Steven Stone is the former editor of AudiophileReview.com. He a longtime audiophile and home theater writer, as well as a musician and recording engineer. Steven has written for publications like Stereophile, as well as HomeTheaterReview.com, AudiophileReview.com, and The Absolute Sound.
Steven is plays guitar, mandolin, and Ashbory bass and is a collector of fine musical instruments.
Many audiophiles were excited when AudioQuest premiered its first headphone, dubbed "NightHawk," at the 2015 CES. The product looked beautiful, and all the preliminary reports offered glowing descriptions of its sound. But a lot can happen from the first viewing to the actual product rollout. I finally received a production sample of the Nighthawk ($599 MSRP) in mid-July, and I immediately put it into heavy rotation in my headphone library. How does this new design stack up against the formidable competition? Let's find out.
Visually it's hard to confuse the NightHawk with any other headphone. Its unique enclosure material, which AudioQuest calls "liquid wood," is comprised of reclaimed plant fiber that is heated, liquefied, and then injection molded into the earcup shape. AudioQuest's designer, Skylar Gray, found that liquid wood had superior acoustic properties compared with conventional plastic or wood. Also the injection-molding process made for a more complex-shaped enclosure with an optimized internal rib design. Combined with an elastomeric coating that's applied to the internal surfaces and a damping material made of a blend of wool and polyester, the overall design attempts to minimize vibrational displacement amplitude inside the NightHawk's semi-open enclosure.
The NightHawk's 50mm dynamic driver is made of biocellulose instead of the more common Mylar diaphragm material. AudioQuest chose biocellulose because of its rigidity and self-damping properties. Compared with Mylar, biocellulose has much lower distortion in the six- to 10-kHz region due to its composition. To further optimize the NightHawk driver's pistonic motion, AudioQuest chose to use a surround made of urethane rubber instead of the more conventional design that uses a fixed edge with no surround. This combination of a more rigid diaphragm with a more flexible surround produces a more linear response with far less diaphragm flexing.
A patent-pending suspension system that draws its inspiration from the shock-mounts used in studio microphones employs four elastomer bands symmetrically located around a grille to connect the earcups to the headband. The headband itself is a single curved piece of cloth-covered flexible metal combined with a leather and cloth head cushion that allows the 346-gram headphone to sit lightly upon your head. The combination of the earcup shape and suspension system's flexibility allows the NightHawk's soft protein leather earcups to set themselves comfortably around your ears and make a complete, bass-enhancing seal.
The NightHawk utilizes a unique around-the-ear design that puts the earpads and drivers into a more precise position via an angled layout, instead of the more conventional flat single plane. According to AudioQuest, this scheme provides "ample room for a listener's ears to rest easily within a space defined by the earpad's internal volume." Audiophiles with larger ears, take note.
Most open-back headphones generate nearly as much sound outside as they do into your ears because they are open. The NightHawk, although technically an open-back headphone, is different because it uses a 3D-printed diamond cubic lattice grille to diffuse the sound as it passes through it, which combined with its internal damping and ribbed design minimizes the enclosure's reflections and standing waves. This also vastly reduces the amount of sound that emanates from the NightHawk earphones when they are on someone's head. You might even get away with using them in an open-plan office.
Two cables come standard with the NightHawk. One is made to withstand more abuse (think portable and flexible), while the other is better suited to critical listening applications. The serious-listening cable's design is based on the same solid-core wire technology found in AudioQuest's Castle Rock speaker cable. This cable is cloth-wrapped, approximately 95 inches long, and features a flexible, ergonomically elegant angled stereo mini-plug termination. AudioQuest includes a nice 3.5mm-to-0.25-inch plug adapter, which features a direct silver coating over high-purity copper base metal.
With its 25-ohm impedance and 100-dB SPL at one mW sensitivity, the NightHawk ranks as a relatively easy-to-drive headphone that should be equally at home in a desktop or portable rig. I used a variety of devices with the NightHawk headphones during the review, including the Aurender Flow, NuPrime DAC-10H, Oppo HA-1, Sony NW-ZX2, Astell & Kern AKjr, Astell & Kern AK240, Calyx M, and Sony PHA-2. In every case, there was adequate gain still in reserve when I reached my own personal maximum volume level. AudioQuest recommends "up to 150 hours of break-in on the headphones and up to two weeks of burn-in on the cables for them to reach their optimal performance." I will admit, I began listening before the optimal break-in period was up and lived to tell the tale.
The NightHawk headphones fit my head beautifully. Designer Skylar Gray's adaptation of the suspension design used to isolate and suspend a studio microphone is simply brilliant. Ironically, the primary negative aspect of a suspension-mounted studio microphone is the flexibility, or floppiness, in the rubbery suspension system. However, in the NightHawk's earphone suspension system, this unwanted flexibility works as an asset, allowing the earpads to adjust easily to the contours of your head.
I have a smallish 7.13-inch head. For me the side-pressure exerted by the single metal rod that forms the headphone band was Goldilocks perfect. The NightHawk ear cushions compress ever so slightly--enough to make a good seal while preventing your ears from touching the earpads. Eyeglass wearers may find the NightHawk will not make a complete seal around their ears while they have eyeglasses on. I tried all the pairs of glasses I own, but none had their earpieces close enough to my head to allow the pads to make a complete seal. You will get much better performance by wearing contacts.
