A Very Different Kind Of Blue
Different. It’s the AudioQuest NightHawk, in a word. A combination of rather unique design elements and aesthetics, this entry byAudioQuest is indeed an unconventional looking and sounding headphone. When I first auditioned the NightHawk, I was left with a positive impression and a piqued interest. I did feel that there was more to be had though – and hence I reached out to Stephen at AudioQuest, seeking to conduct a review and a longer-term examination of the headphones through equipment I was more familiar with. A couple of weeks and one IFA later, and I finally got around to completing the final draft of the review.
Let’s start first with some short observations regarding AudioQuest’s history. Known for its high-end audio cables, the company has, as of late, been expanding its product range. It has entered the portable DAC/Amp market with the well-regarded Dragonfly series, and as of last year has become actively involved in headphone development as well. I think that this is indeed reflective of the incredible growth in the personal audio industry. However, this wasn’t some poorly conceived, opportunistic expedition into the wilds of Roanoke. Instead, the NightHawk presents itself as a look at headphone design from a ground-up perspective, one that seeks to incorporate several new technologies coherently into a meaningful package. I will summarize and explain these aspects in greater depth in a later section of the review.
To me, the Nighthawks were a very interesting pair of headphones to review. There’s been a lot of polarized community discussion on these –and it did indeed take me some time formulate a solid perspective on these headphones. After quite a bit of consideration, I do believe that these headphones are good, but have a unique sound signature and steep appreciation curve that will make it hard for some to get into. You’ll also notice that this is indeed my first video review. Yes, it was hard being on camera and there were definitely things to work on. However, I hope y’all find it at least reasonably entertaining and I do think it makes for a great complement to the writing.
The AudioQuest NightHawk was provided by AudioQuest through Unicorn Sound & Vision for the purposes of this review. I’ve now had it on loan for about 3 weeks (perhaps more, I can’t quite recall). I’d like to thank AudioQuest for this unique opportunity. In addition, I do reserve the rights to the media used in the review, so do contact me if you wish to reproduce any part of the writing, video or photography seen here. Apart from that, I hope y’all have as much fun reading this as I did have writing the review.
PACKAGING AND ACCESSORIES
The AudioQuest NightHawk comes in a nice soft carry pleather case with a cardboard sleeve bearing a glossy graphic of a nighthawk (which mind you, is an actual animal, unlike the seahawk). The headphones were designed by AudioQuest in California, and have been assembled in China with components from China, Japan, USA, France and Germany. On the back is a quick pictorial summary of the unique technologies employed by AudioQuest in the construction of the NightHawk. Opening up the Nighthawk, one encounters the headphones and associated accessories:
- Headphone Carrying Case
- One AudioQuest Cable
- One Unmarked Cable
- 3.5 to 1/4th Adaptor
I like that everything is incredibly functional. The headphone box is a carrying case with good padding, and is something that can actually be used meaningfully. A bit about the cables. There are two cables included by AudioQuest. The beefier one features AudioQuest’s proprietary technologies –high-purity Solid Perfect-Surface Copper+ in a Double Star-Quad formation. This cable passed AudioQuest’s bend testing 2,000 times. The other, apparently less sophisticated cable, is more durable, and survived over 12,000 + times. I’m not a huge fan of the way the AudioQuest cable kinks, but I’m sure it’s probably to do with the cable tech inside.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The NightHawk is a product of ambition and passion. There’s a strong sense of direction for this headphone, and this is well reflected in the various facets of its sound and design. Naturally, this section will be concerned with the latter. In introducing the headphones, a bit of design philosophy is in order –it’s rather revealing, and there certainly is lots of it. It is great that AudioQuest has taken the time to explain what it has done with the headphones, but some sections are indeed quite abstract. From a general perspective, the NightHawk was designed primarily with the goal of minimizing distortion, and delivering what I would summarize as a musical sound. AudioQuest has further described the NightHawk as an attempt to “liberate headphone design from decades of misinformation and neglect”. A bold claim, and one that I don’t think is representative of the higher-end headphone scene.
Starting with the driver, the NightHawk has employed the use of a 50mm biocellulose driver with a rubber surround. This driver is designed for low distortion and high excursion, and achieves “true pistonic motion” through its rigid properties. We’ve seen biocellulose applications before in the form of the Fostex “Biodyna” diaphragm and in the legendary Sony R10. Generally speaking, biocellulose drivers are capable of achieving high acoustic velocities, high rigidity and a fairly wide frequency band. I will mention that going into the NightHawk, I did have some expectations for how it would sound, since I was coming off the Fostex TH-900. Additionally, the NightHawk’s driver features a patented Split-Gap Motor system that provides greater control as through the extremes of the driver’s excursion. It’s good to see that this is an actual patented technology and not a “patent-pending” gimmick. Detailed thought has also gone into other aspects of the headphone, including the voice coil and vents.
