This week, we’re testing the Audioquest NightHawk paired up with several different DACs, including the Audioquest DragonFly 1.2. We regularly mention Audioquest in our equipment reviews as we choose the American brand’s cables for their solid performances. It was thus with much enthusiasm that we lent our ears to try out Audioquest’s first set of headphones.
Audioquest NightHawk: from cable to headphones
Created in 1980, Audioquest designs and makes audio and video cables for all types of use ? speakers, RCA and XLR interconnect, power supply cables, USB, optical digital, coaxial digital, AES/EBU and HDMI. Each category has many different models all grouped in series ? Vodka, Niagara, Rocket, Yosemite, Cougar, Husky, NRG. Most of these cables use patented technologies, which are sometimes surprising like the Dielectric Bias System (DBS), a small battery-operated device set on certain speaker or USB cables, whose role is to create a stable electrostatic field which polarizes the cable insulating material’s molecules. This may seem a bit dubious when you first discover this technology but not when you listen to the Audioquest USB Coffee. Audioquest clearly benefits from its major expertise regarding sound which has led to the development of the small Audioquest DragonFly DAC (which we’ll look at in more detail later) and the Audioquest NightHawk headphones, using the latest patented technology for cables.
Audioquest NightHawk: semi-open structure
Audioquest NightHawk hi-fi headphones are a semi-open circum-aural model. In other words, the ear cups surround the ears, keeping them free of any mechanical constraints. The semi-open structure allows convincing isolation from external noise interference without narrowing the sound stage which happens with closed-back models. Transducers are set in a supplied air volume facing outwards, like a bass-reflex design to optimise bass response.
Audioquest NightHawk: Liquid Wood and patented suspension
Audioquest NightHawk headphones are fitted with liquid wood ear cups. This wood gets its name from the dyed wood and natural resin mix. The liquid wood is then injected into a mold to form complex and sophisticated shapes. The ear cups are fitted to the headband using a patented suspension system embedded in a 3D resin structure. This suspension system removes unwanted vibrations transmitted by the headband when listeners are on the move.
Audioquest NightHawk: headphones which are very comfortable to wear
This is the main highlight. NightHawk headphones fortunately don’t belong to the category of uncomfortable designer objects. Audioquest has gone to great lengths regarding comfort as well as making them easy to pick up and handle. Thanks to the ingenious self-adjusting headband, listeners don’t need to carry out any adjustments to fit their headphones to their specific head shape. Simply slip on the headphones, which will sit in position perfectly. Memory foam ear cups made from imitation leather are very easy and comfortable to wear. The low pressure exerted on the ears and head means that listeners can spend hours enjoying their music in comfort.
Audioquest NightHawk: 2-inch transducers
The NightHawk is fitted with 2″ cellulose fibre membrane transducers. This material differs from what other brands have to offer, as they usually opt for mylar or plastic materials which are light but often cause sound coloration. As bio-cellulose is a recycled paper-based material, it inherits the mechanical properties which are highly compatible with sound reproduction. For a long period of time, speaker drivers were made using paper membranes as paper has very good damping properties (resonance absorption, low coloration). The NightHawk’s transducers are fitted with powerful magnets to guarantee a very good transient phase (capacity to pass from one vibrational state to another).
Audioquest NightHawk: two detachable cables supplied
Audioquest NightHawk headphones are delivered in a zip-up carry pouch with two different cables and a 3.5 mm mini-jack to 6.35 mm jack adaptor. The slimmest of the two cables is a standard design ? LGC (Long Grain Copper) and a nylon sheath. The second cable is thicker and benefits from StarQuad, PSC+ and NDS. StarQuad technology implies a particular braiding of the copper strands, aimed at controlling inductance. PSC+ (Perfect Surface Copper Plus) copper is an oxygen-free polished copper. NDS (Noise Dissipation System) technology relates to the insulating material of conductors, made with successive layers of carbon and metal. The connectors and supplied adaptor are silver-plated.
Audioquest NightHawk: technical features
Audioquest provides information regarding impedance, sensitivity and output power. The first surprise is that impedance is only 25 Ohms, which when paired with a sensitivity of 100 dB for 1 mW makes these headphones compatible with the least powerful sources (smartphones, tablets). Power handling reaches 1.5 W per channel, a standard value for 2″ membrane drivers, fitted with well-sized mobile coils.
