, ,

AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon: additive-free headphone listening

Kicking the habit. From the high fructose corn syrup used by cookie companies as a sweetener to the MSG used by fast food joints to boost their dishes’ flavour, the flavour enhancements are artificial.

Prolonged exposure to artificial sweeteners makes adapting to a new, more healthy ways of eating exponentially more challenging.

How does this relate to audio?

According to the Director of AudioQuest’s ‘Ear-Speaker Division’, Skylar Gray, we as headphone listeners have been exposed to upper-frequency distortion for so long now that we have become accustomed to its artificial sense of aural excitement. In other words, headphone transducer distortion has become normalised.

The high-end headphone sector isn’t immune to Gray’s critical assessment: the ‘fizzy’ treble that I hear in pair of AKG K-702 is, according to our man from California, an example of aural MSG – an unnatural additive that gives music an edgy presence.

AudioQuest’s NightHawk (US$599) illustrated how Gray’s additive-free thinking might translate to real-world results. By focussing on the proper pistonic motion of a dynamic driver housed in a semi-open earcup, Gray would lower distortion, notably at 3kHz and above.

This in turn begat a disarmingly smooth treble response and slight mid-bass bump for a richness not heard from the likes of Sennheiser’s HD650 or OPPO’s portable-friendly PM-3. Compared to the Sennheiser HD800’s chilled spritely fizz and down the bone x-ray vision, the NighHawk’s presentation proved to be far plusher. Was this the sound of lower distortion, conspicuous through an absence of lower treble razzmatazz? According to Gray, yes.

The NightHawk offered up the least nervy presentation I’ve to date from ANY headphone. Tonal mass was also thicker than average. Elsewhere, NightHawk were seemingly devoid of personality. Is that not what we want from a headphone: for it to step aside and let the music speak for itself? To get there however, the NightHawk demanded patience. As Gray saw it, our ear-brains need time to acclimatise to an absence of low-level high frequency distortion.

Despite obvious talents with macro dynamic drama, tonal colour saturation and low frequency handling, the NightHawk’s treble politeness led some commentators – myself included – to interpret them as better suited to the more discerning (possibly mature) listener: someone prepared to ignore this headphone’s absence of first-listen titillation in favour of deeper, long-game satisfaction. The earcups’ wood burl finish (think: luxury car dashboards) and a slightly elevated mid-bass did little to disabuse us of the notion that the NightHawk might be our Fathers’ headphones.

Could it be that Skylar Gray, a mere 34 years old, had overplayed his hand? Follow-up question: does it matter when the design objective of lower distortion from a dynamic driver headphone was apparently achieved?

In late 2016, and in (part) response to customer demand, AudioQuest introduced the NightOwl Carbon, a closed-back variant of the subsequently revised NightHawk, now dubbed NightHawk Carbon. We bid farewell to the wood burl finish. In its place comes a more “technical looking” (Gray’s words) high gloss automotive paint. Colour: grey. Ergo, Carbon.

The press releases that announced the new NightHawk/Owl Carbon models’ spoke of “Modified internal parts: Tighter tolerances reduce air leakage for improved airflow and lower distortion” and “Improved plugs: High-purity Tellurium Copper (TeCu) base metal for smoother surface, higher plating quality, better mating contact, and, consequently, less noise.”

The new models would sell for US$699 apiece.

Six months prior to press release arrival and behind closed doors at Munich High-End, Gray had a pre-production version of the NightOwl Carbon on hand. How about a little show and tell? In this video, Gray goes deeper on their specifics than the text that follows it:

‘Same platform’? Same bio-cellulose driver with rubber surround using the same patented “split-gap Tesla motor”, all housed inside the same liquid wood earcups suspended from the same rubber-damped stainless steel headband.

How did the NightOwl Carbon’s development start? According to Gray, by sealing an existing NightHawk; the 3D-printed grille was replaced with a makeshift plug and a tiny hole drilled in the earcup to end the perfect seal and relieve pressure build up.

From there, Gray reworked the internal damping to remove peaks and troughs from the emerging NightOwl Carbon’s measured frequency response whilst maintaining a sharp eye on a house sound.

Gray says the NightOwl Carbon measures almost identically to the NightHawk Carbon – almost – but that their presentation is every so slightly different. To these ears, the mid-bass baby bump has been banished, which in turn opens the door to a slightly more forward midrange and an altogether more open sounding headphone.

Getting my conclusion out of the way early: I much prefer the NightOwl Carbon to the original NightHawk.

