Some reviews have a long gestation period, but this one takes gold. I first encountered the AKG N90Q back in June 2015, and received my review sample toward the end of the year. Almost immediately, the UK agency approached me and begged me not to review the headphones until the unprecedented order book had cleared a little. More than a year later, I’m still waiting for clearance, but if we don’t write about it soon, the product will be old enough to draw a pension.
AKG has a substantial reputation in the pro-audio world. That’s not an exaggeration because there are few studios that don’t have at least a pair of 414 microphones and several sets of the company’s headphones for engineering, mixing, and monitoring in the tool kit. So, when it was time for AKG to make a new flagship headphone for the domestic market, it was clear that the company should leverage at least some of that reputation. As a result, it looked for one of AKG’s power users in the music business – not simply as endorsement, but someone capable of bringing some serious input to the product design. And that explains the ‘Q’ suffix in the name, because the person who brought that serious input to the design was the ‘Q’ himself – Quincy Jones.
If you don’t know who Quincy Jones is and you are reading this magazine, I can’t really help you. Jones is a legendary polymath in the recording industry who received an unprecedented 79 Grammy Award nominations, and won 28 Grammys in the process. He has worked with everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra (he was conductor and arranger for Sinatra and the Basie Band on the 1966 album Sinatra at the Sands), and produced a couple of somewhat well known albums called Off The Wall and Thriller for Michael Jackson. He isn’t known for endorsing products (Jones is more likely to put his name to a charitable foundation), so his moniker on a pair of headphones means more than just a lucrative contract and a photo shoot. This is not the first pair of AKG headphones to carry his name as the Q701 brought the K701 studio model into the home, but this time, Jones was heavily involved in the concept more or less from first principles, in terms of voicing and choice of DSP options.
AKG could have made a flagship headphone that meets or exceeds the performance of the likes of the best from big name brands like Sennhesier and Beyerdynamic, or even take on the best of the newcomers like HiFiMAN. However, this kind of ‘best in breed’ approach is fleeting; what is best today is eclipsed tomorrow. So, instead, AKG moved the headphone market on by creating something genuinely unlike any other top-grade headphone, by making in essence a headphone system in one big, reassuringly expensive package. The headphone is a complete ear-adaptive, noise cancelling, DAC with DSP tone-shaping design, with a built-in amplifier, if you so desire. And it can be all of these things or (almost) none of them.
The full package comes in an elegant soft-edged hard metal travel case, complete with gold-on-black statement from Quincy Jones in the main packaging. Inside are the headphones (of course), a significant array of cables to connect the N90Q to different parts of the outside world, a bag, and even a matching power bar to charge the N90Q should the need arise. The first samples of the headphone were finished in black and gold, but a second finish is now available that replaces much of the gold finish with black. These are large headphones, however, and I kind of prefer the gold and black contrasts.
When first you use the N90Q (after a thorough charging of course), you are recommended to run through the TrueNote auto-calibration system, by pressing and holding a button at the back and side of the right ear cup. If you are playing music, it mutes for a few seconds, you get a quick chirp through both ears in quick succession, and then playback is resumed. What this TrueNote system does is fire a calibrating tone at your ear, then receive the feedback through microphones in the ear cup, and actively control the acoustics in the space inside the headphone for the shape of your ears. If you think this doesn’t make a profound difference, try this for size: find someone with a very different ear shape to yours (for example, if you have small ears close to your head, find someone who looks like Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter movies) have them run the software on the N90Q to suit their ears. Now hear your best-known music, re-run the TrueNote calibration again, and be impressed! The changes might not be as significant as applying the right degree of acoustic treatment to a room (because bass management and flutter echo control aren’t an issue in the gap between headphone and ears), but the control over internal reflections from the outer ear does make more of a difference than you might expect.
TrueNote also has benefit because it creates noise cancellation more tailored to the listener. The N90Q may be a fairly large proposition for drowning out the daily commute (the smaller, folding N60NC models from the same brand are the audiophile’s choice for commuters wishing to wave away the outside world), but as a noise cancellation system for a long-haul flight, they are little short of remarkable. The closed back headphone in its own right is good enough at attenuating the general background noise of an environment, but the noise cancellation system makes it considerably more potent. As the N90Q are surprisingly comfortable on the head (at 460g, they don’t feel heavy and the lambskin ear pads don’t get sweaty even after several hours of listening) they significantly help you overcome the rigours of hours in the air. Admittedly, I have a soldier’s ability to sleep through almost any flight at a moments notice, but during one flight I took wearing a pair of AKGs, I thought we were in a glider… that’s how quiet the noise floor is with these designs. However, the clever part of the noise cancellation system here isn’t just the sledgehammer use keeping a Boeing at bay; it’s the scalpel-like precision that cuts away a lot of the surprisingly high background listening levels of many listeners. Unless you live a cloistered life miles from anyone with no power lines, no devices humming away in the background, and the rest of modern life’s creaks, whirrs, buzzes, and groans, it’s surprising how much of that intrudes, at least until you find a way of quieting it.
