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Neumann’s pro studio headphones aren’t for audiophiles, but I like them anyway

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The NDH 20 are the first headphones from Sennheiser’s daughter company, costing a princely $499

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Neumann NDH 20 at NAMM 2019.
Neumann NDH 20 at NAMM 2019.

If there’s one thing tech consumers can’t resist, it’s a product carrying the “pro” label. I’m one such person, having owned an ATI Radeon 9500 Pro graphics card, an Iiyama ProLite monitor, and now a MacBook Pro laptop. Coming to the NAMM show for the first time, I’ve made an open secret of my pursuit of pro headphones that can satisfy my consumer tastes, and I might have found the best candidate for that in the shape of the Neumann NDH 20.

Freshly announced at NAMM 2019, the Neumann NDH 20 are the first headphones from a company with a good reputation in professional circles for its microphones and studio monitor speakers. Costing $499, the NDH 20 are very much in the premium segment, whether you’re considering them for professional or personal use. Most studio monitor headphones tend to be somewhat drab, industrial-looking things, but everything from the packaging to the orange-accented headphone plugs on the NDH 20 conveys a — dare I say it — luxurious feel. A chamfered edge on the exterior of the cups catches glints of light in a pretty and inviting fashion, and the art deco-style Neumann logo speaks of the company’s nearly century-long history.

Neumann is a daughter company of German giant Sennheiser, and as soon as I laid eyes on the NDH 20, I could see the family relation. The exterior shell of these headphones is based on the Sennheiser HD 630VB: they share the same headband, yoke, and ear cup design, albeit with a more premium look and feel on the new Neumann pair. The NDH 20, like the 630VB, are foldable to make storage and portability easier. However, both models are also quite large and chunky. I appreciate the NDH 20’s memory foam pads for their comfort and sound isolation, both of which are good, but it’s hard to get away from the sense that you’re wearing a substantial pair of headphones. Internally, the new headphones have an entirely new, custom-designed dynamic driver.

Having convinced Neumann to let me borrow a pair of these headphones overnight, I can also comment on their sound and comfort over a longer period of wear. Working closely with their Sennheiser colleagues, the Neumann acoustic engineers took the historically awesome Sennheiser HD 650 as their sonic reference point, re-balancing the sound to squeeze out the added bass warmth from the 650s and achieve a balanced tuning that’s as faithful as possible to the original recording. This is where the “pro” element of these headphones comes through: they have less bass and more treble than the most pleasant and enjoyable headphones, such as the HD 650s, will offer. But the funny thing is, as much of a fan of bass-rich headphones as I am, I really like the NDH 20s’ sound as well.

Neumann’s effort has paid off in creating headphones with precise imaging — the positioning of sound sources in the space around you — and exceptional clarity and detail. These are exactly the things you want from studio headphones, but they’re also universally appealing qualities that anyone can appreciate. I very much enjoyed listening to Miles Davis, Autechre, Amon Tobin, MJ Cole, and Bjork with these headphones. Basically, anything with acoustic instrumentation or multilayered production benefits greatly from the insight these headphones provide. On the other hand, aggressively distorted or deliberately loud and in-your-face music such as Rage Against the Machine’s hard rock or System of a Down’s pounding heavy metal tends to come across with all its harshness intact.

As to the comfort of the NDH 20s, I’d describe it as imperfect. After an hour with them on my head, I started to feel a bit of pressure from the headband, though that was quickly dispelled by me shifting them around slightly. The ear pads give me no cause for complaint, and I like that they don’t heat up my ears over longer periods of wear. Overall, I think a lighter and somewhat more ergonomic design — human ears are not perfectly round, so why headphone companies insist on producing perfect circles to put on them is beyond me — would have benefited the NDH 20s and better justified their comparatively high price.

The philosophical difference between headphones for studio and personal use is that one category exists to recreate the absolute reality of the music while the other is intended to bring forth the excitement, emotion, and enjoyment of the same recording. No matter what we tell ourselves, most of us would gravitate toward headphones with a sweetened, bassy sound that’s an easier and friendlier listen. The Neumann NDH 20s don’t change that fact, but they’re a very respectable entry in the pro studio market, and they have the sonic performance and quality to earn a layperson’s admiration if not love.

The Neumann NDH 20 are available now for a price of $499 or €499.

Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge