AudioQuest NightHawk Headphones – Review
These headphones managed to get my attention since Canjam 2015 in Essen. While I didn’t quite managed to get how it sounded at the show, due to insufficient time, these headphones had something that impressed me.
Due to HighEndAudio Audio store in Bucharest, I have managed to get a loaner unit for this review.
Where do I start, there are so many things to be said about how this headphone was built. I won’t get into all the details but I will refer some of them here.
The first thing that drew my attention was the wooden cups and how smooth they were. Indeed, the wood is special, as it seems that the cups are made from liquid wood. Yes you have read correctly:
NightHawk’s earcups are made from all-natural Liquid Wood, which itself is made from 100% renewable raw materials: lignin, natural fibers, resins, and waxes, combined and treated in such a way that the resulting material can be injection molded.
The virtue and beauty of this revolutionary material shines through a durable UV coating, the careful processing of which almost completely eliminates emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Compared to traditional lacquers, varnishes, and poly finishes, our coating is environmentally sustainable and poses no health hazards for the technicians who apply it.
The NightHawk is a semi open headphone with a special grill for less coloration:
The open-back design of NightHawk’s speaker enclosures—its earcups—enables an expanded, three-dimensional soundstage with natural dynamics and smooth, coherent performance that extends into the lowest and highest octaves.
As with any open-back headphone, the open area had to be protected by a grille to prevent damage to the headphone’s precision-made internal parts. Traditionally, this has almost always been accomplished with perforated metal/plastic, wire cloth, or some other effectively two-dimensional material. While more or less successful at protecting the headphone’s internal parts, these materials also tend to compromise the headphone’s performance, reflecting sound back toward the driver, creating standing waves and resonant colorations.
But what if this grille could be three-dimensional and promote a random scattering of sound—diffusion—to successfully prevent those destructive standing waves?
These guys also made sure these headphones are environmental friendly:
Whereas the production and disposal of plastic is known to present environmental hazards, the production of the aforementioned Liquid Wood and Bio-Cellulose has minimal impact on the ecosystem. The same holds true for Protein Leather—a bio-derived synthetic fabric that we’ve used to encase NightHawk’s soft, comfortable earpads. Developed by combining a specialty resin with protein powder derived from eggshells, Protein Leather is durable, pliable, and has a softness and surface asperity approximating that of human skin, making it particularly well suited to its application in NightHawk.
The driver and the whole headphone was designed to achieve very low distortions.
Audioquest has an entire page about the purpose of Nighthawk and distortions in general and I found it quite informative. One of the most interesting parts in their article was the one about “High-Frequency Emphasis & Edge Enhancement” where they compare the noise on the image created with the effect from adding sharpness in photography.
I have used this comparison myself on a few occasions and I do think that audio can be compared to photography on many levels and situations.
They say that most headphones on the market today are tilted to add some upper frequencies that are perceived as details, it’s a coloration of the material used in the headphones that actually sharpens the sound but not in a natural manner.
I actually agree with them, and I’ve heard headphones that do that. One of them in my opinion is the famous Sennheiser HD800 which offers very good treble detail, but takes away from background blackness and cleanliness of the sound through the unnatural sharpness it gives the sound.
I do think that Audioquest managed to achieve something here, but they went a little overboard, as they didn’t quite achieve linearity on the upper midrange and treble, but more on this later.
Another very interesting thing I found about these headphones is the fact that the headphone band is decoupled/suspended from the cups by a patent pending suspension mechanism.
Sophisticated ergonomic elements in a headphone design remove unnecessary boundaries—acoustic, physical, and psychological—between the listener and his or her emotional involvement with the music. NightHawk’s patent-pending suspension system takes a cue from shock-mounted microphones, employing elastomer bands (four per side, symmetrically located around the sound-diffusing grilles) to join NightHawk’s headband with its earcups. This elegant design allows the earcups to move freely, accommodating heads of nearly any shape or size, while effectively decoupling the earcups to counteract intrusive mechanical crosstalk—which, for a lot of listeners, can be a real deal-breaker of a distortion. Boo to that noise. Yay to NightHawk.