Audioquest NightHawk: test configuration
We listened to the Audioquest NightHawk with several headphone amps, including the Audioquest DragonFly 1.2. This small USB DAC, which is no bigger than a memory stick, works with any computer (Windows, Mac OS, Linux) and can handle audio streams up to 24 bits and 96 kHz. Its asynchronous USB controller guarantees regular transmission of audio data from the computer. We used JRiver Media Center in WASAPI mode to obtain BitPerfect transmission. This can be checked with the Audioquest DragonFly whose logo (a dragonfly obviously) changes colour depending on the incoming PCM stream: green for 16 bits and 44.1kHz or pink for 24 bits and 96 kHz. Audioquest have used a Sabre ESS DAC, most likely an ES9023 judging from the sound signature of the DragonFly 1.2.
Audioquest NightHawk headphones were broken in over several days, 24 hours a day with the DragonFly. The model’s large transducers need a long breaking-in period to find their balance. Those buying NightHawk headphones should observe the following protocol carefully: choose a few tracks of electro music or a breaking-in CD and play them over and over at the same volume. Listeners don’t need to wear their headphones during this time.
Listening tests were carried out using an Audioquest StarQuad cable, which performs better than a basic cable. We suspect that Audioquest is trying to get future customers by allowing them to compare an average cable with an audiophile model. You’d be foolish to deprive yourself of this pleasure as results are amazing.
Audioquest NightHawk: listening impressions
After breaking-in, the Audioquest NightHawk is always smooth with a relatively wide sound stage a distance away from the listener. We note a rise and dip in the frequency response, around 10-12 kHz as well as another slight one at around 60 Hz. In other words, the frequency response of these headphones is physical and flattering to the ear. The playful style of the DragonFly DAC in the treble range reinforces this characteristic of the NightHawk. With the Meridian Prime amp, the tonal balance is not as ?soft? and is more precise at the top of the spectrum. With a Denon Ceol N4 amp, listening is more balanced with the bass gaining in depth. The NightHawk delivers an immersive, well established and warm sound.
For All We Know / Blue Moon, Chet Baker, FLAC – 16/44
It’s said that large transducers are an added bonus to listening when the message is complex. The bass range is well explored with good double bass which rumbles so much you roll your eyes in wonder. The sound of the brushes on the snare drums in For All We Know is delicate. The piano in Blue Moon is always credible. Another good point is that the trumpet isn’t too aggressive-sounding to our ears. Overall, the track is well controlled and warm.
Feeling Good, Nina Simone, FLAC – 24/96
Nina Simone’s voice is slightly toned down but its presence is articulate. Interesting depth of the stage with a physical presence of brass in the centre. This is a lively delivery.
Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High ?, Artic Monkeys, FLAC – 16/44
Physical and catchy listening experience. We let ourselves be carried along by the rhythm of the drums. Another lively and warm recording.
Move Your Feet, Junior Senior, FLAC – 16/44
Dancefloor atmosphere guaranteed with the NightHawk as long as we let the DragonFly do the work. Once again, the good low frequency base adds the necessary weight to this pop track.
Sail Away, The Rapture, FLAC – 16/44
The compressed and dynamic mixes are no trouble for these headphones which are never too aggressive-sounding to listeners’ ears. This is again due to the constant balance. This track quite simply glides along.
Post Break-Up Sex, The Vaccines, FLAC – 16/44
We had never heard it like this before and this is perhaps the best listening experience we’ve ever had of this track. The sound is “vintage”, dense and balanced.
In The Hall Of The Mountain King, Edvard Grieg, FLAC – 16/44
The NightHawk can clearly mix low intensity sounds with skill and add substance to moderate volume listening. The final flourish could be slightly more acute in the treble range but the limits have probably been reached for such large paper fibre transducers. It is nevertheless convincing.
Audioquest NightHawk: what we particularly liked
- The impeccable comfort
- The manufacturing quality
- The sound immersion
- The balanced listening
- The second detachable cable which proves itself to be excellent
- The great pairing with the DragonFly 1.2 DAC
- The possible running with any source
Audioquest NightHawk: what we would have liked
- A more accurate sound beyond 10 kHz
Audioquest NightHawk: conclusions
We were impressed by the overall performance of the Audioquest NightHawk. These headphones are particularly comfortable to wear and other more expensive models should follow Audioquest’s example as regards comfort. The choice of 2″ cellulose transducers, although restrictive concerning treble response, is definitely the right choice as the sound message remains balanced whatever the sound take. The NightHawk delivers a warm sound even with a smartphone. It merits being paired with a quality source, such as the small-scale Audioquest DragonFly 1.2 DAC, which is remarkably clear.