Review: RØDE NTH-100
Røde’s first foray into the headphone market is a beauty.
‘Hey, cool!’ At the risk of starting an audio review with a dad joke, they are literally the words that came out of my mouth when I first donned the Røde NTH-100 headphones. I instantly felt like a dag, because I was responding to the chill of the ‘Cool-Tech’ gel in the earcups conducting warmth from my head. The gel, of course, was selected for just that purpose, and combined with the memory foam to provide a superior earcup seal, even on my bespectacled noggin.
It’s not a bad place to start because Røde’s first headphone offering features a number of innovations that sometime make you slap your forehead — ‘of course!’
The big one for me are the large luminescent R and L printed in the earcups. You’ll never again need to second guess if you have your headphones around the correct way, even in the dark (it joins two other demarcations, including L and R embossed in braille, along with familiar splash of red, but is the most conspicuous). The fact you can connect the cable to either side of the headphones is another ‘sure, why not?’ feature that I appreciate. The ‘Fit Lok’ clasp on the adjustable headband is equally welcome — once you’ve found the perfect position for your head you can lock that in without the need to fiddle with the fit down the track.
Again, just leaving aside the audio performance of these headphones for a minute, I genuinely appreciate Røde’s attention to detail here. These are workhorse headphones for audio people, not some attempt to bridge a consumer/pro gap by sacrificing comfort and durability in exchange for something that looks natty in a duty-free gadget store. Røde could have done this. Its brand is widely recognised and could easily have spent development money on celebrity endorsements but rather it’s commendably taken a fresh look at one of the most important and hardworking tools in any audio person’s arsenal and arrived at something genuinely new.
The 40mm dynamic drivers are a ground-up Røde design. The custom voice coil has a four layer ‘ultra-high-tension’ aluminium alloy core coupled to an ‘ultra-stiff’ triple-layer Mylar diaphragm. They’re high quality components and the aim is to minimise distortion, and reproduce an accurate and broad frequency response (a quoted 5Hz–35kHz… presumably -10dB, as the specs don’t specify).
The NTH-100 headphones sound very impressive. Røde brands them as designed to be very natural-sounding headphones with “a sound signature akin to open-backs”, and I’d concur. Closed-back designs are inherently compromised. You don’t select a closed-back headphone for the ultimate in natural life-like frequency response and a detailed, open sound stage — these attributes are more easily achieved in an open-back design. But audio engineers need a closed back headphone’s ambient noise attenuation (when on set or behind a live sound mixing console, for example) and its lack of sound leakage (when recording, and in the control room with others). The NTH-100 ear cup design produces an excellent seal and specs out at a -20dBA ambient noise attenuation. The headphones aren’t the lightest on the market but the fit is very comfortable, even over extended sessions.
NEED TO KNOW
Closed Back Headphones
Most closed-back designs wear their sonic hearts on their sleeves. An emphasis on bass frequencies is common, and here’s where a closed back can belt an open-back counterpart out of the park. But the NTH-100 resists the temptation to indulge in unnatural LF, rather it remains tight, proportional and without a scintilla of woolliness.
Closed-back headphones often have a tendency to be overbearing or sound comparatively ‘shut in’ — push them and you’ll quickly hear at which frequencies they begin to crap out. Not the Røde NTH-100s. There’s an ease to their performance that encourages you to turn them up and up without penalty, knowing they can handle the stick (insert editor’s caveat here about the dangers of extended high SPL listening sessions!).
So do they match a good pair of open backs for a detailed and wide sound stage? Not exactly. For example, a pair of A$400 Sennheiser HD400 open back headphones I had available for comparison were noticeably, and understandably, more open and more spacious. That said, the NTH-100s sonically have a lot more in common with a good pair of open backs than a comparably priced set of closed backs. The Røde headphones make much lighter work of busy mixes, for example, with greater separation and clarity.
STRIKING A BALANCE
In my view, Røde has struck the right balance between ‘easy listening’ and ‘accuracy’. The headphones will be everything you’ll ever need in the studio and on the tram. They don’t attempt to provide a ‘real world’ studio monitor emulation, they simply aim to please — to be the most natural-sounding, spacious, detailed closed back headphones they possibly can.
Further enhancing their workhorse credentials, there’s no need to take the NTH-100s off your head. They feel luxurious in every regard, thanks to the solid build, classy industrial design, the plush Alcantara fabric used on the cups and headband, and the super-comfortable fit.
I think I’ve outed myself: I’m a big fan of these headphones. I don’t want to give them back. I don’t want to lend them out. They are now my new go-to, everyday, workhorse headphones for recording, producing, mixing, and listening.
’Surely there must be a downside,’ I hear you say. If pushed, I’d suggest the mechanical noise coming down the cable (when it rubs up against your clothing, for example) is more noticeable than in other headphones. It’s a distraction when monitoring at low levels. I experimented with other cable and it appears the cable with the locking connector Røde uses is more susceptible.
The only other downside I see, and it’s a stretch, is that the NTH-100s don’t build in a Bluetooth option. Like I said, it’s a stretch, but increasingly, people, even audio people, are leaning to a wireless alternative, regardless of having to pay some kind of audio quality penalty.
Finally, and it always feels a little cringy/parochial to make this point, but the Røde NTH-100s are manufactured by Røde in Sydney. It’s not my job to blow Røde’s marketing trumpet, but it’s a remarkable feat of ingenuity and sheer bloody-mindedness for an audio company to maintain its domestic manufacturing capacity like it has, when I can’t think of another mass market competitor that hasn’t moved its manufacturing to the far east. Which is all a long preamble to make a note of the pricing: the A$250 price tag is excellent. It’s smack dab in the M50 range.
I can’t recall the last time I felt quite so confident recommending an audio product as I am right now. The NTH-100s are a thing of beauty.