AudioQuest Nighthawk Review
August 14, 2016 Luckbad 0
One of the most talked about headphone releases of 2015, the AudioQuest Nighthawk has gained a legion of adoring fans and a mob of antagonists. What makes this headphone so controversial? I spent months with the AudioQuest Nighthawk to find out.
In the Box
- Two detachable cables (one hi-fi cable, the other slimmer and more durable)
- Padded leather carrying case (with zipper)
- 3.5mm to 1/4″ adapter
- Cleaning cloth
- Owner’s manual
I’ll get the obvious out of the way first. The AudioQuest Nighthawk is gorgeous. It’s built incredibly well, looks great, and has to-die-for comfort for all but the largest of elephant-eared individuals. To question the looks, build quality, and comfort of the Nighthawk, one would have to be a special kind of pessimist. But none of these attributes have sparked controversy.
The controversy stems from the brand behind the headphones. While audiophiles are prone to believing in numerous methods for improving their audio setup beyond the obvious (i.e. headphones), there’s some invisible line for many. I believe clean power and signal are paramount. I believe a rock solid source is required, and lossless music is ideal.
But for me, there is a limit. I must admit that I have purchased AudioQuest cables in the past. I find their build quality to be impeccable and they have proven reliable for me over the years. Yet, I’ve never purchased anything beyond the “Golden Gate/Cinnamon” level, and most of what I’ve bought is of the “Evergreen/Forest” variety. They cost about twice as much as a most popular brands, but they don’t scratch the surface of what you can spend on cables or other gear.
Part one of the controversy stems from AudioQuest’s brand. They believe in providing maximum quality for those who are willing to spend. You can spend more than $1000 on 1 meter of cable from AudioQuest if you desire the pinnacle of sound and believe only the best cables will deliver. Do I agree with the animosity that stems from this fact? Not at all. I buy their reasonably-priced options and find them to be excellent. If I had millions of dollars to spend, I’d buy their best stuff and be confident I was purchasing the best cables, bang for the buck be damned.
Frankly, part one is the most important piece of the controversy. But part two comes from the goals AudioQuest had when designing the Nighthawk and the resultant sound.
AudioQuest endeavored to create a headphone that sounded true to life, like an outstanding monitor system. The problem is, not everyone can agree what this should sound like. The Nighthawk has elevated bass–though to my alarmingly low-seeking ears, not to basshead levels–as well as somewhat subdued highs. The frequency response is not what we audiophiles have become used to. It doesn’t use accentuated treble to resolve maximum detail. It doesn’t roll off bass to make the mids stand out.
And that’s a problem.
It’s a problem because the people who want to spend more than $100-$200 on headphones are used to a different sort of frequency response than what the Nighthawk delivers. Even I, admittedly, have become used to a different frequency response. I like elevated bass that doesn’t encroach on mids and rolled-off treble to deal with my sensitivity to highs.
The Nighthawk, to me, largely delivers on both its promise and what I was hoping for from the headphones. If I am to complain at all about its sound, it’s that it can sound a bit woolly on some recordings. Upper bass tends to overshadow lower mids at times. But overall, the AudioQuest Nighthawk delivers a special kind of sonic bliss. It blends a sublime sense of smoothness with an ease and grace unlike any headphones I’ve owned.
I have found two things to be true, however. First, they really need burn-in. I used to be an unbeliever myself, but several headphones and earphones have proven that burn-in is real. With the Nighthawk, it’s real.
Second, the source is absolutely crucial. System synergy is of prime importance. I have heard the Nighthawk with many setups, but my favorite was a Schiit Gungnir Multibit going into a Cavalli Liquid Carbon amplifier. This fed my balanced Nighthawk with such a profound degree of bravado that I was nearly forced into my seat when I heard the combo.
With some of my other setups, the AudioQuest Nighthawk can sound too soft, or too blurry, or too woolly. With the wrong combination, the Nighthawk can be exactly what the detractors say it is–a boring if smooth listen.
Unfortunately for this review, I don’t own a Gumby or Liquid Carbon myself. Instead, my primary pairing is with the Audio-GD Master-11, which is itself an absolute monster of a DAC and amplifier combination unit. With the AudioQuest Nighthawk coming from the Master-11, it achieves incredible silky smoothness, punchy bass, and romantic mids. It does, however, suffer a bit from bloat in the mid-to-bass region, resulting in some wooliness and a slightly soft sound. 2016 Update: I’m now using the Sonic Frontiers SFD-1 MKII SE+ and ampsandsound Mogwai with the Nighthawk. Tubes go quite well with these headphones, and I’d highly recommend a nice tube amp like the Garage1217 Project Sunrise III to pair with them.
That said, there are certain genres that I have no choice but to use the AudioQuest Nighthawk for. Backing up just a bit, my other main cans are the ubiquitous Sennheiser HD650 and the relatively unknown JVC HA-DX2000. The HD650 remains my go-to for most rock, alternative, and metal. The DX2000 stands out to me for classical, acoustic, and electronic.
The Nighthawk, though, delivers in the jazz department. It’s a genre I have only appreciated for a few short years. I used to think jazz consisted only of boring elevator music, something my dad listened to in his car. Then, I discovered subgenres within jazz. Real jazz. The AudioQuest Nighthawk delivers jazz directly into the heart. It’s something inherently magical that I can’t get over.
This is the longest I’ve spent with a product before writing a review to this point. I’ve had these headphones for several months, using them on and off when the mood strikes me.
They’re the most difficult headphone to pin down to decide whether I’d recommend them.
The AudioQuest Nighthawk is a lovely headphone to behold. The build quality is excellent and aesthetics are very pleasing. They come with plenty of accessories, including a great case that fits the headphones and cables perfectly.
They are ultra comfortable and conform to your ears and head, making long listening sessions absolutely sublime. I love the earpads and self-adjusting suspension headband.
Technically, they’re an achievement for AudioQuest to be proud of. In a world of clones and detail monsters, the Nighthawk strives to bring the sound of speakers into your ears from a pair of headphones.
Their bio-cellulose drivers deliver a smooth, full signature. The cables feel quite well made, and they can easily be converted to 4-pin balanced XLR if desired.
They are very amp-dependent in my experience. While low impedance, something about them responds differently to different amplifiers. More so than most headphones I’ve used apart perhaps from the Sennheiser HD650. On one amplifier, they can sound congested, woolly, and soft. On another, they can sound lush, impactful, and romantic. A third setup could deliver beautiful mids and clarity with linear-sounding bass.
Sonically, the Nighthawk will draw many fans and detractors. They deliver a very speaker-like sound with a moderately closed-in soundstage and some bass-to-mid woolliness on some songs. The treble is pushed down a bit for most people, though I actually like this slightly dark trait.
But for some, the Nighthawk might be the headphone you’ve always been searching for. Smooth, full, and lush, the Nighthawk just might be a comfortable recliner as you sip at your favorite beverage by the fire.
More than almost any other headphone, the AudioQuest Nighthawk deserves an audition to decide whether they’re perfect for you or not your cup of tea.
Want to know more about the Nighthawk? AudioQuest put together an extremely detailed and informative page about the headphones:
- Impedance: 25 ohms
- Sensitivity: 100dBSPL/mW
- Power Handling: 1.5W
- Driver: 50mm Dynamic | Biocellulose Diaphragm | 1.2T Split-Gap Motor
- Removable protein leather earpads
- Frequency Response & Distortion Measurements
- 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
Additional review and measurements at SuperBestAudioFriends: