The Nighthawk By AudioQuest

Nighthawk
41

Sound Impressions

Bass

No doubt, this NightHawk was intended for bass enthusiasts.  Expect a warm and very elevated experience that is far from neutral and boring.  If you have ever heard the Sennheiser HD650 (forewarning, there is a lot of HD650 back and forth in this review and for good reason) you will be able to understand immediately what the NightHawk sounds like.

Truly, the NightHawk is the next and logical step up from the famed HD650 from years ago.  Unfortunately for most of us musicality chasers, the next step beyond the HD650 has always paved a path to a neutral experience.  If you wanted to upgrade from the HD650, you would likely lose all the yumminess of a musical mid tier headphone and take your first step into the world of reference tonality and clinical appeal.

Thankfully, the NightHawk remembered music is supposed to be fun and that you can still own a nice headphone and have a potent bass experience.  What sets this headphone apart from its competition, which really is only the Fostex TH600 at this price range for dynamic driver headphones, is that it sets up the bass in a very warm, deep reaching and slow style.  It isn’t fast and pure, as are the Fostex headphone low ends.  But, it is very thick and weighted in physicality and style, much like the HD650 from Sennheiser.  In fact, I’ve found the NightHawk to replicate the bass of the HD650 almost exactly, but offering a higher quality and even deeper reaching experience.

It doesn’t slam at all by comparison to a lot of other headphones out there, especially the FostexNightHawkmare TH600 and TH900 that make me blink and wince endlessly.  The NightHawk takes the alternative approach to bass and puts out a softer, more sweet and weighted appeal instead.  Purists will hate this headphone and musicality nut cases like me will love it.  Exaggeration and elevation is the name of the game here, as there is almost always an omnipresent low end on tracks that through other headphones probably won’t present much down below.

Take my Enigma Dharma for example, a $1200 hybrid electrostatic and dynamic headphone, or maybe even my Edition 5 by Ultrasone…both of which are more neutral toned headphones that play bass only when there is enough bass to respond to.  This NightHawk has a nice low end that I find tasty enough to use as my go to bass head headphone and with certain applications and albums that I enjoy for bassy needs.  I simply can’t enjoy bass on most audiophile grade headphones, but I certainly do enjoy the NightHawk’s low end no matter what type of track I am listening to.

5

The Mids

Well, if there is a weak link in the chain, it’s certainly the mid range and vocal experience.  The mids are a bit recessed and it really annoys me that they are not as vivid and yummy as the bass and treble are.  It reminds me a lot of the TH900 and 600 and although plentiful and well weighted in physical appeal, their physical locale is only just enough in forwardness to keep it safe from seriously low score marks.  I think they should have absolutely tuned this headphone with more forward mids, as just a bit more care into the tuning process could have made this headphone a really faultless one in the price tier.

Weighted appeal is still plentiful and well into the world of what I consider to be lush, but lacking a vivid engaging factor in forwardness is eating away at me each time I listen to it.  Of course, it’s not severely recessed a la Denon D2000.  People who prefer the LCDXC type of experience aren’t going to want to use it and the vocalist enthusiasts might want to drop the bass and treble down a bit to flatten things out and hope for the best.

I find the vocal experience to lack too much for me on personal level in terms of locale, but clarity and substance are well into the excellent realm for a mid tier.   There isn’t much to say here and with regard to the mid range: it is plenty clean and lush, but lacks forwardness that I would want included that will force the headphone into being nearly completely well rounded from top to bottom.  There aren’t many comparisons to draw here and in this price tier, hardly any other headphone is this bass heavy and clean, thick sounding and with a recessed mid range like this that also happens to be dense and plentiful in clarity.

Treble

The top end of the NigthHawk is sweet and subdued, but has just a little bit of bite to it to keep things interesting.  It is very hard to keep things vivid when the bass of a headphone is this abundant, but AudioQuest has managed to tune the treble to just the right amounts without the headphone becoming potent up top.  Thankfully, the tone of the treble is gently brightened and also lacks harsh slam.

Fostex got this wrong and tuned their headphones (scratch that, they don’t tune anything specifically) with harshness on the treble.  With a weighted and thick sound signature like this, the only other headphone I can compare to is the HD650.  Both headphones share the same type of vividly “thick” sound signature from top to bottom with an end result that feels slow and methodical up top.

Yea, there is certainly a veil that is similar to the HD650, but it is absolutely an improvement. The HD650 lovers don’t have a natural progression point to aim for, but now they do.  I consider the treble experience a bit lacking and sometimes I do find myself adding a +2dB on the top end now and then, if not only to keep things interesting.  You’ll not get a reference tone here, as it does feel overly thick at times and lacking a sense of purity.  However, this is the side effect of the bassy end of the headphone clouding the entire spectrum over.

