Audioquest Nighthawk

I’ve been writing reviews now for around 15 years and I think this might be the very first time that I’ve ever re-written a review – not just edited a draft, but completely re-written a review. The reason I’ve re-writing this one is that the Nighthawk headphones from Audioquest are completely and utterly unique and require the right explanation to do them justice. Hopefully I can fulfil that challenge.

My first take tried to skate over the technology elements of the Nighthawks because I’m all about how it sounds, but I realised that I can’t do justice to these headphones without a thorough explanation so please grab your favourite drink, a snack and a comfy chair and enjoy the read.

Overview

The Nighthawks are a semi-open headphone that uses dynamic drivers, an innovative cup design and manufacturing process, fairly unique headband design, and produce a sound that, while not initially spectacular, may be one of the truest and best representations of music that you can buy.

Specifications

  • Impedance:  25 ohms
  • Sensitivity:  100 dB / mW
  • Weight:  346 grams
  • Drivers:  50mm dynamic
  • Cables:  2 x 2.4m – one for portable use, one for desktop use

The Nighthawks are an exercise in new approaches and high tech solutions, but AQ Nighthawk-2793the result isn’t a wallet-busting flagship that’s finicky and precious about the music and amplification you feed it. Rather, Audioquest took all of that technology and wrapped it into one of the most physically and sonically comfortable headphones I’ve ever tried, regardless of what source I’ve used or music I’ve played? They also scale exceptionally well and can provide euphoric experiences on top end gear while still delivering outstanding performance from a cheap portable source.

At nearly $900 in Australia, the Nighthawks aren’t a cheap headphone. They sit in a somewhat hollow point in the market, above the mid-tier excellence of HD600/650s and AKG K702, but below the top end glory of HD800s, Beyer T1s, Audeze’s LCD range, and AKG K812. I’ve seen the Nighthawks compared to the HD600/650, but I don’t know if that’s a completely fair comparison given both price and certain aspects of their performance.

Technology Overview

To properly appreciate the Nighthawks it’s important to understand the tech that’s gone into them – not for the sake of technology, but in order to contextualise what you are actually hearing when you put a pair of Nighthawks on your head.

Sadly, some reviews and comments I’ve seen have pointed out flaws in the Nighthawk’s performance which may in actuality be strengths. Of course personal taste will always play a part and that’s completely fine – I’m not saying that people are wrong if they don’t like the Nighthawks, but my aim is to contextualise what the Nighthawks do and why so you can decide if you like them without erroneous assumptions about them (and I have to admit to coming in with some of those erroneous assumptions myself).

Driver Design

Biocellulose Pistonic Driver

The Nighthawks use a 50mm biocellulose driver which is a supported in a rubber surround (like a traditional speaker driver). This results in multiple benefits for your ears:

  1. Biocellulose drivers are inherently self-damping and therefore don’t produce the nasty treble spikes (around 6-10kHz) common to the mylar drivers found in many headphones. These spikes are a result of distortion and therefore are not a part of the original musical signal even though they may create the impression of highlighting extra detail in the music. (More on that later.)
  2. The rubber surround creates a flexible boundary that absorbs vibrations at the edge of the driver and prevents them from reflecting back and creating distortion. Similar to the points above, this removes unwanted sound being added to the signal and results in a much smoother sound.
  3. The combination of biocellulose’s rigidity and the rubber surround allow the driver to move as a single mass, like a piston. Mylar drivers can tend to move irregularly so different parts of the driver move at different speeds and in different amplitudes. You can imagine the result of this – a single sound wave being interpreted in multiple different ways across the surface of the driver. You’re going to hear something that’s not actually completely coherent to the original signal. Of course, these variations are so minute that our ears might not hear them as separate sounds so the perception of these often comes as increased brightness in the sound which may also sound like increased detail and clarity.

One final point about the biocellulose driver is that it’s a more environmentally friendly material than the plastics used to make mylar drivers. As you’ll see throughout this review, the Nighthawks manage to tread the line between eco-friendly and cutting edge – a pretty cool balance!

