Announced late in 2010 and shown at trade shows before finally being released a few months ago, the KH 120 A has created considerable interest because it is the first ever studio monitor in Neumann's long history. As the letters KH convey, the 120 A began life as a product from Klein + Hummel, a company that was acquired by Sennheiser/Neumann a few years ago. So now Neumann truly has both ends of the signal chain covered, from transducer to transducer.
Klein + Hummel never had the market penetration in North America that the brand enjoyed in Europe and elsewhere, where it had a long history of excellence. Upon the acquisition, its installed-sound product line was taken up by Sennheiser, and the studio monitors came under the Neumann brand. The K+H manufacturing facilities remain but were modified and updated to Neumann's high-end standards, as were the product designs and specifications.
I first heard the 120 A on show floors, and that meant that I could walk right up to a speaker and listen from an unrealistically close distance (to block out the ambient tradeshow noises...), but even though I was impressed with what I heard, there was no way that I could form a meaningful opinion. Now I'm glad to have a pair of the 120 A to myself for evaluation (there is also an otherwise identical model 120 D with digital inputs that should be available mid-2012), and here's what I found.
With dimensions of 10 7/8 x 7 1/8 x 8 5/8 inches it is of average size for a nearfield monitor that can also do an excellent job in a surround setup. The one-piece front panel shows two portholes in the bottom corners, flanking the 5 1/4" woofer that sits behind a rigid and contoured grille, beneath the 1" tweeter located in an open waveguide. The overall look is discreet and unassuming, and the only visual highlight is the elegant Neumann logo that is backlit in white when the power is on, turning red and flashing during severe signal overload conditions. The logo can be dimmed or turned off with DIP switches in back.
The cabinet is made of aluminum, magnetically shielded, and constructed with non-parallel sidewalls to minimize internal standing-wave resonances.
Connections are made in the rear, by pushing connectors up into sockets in a recessed area -- a bit fiddly to reach but not something you need to do often: XLR for audio (pin 2 hot), IEC for power, and there's a power switch. Also in that recessed area are the DIP switches: 1 turns the Neumann logo on/off, 2 dims it, 4 connects/disconnects the internal ground lift, 3 has no function.
Along the top, above the fins of the heat sinks, are the acoustical controls and the output level and input gain controls.
Neumann has supplied studios and other audio facilities for so many decades that the company anticipates any and all practical problems a user of its products might run into. Hence the long list of optional accessories that give the user full control over where and how he uses the KH 120, from transporting them to mounting them in a variety of ways, if desired by way of the screw holes on the back plate of the unit. Much of the user manual is devoted to placement suggestions for best results. (Download it from http://tinyurl.com/5tlw2b2.)
Once installed, the monitors can be adjusted to sound right in a variety of locations. With all acoustical controls at zero, a flat frequency response can be expected in anechoic conditions. Neumann knows that you and I don't live in that kind of environment, so we get the following options: Bass 0 / -2.5 / -5.0 / -7.5 dB; Low-Mid 0 / -1.5 / -3.0 / -4.5 dB; Treble +1 / 0 / -1 / -2 dB.
The manual suggests a list of settings for various circumstances before going on to recommendations for adjusting the acoustic level, starting with an input gain of -15 dB and an output level of 94 dB SPL. While a broadband pink-noise test signal at -20 dBFS is fed to the monitors, use a sound-level meter (C-weighted, set to slow integration time) and adjust the input and output controls of the speakers to your liking.
My first impression was that the KH 120 A sounds pleasantly hi-fi-ish. Not smiley, not lacking bass either (practically flat to 60 Hz), but also not sizzling, brash or forward. Located out in the open, away from walls or from horizontal surfaces like that of a console, it gives me a balanced sound that works without inducing any kind of fatigue.
As I kept listening to my usual variety of material in many styles, and while I wasn't surprised to hear familiar material sound "different", as happens with every change of speakers, I couldn't for the longest time put my finger on one constant notion that percolated just below the surface of my consciousness: What was different? Then I put on Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra CDs and Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and it hit me: The difference between the KH 120 and other monitors I had been hearing recently is a bit like the difference in tonal approach between the European and the American orchestral brass sections. Remember the old saw about Hungarian-born conductor Ormandy at his first rehearsal for a summer season with an American orchestra? At the first entry of the brass, he stopped the orchestra and said, "Brass, get down, and stay down all summer."
As I compare the K+H with two monitors I happen to have here, by JBL and by Equator, the K+H shows that same subtle distinction in the upper midrange -- a rounder tone, just a tiny bit less "edge". Not that voices don't stand out or that anything is missing, there is just a slight nuance of voicing. At the risk inherent in all generalizations I call this a "European" tonal approach, even though it's easy to come up with speakers from Europe (like, for example, the ADAM Audio line from Berlin, Germany) that do not follow this same tonal ideal. Still...
The stereo field, especially in the horizontal plane, is generously wide and true for a speaker of this size -- I'm assuming that the waveguide must be a contributor to this excellence. Move your head side to side while sitting in the sweet spot and you hear no drastic tonal change. The details, even in complex mixes, are ever-present, and the bass shows no sign of "one-note-ness" despite the tuned ports. It's a round but non-flabby low end at the bottom of a beautifully balanced spectrum.
Every speaker has to be "learned", and the KH 120 A is no exception. It provides delicately balanced sound that may follow a "European" tonal ideal that is worth "learning" to translate adequately across other listening environments and playback systems. While not in the low-budget range, its versatility in control of levels and tonal shaping, as well as the many hardware solutions for installation, allow it to fit in just about anywhere, providing good sound that you can trust.
Price: $749 each MAP
More from: Neumann USA, www.neumannusa.com.