I have actually read a very interesting article in the July release of Hifinews(page 26), where they were measuring and explaining the headband resonance in headphones. I have never thought about this but it makes sense and the measurements are proof of that.
Well, Audioquest thought of this and implemented the system described above to solve this issue.
Besides the sonic benefits of the headband and the decoupling mechanism, Nighthawk also offers excellent comfort. Actually, they are one of the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever tested. They adjust automatically to your head size and form.
- Impedance: 25 ohms
- Sensitivity: 100dBSPL/mW
- Power Handling: 1.5W
- Driver: 50mm Dynamic | Biocellulose Diaphragm | 1.2T Split-Gap Motor
- Frequency Response & Distortion Measurements
Listening Impressions & Tests
The tests were performed with Meze Classics 99, AKG K550 MK2, Aune B1, Chord Mojo.
Damn … this song was so fun with the Nighthawks. One of the times where you actually wipe sweat off your face after a song.
The chords, the vibrations were full of energy and extremely engaging with the Nighthawks. Ah, and it was just me with the instruments that made sounds out of a pitch black background.
This song is a very good test for the voice, especially the part when Freddie performs as a whole chorus by himself. The voice should be very playful and rich in tonality, they should come from all directions and in all timbres and tones, and it shouldn’t be harsh. It should be mesmerising, you shouldn’t be able to concentrate because of how awesome the moment is.
With the wrong gear, this part may sound off, harsh. Nighthawk handled itself quite nicely on this song. The voice was somewhat a little pushed in the back of the scene, but it still had good presence and excellent tonality, doing exactly what I said it should do in the paragraph above.
The Civil Wars – I had Me a Girl
The electric guitars had some very impactful weight and energy in the lower frequencies. While not as impactful or as weighty as a planar would be, it’s quite close for a dynamic headphone in my opinion. Ok, the bass isn’t the most fast / accurate I’ve heard, but it’s clean and it goes very low, even though it has a slightly slower decay.
The guitars plucks were quite apparent energetic, while the voices were presented in a pleasant and natural manner. The male voice was more present than the female.
Pink Martini – In Stiller Nacht
This song was quite impressive as well on the NightHawk. The voices were just mesmerising and if if you need to relax or just chill down, this will surely do it.
The voices were so smooth, so intimated and natural that it relaxed me to the point that I almost fell asleep. The soundstage was very natural and holographical.
Dawn and Hawkes – Love You Forever
The guitar plucks have a wonderful impact, not only through the energetic attack but also because of the heavy extension/body/decay that follows the impact. The decay is a little slower, and the bass a little too prominent, but overall the song was very enjoyable, energetic and fun.
The voices again had a very pleasant and natural tonality, accompanied by a flowing and natural feeling.
The first thing I noticed was that I kind of felt at the concert hall in the first seconds. The scene was very holographic, real and large. I really like the soundstage on the Nighhawks. Besides that, the instruments sounded natural and well textured. However, I did feel that the upper midrande and lower treble are recessed, and this becomes very apparent for example when you compare with K550 Mk2.
However, the natural tonality, natural, spacious & holographic soundstage, pitch black background made this song very enjoyful and a pleasure to listen to.
Personally I enjoy the bass on these headphones. It goes very low and it’s very clean. It comes close to planar bass in my opinion. However it would use a little more control and speed.
The midrange is very natural, smooth and musical. The midrange is a little recessed, especially on the upper part of the region.
The treble is smooth and natural. It’s recessed on the lower part of the region and has a peak after that, than I think it goes down again. It’s not very linear, that’s for sure, but overall, even though it might lack presence, at least it sounds smooth, natural and non fatiguing.
The voices are in my opinion very nice, eventhough sometimes they seemed to be pushed further back into the scene, especially the female voices. What I like about them is that flowing characteristic I mentioned earlier which makes the voices smooth, natural and very pleasant to the ears.
This is one of the things I love most about these headphones and they really shine here. They sound incredibly clean, showing very low distortions. Now, there are a lot of people that when refer to clean sound, they usually attach the word to present/sparkly and detailed treble. I for one, don’t agree with that approach.
Even though it does help to make the sound clearer, it’s just a factor that makes the sound clean or not.
