AudioQuest NightHawk Headphones

". . . terrific sound with equally terrific design and an economical price."

by Rad Bennett | August 15, 2015

ightHawk has become a buzzword among headphone enthusiasts and audiophiles in general since the headphones bearing this name debuted at the 2015 CES, where it captured two prestigious awards: Innovation Awards Honoree (Headphones) and Best Innovation Winner (Eco-design and Sustainable Technology). I was able to get five weeks of hands-on experience with the NightHawk, and I can tell you that the awards were well deserved.

Price: $599.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

2621 White Road
Irvine, CA 92614
(949) 585-0111

When I initially examined these headphones, the first thing I noticed was the Liquid Wood earcups. These were made of actual wood that has been combined with reclaimed plant fiber. The mixture is heated, liquefied and then processed so it can be injection-molded. Environmentally friendly, Liquid Wood is thus a natural material and in this respect every NightHawk earcup is one of a kind, with subtle variations in color, pattern, and surface finish. Moreover, the material is reputed to have good acoustic properties that help eliminate resonance. In other words, it’s not just a pretty face. In this, as with all of his innovations, NightHawk designer Skylar Gray has endeavored to pair physical design and good sound in a balanced partnership.

After oohing and aahing over the earcups and becoming aware of the delicately etched "L" or "R" at the bottom, I next noticed the headband, a two-part structure that AudioQuest calls the "headband-headpad mechanism." The cloth-and-leatherette headpad attaches to the metal outer headband with swiveling pins located on either side of the headband’s base. A patent-pending suspension system for each earcup, employing four symmetrically placed elastomer bands, placed around a sound-diffusing grille, allows the earcup to move freely while counteracting mechanical crosstalk.

All of this ensured that the NightHawks fit me better than any full-size headphones I have ever worn. It’s a snug and secure fit that is very comfortable. I didn’t ever have the pincer feeling that can occur with other headphones. And there are no click stops or push-pull adjustments at all: You just pick up the NightHawk, put it on your head, and it fits like magic. It helps that the earcup openings are oval and long, so that they are ear friendly. I have large ear lobes, and the design accommodated them effortlessly; many other designs -- all too many, in fact -- painfully pinch the lobes. The generous padding and the light weight help, too: The NightHawk weighs only 12.2 ounces on my scales, quite light for full-size headphones.

The distinctive sound-diffusing grilles are yet another innovation. The NightHawk is a semi-open headphone and its grilles, according to AudioQuest, are modeled after the "underlying structure of butterfly wings." Since their pattern was too complex to manufacture by the usual means, they are 3D-printed, using a method called Selective Laser Sintering. In use, the grilles diffuse sound and defeat resonances.

Inside the earcup, the things you can’t see, Gray and AudioQuest kept innovating. Instead of using the popular Mylar diaphragm used by so many manufacturers, the NightHawk has a 50mm high-excursion driver comprising a biocellulose pistonic diaphragm and a compliant rubber surround. The goal here was to use a material that wouldn’t distort the upper frequencies as Mylar is sometimes accused of doing. The driver also features a patented split-gap motor design that claims reduced intermodulation distortion.

According to AudioQuest, the compliant rubber surround enables pistonic motion. The voice coil moves, and the diaphragm moves sympathetically, creating a carefully controlled vibration that travels through the diaphragm until it reaches the rubber surround. The vibration is absorbed by the surround and turned into heat, keeping it from returning into the diaphragm to create unnatural coloration.

If you’re getting the notion that Skylar Gray and AudioQuest look at headphones the way others regard high-quality loudspeakers, you’d be right. In addition to the driver, NightHawk’s structure incorporates support ribs similar to the braces found inside quality speakers, and a damping material is applied as well. The earcups were tuned using Finite Element Analysis (FEA). This is a computerized method for predicting how a product will perform in the real world. FEA allowed AudioQuest to break down NightHawk into its component parts, using mathematical equations to predict how those parts would behave, separately and together. The FEA analysis pinpointed the possible location of resonances so that AudioQuest was able to defeat them with the support ribs.

The folks at AudioQuest are willing and able to talk on and on about every tiny detail of NightHawk, exhibiting a pride in production that I found quite singular. The bottom line is that Gray and AudioQuest did not just identify a bunch of potential problems and create workarounds for them. They started from scratch, eliminating those possible anomalies before they happened by creating an entirely new design, then tweaking that design in a double-check analysis.

