If you frequently read high-end audio reviews, then you may have noticed that there are a few common metaphors and/or themes that will occasionally rear up from time to time. One of the more practical themes that circulates around these parts revolves around the idea of personal taste. The exact comparison is one that likens the sonic output of any listening experience to that of ice cream flavors. Some people like chocolate, while others like strawberry. While any experienced listener will tell you that there are certainly winners and losers when it comes to the overall product landscape, once a certain quality threshold has been established, personal taste does become an important factor when establishing what is “better” or “best” to any specific individual.
Now, it is also important to mention that this arbitrary threshold also shifts based on personal experience, but I have found that those with common tastes are often able to draw similar conclusions against common experiences. It is also worth mentioning that occasionally almost everyone will love a product, and certain sound signatures appeal to a wider audience than others. If attending a high-end audio show is any representation of the general enthusiast community at large, then there will always be individuals who fall on either side of the bell curve by expressing feelings that nothing is ever good enough, while some individuals find themselves falling in love with nearly everything they hear. So if cost wasn’t a factor, in theory, the pleasure you are able to derive from any hobby is inversely related to the level of your expectations for quality.
Now, this isn’t to say we should lower our standards until our amps consistently fall into a “safe” mode during listening sessions, but it does serve as a quick anecdote that audiophiles share a remarkable flexibility in their capabilities to shape their own reality. What may be true for me may not be true for you. In the beginning of an individual’s descent down into this hobby, “preference” can often first manifest itself as a reaction to the desired amount of bass response in relation to the rest of the frequency spectrum. How much bass sound feels right depends heavily on your tastes. From my experience, a more neutral, even sound feels right for the long haul, but some prefer a little more oomph. I would be remiss to say that a small bump doesn’t often feel really entertaining at times, but I like to consume it like sweets, not a main course. After mulling over bass, enthusiasts of the hobby will often settle into a consideration of treble presence. And this is where our story begins for this review.
The new NightHawk headphone by AudioQuest ($599) has had quite a good run in the press leading up to launch with a wide range sentiment in the following review process. While I try not to make it a habit of reading outside reviews before I draw my own conclusions, given the track record of AudioQuest’s pursuit into the personal audio space with the uber-performer DAC-stick DragonFly, online buzz felt a little muted. Now for those of you who prefer bullet points to meandering narratives (thank you for making it this far) let me cut straight to the chase. The AudioQuest NightHawk is a great-sounding headphone, even for its higher-than-average price tag for the mainstream crowd. Where most of the discussion seems to loom is its approach to treble.
Simply put, at first blush, it has less presence in the upper regions than the HifiMAN 560. It can even feel more backed-off than the Audeze LCD-3, which many consider to have a lower-than-average treble energy to begin with. Even after serious listening sessions across varying samples, it seems that the NightHawk has a sonic presentation that is less up top than many others in its immediate field by comparison.
Now, let me clarify something about this treble. It is not a swing of the “treble” knob on a DJ’s board as he/she brings in an interlude during a set. It’s not a full stop cut at any frequency, but rather a tapered edge that slowly drifts off as it rises through the range. It is totally plausible that someone could don the headphone on and think “this is the headphone for me”. And more than part of that could come from the rest of the sonic elements that make up the sound of this headphone. The balance between mid and bass is fair and even-tempered. The low end is full, responsive and punchy when it needs to be. It didn’t feel overbearing on the rest of the spectrum and was successful in creating a significant foundation within the mix. The mids were subject to some transformation during a burn-in time with my review sample. This is quite unusual from my experience. Any change from burn-in that has come across my desk is usually most noticeable in the treble, but from what I heard, things seemed to open up just a hair over time in the vocal and midsection with the NightHawk.
The final product is routinely clear, and subtly detailed. When you consider the previously mentioned treble section, this perception of transparency is even more impressive. This allows for a surprisingly entertaining and dimensional soundstage that helps it compete even more within its middle-of-the-road $300-$1,000 price range. The overall signature is somewhat unique among the traditional audiophile profiles that so many top-end headphones share. I perceived a small bump that made the vocals feel just a tad thicker than the norm, but resulted with guitar strings on Glad Rag Doll by Diana Krall that really felt like they has some amazing texture and tone to them that I hadn’t noticed previously. Discovery on any track I have heard many times over is usually a sign that something intriguing is going on.
The build is above par, as far as mainstream headphones go. The earcups feature a “liquid wood” molding process that struts a nice gloss finish that feels very much upscale. Instead of a traditional pivot-style connection to the earcup, the NightHawk takes a very unique approach to its cup suspension. Much like a studio microphone, the back of the driver housing is attached to several rubber-ish strands of connective wire that hold it suspended in space and against your head. I found this to work fairly well in execution. The cups feature enough rotation and give to fit comfortably and the overall caliper pressure was just where I like it. The way the headband attaches and rests on your head is fairly unique, as well. A fair-sized wire provides the clamping energy, while a separate padded material with flexible give to it assumes the resting position on the top of your head. At first I was curious to see if this flex would be an issue getting the right fit (as it controls the vertical position on your ears) but AudioQuest got it just right with my review sample. For both aesthetics and construction, the NightHawk takes a shot at something off the beaten path and really separates itself from the crowd with a top-notch execution of some well thought-out design.
The company has been very forthcoming with its perspective on design. A small microsite has been built out to elaborate on some of its more technical aspects that you can see here: [http://personal.audioquest.com/nighthawk-measurements]
So, is the NightHawk your acoustic “chocolate”? This headphone, more so than most others, needs a physical audition to draw out personal conclusions. All the correct elements are in place for a very pleasurable audiophile experience. I recommend that you not start with a direct comparison to another headphone. Just plop this collection of liquid wood around your ears and give it a listen. It has the potential to be the new flavor of choice for many fans of the hobby.