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AudioQuest NightHawk headphones

AudioQuest NightHawk headphones

AudioQuest, best known for its high-performance audio cables, has entered the high-end headphone marketplace with its new NightHawk headphone (£499, or $599). At first glance the NightHawk seems like a conventional design; it is a premium quality, mid-priced, dynamic driver-equipped, semi-open-back, over-the-ear headphone. But a closer look reveals distinctive design touches, some in unexpected places.

The first of these would be the NightHawk’s ear cups, which are made of ‘Liquid Wood’, an eco-friendly sustainable material in which, “actual wood that has been combined with reclaimed plant fibre, heated, liquefied, and processed in such a way that it can be injection moulded.” Importantly, liquid wood can be moulded into shapes that would be difficult to render through conventional woodworking techniques, while offering acoustic properties superior to those of conventional synthetic or plastic materials—a best-of-two-worlds solution.

The NightHawk ear cup housings are shaped somewhat like human ears for greater comfort and are constructed much like loudspeaker enclosures in miniature. Thus, the ear cups incorporate moulded-in support beams that increase rigidity and minimise unwanted vibrations, while interior surfaces are coated with a vibration-reducing elastomeric material. Further, the ear cups are loaded with a blend of wool and polyester damping material said to foster “extraordinarily smooth, natural frequency response.”

The NightHawk also features a rear-facing port fitted with an elaborate turbulence and resonance-reducing grille. AQ describes the grille’s complicated geometric latticework as a ‘biomimetic’ design patterned after, “the underlying structure of butterfly wings.” Because the grille’s structure would have been impossible to machine or mould, AQ instead produces the part via a 3D-printing process.

The NightHawk’s elegant frame consists of a flexible, arch-shaped rod with semi-circular ear cup support yokes attached at the ends. Instead of swivelling or gimbal-type ear cup supports, the NightHawk uses a patent-pending system of elastic bands to suspend the ear cups from the yokes (much like the isolation systems used to suspend delicate studio microphones from their frames). Then, an elastically suspended headband strap helps distribute the headphone’s weight, while also stretching to accommodate varying sizes and shapes of heads.


As a final ergonomic touch, the NightHawk is fitted with ear-shaped, protein leather-covered ear pads with padding thicker at the rear than at the front. AQ says the pads set the “NightHawk’s drivers at an angle optimised for precise, stable imaging,” while enhancing long-term comfort. I found the NightHawk exceptionally comfortable for long listening sessions though some might wish for fabric-covered pads to help wick away moisture.

AudioQuest fits the NightHawk with a 50mm, high-excursion dynamic driver equipped with a biocellulose diaphragm and a compliant rubber surround. This diaphragm provides a combination of rigidity and self-damping said to offer a more “accurate and musically pleasing” sound than that of today’s more common Mylar (or metal) diaphragms. In turn, the driver uses a patented split-gap motor to reduce, “intermodulation distortion to provide a clean, well-defined broadband response.”

As might be expected from such a well-known cable-oriented brand, AudioQuest provides the headphone with two carefully designed signal cables. The first is a thick audiophile-grade cable that uses AQ’s solid Perfect Surface Copper+ (PSC+) conductors in a so-called Double-Star Quad configuration and that is fitted with a pure red copper plug with heavy direct-silver plating. This is the cable of choice for critical listening. The second cable, featuring gold-plated plugs, is thinner and less sophisticated than the first, but better suited for rugged use, making this the go-to cable when taking NightHawk ‘on the road’.

Designer Skylar Gray acknowledges that the world doesn’t need another ho-hum, me-too headphone, and has this to say about his sonic objectives for the NightHawk:

“Rather than attempting to recreate the loudspeaker-listening experience through a set of headphones, I’ve judiciously incorporated elements of loudspeaker design that honour the headphone-listening experience…

“Compared to the sound of loudspeakers in a typical room, headphones can provide a dramatically lower noise floor resulting in unprecedented detail and clarity, significantly lower distortion, and imaging marked by exceptionally clear and present ambience cues.”

After days of run in, two of the NightHawk’s sonic characteristics quickly caught and held my attention. First, I was struck by the headphone’s warm, vibrant, and I would say ‘organic’ midrange sound—qualities that serve all types of music well. Listen, for example, to the third (‘Quia fecit’) movement of Kim André Arnesen’s Magnificat [2L, 96/24], paying close attention both to the solo soprano voice of Lise Granden Berg and to the supporting vocals of the Nidaros Cathedral Girl’s Choir. The NightHawk renders the voices with a pure, sweet (but definitely not saccharine-sweet), articulate, and beautifully rounded tonality that reveals both the power and emotion of the soloist, whose voice contributes a sense of profound reverence, and the delicate, unstrained, and multi-faceted intensity of the girl’s choir, which lends an ethereal quality to the recording. The NightHawk does a fine job of conveying the emotional (and not just the technical) content of good recordings, especially in the midrange.