R.E.M.’s Out of Time recently received the 25th anniversary treatment. However, for those that find Michael Stipe’s singing (“Half A World Away”) too earnest and Mike Mills’ songs (“Near Wild Heaven”) too whimsical, New Zealand’s Mutton Birds strike the middle ground. Hooks as catchy as Stipe’s but without the overcooked angst.

Envy Of Angels, piped from Sony NW-ZX2 DAP to NightOwl Carbon, Don McGlashan’s vocal shows up as more throaty than chesty than as per the original NightHawk, as conferred by my (admittedly unreliable) long-term auditory memory.

How do the NightOwl Carbon compare to __________? As per any DAR review, A/Bs are determined by whatever gear I have to hand. As much as I might wish for a pair of MrSpeakers’ Ether Flow C to be present for comparative listening against the NightOwl Carbon, they aren’t.

Instead, the incoming AudioQuest first go up against Sennheiser’s HD 800S. With the bigger Germans running with ‘Ring Radiator’ drivers and selling for a full thousand dollars more than the NightOwl Carbon, this might seem like a pointless comparison.

Make no mistake, the Sennheisers are objectively the superior headphone. Subjectively? That’s a different story.

Consider the average Radiohead fan asked to pick his/her favourite album from their catalogue: OK Computer or Kid A? Completely different beasts but equally enjoyable for different reasons. And so it goes with the NightOwl Carbon vs. the HD800S – equally enjoyable but for different reasons.

The top shelf Sennheisers give us tighter bass and a more overt delivery of textural information but they’re not as impactful in the low end as the NightOwl Carbon. A feeling of surgical analysis is never far from one’s mind with the open-back HD800S. As one might expect from a closed-back headphone, the NightOwl connote a greater sense of intimacy.

Which do I prefer? Neither. However, with the NightOwl Carbon, I can more readily put my investigative thoughts into park and sit back and enjoy the music.

Does that mean the NightOwl Carbon are the more ‘musical’ of the two? If only we could agree on a definition for ‘musical’. For this reviewer, it remains as meaningless as it is slippery.

Does that mean the NightOwl Carbon are coloured? Nope. Remember: Kid A vs OK Computer. Or the White Album vs. Revolver. Or Highway 61 Revisited vs. Blonde on Blonde.

Unlike the Sennheisers, the NightOwl Carbon play nicely with portables, even smartphones. The Americans aren’t as fussy about amplification and source quality as their German rival. That’ll be the NightOwl’s 25 Ohm impedance and 99dbSPL/mW sensitivity at work; their absence of (artificial?) presence region animation finds an iPhone 6S Plus’ tonal rigidity more easily forgiven.

On desktop dance partners, I prefer the leaner, zippier illumination of the Rupert Neve Headphone Amplifier over the Schiit Jotunheim, which is more inclined to double down on the AudioQuest’s creamier, more opulent acoustic mass, particularly in the low end. This makes the silver machine a more agreeable HD800S companion.

Should we be so inclined, any of NightOwl Carbon’s remaining richness can be infused with a little treble caffeination without switching up DAC or amplifier. Snap off the protein leather pads and snap on the Ultrasuede variant (supplied). The latter open up the skylight on treble extension – especially useful for those with a thirst for a music’s ambient information. The trade-off is less overt low frequency thump, sometimes a good thing, especially with electronic music’s greater dependence on bass. Techno fans – Headless Horseman, Objekt, Ansome etc. – should start with the Ultrasuede pads.

The point here is this: the NightOwl Carbon’s tonal balance can be seasoned according to taste with ancillary gear but also in spite of it.

With lossy sources like Spotify and Apple Music, the NightOwl Carbon are more forgiving than the HD800S (expected) but also the Final Sonorous III (less expected). More obvious: the NightOwl Carbon’s closed-back design makes them a viable option for use on public transport or at the office.

This nudges us toward our second comparison, one with a smaller price differential and closer in topology. The Sonorous III from Tokyo’s Final are an excellent closed-back headphone. They sell for US$399. The AudioQuest are more expensive but, to my mind, also the better headphone.

The Final feel heavier on the head, look bigger and sound more urgent. Their bass impact hits harder and more readily dominates; layer separation is more cleanly defined but on acoustic mass, the Final are thinner and drier.

Flipping this A/B on its head, the NightOwl Carbon sound fleshier – they put more meat on the bone – but swap out the Final’s crispness for a more casual aural repose. The NightOwl Carbon come on as the more open-sounding of the two.

Fret not on disturbing others. Despite the hidden airflow-resistive port that runs the circumference of the central circular portion of NightOwl Carbon’s earcups, very little sound makes it over the border, hence Cubicle Approved®.