Motor Design

When I say “motor” here I mean the magnet and voice coil combo that creates the movement in the speaker driver. In the case of the Nighthawks there are three key elements to be aware of:

  1. The voice coil uses as few turns of wire as possible in order to minimise the influence the coil has on driver performance. In short, enough wire is needed to respond effectively to the magnet, but too much wire will begin to influence how the driver responds at different frequencies. Audioquest have found a balance here that is once again aimed at maximising the accuracy of reproduction to the original signal without significant distortion.
  2. Unlike many headphones, and more like traditional loudspeaker design, the voice coil in the Nighthawk is mounted on a stiff cylinder of paper. In most headphones, the voice coil is attached directly to the driver material (e.g. mylar). As we’ve already discussed, the driver’s shape may distort under the intense movements generated by the music so those distortions then warp and flex the voice coil which further influences the reproduction of the signal. There’s a pattern emerging here, isn’t there? It seems that every decision made in the creation of Nighthawks has prioritised purity of reproduction and that’s great news for music lovers.
  3. Finally, the magnet used in the Nighthawks is very strong (1.2 tesla) which means a high degree of control / responsiveness, but more important is the design of the magnet. Audioquest refer to the design as a split-gap motor. What that means is that the magnet isn’t a simple block of metal. Instead it forms a “C” shape with a gap in the middle. Without trying to explain it too deeply (check out the Audioquest page for more detail) the result is a strong magnetic field across the full range of the voice coil’s motion. In traditional motor design, the magnetic field is non-linear (stronger in some places than others) and results in distortion. So once again the technology implemented by Audioquest is driven by a push towards the elimination of distortion and accurate reproduction of the original signal.

Are you getting brain fade yet? I hope not. We’re nearly there and it’ll all make a lot of sense in the later parts of this review so please bear with me for one last tech section.

Cup Design

AQ Nighthawk-2801The Nighthawk’s cups are made of a material called “liquid wood”. I have to admit that my first real life glimpse of the cups was a let-down because I was expecting a beautiful set of cups that looked like real wood and what I saw was something that’s clearly not real wood. At that time I thought it was all about aesthetics and assumed it was a cost-cutting, time-saving or quality controlling shortcut, but that’s not the reason.

The use of liquid wood has a few key benefits:

  1. It is very eco-friendly because the liquid wood is made from plant fibres that are formed into pellets that can be heated to a liquid state and then moulded as required. This makes them renewable and avoids the use of potentially toxic and eco-unfriendly plastics.
  2. The liquid wood has superior acoustic properties to many of the plastics, metals and woods used in headphone manufacturing. This includes factors like resonance (great in musical instruments, but not so good in headphones) and reflection of sound inside the cup which creates standing waves and distortion of the original signal.
  3. It allows the moulding of custom designed enclosures that include bracing and damping to remove unwanted reflections and distortion created by the ear cups.

Venting

Into each liquid wood enclosure is inserted a unique looking circular port to create the semi-open design. What makes this port unique is that it’s also carefully designed to prevent reflections and standing waves from forming inside the ear cup. Audioquest use 3D printing technology to mimic the structure of butterfly wings (yes, butterfly wings) because of their sound dispersion properties. As a side note, butterfly wings actually diffuse light, not sound so someone very clever clearly made the leap from light properties to sound properties.

The result of the venting is that most sound waves behind the driver can exit the ear cup and those that don’t exit the ear cup are scattered or dispersed in such a way that they don’t create standing waves and therefore don’t negatively impact the purity of the original signal.

OK. Are you still with me? If you need the TL;DR version, or even if you read the whole techy bit above, the summary of all this is that Audioquest and their lead designer, Skylar Gray, spared no expense in time, money or effort to create an incredibly clean headphone (in terms of distortion). Their aim it seems was to accurately and faithfully reproduce the sound from the source with none of the significant colouration caused by distortion, resonance, and vibrations. Before I discuss how the results sound, let’s take a short detour into aesthetics and ergonomics…

Design & Comfort

Like the acoustic technologies, there are many unique elements to the Nighthawk’s design so let’s work through them one at a time, but don’t worry there’s no brain strain here, just a leisurely stroll through some aesthetic, accessory and ergonomic choices.