Moving on to the readily observable. One of the most striking features of the NightHawk is the liquid wood enclosure. For those unfamiliar with liquid wood, it is a bioplastic that was developed by German scientists Helmut Nägele and Jürgen Pfitzer in the 90s. Currently, it is being produced by Tecnaro (which unsurprisingly, was started by the aforementioned two) under the name of Arboform. It is this very material that is employed in the NightHawk for its acoustic properties. To further minimize resonances and vibrations, the enclosures feature internal support beams and an elastomeric coating. Damping is achieved through a combination of wool and polyester. On the semi-open part of the enclosure is the Diamond Cubic Lattice grill. In short, a 3D printed grill inspired by butterfly wings that is supposedly much more effective at diffusing sound waves than a regular grill.
Overall, the design and build of the NightHawk is very impressive. In certainly felt luxurious in the hand. The pleather earpads make for a fairly comfortable fit, and the self-adjusting headband is one of the better implemented systems I’ve seen. Pressure is average, and it’s definitely not as weightless as the T1 or TH-900. For longer periods of time, I did find the narrow headband to be a little less comfortable on the head. The elastic suspension system is very nice, and allows the earcups to be rotated rather freely. I’m not sure how much abuse the suspension system can take, so I’d be careful around these. Sound isolation, for those wondering, isn’t great. The NightHawks are considered a semi-open headphone.
At A Glance
The NightHawk isn’t quite like anything I’ve heard before. I’ll cut to the chase. Is it good –yes. Is it something that everyone will like –no. Now that I’ve more or less shot myself in the foot here, I’d better start explaining. The NightHawk is one of those products that I feel has a steep appreciation curve, one that will vary rather significantly based on your personal tastes and daily use headphones. AudioQuest believes that most headphones today are in fact plagued by an “upward tilt”, i.e. emphasized upper midrange and high frequencies. They explain this through their own interpretation of free-field and diffuse-field measurements, and the drawbacks of the current weighting system. Pairing wise – stick to cleaner DAC/amp.
The resultant product of the tuning and design philosophies is a headphone that features a warm and rich sound signature with a fairly prominent bass section. The bass focuses itself primarily with midbass. It’s not the vulgar and intrusive kind of midbass found on lesser headphones. Instead, it establishes its presence with weighty notes and a very slight reverb (reminds me of some pieces of Final Audio gear). The subbass on the NightHawk does extend fairly nicely, and at times can provide a visceral backing to the midbass. There are other times though when the midbass does more or less overshadow the subbass. This becomes all the more apparent when stacked directly against the TH-900, which I feel does have a generally deeper and more consistent bass section.
The midrange is easily the most divisive aspect of this headphone. If one is listening to the NightHawk as a primary can, it is indeed conceivable that he or she may feel that the midrange is just fine. However, coming off other headphones like the T1 and R70X, it was apparent to me that certain aspects of the midrange needed improvement. Let’s start with the positives, To me, the lower mids are where most of the NightHawk’s magic occurs. It’s a wonderfully impactful sound with a rather thick and lush presentation. On some tracks, this lower midrange comes together with the bass to produce an enveloping listening experience. However, the NightHawk starts teetering once you leave that lower midrange segment. In the upper mids, things start sounding distant and even a bit thin. This distance can make it difficult to enjoy higher-energy music, and is easily the most troublesome aspect about the NightHawk’s sound signature.
The highs are nice and complement the rest of sound signature appropriately. It’s got a bit of texture, and a slight bite that stops short of being sparkly. It’s also fairly articulate and generally pleasant to listen to. It is by no means liquid highs, but overall it does offer an enjoyable contrast to the bass. However, they do not begin to rival the lower frequencies in terms of quantity.
Soundstage And Imaging
The soundstage on the NightHawk is average. It’s got far more depth than width, and an average height. On some complex compositions things do tend to get a little squished together. It’s not that separation is poor (it is in fact decent), but that there simply isn’t enough space for everything. Imaging is average as well. Overall, a more intimate presentation of sound, and one that is appropriate for the sound that AudioQuest has tried to achieve in these headphones. Too bad this also means restrictions on multigenre capability.