It’s not really my thing to write reviews of stuff, but my recent experience with Rode’s NTH-100 headphones has inspired me to review them.
You can skip this section. Why? To my ears, all headphones sound different – and the same headphones sound different to different people’s ears. So there’s no point me telling how they sound – you need to try them for yourself.
Secondly, if like me you wear headphones all day long, your ears become ‘used to’ the sound of your usual cans – and a different pair will sound ‘wrong’ until your ears have adjusted. I migrated to the NTH-100s from the (open back) AKG K702s – and boy, was that an adjustment.
Thirdly, what I do is record, edit and produce spoken word. So my opinions on the sound of the NTH-100s are only really useful to other people who work the same way.
All that being said, I do obviously listen to music – and still occasionally record and mix music. Whenever I get a new pair of headphones, whenever I get new monitors, whenever I work in a new room, I always play the same piece of music to start with – so I have a consistent starting point for comparison.
For some years, that piece has been Tomorrow’s Blues by Colosseum, in my view the best track on the best album of Colosseum’s ‘reunion’ era. My dear friend and mentor, the late Jon Hiseman, mixed and mastered this album and it exemplifies his ‘back-to-front’ (as opposed to ‘side-to-side’) and ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ production style.
And on the NTH-100s, I can hear it all. Mark Clarke’s bass guitar opening sounds just as clear and rounded as it did the first time I heard it in the control room at Temple Music. Jon’s cowbell is positioned right where it should be, and the offset shimmer of Dave Greenslade’s Hammond C3 sounds just as it should.
The NTH-100s are able to go stupidly loud without distorting or losing the clear three dimensional staging that was Jon’s trademark.
In short, the sound is quite exceptional – detailed, precise, spacious and non-fatiguing. Given these are closed-back cans, it’s extraordinary, Given these are closed-back cans costing less than £140, it’s jaw-dropping.
But that’s just my opinion (and that of many other reviewers). Your mileage may vary.
The NTH-100s are promoted as having great isolation and being suited to use by artists recording as well as engineers. To be able find a home on a busy studio floor, headphones need to be pretty rugged, pretty maintainable, and pretty quick to adjust. I have a few reservations about these qualities, that I’ll get into presently.
The Rode NTH-100s are closed-back, over-ear headphones. According to Rode, their “incredibly accurate frequency response and ultra-low distortion” make them suitable for both recording and mixing – both sides of the glass, as it were. They offer several features which benefit long-format work such as audiobook creation – namely in the ear cushions and the headband adjustment.
The ear cushions contain Rode’s proprietary “CoolTech” gel and are covered with Alcantara. The proprietary filling is intended to stop your ears getting hot and sweaty while providing a sort-of memory foam fit which minimises fatigue.
I can attest to this. I find them extremely comfortable (and light – 350 grams according to Rode), and I have several times attempted to walk out of the control room with them still on, only to be yanked back by the cable – because I’ve forgotten I’m wearing them.
The quoted 20dBA isolation seems to be believable – they do block out ambient noise well, which would suit them to being used close to microphones. This seems to be due to the memory foam-like action of the cushions, combined with a relatively tight grip on you head. I actually thought at first that the tight grip would be fatiguing, but it turns out it’s not.
The ear-cups are asymmetrical. The headphones won’t fit the wrong way round. To help you get it right first time, the headphones have a large ‘L’ and ‘R’ printed on the inside of the ear-cups. Nice. This is doubly important because of another unique feature – the detachable cable can be fitted on either side depending on what’s convenient for you.
The adjustment system is also unique. Unlike most headphones which adjust just by pulling them apart against some sort of friction, the Rode NTH-100s have a twist-lock system. Turn the tabs one way, and the ear-cups slide freely up and down the headband. Turn the tabs the other way, and the ear-cups lock firmly in position.
Now for me, this is great. I set them up when I got them out of the box and haven’t touched them since. Every morning when I put them on, they’re still exactly right for my head.
But… I’m not sure how efficient or robust this feature would be when the cans are being used by lots of different people from day to day – as on a busy studio floor. The locking tabs aren’t that easy to set while trying to hold the cans in the optimal position for one thing; and anyone not familiar with this unique system will just tug like mad trying to adjust them.
