Contrary to popular belief, being an audiophile and loving bass are not mutually exclusive states of being. It’s possible to appreciate all the facets of outstanding linearity, soundstage, imaging, detail, transient response and other audio-nerd obsessions while still enjoying a bit of low-end flavor to savor. Unfortunately, very few headphones pull off the tough trick of tactfully boosting bass without muddying up everything else in the process. But a new pair of cans from an unlikely source make an impressive run at it: Introducing the NightHawk, from Audioquest.
For Audioquest’s first ever pair of headphones, the company revered for its high-end audio cables (but perhaps more broadly recognized for its outstanding DragonFly USB DAC) has pulled out all the stops to create a distinct, fresh entry into the most crowded market in consumer electronics. That includes leveraging 3D-printed parts, utilizing innovative, environmentally friendly materials, and bringing in a new designer to craft the cans from the ground up. The result is something truly unique, and worth consideration for those looking for a pair of headphones that break the stereotypical audiophile mold.
Out of the box
Perhaps emphasizing their superhero-sounding moniker, the NightHawk arrive dressed in leather by way of a heavy-duty carrying case, nestled within a circle of thick foam beneath a zippered flap. Pulling them from their burrow reveals ear-shaped cups that glisten in the light like lacquered wood. The headphones are impressively light, betraying their state-of-the-art components, and the waft of factory-fresh cellulose and leather that spills out of the case is something like that new car smell, cranked up to 11.
Inside the textured case are a pair of removable cables, including a thick braided version with an elbow tip of silver, as well as a thinner cable designed for taking the cans on the road, which terminate in the usual gold tip. A snazzy custom ¼-inch adapter is also included.
Features and design
As mentioned above, Audioquest has gone to great lengths to make sure the NightHawk are not only highly functional, but also innovative in their design, making them distinctly different from just about anything else on the market. In fact, the headphones look and feel so different, and are so sensible in their fit and form, it almost seems like the designer was asked to create a pair of headphones to spec, but without having ever actually seen a pair before — a true example of a ground-up build.
The halo-style headband and glistening cups are highly functional, and distinctly different from just about anything else around.
It begins with a wire “halo,” which perches high above a suspended head-pad beneath, lofting a bit oddly above the head when the cans are in place. Using the cold metal arms on the sides to secure the ear cups, the headphones don’t so much sit on your head as attach to it, gripping to fit as if personally designed for each wearer. The combination of their light weight, the spring-loaded pad above, and the ergonomic shape of the heavily-cushioned cups makes for an extremely comfy fit — one that’s well worth their (shall we say) eccentric look.
Looking beneath the surface reveals deeper innovations. The cups are crafted from “Liquid Wood,” which is composed of real wood that’s been “combined with reclaimed plant fiber, heated, liquefied, and processed in such a way that it can be injection molded.” Like organic wood, each cup has its own unique pattern and is claimed to have acoustic properties superior to plastic ( or regular wood), and environmentally friendly, to boot.
The semi-open back design utilizes a 3D-printed screen designed after the inside of butterfly wings. The unique shape isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it’s aimed to reduce distortion and phasing through diffusion of sound waves, and due to the complexity of the latticed design, Audioquest claims it would be impossible to produce en masse without employing 3D printing. As is the case with all open-back cans, your neighbors will certainly hear what you are listening to – colleagues in our office would often comment on specific tunes as we jammed out — “Cake, huh?” Still, we much prefer the more fluid sound open-back cans provide, regardless of the inconvenience it causes to those around us — we’re not winning any humanity awards here.
Beneath the surface, the NightHawk’s beefy 50mm dynamic drivers comprise biocellulose diaphragms, as opposed to the more-commonly used mylar, and are set with compliant rubber surrounds. Audioquest claims this allows for less distortion at frequencies between 6-10kHz, and, therefore, reduces listener fatigue. The drivers are also extremely rigid, a fact which Audioquest points to when recommending a remarkably long 150 hours of break-in time. We accomplished this task by playing tracks on our rustic iPhone 3GS on repeat, making sure to crank the tunes any time we weren’t actually listening for the first two weeks or so.