One of the most important factors is the level of distortions presented by the headphone and in this case, it’s extremely low. The sounds seem to appear from nowhere, from a pitch black background.
The soundstage is another strong point of these headphones. Audioquest really managed to a create a very holographic and life like soundstage in my opinion.
Ok, I’ve heard bigger scenes with other headphones, but the holography and natural presentation made me feel inside the song, right there on the scene.
The transients have good, impactful attack, but a slower decay which makes the headphones a little slower, this being felt especially on fast songs. However because of the impact on the attack, I cannot say that the sound is lazy.
What I love about these headphones is that they are quite easy going with a pleasant and natural tonality regarding both voices and instruments. They are are indeed warm headphones, but very pleasant sounding overall.
I had my eyes on these headphones from the time I’ve first heard them at Canjam Essen 2015. It’s been an entire year since then, but I finally managed to get my hands on a pair through the help of HighEnd Audio store in Bucharest.
Really nice guys and if you want to hear the headphones or anything else from their store, you should really check out their showroom.
Now, back to the Nighthawks. I feel that these headphones are generally under appreciated. I for one found some strong points in these headphones which really made me love them.
I’ve rarely heard such clean background / low distortions in other headphones. Well, Nighthawk really managed to pull it off in this department and created a very clean sounding headphone.
Ok, it’s not perfect, I would have wanted more midrange (especially upper midrange) and lower treble presence and maybe a little more speed in the decay, but overall I really enjoyed these headphones and I do feel that Audioquest achieved something special with Nighthawk.
They are capable of delivering a very smooth, natural, soothing and extremely clean listening experience.
- Deep and clean bass with decent impact
- Natural/smooth midrange
- Holographic and spacious soundstage
- Very clean sound, pitch black background
- Natural/pleasant tonality
- Very smooth, coursive and natural voices
- Excellent comfort
- Bass could use a little more control
- Faster decay would help achieve a more energetic sound signature
- Recessed mid-upper midrange and lower treble
Very good review again!
I would argue the part with the Sennheiser HD800, as I find the treble exceptional for exceptionally mastered symphonic recordings.
Thank you Alex. The treble on HD800 is indeed well detailed, but it is not natural.
Believe me, I’ve heard much better treble, especially on speakers.
Indeed, the treble on HD800 is full of energy, sparkle and detail, but it is oversharpened, and that image explains it very well.
I am not saying that the treble on nighthawk is better than the one on HD800, as they went too far in my opinion and it’s kind of recessed, but the one in HD800 in my opinion is indeed over-sharpened.
I auditioned these several times. I wanted to like them but just couldn’t. The bass was one note to me and plastic sounding. No where near the bass of a planar. Lower midrange was also a bit wonky sounding with the right material playing. They are comfy though.
Thank you for your opinion, Mike. They are certainly not for everyone. And what I noticed about it is that they don’t leave a good first impression and they lack the wow factor.
From my experience, the bandwidth and the decay properties of HD800 are second to none, resulting in state of the art resolution and higher order harmonics rendition to an extraordinary detail – it is not the headphones only, the amp side has to do with it – as known this headphone tells the difference between amps. The treble may be a bit unreal for some tunes but let us not forget that on top of it all we have the king of all kings, the audio mastering engineer, with its special mike and adc filtering voodoo box – we can send him to have a haircut if we use a bit of a mastering tool ourselves on the back end, if he/she went too far. It is true that some speakers have good tweeters (some of them recently producing headphones with the same technology – I can’t wait to see your review here btw, what’s taking you so long?!?) but, because there is a but as you know…
Indeed, HD800 has some very nice qualities which I also love. I still prefer HD800 to HD800s for example.
In some ways HD800 is still second to none, but it does have its cons.
I would love to review the focals and I can’t wait to do that. It is kind of a bad timing as jack-fi.ro is in the moving process right now and it might take a while until he brings the new headphones.
Do you have any plans in the very near future to do a review on the Audioquest Nightowl Carbon which is essentially the closed-back version of the Nighthawks? If not, please seriously consider doing so. Thank you.
Hopefully I will get a pair of nightowl for review 🙂