To expand on this point, let me observe that the NightHawk’s midrange has something of the beautiful ‘self-illuminated’ quality exhibited by certain SET (single-ended triode) amplifiers, but without the colourations to which SET amps are sometimes prone. To hear what I mean, listen to ‘Your Latest Trick’ from Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms [Warner Bros.], focusing on the horn solo heard in the instrumental break near the centre of the song. The NightHawk captures both the incisive attack and burnished glow of the horn but more importantly sheds light on the at once jazzy and melancholic vibe it contributes to the track. This sort of midrange excellence and sophistication is the centrepiece of the NightHawk sound.


Second, I could not help but notice the depth, power, well-defined textures, and weight of the NightHawk’s bass—bass that was superb, but that some might find slightly too prominent. As an example, listen to ‘Talking Wind’ from Marilyn Mazur and Jan Garbarek’s Elixir [ECM] through the NightHawk, and carefully note the crisp pitch definition, impact, and especially the transient ‘snap’ of the low percussion instruments. The overall effect is not unlike listening to a good loudspeaker with deep, powerful bass extension in a room that properly supports low frequencies.

The NightHawk’s upper mids and highs sound pure, delicate, and smooth, but in comparison to the voicing that I have observed in many comparably priced upper-end headphones (e.g., the HiFiMAN HE400i) they also sound somewhat more subdued. To observe this characteristic in action, try the NightHawk on well-recorded acoustic jazz where bass and brushed percussion instruments are used to establish a rhythmic foundation. Two good examples would be Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues’ from Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb, George Coleman, and Mike Stern’s 4 Generations of Miles [Chesky, 96/24] or perhaps ‘Walter Pigeon’ from John Abercrombie, Eddie Gomez, and Gene Jackson’s Structures [Chesky, 96/24]. On both tracks, warm and evocative acoustic bass lines are counter-balanced by the quietly insistent pulse of brushed cymbals and snare drums keeping time.

Through the NightHawk, the acoustic bass lines of both tracks sounded superb, playing foundational (but not overbearing) roles. However, in both instances, the brushed percussion accompaniment, while pure and pleasantly extended, also sounded deep-set. As a result, the percussion instruments became ‘junior partners’ relative to the more dominant acoustic basses. In contrast, HiFiMAN’s HE-400i gave a rather different interpretation of both tracks—one where the basses and brushed percussion instruments were much closer to one another in relative output levels and thus sounded more like co-equal rhythm section partners. But which presentation is the more correct?

Possibly both. The HiFiMAN HE-400i is the more obviously accurate headphone of the two, owing to its more neutral tonal balance and its ability to retrieve more musically useful upper midrange and treble information. On the other hand, some listeners might prefer the NightHawk’s more evocative and emotionally communicative design thanks to its natural warmth, luminous midrange, and pure and clear (albeit somewhat recessed) upper mids and highs. Both models clearly have merit, so that the choice ultimately becomes one of personal tastes, preferences, and perceptions.

The NightHawk is technically innovative, beautifully made, and engaging to listen through. Its ergonomic design offers excellent long-term comfort, meaning listeners can wear the headphones for hours on end without a hint of fatigue. At the end of the day, the NightHawk is all about getting the ‘feel’ of the music right—in the process revealing the deep, sumptuous, and at times mysterious qualities of fine music.

Technical Specifications

  • Type: Circumaural, dynamic driver-equipped headphone
  • Driver complement: 50mm dynamic driver with biocellulose diaphragm and split-gap motor assembly
  • Frequency response: Not specified
  • Impedance: 25 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 100dB/mW
  • Accessories: one 8-foot audiophile signal cable with solid Perfect Surface Copper+ conductors in a Symmetric Star-Quad configuration, foamed polyethylene dielectric, AQ noise dissipations system and direct-silver plated red copper adapter plugs; one highly flexible rugged-use signal cable with gold-plated adapter plugs; one heavily padded leatherette-covered carry case: manual
  • Weight: 346g
  • Price: £499 (includes VAT), or $599

Manufacturer: AudioQuest

URL: www.audioquest.com

Tel: 1 (800) 747-2770

UK Distributor: AudioQuest

URL: www.audioquest.nl

Tel: +31 165 541404


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