AudioQuest NightHawk headphones – a review

First off, thanks go to Todd the Vinyl Junkie for setting up the loaner program for the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones. It’s a real treat to get to listen to new gear for only the cost of shipping (one-way, to boot).

My first memories of AudioQuest (from here on, AQ) are related to my first, proper hi-fi. I scraped it together after I graduated from college and landed a decent job at the precipice of the tech meltdown with a company that fortunately weathered the storm. Credit must go to one of my classmates who, when asked about prospects with some of the more dodgy startups at a career fair in the spring replied, “I’m looking for something more reliable.” That somehow made it past the more reptilian parts of my twenty-one year old brain. Of course it also propelled me on a path to spending inordinate amounts of money that no sane person would part with on stuff to play back music.

In any case, that first hi-fi was wired with AQ Type 4 from a NAD integrated amplifier to a pair of Axiom Audio M3ti’s. It was the most reasonable and seemingly cost-effective choice I had at the time. A good start, no doubt, but eventually supplanted by other more capable cabling, though not from the AQ family. In some ways, I feel like the NightHawk is at a similar point in its development as those AQ Type 4’s – a harbinger of greater things to come.

Description

The AQ NightHawk is a semi-open, over-ear design. The glossy earcups are injection molded from a substance billed as ‘Liquid Wood’ that wouldn’t look out of place in a modern luxury sedan. This allows the earcups to be shaped more along the contours of the human ear when placed against the head. On the outer surface, a diffusive grille that AQ says mimics the construction of butterfly wings lets air and sound escape without producing “standing waves and resonant colorations”. The leather earpads are very comfortable and the miniature rubber cable earcup suspension system attached to hefty metal ‘rings’ ensures a evenly snug fit for all shapes of faces. The headband is a two-piece affair: a single, heavy gauge wire wrapped in braided nylon provides the clamping force, while a nylon and microfiber covered headband automagically stretches to the length of your noggin. Overall the build quality of the cans themselves are superb, nary a complaint about the look, feel, or weight.

The NightHawk comes with two sets of cabling, both ending in stereo mini-jacks on one end and splitting into color coded mono mini-jacks for attachment to the earcups. A 1/4″ silver-plated copper adapter is also included. The first set, according to the literature, is a mini version of their Castle Rock speaker cable made of “Solid Perfect-Surface Copper+ (PSC+) in a Double Star-Quad configuration”. The second is a much thinner, generic looking cable for use in situations when the former might be abused. The PSC+ boasts silver plating on the jacks, while the generic one settles for gold plating. One quibble I had with the PSC+ cabling is that the plating on the stereo minijack as well as the 1/4″ adapter seemed to look worn. All silver-plated jacks had developed a slight patina and glints of copper can be seen peeking through tiny gaps in the plating. Unfortunately, I can’t say whether this is par for the course or if (how) it impacts performance.

A nicely padded carrying case, cleaning cloth, and a one month free trial subscription to TIDAL rounds out the package.

Listening

When donning cans, I usually opt for open-back dynamic headphones, in my case a pair of Alessandro MS-1’s that I’ve had for a decade and a half. I’ve had some experience with closed-back designs (cheap Sony’s during my formative years and my wife’s Sennheiser Momentum over-ears) and minimal time with planars / electrostats – mainly confined to Head-Fi meets or local audio shows. For critical listening, I have a pair of Etymotic ER-4S, but they bit the proverbial dust during a recent business trip. Mostly, I listen to my speaker setup (details below), so keep all those points in mind as I make the following comments. One other point is that being semi-open means that sound does leak out and it might not be apropos for all office settings.

First, I cued up “What Kind of Man” from Florence + the Machine’s latest album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (CD, Republic, B0023122-02). The track was eminently listenable, with Florence Welch’s performance rendered with a fulsomeness that reminded me somewhat of a tube-like sonic signature. Yet I also detected a subtle touch of boxiness that colored her vocals, especially noticeable when she sang the word ‘this’. I also felt that the sound was a little more closed off than I expected, with a slight bias towards the midrange that prevented the airiness from developing around performers and instruments. That being said, the kick drum after the opening refrain had real heft and authority with a tactile quality on the ear.

The next selection was “Demons” from the album Trouble Will Find Me by The National (CD, 4AD, CAD3315CD). Here, frontman Matt Berninger’s throaty baritone, as rendered by the NightHawk, had a velvety smoothness to it – a bit more ‘chocolatey’ than I’m used to. Drums had nice punch and slam. Once again, though, the sound lacked some openness, though the treble didn’t seem to be soft. The NightHawk won’t offer a large degree of low-level resolution that some listeners really crave, though it does imbue a warmish hue to the sound that can be equally addictive.

Modern recordings can make it difficult to really explore the strengths and weaknesses of a system or a piece of kit. In that vein, I popped in Blue Train (CD, Blue Note, 53428) and navigated to the wonderful ballad “I’m Old Fashioned”. Besides being a great tune, almost all of the artists get their turn in the spotlight, making it a good track for examining the performance of brass instruments and piano. The NightHawk acquitted itself decently, though not with quite the success on the previous material. Coltrane’s sax, Fuller’s trombone, and Morgan’s trumpet were rendered with a lushness that, unfortunately, obscured the brassiness and microdynamics of each instrument. Chambers’ bass, though satisfyingly weighty, also lost some body – the lower octaves now sounding a touch too ripe. The lack of fine detail muted the expressiveness of Kenny Drew’s keyboard work by blunting the impact of the felt hammers on the strings. Perhaps a little bit of warmth goes a long way in this case.

Finally, I swapped out jazz for classical with the finale of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 as performed by Earl Wild and the London Royal Philharmonic as conducted by Jascha Horenstein (CD, Chesky, CD2 A). The orchestra sounded big and bold with the NightHawks doing a convincing job of relaying the scale and depth of the work. Earl Wild’s virtuosity was matched by the lushness of the midrange, though once again the bloom tended to remove any sense of airiness. The strings ended up a touch too rosiny, but the NightHawks served up macrodynamics in spades. Overall a generally pleasing presentation that did justice to the electric performance of Wild and the Royal Philharmonic.

Conclusions

At first blush, the NightHawk’s sonic signature didn’t exactly mesh with my initial expectations. But over time, it won me over with its lush midrange and non-fatiguing sound. These qualities were particularly welcome on modern recordings but became an Achilles’ heel on other material. If your setup simply sounds too sterile and cold for your liking, the AQ NightHawk might just be the cure. At its price, though, one should expect reference-level sound quality which is where I feel the NightHawk falls short of the mark. It’s a really fun headphone, but not necessarily one I’d like to get serious with. I think, though, that this is only one step forward of many. If true, I eagerly await the next version to make its landing.

Associated Equipment

Sources – Ayre C-5xeMP

Amplification – CI Audio VHP-1 / VAC-1, Ayre AX-5 Twenty

Loudspeakers – Vandersteen 3A Signature

Interconnects – Analysis Plus Pro Oval Studio XLR, Blue Jeans LC-1

Speaker cable – Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8

Power – Bryston BIT-15

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