt than heard; when this sweetening is robbed from you, learning to recognize bass for it truly can be challenging.

Upon further listening, these headphones seem to offer a curious phenomenon. At home, I have a pair of Sennheiser HD 650s and Audeze LCD-Xs, and I know how low end should sound on them. But the NDH 20s represent subharmonic content—the 40 Hz and below region—in an interesting way: this range is distinctly audible. Are they hyped? I don’t think so—these frequencies usually muddy the proceedings when boosted, and there is no undue mud here, no fuzzy, warm, low-end blanket.

What I’m noticing is subharmonic representation: songs whose subs I recognize still exhibit their familiar low-end in the NDH 20s; but how can that be, when these frequencies are predominantly felt more than heard? Have these headphones been tuned for some sort of overtone-based, illusory effect? I don’t know, and neither do I care, for it’s a neat trick, and it served me well during mixing and mastering tests. More on that later.

Now, how do these headphones sound driven by the iPhone? In short, not as good: the stereo response collapses a fair amount. The bass lacks a good deal of what I was talking about above, and there’s a general blanket over the sound, a lack of sheen. Also, the output seemed a far bit lower: high volumes on the iPhone got me to about average volume level sufficient for critical listening.

Is this the headphones being so good as to reveal the insufficient qualities of consumer listening devices? Or, is it the case of the headphones not being served well by the iPhone? With the impedance of these headphones being 150 Ohms, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter: if you’re going to get these, it’s best to drive them from a reasonably good interface or headphone amplifier.

2. Editing: a Comfortable Session

In doing some podcast editing (cutting out unneeded words, moving around regions, de-noising and de-clicking), I found them satisfactory. Their chief benefit? The comfort: you can wear these for hours at a time without feeling squirrely. Their chief drawback? When I tell you, you’ll find it ironic.

These headphones are not hyped in the trebles, and sometimes this is to the detriment of editing, because headphones with more pronounced high-end display issues that need excising. Yes, I could hear stray breaths, clicks, pops, and the like, but they were not made painfully obvious, and sometimes you need that—especially if you’re working for long stretches.

3. Mixing: a Detailed Landscape for Play

For mixing, these headphones were another matter entirely: their separation allowed me to place elements in the stereo field with a precision I’ve rarely enjoyed in closed-back headphones. I could also carve and balance elements within the frequency spectrum in an intensely focused manner, homing in with EQ and really hearing the effects of each boost, each cut. My decisions, reproduced over other playback systems, were correct.

Once I became accustomed to how the bass frequencies are represented in these cans, I found myself making informed decisions regarding high-pass filtering and stereo bass management.

4. Mastering: A QC’s Dream

Now, you should avoid mastering in headphones unless you know exactly what you’re doing. However, I still gave them a spin.

And my first few attempts were terrible: I hadn’t yet understood the bass, and I made a mess of the low end. But once I understood what the low end was trying to tell me, I was able to take a few tunes toward their uncompressed, undistorted, yet balanced and loud culmination. I ran the results by some coworkers here at the office, and they deemed them well done.

As stated before, these headphones reveal distortion plainly, at least to me. So they also made the QC process a breeze: any imperfection could be spotted out, and then dealt with.

Conclusion

For a closed-back hi-fi listening experience, I’d heartily recommend these headphones, if driven by an appropriate amplifier or interface. They firmly have their place in the mixing and mastering workflow, as well. I’m sorry I had to give mine back; let that be your conclusive takeaway!

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