AudioQuest’s pride in this product is demonstrated visibly by a classy faux-leather, zippered carrying presentation satchel that has a recessed, contoured place for the NightHawk to rest and a mesh-covered pocket for the cables. Yes, AudioQuest supplies two eight-foot cables, each having a Y split with separate left and right connections. One cable is a fairly standard lightweight braided affair with gold connectors. The other is a thick braided cable reminiscent of AudioQuest’s highly rated speaker cables. It has thickly plated silver connectors and solid Perfect Surface Copper+ conductors in a double-star-quad configuration. The connector end to be inserted in the device reproducing the music is angled at 45 degrees, which makes it much easier to insert and pull out without causing any damage. A silver-plated 3.5mm-to-1/4" adapter is also provided.

AudioQuest explains the two cables by suggesting that the thinner one would be better for travel and for listening parties where the NightHawk is passed around. But after living with this remarkable unit for some time, my guess is that you’ll want to keep the NightHawk at home next to your finest equipment. Since it is partially open, it might spill sound that would irritate other riders were it used as a commuter headphone, for instance, and who’d want to put it in a precarious situation where those drop-dead-gorgeous Liquid Wood earcups might get scratched? I did try both cables as a test and found that the heavier one revealed a bit more detail than did the lighter option. Because I kept the NightHawk at home, I used the heavier cable for all my listening.

Impedance at 1kHz is 25 ohms, and sensitivity is 100dB/mW. From those figures you can surmise that the NightHawk can be driven by a handheld personal device, such as an Astell & Kern player or smartphone. Not having either of these on hand, I used my Squeezebox Touch, which allows direct output to a headphone and lets me audition my 24-bit/ 96kHz files, and my Yamaha RX V-661, a receiver I use as a preamp, so I could listen to SACD and Blu-ray Discs.

It is essential to give the NightHawk a good burn-in before making any audio observations. I found that things stabilized at around 150 hours. AudioQuest tells me that all cables need a two-week burn-in, and because I was using the larger cable exclusively, I gave it exactly the same burn-in time as the NightHawk itself.

he sound of the NightHawk is quite different from that of other headphones and carries through on the speaker-oriented treatment of the design. It is exceptionally accurate, with a soundstage that resembles listening to speakers more than the normal headphone experience. Along these lines, the NightHawk imaged outside the head, with the stage width and depth usually discussed when talking about speakers. There was none of the artificial left-right ping-pong sound so common with many headphones, and the images were rock solid. A violin, flute, singer, or whole orchestra stayed in place unless they were moved around within the recording. The only time I could get the NightHawk to image like a regular headphone was on a Vampire Weekend disc (Modern Vampires of the City [XL Recordings no catalog number]), where sounds were mixed specifically left or right with no channel bleed.

I first thought that the NightHawks had a warm sound, but then I realized that this was true only because I had been playing warm-sounding recordings. It’s common for critics to listen intently to several favorite recordings, perhaps with different sonic qualities. I decided to take a different approach and listen to the same composition through many different recordings. This is pretty easy to do with classical music when feeding things through the Squeezebox Touch, where scrolling from one version to another can be done quite rapidly. I chose the first two minutes of Brahms’ Symphony No.4 in E Minor.

I listened to ten or twelve different versions. Doráti’s LSO recording (ALAC file, [Mercury Living Presence CD 434380]) was aggressive and distorted when the first violins played in a high register. Ansermet’s (ALAC file, [Decca Eloquence CD 480 0448) was up close and had sweet strings in an overall warm acoustic, whereas Bruno Walter’s (ALAC file [Sony SMK 64 472]) was warm and transparent. Valery Gergiev’s LSO reading (LSO Live, 24 bits/96kHz via the Bowers & Wilkins website) came across with lean, unforced sound having little presence. It was evident that each recording had a signature sound which the NightHawk was able to reproduce with easily recognizable differences. I was a little upset about the distortion on the Doráti, but I played it back through my MartinLogan Ascents, standing up close and personal, and had to admit that the NightHawk was absolutely right in its portrayal.

Headphones can allow us to hear details in performances that remain obscured with even very good loudspeakers, but they can just as easily reveal faults. Many headphones have skewed frequency response to cover up some of those faults, giving the headphones a sonic signature that somewhat blands out the recordings, but the NightHawk will give you what you put in. When the recording is really good, the results are exceptionally pleasurable and you’ll thank the NightHawk for its accuracy.

