"THE INTERNAL RESONANCE WAS …TRICKY"
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. The development teams working on the first Neumann headphones were aware of this. Very much so.
Do they now sound "boring" and "unspectacular" or are they the new reference standard for monitoring and mixing? Following their market launch in January 2019, the first set of headphones from Neumann has been tested by the world's most critical ears. What they heard is very closely linked to the monitors' evolution. It's hardly surprising that it took a little while.
Continue reading here or download the article in magazine format as PDF
Markus Wolff is sitting in Neumann's demo room. Here, guests are able to hear how Neumann defines reference sound for the KH monitor systems.
It's hardly surprising that sound absorption areas – in the shape of a pyramid – have even been installed under the tables. No sound wave shall move through the air uncontrolled here. Wolff raises his eyebrows, because controlled sound movements were, put simply, a major issue when developing the NDH 20: "Planning closed headphones which deal properly with internal resonance is definitely a challenging task. You then hear nothing from outside anymore, are shielded effectively – but inside, in front of your inner ear, the sound waves easily build up into something …" – the technical coordinator makes a face – "that you really don't want."
Developing closed headphones which fulfill maximum monitoring expectations is tiring. Tiring for around 6 to 7 years. The first Neumann headphones took years to develop. "We don't do things by halves", the developers concede in retrospect.
Its sound is not designed to, should not, must not, sound nice. Just in the way that light should not be "cozy" or "pleasant" for surgeons, but rather be as bright as day and undimmed across the whole spectrum. Markus Wolff and Sebastian Schmitz smile at the comparison. "These headphones were indeed close to all our hearts, so you could call it open-heart surgery. Whether sales, development or design: everyone wanted everything to be right. Everything should fit with that which Neumann stands for, with microphones on the input side, and with the KH monitor series on the output side."
Mobile or flexible working is becoming a reality for more and more people. The costs of developing spaces of high acoustic quality are not always justifiable. Schmitz comments: "Even in acoustically poor or unfavorable settings, artists and sound professionals need outstanding tools. Whether in the studio, or doing mixing at home or on the go, you have to be able to rely on something. "It is for precisely this reason that the NDH 20 is a closed system and keeps out external noises effectively. Its folding mechanism makes it a transportable monitor system or "Reference to go", as one specialist magazine called it in the test.
A long time prior to this test result, some results were sobering. "If we are unwilling to compromise regarding the standards of monitor speakers, then the same must also apply to headphones", says Wolff, who together with his team is also developing the KH monitors and helping to set the standard for "neutral" and "flat". Wolff laughs: "You can't measure headphones like we do with our loudspeakers. That was unfamiliar territory. If we develop a monitor, then it has already been measured and fully simulated before the first prototype. That's not the case with headphones. With headphones you are better off trying on lots of different models." The aim was as follows: the future studio headphones were to become the acoustic counterpart to the neutral sound of the KH monitors. Their acoustics ought to be the translation of what the Neumann studio loudspeakers promised to do.
Which meant round upon round of corrections. How do drivers and earpiece materials need to be tailored to one another, which materials altered resonance behavior?
The real art lay in good internal sound absorption. In addition, the signals could theoretically also be electronically filtered. This was not an option for the Neumann developers, because then the character of the headphone changes along with the output stage of the driving amplifier. A variant with too many unknowns. So the developers, suppliers and designers focused on acoustic absorption, which incorporated all driver elements and all earpiece materials. "The upper mid-range was difficult. The non-linearities required us to be somewhat inventive until we were at the reference level of the KH monitors ", says Wolff.
Equally critical was basic anatomy: no head, no ear is ever the same. "This intimate interaction between ear, head shape and headphones has a huge influence on the sound which reaches our hearing", says Schmitz, recalling several trial runs.
Alongside the internal values, the team in Berlin also defined the external values. The design should not only equip the – what are definitely weighty – headphones to be comfortable for hours of work. "We also wanted people to be able to spot the reliability and quality promise offered by our first studio headphones", says product designer Anke Scherer. Which substances are suitable, keep their quality, remain comfortable? Which materials are "Neumann" – and which are not? The fact that today even the insulation rings on the plugs are in an orange color "is not an indication of being part of a fashionable set", but of finesse down to the last detail. Because ultimately, everyone in the team worked like this: absolutely every element of the headphones has its reason because it aids their quality. We have transferred this aim into the design", says Scherer.
While we are talking, the developers indicate an area of the warehouse in which all prototypes and models are stored. "Neumann never forgets something from the route towards the goal", says Wolff . Precisely how many samples and how much development time have gone into the NDH 20 is something the teams, smiling, will not reveal. Trade journalists and sound engineers didn't need this long to draw their conclusions: the first Neumann headphones represent the birth of a new, uncompromising reference model for monitoring, mixing and recording.