My previous headphone reviews here at Audiophile Style looked at two upper-tier consumer closed-back cans, the Sennheiser HD820 (U.S. MSRP of $2,399) and the Focal Elegia (U.S. MSRP of $900). A common theme in those reviews was the difficulty of crafting closed headphones that approach their open counterparts’ technicalities, with the Elegia doing so more successfully than the HD820. This review will take a look at a new, more affordable entrant into the audiophile closed back market: the Neumann NDH20.
The NDH20 (U.S. MSRP $499) are Neumann’s first headphones, and the NDH20 is aimed at both the professional and consumer markets. Given the NDH20’s price point, this review will pit the NDH20 against both the pricier Elegia and the comparatively budget-priced NAD HP50 (originally priced at $299, but now selling for $180), which were reviewed enthusiastically by both InnerFidelity’s Tyll Hertsens and Audiophile Style’s own Mitch Barnett, who called the HP50 “the most neutral headphones I have ever heard period.”
Neumann, which has been owned by Sennheiser since 1991, reportedly took Sennheiser’s legendary open-back HD650 as the “sonic reference point” when designing the NDH20 — a lofty goal.
Physically, the NDH20 are stunning. Neumann used plastic only sparingly on the NDH20. The ear cups are aluminum and the headband is spring steel. The result is a hefty (though not heavy), substantial-feeling headphone that seems designed for durability. The ear pads are memory foam covered in black cloth. Taken together, the NDH20 is all silvers and blacks. It’s the Macbook Pro of headphones.
The NDH20 weighs in at roughly 14 ounces without the cable. While some reviewers have complained about insufficient padding on the headband, that wasn’t an issue for me (and could be fixed easily with an aftermarket headband cover). The ear pads are comfortable with clamping force sufficient to promote isolation but not cause headaches.
The NDH20 comes with two three-meter cables (one straight, one coiled) which enter into a locking 2.5 mm socket in the right ear cup. Like even the priciest Sennheiser headphones, the NDH20 doesn’t include a hard case, only the cardboard box with custom-cut foam and a dust bag.
While the accessories put the NDH20 more in line with the skimpy HP50 than the generous Elegia, the NDH20’s fantastic build quality vaults it over the NADs and perhaps even over the Focals.
But how does the NDH20 sound?
According to Neumann, the NDH20 “uses newly designed drivers (38 mm/1.5 inch) with high-gauss neodymium magnets to ensure high sensitivity and minimized distortion, thus allowing the user to listen to the pure audio signal without unwanted coloration.” The NDH20 has a nominal impedance of 150 Ohms and a sensitivity of 114 dB SPL (1 kHz, 1 Vrms). Taken together, most sources can drive the NDH20 without issue.
Despite the fact that it can be difficult to get a consistent seal with closed cans, the NDH20 were relatively easy to measure with my MiniDSP EARS unit, which has been calibrated with a slightly modified version of Marv from SBAF’s compensation curve, where a flat frequency response is represented by a flat line.1
The EARS show that the NDH20 is an overall downward-sloping set of cans with a notable midrange to upper midrange dip and a pronounced bump in the upper mids and “presence” region. My measurements of the NDH20 are in line with others (keeping the different compensation curves in mind). Despite Neumann’s billing of the NDH20 as reference headphones, they display more of a V-shaped, rather than flat, signature.
Subjectively, the NDH20’s sound is reflected by the measurements. The NDH20 leans towards the low end, as suggested by the overall downward slope. Instead of a clear, neutral sound, the NDH20’s upper frequencies sound veiled. The aforementioned mid-to-upper mid suckout robs electric guitars of their bite, further accentuating the NDH20’s muted, somewhat flabby, sound signature. On the positive side, the NDH20 has impressively low distortion, and displays a wider soundstage than most closed backs.
While it’s perhaps an unfair comparison, it’s worth taking a look at the NDH20’s frequency response against the HD650’s, given Neumann’s desire to create a closed HD650 with the NDH20. Compared to Massdrop’s version of the HD650, the HD6XX (red), the NDH20 (blue) is more downward sloping, especially from the bass to the mids, and has a much peakier, more uneven treble response.
Given the challenges of tuning closed headphones, perhaps fairer comparisons for the NDH20 are the aforementioned Focal Elegia and NAD HP50.
The Elegia (orange) and NDH20 (blue) are very similar up through 500 Hz, but diverge from there.
Whereas the Elegia stay relatively flat from 200 Hz to 2k Hz dip lower, bottoming out in a trough from approximately 1.5k to 2.5k Hz. From there until around 10k, the Elegia and NDH20 go in opposite directions before rejoining each other in the highest registers.
Listening to both the Elegia and NDH20 back-to-back, it’s clear that the former is in another league entirely. The Elegia is clearer than the NDH20, presenting a wider and deeper soundstage, better detail, and snappier transients. In short, the Elegia is truer to the music. While perhaps it should be this way given the price difference, the NDH20 simply can’t compete with the Elegia in any category, at least when it comes to sound.
On the other end of the price spectrum, the NDH20 (blue) shares much in common with the more affordable NAD HP50 (green), though with a few key differences.
The steady downward slope of both the NAD and the Neumann means that both sound somewhat recessed in the upper-midrange and highs, though the NAD’s flatter response from 1k to 3k Hz mitigates this somewhat. The higher peak at 5.5k Hz gives the NAD’s treble more bite, which is sometimes a good thing and other times not.
The difference between the two is evident listening to superb extended version of “The Street Only Knew Your Name” from Van Morrison’s outtakes collection, The Philosopher’s Stone. On both the NAD and the Neumann, Morrison’s voice seems slightly muffled. The extra dip in the Neumann’s upper mids, however, adds an additional back-of-the-mouth quality to Morrison’s vocal that’s less evident on the HP50. The HP50, on the other hand, evinces a less impressive sound stage than the comparatively wider and deeper NDH20.
Given the (now significant) price difference, the NDH20 and HP50 sound closer than they should. Despite the NDH20’s superior soundstage, the HP50 ultimately sounds more natural than the NDH20, even if only by a hair. Of course, the NDH20 trounces the HP50 in both build quality and comfort. But, as important as those factors are, headphones are ultimately about sound.
According to the folks at Sonarworks, the NDH20 takes EQ well. In their stock form, however, the NDH20 feels like a missed opportunity for Neumann. Like Sennheiser’s HD820, excellent build quality and impressive distortion numbers are marred by a poor frequency response.
Those in the market for a quality set of closed backs today would be better off considering the NAD HP50 or the Focal Elegia (depending on budget) than the NDH20. However, if Neumann can take the superb build quality of the NDH20 and marry it to a better frequency response in a future set of cans, the result will compete with any sub-$1,000 closed headphone currently on the market.
1. While the EARS holds its own against much pricier measurement rigs, the EARS does have its limits and oddities.
Neumann NDH20 Headphones ($499)
NDH20 Product Page
Product Brochure (PDF)
Product Quick Guide (PDF)
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.