The longer, better-quality headphone cable that comes standard with the NightHawk headphones is lightweight and flexible, but it is prone to kinking and twisting. When you unkink the cable, the solid core wire inside the cloth wrapping has a tendency to turn within its outer wrapping. If you are hard on headphone cables, I suspect that it will eventually look rather well-used. In the few weeks I've had the NightHawk headphones, my cable has already twisted in several places and has little ripples where kinks were straightened. But since the cable is removable and AudioQuest has a comprehensive warranty (and they do make the cable), I doubt there is any reason for concern if the cable does, by off-chance, fail.
Given its lightweight and easy-to-drive nature, the NightHawk could be an excellent travel headphone. Its only limitation in this regard is that the NightHawk does not fold up or flatten down into a smaller package for transport. It also does not come with a bag, pouch, or case for travel. While I applaud AudioQuest for being one of the only headphone manufacturers that is paying any attention to reducing the amount of waste and extra packaging in their retail packaging (I'm so tired of big heavy, useless, presentation cases), a travel bag would have been a nice addition to the NightHawk package.
From the first moments you listen to the NightHawk headphone, it will be immediately obvious that the harmonic presentation is unique. Much of the sparkle and upper frequency "air" that I'm used to hearing through headphones was missing. The funny thing is, this obvious "loss" of upper-frequency information that was so apparent in an A/B comparison with virtually any headphone in my library doesn't mean that the NightHawk is a basshead-only headphone (although the bass is exemplary). No, in fact, after a few minutes of listening to the NightHawk by itself, its own native musicality and natural (but not neutral) harmonic balance begins to sound so right that it can be argued that the NightHawk is the only headphone that doesn't add a level of additive distortion to the upper frequencies! According to AudioQuest's Stephen Mejias, "Listeners who are accustomed to this sound may perceive it as high-frequency "detail" when, in fact, these perceived details are the result of distortion and/or artificially boosted highs. The NightHawk doesn't boost the highs to create the false perception of greater detail. Instead, the NightHawk has a much cleaner frequency response, with much lower distortion." If you look through the "measurements" page, you can see how much lower the NightHawk's distortion measurements are compared with other "reference" headphones.
Usually when a headphone lacks upper-frequency extension, it sounds "hooded," and the size of the soundstage is noticeably smaller and less well defined. In contrast, the NightHawk has a large and extremely well-articulated three-dimensional soundstage--and, although not as prominent as with many of my headphones, the upper frequencies are certainly not absent. The advantage of the NightHawk's treble response is that aggressive mixes are easier to listen to. The NightHawk's ability to turn nasty, intolerably bright mixes into bright but listenable music reminds me of the way the Antelope Audio Platinum DSD DAC made MP3s more sonically palatable--by lowering distortion, not by filtering frequencies.
After you get used to the NightHawk's harmonic presentation, the next positive aspect you will notice about the NightHawk's sound is how well it handles bass. Not only do lower frequencies have some serious dynamic punch, even on low-powered portable devices, but the definition and pitch are exemplary. Sure, I've heard some in-ears that produce more bass, but none that do it with greater clarity or control.
• The NightHawk's physical design results in earphones that are comfortable and light weight.
• The NightHawk headphones have excellent bass dynamics, definition, and weight.
• The harmonic balance gives the NightHawk headphones an unfatiguing sonic character.
• Treble through the NightHawk sounds rolled off compared with other headphones.
• The NightHawk headphones do not fold or flatten for travel.
• Eyeglass wearers may find it difficult to get a complete seal around their ears while wearing glasses.
Comparison and Competition
As in all price categories (except headphones over $10,000), the NightHawk headphones face some worthy competition. Although the MSRP is $999.95, the Sennheiser HD700 can be found for around $600. They are also an open-back design with more perceived treble extension, but with a lot more sound leakage than the NightHawk. The Beyer Dynamic T90 has an MSRP of $699 but is currently discounted to just below $600. It is also open-back design but has a higher impedance of 250 ohms that is better suited to a studio or home headphone amplifier. Grado has two offerings in the NightHawk's price range: the PS500-e and the RS1-e. Both Grados are made in Brooklyn and offer an open presentation that rivals the NightHawk's in soundstage size, yet they have a very different harmonic presentation. Other companies, such as Audio-Technica, Ultrazone, Sony, Denon, Fostex, Westone, Shure, and even Stax, have offerings in this price range, as well.
At last count, Amazon had 62,541 entries in its headphone category. Out of those I can almost guarantee that none of them sound similar to the AudioQuest NightHawk. With a lesser headphone, that would usually be a bad thing. But if you follow AudioQuest's line of reasoning, the NightHawk headphones sound different not because they are deficient in upper-frequency extension but because they lack the distortion between six and 10 kHz that is so common in a vast majority of headphones.
If you are the kind of headphone listener who spends many hours tethered to your cans and, often by the end of the day, you are left with the feeling that your ears are somewhat fried even though you are using high-performance headphones coupled to a high-quality headphone amp, the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones could be a better sonic and ergonomic option. Any student of headphone design should try to give the NightHawk headphones a serious, long-term audition, not a brief A/B test, if you want to hear how well this very special headphone can deliver music to your ears.