Headband

AQ Nighthawk-2796The Nighthawk’s headband looked a bit tacky to me when I first tried them at Noisy Motel a few months back. There is a lot of play in the padded section of the headband and the little attachment points looked kind of dinky. After wearing these for hours upon hours I don’t care and now that I’ve learned to appreciate their comfort I can also appreciate their mechanical design.

Aesthetically, the headband design might not be my favourite, but the resulting comfort is undeniable. Everything is super sturdy with no creaking and no sign of parts placed under excessive strain and at risk of failing in time. The deceptively simple headband had me convinced that my bald head would be aching after an hour or two, but I’ve literally worn these all day with no discomfort and the only other headphones that have come close to that are the insanely comfortable HD650 and HD800. Are these more comfortable than HD800s? Perhaps, and at worst it’s a tie and that’s mighty high praise!

Another part of the headband design that I didn’t like so much at first was the coupling between the headband and ear cups. Each cup is suspended from the headband by four rubber or silicone strands. Initially I was concerned that these might stretch or break over time and I guess it’s still a possibility, but I expect that experienced engineers will have accounted for this. Again, now that I’ve tried these on, I have to say how effortlessly these headphones conform to the head as soon as you put them on. The rubber suspension system just works perfectly every time and at any angle – sitting, standing, looking up, looking down – it’s always comfortable. An added bonus with the suspension system is that it isolates each cup from any resonance that might otherwise be passed through the headband so it might also be making some slight differences to channel separation and the overall purity of the signal being delivered to your ears.

Cup Design

The liquid wood cups are finished in a non-toxic, high gloss coating and the result is an attractive finish that’s similar in colour to walnut, but without the same quality of the grain. Instead, the liquid wood creates a kind of rippled effect – check out the photos to understand what I mean.

The pads on the Nighthawks are unremarkable in that they are made of simple protein leather. What is remarkable is how soft and comfortable they are.

The end result of the cup and headband design is a phenomenally comfortable headphone that can literally be worn for hours on end with no scalp fatigue and discomfort.

Accessories

The Nighthawks are supplied with 3.5mm terminated cables to be easy to use with portable devices so Audioquest also supply an adapter for 6.3mm use. The adapter is perhaps the nicest I have seen to date. More importantly, it actually sounds slightly different to other equivalent adapters because it uses a silver plating over a copper base. The difference in sound is very subtle, but there’s a lift added to the treble when using this adapter compared to the others I have lying around.

That said, you’re not buying headphones because they have a voodoo 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter included. What might be more interesting are the cables included. Audioquest deliver the Nighthawks with a high quality ‘perfect surface copper’ cable complete with silver-plated 3.5mm jack and silver-plated 2.5mm jacks for each ear cup (yes, the Nighthawks are a dual entry cable system so balanced operation is completely possible). Apparently, due to concerns about the longevity and portability of the specialised cable, Audioquest also provide a lighter weight and more flexible cable for portable use. While the portable cable doesn’t feel anywhere near as special as the desktop cable, the quality is still excellent throughout and sound quality is almost identical. Before using it, I wasn’t sure if this need for a second cable meant that the desktop cable was going to be stiff and brittle, but I think it’s just not ideal for rolling up tight for stuffing in a bag so there appears to be no need to worry about durability of the main cable for desktop / home / office use.

If I had to split hairs I’d suggest that the desktop cable’s silver-plated plugs brought a touch of extra brightness to the sound, but if I had only been given the portable cable you’d hear no complaints from me – both are great.

Sound Quality

Remember all that tech speak earlier? And remember I said it wasn’t tech speak for the sake of tech speak, but to create context for what you’d hear? Well here’s the hearing part.

Bass

The bass from the Nighthawks is instantly remarkable. It’s full and rich with good impact and good control. At first I was going to say that feels noticeably slower than something analytical and precise like the HD800 and that’s still true to a degree, but I’ve noticed that it’s quite track dependent so does that mean the Nighthawks are slow or are the HD800s decaying too fast in the bass and depriving the music of its true fullness? All I can tell you is that listening to a more natural recording like Simon & Garfunkel in Central Park shows the Nighthawks to sound more like I would expect the live concert to have sounded. The HD800s provide a sublime close-up on the vocal nuances but for trueness to life the edge goes clearly to the Nighthawks thanks to their beautiful bass presence.