I challenged the NightHawk with the very best recent recording I’ve heard. That would be the new London Symphony Orchestra Blu-ray Disc containing Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony, the "Reformation," coupled with the composer’s overtures "Ruy Blas" and "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage." Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the London Symphony Orchestra [LSO Live LSO0775]. The disc contains 24-bit/192kHz tracks in DTS 5.1 or PCM stereo.

The NightHawk took to this disc, challenging my recent listen through my MartinLogan Ascents. These headphones let me hear that Sir John has the upper-string-instrument players stand in such a way that the violins sound very robust but always sweet and lovely with plenty of air surrounding them. The trumpets and trombones sound majestic coming from the right rear, the horns a little back from the left center, all of these placements steady as a rock thanks to NightHawk’s singular imaging. And the articulation of the bass line displayed a "you are there" buzz at the beginning of "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage."

I then threw something very complex at the NightHawk, Act I of Turandot, conducted by Zubin Mehta, on Decca Pure Audio Blu-ray [Decca 478 7815]. Mastered at 24 bits/48kHz, it’s not strict high-definition audio, but it is one of the best-sounding recordings in Decca’s catalogue. The scoring is complex, with a huge orchestra and chorus as well as acclaimed soloists, in this case Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Cabellé, and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Exotic gongs, xylophones and other percussion are used profusely and they all came through with uncanny presence through the NightHawk. So did the amazing soundstage, which anchored the enormous forces so that everything was absolutely clean and clear. In addition, each soloist’s vocal timbre was more faithfully reproduced than I have ever heard.

Next up was one of my favorite Decca golden-age demo discs -- Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, perfectly conducted by the composer himself (ALAC file, [Decca 0289 417 5092]). Every instrument of the orchestra plays a prominent role, and it was a real workout for the NightHawk, one it passed with flying colors. I’ve never heard the triangle in the opening percussion variation ping so pungently or the double basses have such presence and clear articulation in their variation. Even when things got complicated in the final fugue, the engineers were able to keep everything sorted properly -- and so was the NightHawk.

The NightHawk passed classical music with a top rating, but what about rockin’ out? 10cc’s The Original Soundtrack (ALAC file, [Mobile Fidelity CD UDCD 729]) opens with "One Night in Paris," an amazing little one-act rock opera about the streets of Paris and the prurient pleasures they can offer. It has all sorts of sonic challenges, such as a rock-solid piano, delicate tambourine hits, and vocal pyrotechnics. Duran Duran’s Astronaut (ALAC file, [Epic EK 92900]) is steelier, with a lot of imaginative synthesizer effects and booming bass. The NightHawk presented both recordings without flaw or artifice, with lots of energy and that great soundstage.

Looking for some solo literature, I put on Michael Murray’s Encores ŕ la Française, one of the best organ recordings I have [Telarc SACD 60634]. The opening Chacone in G Minor by Louis Couperin alternates grandeur and bombast with delicate yet bright interludes. No problem for the NightHawk, which created a you-are-there soundstage with just the right presence. Cavatina, with guitarist Göran Söllscher (ALAC file, [DGG CD 413 720]), provided more intimate delights, with the guitar seeming to be right in the room with me. Artur Pizarro’s piano playing on Ravel Volume 2 [Linn SACD 315] reminds me realistically that though the piano can play long lyrical lines, it is correctly categorized as a percussion instrument. With the NightHawk securely on my head, I could almost feel the steel frame of the piano at the beginning of the "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales."

aken altogether, that’s an incredibly diverse list of recordings, yet the NightHawk sailed through everything with accuracy, solid soundstages and imaging consistently outside the ears. Couple that terrific sound with equally terrific design and an economical price and you have a headphone that emerges at the top of the pack. NightHawk is a headphone that both looks and sounds high-tech. Even though I sometimes winced at the accuracy it pulled out of less-than-great audio transfers, I found these discoveries paled in light of the sound it produced on great recordings and transfers.

Hats off to AudioQuest and Skylar Gray for daring to do something different -- and for doing it so well.

Associated Equipment

Digital sources: HP Pavilion PC running iTunes v12.2.1, Logitech Squeezebox Touch, Oppo Digital BDP-83 universal audio/video player.

Receiver: Yamaha RC-V661 (used as a headphone amp).

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