Staying on the left side of your head, short presses of the TrueNote button put the N90Q into one of three DSP settings; ‘Standard’, which turns off all the digital processing, ‘2.1 Studio’ which is meant to replicate the sound heard by someone like ‘Q’ at the faders, and ‘5.1 Surround’, which gives a fuller, broader soundstage (albeit not without penalty). These are audibly indicated with different takes on a ‘tok, tok’ sound. There is a similar auditory signalling for the tone control, built into left ear panel; this is a slope setting, and moving the dial toward you means more bass and less treble, and doing the opposite, does the opposite.
The left hand ear-cup also houses both a micro USB input and a 2.5mm jack socket, the latter of which comes with two cables; with and without in-line microphone. A more interesting option is the micro USB input, as it acts as battery charger, a path for software updates should they arise, and – here’s the kicker – feed from a computer to the N90Q’s built-in DAC. AKG decided to cap the resolution of this DAC at 24-bit, 96kHz, but there’s something remarkably ‘right’ about having the digital to analogue circuitry in so short a signal path that it is physically housed inside the body of the headphone. It effectively makes the AKG N90Q a one-stop high-end headphone stop for someone wanting great sound, but unwilling to use separate DACs and headphone amplifiers. In a way, this makes the N90Q the ultimate transportable rig. Well, almost; because the N90Q sees a USB connected device as a potential source of both music and power, and it draws too much of the latter to allow an iPhone to be connected, even if an iPad and Android phone will work. The in-line microphone on one of the 3.5mm cables is MFI certified, however.
As the N90Q is an active design, and the ‘Q’ on the outer ear-cup of the right-hand headphone acts as a volume control. You will get around 12 hours of play between charges, and the power bar supplied is useful here. I’d love to see some form of power indicator on the headphone itself; even though the charger bar more than doubles its battery life, as the headphones effectively become a pair of 460g ear muffs without juice, knowing just how much is in the tank is fairly important. The volume control is a soft-touch device, and those used to high-grade volume knobs might prefer something with a bit more resistance, but the rest of us will prefer lighter weight. In many cases, you might want to experiment with the volume control on the source component and the one at your ear, and although traditionally I seem to prefer one of them ‘dimed’ (played at maximum) and the other acting as controller, in most cases the device turned to the max was the source. The amplifiers in the AKG are capable of being played flat out with no distortion, and the attenuation was good overall.
It seems like a lifetime ago now, but the N90Q does benefit from a few hours of playing in before it comes on song. At least according to the notebook before last! The tonal balance is hard to pick out, because the tone control is so damn effective and the DSP options change the sound fairly significantly. But in setting the N90Q to its centre points in all cases gave a sound that was extremely detailed, incredibly analytical, and possessed of a powerful bass. That deep bass might not be so surprising, given the large 52mm drivers (which use a unique and rare Japanese paper cone) are giving the sealed N90Q a lot of driver surface area. The AKG headphone stayed just to the right side of bass heavy, but turning the tone control into the bass soon delivered plenty of powerful deep bass. I preferred the overall tone setting one notch beyond the centre, which retained the insight and analysis of the sound, cleaning up the bass without making it too light or making the sound ‘etched’ or ‘pinched’ in any way. That being said, there was something oh so very alluring about the thwack of some dubstep – I went for ‘Bangarang’ by Skrillex from the Big Beat EP of the same name – and the bottom end of these headphones when ‘giving it some beans’ in the bass was deep, satisfying, but still not blurry or over-exaggerated.
The DSP settings were interesting, too. These were great for classical enthusiasts who might prefer a front row of the stalls (‘Standard’) or mid-way to the back of the concert hall (‘Studio’) presentation, but in fact I liked the headphones on all kinds of music. The downside was the ‘Surround’ setting, which appears to slightly ‘overexpose’ the silences between notes (and no, I don’t have a better term for this effect), and seems to create more of an aircraft hanger than a concert hall. This is extremely impressive when watching ‘Deadpool’ from a seat-back, however, so I suspect ‘Surround’ might be a concession to travel movie watching.
This AKG N90Q is an impressive headphone design that pushes the boundaries of what a headphone can do, rather than simply making another top-end design. Whether the next generation of headphones will feature active DSP and built-in DACs remains to be seen, but certainly the likelihood is as more people turn to wireless portable audio, so the headphones will do more to help improve the sound they are fed from Bluetooth, so this might be an evolutionary step toward that goal. But, perhaps more importantly in the short term, the N90Qs more than deserve their place as the top of the AKG tree. The Q keeps on churning out the hits!
Type: Active, DSP, noise cancelling closed back headphones with built in DAC and amplifier
Drive unit: 52mm, Japanese paper cone
Frequency Response: 10Hz-25kHz
Sensitivity: 110dB SPL @ 100Hz/10mV
Driver impedance: 32 ohms
Maximum input power: 100mW
Features: TrueNote set-up system, tone control, three spatial settings, USB/HD audio (to 24/96 precision), with built in DAC, noise cancellation
Supplied: USB cable, flight adaptor, 3m straight cable, 1.2m 3-button remote/microphone MFI audio cable, 1.2m 3-button remote/microphone Android/Windows audio cable, Power Case, Battery pack, Travel pouch
Manufactured by: AKG
UK tel: +44 2070 845392
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