The revised, shorter, more robust cable with in-line microphone – that sits apart from the main signal path – and basic smartphone control only enforces the NightOwl Carbon’s go anywhere spirit. Whilst not foldable or as handy as other portable headphones, Gray should be congratulated for designing retail packaging that doubles as a carry case. We don’t get such luxuries from Final.

However, all of the above would count for nothing were it not for the even distribution of the NightOwl Carbon’s 346g weight. That’s none too far from the HD800S’s own 330g and unlike say Audeze’s EL-8 or even the Final Sonorous III, Skylar Gray’s NightOwl/Hawk Carbon are easily the most comfortable headphones to grace this commentator’s head, bar none and at any price.

A DAR-KO Award lands here not only because the NightOwl Carbon isn’t as rich as its predecessor. Nor because it is more open sounding too. It’s because the NightOwl Carbon, like AudioQuest’s DragonFly DACs, arrive a) fully-formed with zero price-point quibbles and b) are several steps apart from the competition.

Further information: AudioQuest

 

Written by John H. Darko

John H. Darko

John is the editor of DAR from which he derives an income from its ad revenues. John is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and currently resides in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR

16 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review!

    I am thinking of buying these headphones to be powered either directly by a Chord Mojo or Mojo -> Jotunheim (which I already have). In your opinion, would that work well enough? Were you using Jotunheim’s DAC btw when comparing them to the HD800s?

  2. Fantastic write up. Can’t wait for mine to arrive (hopefully tomorrow) they’ll be sitting right next to my Nighhawks…My all time favorites! Thank you!

  3. Nicely done. Really interested in these bad boys. The world needs less high fructose corn syrup and MSG. Long live Reinheitsgebot. BTW, love all the cool music listed in this piece.

  4. The sound signature of the Nighthawk you described well is actually the reason I didn’t buy them. I wonder if the magnificently innovative people at audioquest realise the human ear tends to lose high frequency’s over time AND that slight damage of the hearing often results in a resonancy-like effect in the lower mids. The Nighthawk replicates/emphasises the problems people over 50 often have in their hearing. The Nightowl is daddy’s headphone’s in the way that is lets younger people hear how daddy hears. Problem is that daddy himself doesn’t hear any high frequency’s through the Nightowls en is not amused at the distortion-like effect created in the low-mids. Of course manufacturers shoudn’t make equipment sound unlinear because the older clients want it to sound that way, but there is a market for non-booming equipment with over emphasis on the high frequencies. I’m one of the buyers.

    • Perhaps you’re confusing presence region zing (potentially distortion) with treble roll off? The NO don’t sound rolled off to me.

  5. You’re right. I mistyped Nightowl when I meant Nighthawk. Twice. Sorry for that. Typing in English proves to be more ardous for Dutch speaking me than I expected. Reread before posting. I know. The Nightowl might very well fit my hearing better than it’s earlier sibling. For now my Grado 325e suits me fine. But I do expect to find myself in a hifi store soon to listen to nightowls. More comfort and perhaps a general step up in sound quality and stil quite affordable. Why not have a listen?
    And indeed, another audioquest product (the Dragonfly red) helps reducing the treble zing you refer to in my modest setup. The Grados and the Beyer 990 I own both benefit. Thanks, audioquest, for that product. And thank you, John, for your excellent reviews.

  6. Great review and the first professional review of the Nightowl I could find. Did you have the occasion to try these with a portable amp/dac other than the mojo? An Oppo HA-2? One of Audioquest’s own Dragonflies red or black? I’m sold on the Nightowl, I just -fundamentally – have a difficult time spending as much on a dac/amp as the headphones themselves.

    Thanks,

    • Sorry – if it’s not in the review, I didn’t do it! And if I *did* do it, it’d be in the review!

      • Fair enough. In fact I appreciate the full disclosure. Sometimes I wonder if (other) reviewers only write about the good and don’t tell you when a match is bad.

  7. I’m currently in the market for an office headphone with solid noise isolation (for my other office mates’ sake). I currently have a 598cs for this purpose but when I have a HD800S at home, it has me lusting for more. Given this price range +/- a couple hundred-ish…what else can compete in the closed back segment?

    I was initially looking into Fostex’s TH-X00 ebony/purpleheart but from research I don’t think it offers enough isolation for my needs.

    Thanks for the review, I found it very helpful!

  8. I’m curious how these would compare to the original Nighthawk if the Nighthawk used the same protein leather ear pads the Nightowl uses? I’m under the impression the pads are probably making the biggest difference.

  9. Great review and I certainly enjoyed reading it. Led me to purchase them. But the hd800 S does not weight 330 grams, it’s 380 without cable. Just check it to be sure.

Between A/D and D/A: the power of pragmatism

Download to own: Bowie, Blur and Joy Division in MQA