This type of sound signature in a headphone is rare; most opt for the pure and thin tone in a dynamic headphone design.  AudioQuest seems to have gone the opposite route up the mountain and served up a smooth and warm embrace of an appeal, even up top if that makes any sense.  HD650 owners will get what I mean by that.  Hardly any other headphone offers a slower appeal as the HD650 does, even on the treble side as your mind perceives it as such.

Stage

The sound stage of the headphone is above average, but not grand.  Sadly and by comparison to sets like my Dharma and the Edition 5, stage depth is almost nonexistent on the NightHawk.  There is a lacking sense of realistic depth of field and the imaging of the headphone sounds overly lacking by comparison to some other nicer mid tiers, such as those Fostex models I’ve blabbed about.  Those headphones do staging right in depth of field as well as height as width, whereas I feel the NightHawk to only offer a good sense of width and height, separation and similar qualities of imaging that do not include depth of field.

It really is the only imaging fault of the headphone and I do feel there are a load of other headphones that offer more in that area than the NightHawk.  It really is a terribly odd experience to compare, unfairly of course, the NightHawk to some of the Summit level headphones I have.  Those headphones utterly destroy the NightHawk in stereo depth and realistic feel factor.  These days, I’d expect more at $599.

Separation and air are also good, but not great or grandiose and I feel like more could be done with this if different pads or maybe an angled driver could be used.  Not sure how that would affect anything else the headphone has to offer, but sometimes I just want this headphone to sound better with imaging prowess so badly.  I’d rate it well, but nothing special here.  It needs some work, but I don’t think anyone will be let down by it.

If you want staging in a dynamic driver in this price tier, Fostex is really the only route you can take, as their TH series headphones offer the best dynamic driver sound stage you can buy.  However, they are just plain painful to listen to and aren’t even remotely as musical as the NightHawk.  There will be sacrifices, but as a musical chaser I would pick the NightHawk over the Hifiman HE500, Fostex’s and similar.

The only other headphone in the tier I can think of that sounds better in stereo depth are the Mrspeakers Alpha Dog, which to me is truly the onlycompetition in the mid tier war for the NightHawk and if you are a listener like me who doesn’t care about neutrality.  With some EQ and the physical screws adjusted on the Alpha Dog, you can achieve serious bass quantity with excellent clarity.

2

The Amps

I’m using a SchiitGungnir to Mjolnir via AudioQuest’s supremely expensive Mackenzie XLR interconnects, thank you again AudioQuest for sending them to me.  They are beautiful.  They’ve also supplied me with a balanced custom cable for the NightHawk, but I feel like this isn’t at all needed for the headphone.   Standard ¼ and 3.5mm don’t sound any different to me than the XLR balanced setup, but that is probably entirely due to the fact that the headphone already offers so much bass.

I’ve found that balanced setup tend to submit a little more bass purity and quantity at an equal volume to a ¼ setup.  But, that is vividly subjective so don’t quote me on that.  The NightHawk responds immensely well to the Mjolnir and seems to require a bit more voltage than I’d previously thought.  Out of my O2, the NightHawk sounds so much thinner and lacking substance.  I don’t think it’s the O2’s neutral tone at play, but I do think it could be the lack of juice flowing through it to drive the NightHawk.  I think the Mjolnir is overkill for power needs, but I do also feel that portables don’t do it justice.  My iBasso DX90 and L5Pro from Luxury and Precision sound good, but not as full sounding as when I use my Mjolnir setup.

The Balanced rig via the Schiity amp stack sounds nice, but when I connect via ¼ to my new Airst Audio Heron 5, things smooth out significantly.  The bass doesn’t change much, but the treble and overall aired out feel of the imaging does shift to more Hifi experience with the Heron 5 ($1999).  I very much prefer the Heron 5 over the Schiit’s for substance and smoothness, but I don’t hear much of a quality difference between them.  I think the Mjolnir and a great mid tier combo for amps and USB Dacs will max out the clarity potential of the NightHawk.  You don’t need summit level gear this time to enjoy it to the fullest potential in clarity, but it seems like the more expensive stuff can potentially alter the substance factor of the sound signature to a noticeable degree.

I was expecting to write more on this balanced subject, but I’m just not hearing any quality difference when swapping between the Mjolnir setup and the Heron 5.  Not the fault of the amps though, as my Dharma ($1299) headphone increases in quality across the board from the balanced XLR Mjolnir setup, to the ¼ Heron 5.  So, it isn’t the fault of the amps here, it is just the NightHawk offering maxed potential on well-regarded mid tier amplifiers setups.  I’ve also found that my DX90 sounds overly thick with the NightHawk and that the L5Pro handles things much more to my liking.  Too thick and dense is a bad thing sometimes and in this case, the Dac in Luxury and Precisions L5Pro seems to mesh more efficiently with the NightHawk.

