Headphones and Earphones
- Written by Stephen Hornbrook
- Published on 17 March 2014
Introduction to the NAD HP20 In-Ear Headphones
The HP20 is a welcome addition to the in-ear (earbud) headphone family from none other than NAD. These little guys pack a lot of punch into a small package and at $169 they cost almost half as much as the $299 NAD HP50 headphones. Like the HP50, the HP20 also takes advantage of the years of research spent at the acoustic labs of Canada's National Research Council. This research is what Paul Barton utilized to create RoomFeel, the concept of making a headphone sound more like listening to a pair of speakers in a room.
While I would love to compare the HP50 to the HP20, there is too much of a difference between the design of a headphone and that of an in-ear. In an over-the-ear headphone, the driver rests a small distance away from the ear while an in-ear speaker sits inside the ear canal. This causes much of the tiny speaker's performance to depend on the position and seal inside the canal.
An earbud (in-ear headphone) resting on the outside, hanging on for dear life, will lose much of the low frequency response, creating a harsh and unpleasant sound. Stuffed too far in with no air flow and the sound pressure can become uncomfortable. For these reasons, I prefer to judge each in-ear on their own merits, as opposed to comparing one in-ear to another headphone such as the HP50. In this particular case, the NAD HP20 performed well, with a warm and full tonal balance and solid build quality. Go to Page 2: Design
NAD HP20 IN-EAR HEADPHONES SPECIFICATIONS
- Design: In-Ear Headphones (Earbuds)
- MSRP: $169 USD
- SECRETS Tags: NAD, In-Ear Headphones, Audio, Earbuds
The Design of the NAD HP20 In-Ear Headphones
The alloy earpiece of the HP20 comes finished in black or silver and feels solid as a rock. It's an interesting design as the earpiece morphs from the rounded section up front where the driver is housed, to a square tip on the outside that just so happens to match the NAD logo. There is a slight angle inwards from the main driver housing to the section that sits inside your ear. It is subtle but it allows for a much better fit. I rarely find myself having to adjust the HP20 earpieces, partially due to the tighter fit of the Comply foam tips I used. They are a bit on the long side and will stick out from your ears. If you have a good seal this isn't a problem, but with the cable design a slight tug can dislodge the earpiece. It comes down to personal preference, but I can see how some might not like the look of how far these in-earphones stick out.
The cable for the HP20 has an Apple approved three button remote with a built in microphone for your most important conversations. The remote works fine for adjusting volume, but the click is a hair too stiff, making multi-click functions like skipping tracks cumbersome. The cable is flat and will resist the temptation to tangle. For safe travelling, a neoprene case is supplied with the HP20. In the comfort and fit department, five different sized pairs of silicone gel tips are included.
My listening setup for the HP20 consists of the Meridian Explorer USB DAC and directly connected to an iPhone 5. I first gave the HP20 a listen with the medium sized silicone ear tips. For my ears, silicone tips do not work well. I either get too good of a seal causing uncomfortable pressure build up, or a poor seal delivering thin, bright sound. Often I switch to Comply Foam tips and I did so again with the NAD HP20. I hear and feel a huge difference in sound quality and comfort after applying the foam tips. The foam tips cling to the ear better, since you compress the foam before inserting, allowing the foam to expand in the ear canal for a snug fit. This helps to keep the long HP20 design in place.
The overall tone of the HP20 is warm and inviting. I can definitely hear the RoomFeel bump between 100-200Hz and at times I would have preferred to turn it down a bit. The upper bass frequencies have a tendency to sound a bit congested, especially in bass heavy pop music like Katy Perry's latest album Prism. I'd be curious to hear how these in-ears sound with a little less than the advertised +3dB from 50-200Hz.
For female voices I listen to Johanna Newsom. Her voice is clear and feels as if there is a mouth, lungs, and a body behind the voice. I do find that some of the lower harp strums could take up less of the spectrum for added clarity.
The Black Keys "Little Submarines" has wonderful soundstaging, as if a full auditorium is shrunk down to the size of my head and Dan Auerbach's voice is all the way stage right. It's difficult to get a wide soundstage with an in-ear design, so this feat by NAD is quite impressive.
Saxes on the first track, "So What", of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue are lively and have great tonality. The instruments do not feel compressed or held back in any way. Upright bass sounds clean and not overwhelming. The RoomFeel is working well, adding fullness and warmth to the sound.
On the beautiful piano melodies on Yann Tiersen's score to Good Bye, Lenin!, each note rings with clarity and an intimacy that places me right at the piano, as if I am playing it myself. The depth and dimensionality to the HP20 soundstage is something special.
One last example of the soundstage depth is on "Varuo" by Sigur Ros. There is a stringed instrument off in the distance at the beginning of the track that emanates from outside of your head, an illusion I've only heard on higher priced in-earphones. Go to Page 3: Conclusions
Conclusions about the NAD HP20 In-Ear Headphones
At $169, the HP20 in-earphone delivers solid sound performance. I have to knock a few points off the score for the size and shape of the earpieces as well as the lack of included foam ear tips. Otherwise, you are getting a terrific sounding in-earphone that will handle all styles of music. The sound quality is warm and inviting and you will get more soundstage depth than you might expect from an in-ear design. The RoomFeel algorithm might be a tad too heavy for my tastes, but I think that level of warmth and fullness will appeal to most listeners. The HP20 is a fantastic first effort for NAD entering the earbud market and deserves a proper audition.