Review: Neumann KH120A Studio Monitors
The Neumann KH120A is an active two-way nearfield studio monitor coming from a company better known for its microphones than anything else. However, for anyone nervous about buying speakers from a microphone manufacturer, the KH in KH120A is a reference to Klein + Hummel, a well-respected speaker company now absorbed into the Sennheiser group, of which Neumann is also a part.
Measuring 277 x 182 x 220mm (HWD) and costing around £1000 a pair, Neumann seems to have put a great deal of thought into the design of the KH120A. The cabinet is cast aluminium, which offers several advantages over other materials. As well as being very rigid it can be precisely shaped. The KH120A has no parallel sides which, along with the rigidity, help to attenuate internal standing waves. Casting has also enable Neumann to employ what they term an ‘Elliptical Mathematically Modelled Dispersion™ (MMD™) waveguide’ for the tweeter, which in plain English means a waveguide designed to give a wide horizontal HF dispersion whilst limiting the vertical HF dispersion. An aluminium cabinet also makes a good heat sink for the inbuilt amplifiers.
The KH120A is a reflex enclosure with two ports clearly visible at the front. Placing the ports at the front allows the speaker to be positioned a little closer to a wall than if they were at the rear. And the way Neumann has shaped the ports enables them to be located close to the driver and take up the minimum amount of space on the front panel.
The drivers consist of a 5.25-inch woofer and a one-inch titanium fabric dome tweeter. The woofer has a composite sandwich cone, making it strong and light (ideal requirements for a speaker cone) as well as helping to dampen break-up nodes. The woofer is also angled slightly upwards. This helps to prevent sound being directed at and reflected up from a mixer or table top if positioned immediately in front of the monitors, as is often the case. Both woofer and tweeter are supplied from their own 50w continuous (80w peak) class A/B amplifier.
The speaker-shaped metal grill is quite distinctive. I wasn’t sure if I liked this feature at first but I’ve decided I do, which is just as well as the grill can’t be removed.
The power on light takes the form of an illuminated Neumann logo which blends seamlessly into the front panel. This is a nice change from the many monitors that have a dazzlingly bright LED at the front (manufacturers please note: I am probably not the only potential buyer to have ruled out monitors due to this feature).
The light can be dimmed or switched off completely. However, Neumann rightly points out the dangers of having the light switched off. Sending a strong signal to a powered speaker without knowing that it is turned on can result in unexpected high sound pressure levels potentially causing ear damage. I prefer the dimmed setting, but even at the normal/brightest setting it’s not obtrusive.
The tweeter and woofer both have limiting circuitry, which when active causes the front-panel logo illumination to change from white to red. The logo will light red even if the illumination has been switched off.
The rear has four-position bass, low-mid and high acoustic control switches helping to tailor the sound to the acoustic environment, input and output level controls, the logo dimmer switch, the logo off switch, a ground lift switch, XLR input socket and an IEC mains socket.
Neumann uses a stepped power supply, which means that the speakers will work on anything from 100-240 volts without having to change the position of a switch or do any internal rewiring. If you don’t intend taking the speakers out of the country where you bought them this may not seem particularly important, but it’s nice to know that you are going to get optimal performance regardless of the input voltage (provided it falls between 100 and 240 volts).
At just a little over 6 kg these speakers are light enough to take out on location, but heavy enough to let you know that you really have something solid and of good quality.
Unlike many manufactures Neumann is not shy about publishing the precise specifications of its speakers, complete with graphs. On paper the specifications are impressive – frequency response 52 Hz – 21 kHz (±3 dB) for example – especially for such a small speaker. However, good specifications on paper don’t always translate into good-sounding speakers.
There are many reviews of the KH120As on the Internet, and Neumann itself has a good website, so specific technical information that I have missed out isn’t hard to come by. But how do these speakers sound?
I had been using a pair of budget studio monitors and could instantly hear the difference after I had set up the KH120As. Something that sounded muddy through my old monitors still sounded muddy through the KH120As, but I could easily distinguish the constituent parts of the ‘mud’, enabling precise adjustments to be made to produce a much better mix.
I was surprised at the amount of bass these speakers were capable of producing, totally belying their diminutive size. Granted, you are not going to get floor-shaking bass from a 5.25-inch woofer, but the bass you do get is more than adequate for most monitoring applications. (If you really do want floor-shaking bass there is Neumann’s KH810 matching subwoofer. With a frequency response of 19Hz-300Hz (±2 dB) and a 200w built-in amplifier, it really will make your floor shake.) The high frequencies sound smooth and detailed, not hyped in any way.
Whereas hi-fi speakers might have a slight mid-range dip to enhance the sound by making it a little warmer, cheaper monitors are, I suspect, designed to have a small mid-range boost to make them sound more detailed. Neither of these was evident in the KH120As. They don’t ‘shout’ at you with their mid-range, and they don’t bite you with overly-crisp high frequencies, they just seem to have a neutral sound – which is exactly what a good monitor should have.
One comment I have read relating to many small nearfield monitors is that they ‘punch well above their weight’. In fact I have read this comment so many times that I started to think that engineers and people writing reviews should re-evaluate exactly what a small speaker is capable of doing in this day and age. However, when I first heard the KH120As I began to understand the true meaning of the expression. These speakers really do pack a punch (to use another well-used cliché), and can deliver more power than most would conceivably need from a nearfield monitor.
Another thing I noticed, to my surprise, is that they are less fatiguing to listen to over time. The idea of speakers being fatiguing to listen to is something that I had read about but never fully appreciated until I was able to compare the KH120As to my cheaper monitors and experienced the phenomenon for myself.
Is there anything I don’t like about these speakers? Well, there is only an XLR input. It would have been nice to have the option of using a standard quarter-inch jack, but space is limited, plus these speakers are designed for professional use where XLR cables would be the natural choice for connecting a mixer to an amplifier or powered monitors. Another small gripe is that for the first five or six seconds after the speakers have been turned on (Neumann says five, but I've timed it at just over six) absolutely nothing appears to happen. This is a safety feature to prevent thumps and pops when the speakers are turned on and off, but it would have been nice to see the power on indicator logo flash during this period at start up, to reassure the user that the units are plugged in and mains power is reaching them.
There’s nothing gimmicky about the KH120As, they are just designed to be first-rate monitors. As with their microphones, the Neumann name is all that is needed to sell these speakers, a name that is synonymous with both engineering and audio quality. Shop around on the Internet and you will probably be able to pick up a pair for slightly under £1000 (January 2014 price), whereas on the high street expect to pay a little more, but even at the higher price I feel that these monitors represent extremely good value for money.
(I would like to affirm to the reader that I have no connection with Neumann, and have received no payment or benefits from any source for writing this review. It is a true customer/user review.)