At first, the Nighthawks might sound like a comfy cruiser more than a thoroughbred sports car, but I’ve changed my perspective on this and think now of the Nighthawks as the ultimate sports car versus the HD800s as an F1 car – insanely good at what they do, but not necessarily the best all-around option. For HD800 lovers who might be getting restless at this point, don’t worry, my HD800s aren’t going anywhere – I love them, but they might be getting a new stable mate…

Bass quantity mirrors the description of speed from above. The Nighthawks aren’t bass monsters by any stretch, but they have slightly more bass presence than the LCD-2s and noticeably more bass presence than the HD800s.

The Nighthawks were designed with many of the approaches taken to high end speakers and the bass from the Nighthawks reminds me of the bass from a pair of great speakers in a good room which is great! For a long time my LCD-2s have been my bassier headphone, but they sound a bit anemic next to the body and power of the Nighthawks. Sure, jumping between the two can trick me into thinking that the LCDs are a tiny bit sharper and better resolved, but the Nighthawks win in sheer enjoyment and actually offer all the detail along with gobs of enjoyment – it’s just that the relatively lower bass from the LCD 2s places more emphasis on the mids and treble. I know this sounds strange to describe the LCD 2s as sounding a bit anemic, but these are late model pre-Fazer version LCD 2s that aren’t the same lush beasts that the earlier LCD 2s were. Nonetheless, they are outstanding headphones so the fact that the Nighthawks are taking their place in my heart is a statement in itself.

Bass depth and extension is excellent with plenty of sub-bass rumble. In fact, the Nighthawks have such good bass depth and extension that they leave your other headphones sounding a bit lack-lustre in that regard. The ‘hawks are quite unique as a bassy headphone. Each time I go back to the LCDs or the HD800s I am left thinking “where’s the bass” and yet when I put the ‘hawks back on I am struck by the balance of the sound – these don’t sound like they have a huge bass lift, but somehow they present this amazing, full and rich bass presentation that’s supremely addictive to these ears.

Looking at the measurements of the Nighthawk’s frequency response confirms what I heard (I never look at FR charts before listening). The balance across all frequencies is excellent and results in a sound that very closely resembles the target frequency response determined by the extensive research conducted over the past few years and explained beautifully by Tyll over at Inner Fidelity.

Mids

AQ Nighthawk-2803The Nighthawks have been tuned with a light touch because they exhibit no dramatic peaks or troughs when listening to a 20-20,000Hz sweep tone. There are a couple of subtle lifts and dips, but none of the dramatic spikes or drops that some headphones produce.

The tuning has resulted in a mid-range presentation that is equal parts engaging and transparent. There’s a liquidity to the mids from the Nighthawks that puts it on par with anything else I’ve heard. Because they don’t emphasise any frequencies the way something like the HD800s or Beyerdynamic T1s do, the ‘hawks sound like they don’t have the same degree of transparency or resolution, but I think this is a trick of perception because the spotlight isn’t placed on any single part of the music.

Sure, it’s fun to hear music in a way that you hear details previously hidden in the track and that’s where the HD800s and similar headphones are amazing, but they can also cause problems when a track is recorded in a way that doesn’t suit that particular “frequency spotlight”. The Nighthawks’ approach is to let each track and each recording speak for itself and it results in an incredibly enjoyable experience across an incredible range of genres, recordings and sources. The other benefit of not spotlighting specific midrange frequencies is an overall sense of weight and naturalness from the ‘hawks that is seductive and exciting.

Vocals, guitars and mid-range percussion comes alive with the Nighthawks. There is a texture and body to each sound that is particularly lifelike and enjoyable. Drum skins have a sense of tension and texture, vocals have breath and life, and stringed instruments are presented perfectly with both the percussive pluck of the string as well as the warm radiance of the note’s resonance through the instrument’s body. Technically, I can find areas where the Nighthawks sound like they might fall short of the HD800 and LCD-2 due to the reasons explained above, but when it comes to the experience of listening, the presentation of details and the sheer enjoyment of the music, the ‘hawks go toe-to-toe with anything else I’ve heard.