Despite this reservation, I have to say the NTH-100s do look and feel really well made and engineered.
The relatively low impedance of 32 ohms makes these headphones easy to drive, and they’re also pretty efficient. Even plugged into a mobile phone, they are quite capable of hurting your ears. The frequency range of the 40mm drivers is quoted as 5Hz – 35Khz – but then, they all say that…
The headphones are supplied in Rode’s usual lovely packaging, and include a 2.4 metre anti-kink (i.e. rubbery) black cable terminating in a stereo mini-jack with a screw-on quarter inch adapter. The cable is actually mini-jack at both ends; the end that plugs into the cans however, has a twist-lock function as part of the moulding.
This twist-lock concept is much cheaper to manufacture than the mini-XLR plug found on some cans, and quicker to change than the “find a tiny screwdriver” system on the Beyer DTs but it remains to be seen how robust it will be after a few years of plugging and unplugging given that Rode expects you to plug and unplug the cable on a regular basis.
Part of the design is that the twist lock will give way before the socket does. This should mean that, the event of that chair-leg, foot or sax bell tangling event you might need a new cable – but the cans will survive.
Also included is a set of four pairs of clip-on rings that can be fitted to either end of the cable (five, if you include the black ones that are attached to the cable as supplied). These are green, blue, orange, and a rather fetching pink. The idea is to allow easy identification of ‘your’ cans when confronted with a crowded headphone distribution amplifier.
As well as these rings which are provided in-box, Rode offers replacement cables in each of these colours. So you can actually have a pink headphone cable if you really want to stand out in the booth.
The final accessory provided with the headphones is a completely pointless “storage pouch” drawstring bag made of thin material that would provide no protection at all, other than from dust.
Headset Microphone Option
I wondered at the time why the connection type was quoted as ‘TRRS’ on Rode’s website. The answer has since been revealed, in the optional NTH-Mic. This attaches to the unused cable port (again, you can choose which side), comes with a TRRS cable with a Y-split, and turns the NTH-100 into a broadcast-grade headset. Again, nice. You can also order the headphones and mic together, as the NTH-100M.
One accessory which is not provided either in-box or as an option is a spare for the tiny rubber bung you have to fit to the side that doesn’t have the cable attached. This serves to block the empty socket and prevent the headphones from sounding unbalanced. This has to be removed of course, to fit the NTH-Mic.
To my mind – and again looking at it from a busy studio floor perspective – it is only a matter of time before this gets lost.
I really like my NTH-100s, and at the price I consider them a bargain. As I’m the only person allowed to wear them and as they never move from the top of the sidecar beside my desk, I’d expect them to last forever. But this was not to be.
Six months or so after I started using them, they broke. And where they broke is the fiddly locking mechanism. Studying the way they’re put together there’s a weak spot in the moulded plastic which can be put under strain by twisting the ear-cups – as you would if you pulled the cans off using one hand. Which is what I did, in the middle of a multi-day recording session.
Rode offers a ‘lifetime’ warranty on the NTH-100s, and the service I received from Rode and their UK service people was really fast and efficient. It’s becoming rare to see old-school “pro” support in the recording business but I certainly got that from Rode. Thank you!
But here’s the thing. The locking system design might just be a bit too clever for its own good. Unless I simply had a ‘bad’ unit (and that’s perfectly possible of course), I suspect the NTH-100s would have trouble surviving a life of being constantly adjusted, pulled on and off, knocked off music stands, dropped-kicked by people getting the cable tangled round their ankle, and all the other mishaps that happen day-in, day-out in live rooms. The old AKG K270s and Beyer DT100s we used at Temple Music used to take tremendous abuse without failing and were in use for decades in some cases. I wonder if the NTH-100s could match that.
But I’d much sooner be wearing the Rode NTH-100s than AKG K270s, any day. Or my AKG K702s for that matter. They are the first closed-back headphones I’ve used that I really feel I can track, edit and mix on. They’re comfortable and feel light and unrestricting, they sound fantastic, and they’re excellent value at around £130 in the UK.
Rode has thought outside the box and produced a genuinely different product. Whether the NTH-100 is a major contribution to the world of headphones as some reviews have suggested, or just another option in a crowded market is up to you – they are definitely worth checking out.