And of course, this being Audioquest, we can’t forget the cables. The thick behemoth is preferred for serious listening, and the company employs Solid Perfect-Surface Copper+ conductors, Foamed-Polyethylene insulation, and silver-plated terminations. While we’re not sold on a notable difference between the heftier cable and its backup, we do like the big dog for its durability and length of over 8 feet. And, for what it’s worth, the ¼-inch adapter may be the swankiest we’ve ever encountered.
We touched on this above, but it’s worth underscoring that the NightHawk are quite possibly the most comfortable pair of high-end headphones we’ve encountered. Thanks to their combination of thick padding, light components, and forgiving hinges, the cans cling to your head with secure, yet forgiving force, and all but disappear. Again, they look a little odd when worn, but when they fit this well, who cares?
We gave away the secret of the NightHawk’s sound right from the start: Through a unique mix of glittering detail and instrumental timbre above, authoritative bass from the 50mm drivers, and a dark brush of color in the lower midrange, the headphones strike a chord seldom heard in the world of top-shelf cans. While not without some hitches, the NightHawk’s sound is clean and comfortably lush, bringing some welcome color to the audiophile landscape, like a scoop of rich chocolate amid a sea of vanilla.
The sound is clean and comfortably lush, like a scoop of rich chocolate amid a sea of vanilla.
Color is often seen as profanity in the occasionally snobby world of audiophilia, but compared to the sometimes (for lack of a better word) sterile sound that can plague balanced armatures and even planar magnetic headphones, the NightHawk bring an intriguing change-up. Don’t get us wrong: We love our Audeze EL-8, which offer better detail up top, along with fantastically firm, and full bass, but with the NightHawk, bass brings a slightly more visceral experience.
Depending on the mix, bass from the NightHawk can be as resigned as any set we own, but in the right setting, the large dynamic drivers give a ruddy boost to bass guitar and kick drum, while remaining firm and responsive. Hip hop tracks from Too Short, and Jay Z were the heavy hitters that first grabbed our attention, but our favorite utilization of the extra push came from Radiohead’s House of Cards, in which the main percussion groove struck like a jackhammer battering the pavement. And it’s not just the extra bass — the headphones add a little somethin-somethin’ to the lower midrange that warms things up with some pleasant saturation as well.
But rushes of thick, groovy bass only scratch the surface of the NightHawk’s talents. Above the warmer low end, the upper mids cut sharply and glitter like gold, making for a gorgeous balance of warmth below and precision above. The steely touch at the attack eagerly serves up the textural details of instruments, one of the NightHawk’s real specialties. The reedy breath of saxophones, gritty grooves of an overdriven Stratocaster, or the bubbling undulation of a ‘70s synth are all sweetly exposed by the cans, allowing instrumental timbres to brilliantly come to life.
The headphones also offer a phenomenal soundstage, extending a halo of sound that litters the landscape with embedded pockets of instrumental detail, ripe for exploration. The expanse allows subtle moments to be softly revealed in the far ends of the stereo image, such as the clickety-clack of saxophone keys, or the subtle slapback off the wall from an acoustic guitar sequestered to the side. One particularly striking moment came with the vocal breakdown in Peter Gabriel’s Sky Blue, in which each voice seemed cast on its own island, exposing each singer’s lips and breath as they prepared to add their harmony to the chorus.
There are some downfalls to the NightHawk’s warmer touch, however. Things occasionally get a bit heavy which in turn leads to a slight lack of presence in the middle of the sound, as well as at the very top. Instruments like cymbals, snare drums, vocals, and even piano seem to be most affected, the latter of which sometimes sounds creamier than expected. In addition, a few tracks, such as Don’t Go Back to Rockville from REM’s eponymous LP sounded darker than we’re used to — at times we actually preferred the change, but listeners should be aware of the heavier saturation.