Late-Night Listening: AudioQuest NightHawk Headphone Review

November 06, 2017

Its sound is as unique as its looks. Its place in the market is as contested as its creator’s cables—OK maybe not that contested. And its performance appears to be either loved or hated. So often in audio, enthusiasts position a product in the black or white, better or worse, endgame or bust. But if there’s anything I can say about my audio experiences, it’s that every product worth writing about, discussing, photographing, and hearing has a place. For me, the NightHawk’s place is wherever I do my late-night listening.

It’s fall, which means my outdoor activities are winding down for the season, night comes early, and the tubes on my amp start glowing a bit more. It’s that time of year when longer nights get passed in pursuit of #AudioNirvana. Whether its name was aptly chosen or just coincidental I don’t know, but after 10 months with AudioQuest’s first-ever headphone (yes, I was late to the game), I find myself reaching for the NightHawk whenever I’m settling in for the evening. There’s just something about its uniquely rich tuning that compliments the albums I spin up when I want to drift off into the darkness. But this isn’t a realization that came quickly for me.

At first listen you’ll think something is amiss with the NightHawk—or at least I did. In fact, I hated it the first time I put it on my head—and quickly cursed myself for dropping a couple hundred dollars on a lightly used unit. Sure, it looks lovely and is surprisingly comfortable, but its sound made no sense to me, and it still continues to surprise me from time to time.

To my ears, at first listen, the NightHawk comes off as sounding kind of hollow and reverb-y, almost too unbalanced, like a half empty music venue during sound check. This feeling is further reinforced when quickly switching to the NightHawk from headphones like Sennheiser’s HD650 or Beyerdynamic’s Amiron Home, which both have more forward, mid-centric tunings. But when you pause, sit back, and actually listen, giving your ears and brain several minutes to acclimate, you start to hear a darkness in the NightHawk, a deep musical presentation that’s actually far more revealing, natural, and delicate than expected. And, given time to immerse your ears in its sound, AudioQuest’s NightHawk proves to be a true high-fidelity headphone—albeit a polite one.

What I mean by polite is that the NightHawk plays it safe with its warm and inviting sound signature that’s skewed to the lower end of the response curve. The powerful bass and rolled off treble will undoubtedly be deterrents to audio purists looking for flat response curves, but this is what I like about the NightHawk. It easily hides the flaws of weak recordings and low-res streaming audio; sibilance and tipped-up treble are non-existent; and the mid-range tuning is dialed in to a point where it retains nice vocal and instrumental clarity and detail retrieval without being forward or analytical. All this combined is why I say the NightHawk is excellent for late-night listening. It’s relaxed, it’s deep, it’s dark, and yet it’s still detailed enough to be hi-fi but non-fatiguing.

The trouble with comparisons is that I find the NightHawk to be pretty unique—it’s not really like anything else that I have heard or owned. I mean, it makes the HD650 sound downright thin and aggressive. The NightHawk’s visceral bass can be thick and meaty, the mids a touch relaxed and passive, and the treble tame by all accounts, but in the grand scheme of things, the presentation, while lacking punchy presence, is intimately intriguing. Because of its relaxed nature, the NightHawk actually draws you further into the listening experience, which is what finally reveals the details it achieves in all its subtlety.

If I had to place the NightHawk somewhere among some of its peers, I’d say it takes after Meze Audio’s 99 Classics and ZMF Headphones’ Ori, which favor darker, smoother, and ultimately safer sound signatures at the expense of some upper-mid and treble detail and extension. One could argue the NightHawk is similar to Shure’s SRH840 and SRH1540 as well, but I find both to have more cutting mids and treble, despite both also being considered darker in nature.

Only being semi-open, the NightHawk also doesn’t expel the expansive 3D extension or airiness of fully-open planar magnetic or dynamic driver headphones. Given the NightHawk’s tuning, a sound stage that extends about an inch beyond the cups still seems like an accomplishment to me, and I think its controlled, natural tone and timbre make up for added sound stage depth and height anyway. Don’t take that as me saying the NightHawk sounds claustrophobic, if anything it’s that the NightHawk centers the sound stage with nice accuracy but less extension. The takeaway here is that I encourage you to give the NightHawk a fair listen before deciding it is or isn’t for you.

Whether its sound is for you or not, you have to respect the thought put into the NightHawk. AudioQuest spared no expense in the design and engineering of its debut headphone. From the sustainable liquefied wood cups, to the truly loudspeaker-like biocellulose drivers and 3D-printed grilles that are real functioning acoustic diffusers, the NightHawk is as over-engineered as AudioQuest’s cables—and that’s not a bad thing.

This is a headphone that makes me feel like I actually got my money’s worth—in fact, it’s a steal in today’s headphone market that keeps pushing prices higher and higher. Inside and out, the NightHawk exudes quality. In fit and finish, the NightHawk is polished, clean-lined, sturdy, and minimalistic. Every part has a thoughtful purpose without excess embellishments. In particular, I really like the leather-wrapped elastic suspension strap, which allows precise positioning on the head and ears in comparison to standard headbands or yokes that have set positions to “click” into. The suspension strap is also receptive of my go-to headband mod for those looking for extra padding or that need to lessen the extension of the strap. The ear cups also are held on the yokes by a unique suspension system that allows them to articulate and easily conform to the shape of your head, making for a very comfortable fit. I find it quite easy to wear the NightHawk for several hours at a time.

The NightHawk also maintains a cohesive look and feel, seamlessly integrating into the style and branding of all things AudioQuest if that sort of thing matters to you. Of course, the NightHawk also comes with AudioQuest’s high-end star quad direct silver-plated pure red copper cable (removable), a silver-plated pure red copper ¼" headphone plug adapter, and a nice padded leather storage case.

With its uniquely deep and inviting tuning, excellent comfort, impressive design, and quality build and accessories, I think the NightHawk warrants a serious audition. To me, the NightHawk isn’t so black and white—it falls somewhere in the gray, not quite endgame, but still an underrated instrument and excellent addition to a flock of headphones that deliver different degrees of Audio Nirvana.

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