Treble

On first listen, the Nighthawks sound like a “polite” headphone. That is, they sound like they have rolled-off treble and are a bit warm, but the reality is that all of the treble information is there – it’s just not harsh because all of the distortion we’re so used to is absent and you’re just hearing the source signal.

In fact, the Nighthawks are one of the cleanest sounding headphones you might ever find thanks to all those efforts to eradicate distortion. Our familiarity with other headphones means that the ‘hawks can initially sound warm or lacking in resolution, but the result is actually an incredibly enjoyable listening experience (even for long sessions) that allows you to hear everything without forcing anything upon you. Somewhat similar to the incredible Noble K10 IEMs, the Nighthawks trick you into thinking they’re rolled off and warm, but then you notice the shimmer and sparkle of cymbals and percussion all the way up to the limits of our hearing that proves to you that it’s all being presented to your ears, but nothing’s being prioritised deliberately by headphone design / voicing or by the chaotic effects of distortion.

If you’re going to audition the Nighthawks, grab a track with the nastiest, harshest treble you can find and give it a whirl on the ‘hawks. You’ll soon hear just how accurate their treble is, but at the same time they won’t punish you for a poor source choice, they’ll just faithfully reproduce all that nasty treble.

Presentation

This is what the Nighthawks are all about. These aren’t a microscope for your music like the HD800s are, these are a comfy chair and a glass or cup of your favourite drink so you can just enjoy the experience in the best way possible. Now, before you take that the wrong way, that’s not a polite way of saying that the ‘hawks aren’t technically excellent and that they rely on being “comfy” – no, the Nighthawks are flat-out some of the most enjoyable headphones I’ve ever had the pleasure to put on my head. But I’m getting carried away. Before I make broad sweeping statements, let’s talk about some specifics…

As a semi-closed headphone, the Nighthawks don’t offer a huge, expansive soundstage like the Beyerdynamic T1 or Sennheiser HD800. Instead they offer a slightly intimate space to enjoy your tunes, but don’t mistake intimate for claustrophobic – there’s no lack of space here. In fact, probably due to their insanely low distortion, the Nighthawks are Tardis-like in their ability to always have ample space in the stage for every single instrument. I love it when a headphone can present individual sounds precisely in the soundstage while maintaining coherence with the rest of the sounds and that’s where the Nighthawks excel. To my ears, the quality of the imaging from the Nighthawks is outstanding – accurate, sharp, and with plenty of space around each sound. There’s no congestion or overlap of sounds if it’s not in the recording. Each sound, each instrument has its very own space in the stage and it allows you to experience it all as a whole while also being aware of every single part.

Flexibility & Scalability

I wasn’t really sure where to put this, but it’s an important topic. With their high sensitivity and moderate impedance, the Nighthawks are just as comfortable with your mobile phone as they are with your multi-thousand dollar desktop rig so the biggest question in my mind was “Are these a portable-focussed headphone that I can use on the desktop rig or are they a desktop headphone with a portable cable?”

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit how black and white my thinking was. I had assumed that a headphone could only really be one or the other because I’ve never found a headphone that truly performs well in both situations – sounding great from a phone while having the chops to really sing when given a world class desktop source. The truth is that the Nighthawks blew my mind when plugged into my phone (Nokia Lumia 930). These headphones should not sound as good as they do from my phone! What’s more, this isn’t a case of sounding great from portable devices, but not improving with a better source. The Nighthawks definitely have the ability to scale up. Feed them a better signal and they produce better sound. What’s more, they are able to reflect the sound of the source you connect them to without getting messy with synergies and the like. For example, I love my LCD-2s with my Bottlehead S.E.X. amp moreso than with the (better) Bottlehead Mainline amp – it’s a synergy thing. With the Nighthawks though, the sound is equally enjoyable and exceptional no matter which amp I choose. I can hear the individual characteristics of the amp, but the Nighthawks aren’t making it sound better or worse – they just play sweet music.