Final Thoughts

I get that a lot of listeners don’t understand musicality and would feel this headphone to be overly thick and muffled sounding, but HD650 lovers and owners should be perking up right now.  If you are into neutrality and clinical sound, you shouldn’t bother, the  isn’t for you.  It is for those who want a great and fun sound with a lot of bass, great comfort and good sound quality from top to bottom.  I can’t consider is a well-rounded headphone, as it clearly lacks mid forwardness enough to keep it a flat sound that is on an equal ground playing field that will support any type of track or genre: not forward, not recessed.  Sadly, the midrange is noticeably recessed and that really takes a hit for performance on a well-rounded potential level.

Despite that, I’ve picked the NightHawk as my primary casual listening headphone for the time being.  The one I want to watch movies with and Youtube binge all NightHawk with, the only one I want to use with bassy tracks and similar fun sounding experiences.  The NightHawk is a somewhat forgiving headphone with a very slow decay, so you can watch movies with harsh treble, game all NightHawk with FPS games that have harsh, wince worthy bullet sound effects and engage in low quality birate tracks all without any fatigue.

This is something a lot of general consumers might want to opt for if they find they don’t want a purist type of tone.  I think AudioQuest finally gave the community a true upgrade from the HD650 without forcing us into the clinical tonality.  It kept all the yumminess of the HD650 and offered a higher quality experience from the lowest lows to the treble and that is something nobody else has done yet.

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Great job, AudioQuest.  If possible, I would love to hear a revised version that has a boosted midrange, as well as a new headband design that is more simplistic.  I am not a fan of the headband brace design and I think more consumer grade buyers might want a simple over the head design, instead of the strap type design.

The NightHawk is a very good mid tier headphone that does most things well, looks beautiful and kept the music factor as the most important quality in the audio formula.  They’ve made me remember that music is supposed to be fun and that you don’t have to use a purist tone to listen, to kick back and get lost in the music.  That is what this is about for me: that escape to another world.  Analytical tone doesn’t do that for me and it ends up engrossing me in reality.  So, to have this type of sound come back into the mix at this price only makes me wish they would create a Summit level flagship in the $1500 range that improves on everything the NightHawk offers, but retains the same thick sound with the same type of bass response…a guy could dream, can’t he?

Stephen, my friend, you were right.  You knew I’d love this headphone before you even sent it to me…you sly devil. 

The Nighthawk is a somewhat forgiving headphone with a very slow decay, so you can watch movies with harsh treble, game all night with FPS games that harsh wince worthy bullet sound effects and engage in low quality birate tracks all without any fatigue. This is something a lot of general consumers might want to opt for if they find they don’t want a purist type of tone.

I think AudioQuest finally gave the community a true upgrade from the HD650 without forcing us into the clinical tonality. It kept all the yumminess of the HD650 and offered a higher quality experience from the lowest lows to the treble and that is something nobody else has done yet.

Great job, AudioQuest. If possible, I would love to hear a revised version that has a boosted midrange, as well as a new headband design that is more simplistic. I am not a fan of the headband brace design and I think more consumer grade buyers might want a simple over the head design, instead of the strap type design.

The Nighthawk is a very good mid tier headphone that does most things well, looks beautiful and kept the music factor as the most important quality in the audio formula. They’ve made me remember that music is supposed to be fun and that you don’t have to use a purist tone to listen, to kick back and get lost in the music. That is what this is about for me: that escape to another world. Analytical tone doesn’t do that for me and it ends up engrossing me in reality. So, to have this type of sound come back into the mix at this price only makes me wish they would create a Summit level flagship in the $1500 range that improves on everything the Nighthawk offers, but retains the same thick sound with the same type of bass response…a guy could dream, can’t he?

Stephen, my friend, you were right. You knew I’d love this headphone before you even sent it to me…you sly devil.

Price: $599

Link: http://personal.audioquest.com/nighthawk/#nighthawk-page

Technical Specifications

 

  • Impedance: 25 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 100dBSPL/mW
  • Power Handling: 1.5W
  • Driver: 50mm Dynamic | Biocellulose Diaphragm | 1.2T Split-Gap Motor

 

Cable Specifications

 

  • Length: 8’ (2.4m)
  • Conductors: Solid Perfect-Surface Copper+ (PSC+)
  • Geometry: Symmetric Star-Quad
  • Dielectric: Foamed-Polyethylene
  • NDS: Noise-Dissipation System
  • Terminations: 3.5mm Stereo > Dual 2.5mm Mono | Direct-Silver Plated Copper

 

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