The reason for this is that beautifully balance frequency response and lack of distortion. If a headphone has a point of emphasis it can either improve the sound with an amp that’s flat or lacking in that area or it can over-exaggerate the emphasis and result in an unbalanced and unenjoyable sound. The Nighthawks literally sound good with every one of the following:

  • Bottlehead S.E.X
  • Bottlehead Mainline
  • iFi iCAN
  • FiiO E12DIY
  • HUM Pervasion
  • Nokia Lumia 930
  • Acoustic Research AR-M2
  • Acoustic Research AR-UA1
  • I could go on, but no doubt you get the idea…

Summary & Conclusions

AQ Nighthawk-2804Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. The Nighthawks are a beautifully designed and put-together pair of headphones that are presented extremely well, are insanely comfortable, easy to listen to and highly enjoyable. Sure, they sound great from portables and desktop setups, but are they really worth almost as much as some of the top notch headphones on the market? That’s where things get a little trickier…

Why are you buying a headphone?

Honestly, what are you looking for?

Are you looking for the satisfaction of owning the “best” according to the masses? If so, I doubt the Nighthawks will ever fit that bill. I can imagine a lot of people writing these off on their first listen (and have read comments from a few who did), thinking that they’re warm or rolled-off, or too full-sounding. Die hard fans of the mainstream flagship headphones will likely not enjoy what they hear on first audition. So, back to my question: why are you buying a headphone?

If you’re answer to that question is to enjoy your music then you should probably start saving some cash for a pair of Nighthawks. These are not “audiophile” headphones for dissecting music under a spotlight. These are music lovers’ headphones and I say that as a huge compliment. I have on my desk at the moment five active headphone amps and a couple that aren’t plugged in. I also have at my disposal around half a dozen very good headphones and earphones, including the aforementioned LCD-2s and HD800s, but over the last 3 weeks during the loan of the Nighthawks for this review I have reached almost exclusively for the ‘hawks’. Sure, the HD800s and LCD-2s got a bit of time, but it was mostly for comparison to see if I had adjusted to the ‘hawks and needed time to readjust to the others. In reality though, I never got the same buzz from my music with the other headphones. With the Nighthawks I was always just enjoying the music – hearing new details sometimes, but always staying immersed and engaged in the musical experience, and that’s why I by headphones!

Perhaps the best summary is to say that I am handing back this pair of Nighthawks in a couple of days, but will not be without a pair for long. The Nighthawks are so good that I will be selling off some other gear to enable the purchase of my own ‘hawks ASAP. I’ll miss them like crazy while I’m without them!

Lachlan Fennen Written by:

Facilitator, training design consultant, blogger / writer and amateur photographer

4 Comments

  1. Nathan
    May 10, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you for the write-up….very interesting read! I was wondering about your experience with the Nighthawks in terms of sound leakage from the semi-open design of the port. At normal listening levels (I’m thinking around 75-80db), do you think the sound can be heard outside when someone is wearing it on their head? I work in an open office where people sit within 5′ of me so I’d hate it for be a constant distraction to someone.

    From Audioquest’s website, it seems that the diffusion does certainly help in reducing this leakage and does a good job of letting in sounds from outside while limiting sound created inside the ear cups. Thoughts?

    • May 11, 2016
      Reply

      I find there to be very minor leakage from the NightHawks. It’s minimal, but it is there. I listen at moderate volumes (up to 80dB or so based on rough testing) and can hear some sound if I take the cans off my head and cover the ear-side openings. It’s hard to say if it’s loud enough to disturb others nearby (I use the Hawks in a home office by myself). You might be better off waiting for the upcoming closed version that I believe is not too far away…

      • Prasannah Nathan
        May 12, 2016
        Reply

        Oh, very interesting…didn’t realize they might create a closed-back model. My current headphones are all closed-back so I was actually curious about the experiencing music on an open-back model for its advantages. The diffusion idea is really cool too, the whole design of the Nighthawks reminds me of an acoustically treated room with great loudspeakers.

  2. Nathan
    May 12, 2016
    Reply

    Oh, very interesting! I didn’t realize they might be making a closed back model. Although, most of the headphones I’ve used have been closed back so I am actually looking for a solid open-back model to purchase so I can experience the music presentation of an open-back model. Also, the diffusion port seems really cool and actually the whole design reminds me of an acoustically treated room with great loudspeakers.

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