Meeting an artist who has both passion and a clear vision is always a rare and wonderful opportunity. Spending time with Skylar Gray from AudioQuest at RMAF 2014 was that kind of event. I was expecting to attend the well-regarded AudioQuest cable demonstration when I was introduced to Skylar and we spent an hour discussing his still in development NightHawks. He was holding a handful of parts like they were gold and his eyes shone with excitement. It was infectious. Skylar’s goal was to have the listener experience something intimate and nearly transcendent while being as ecologically friendly as possible. Sonically, he has come as close as I have found for headphones in this price range. As a listener you are placed into the music.
Once in production, the NightHawks arrived at my house. The initial packaged presentation is very attractive. A high quality bio-derived synthetic leather carrying case contained the NightHawks, two single-ended cables, the manual and a cloth for polishing the silver plugs on the cables. The primary thicker cable is a mini version of the highly regarded Castle Rock speaker cables known for their sonic transparency. The second cable is a highly durable portable cable designed to take the abuse of wrapping cables haphazardly while on the go. Both offer a nice presentation but the Castle Rock inspired primary cables were, for me, the preferred option. A few days after receiving the NightHawks, Stephen Mejias from AudioQuest sent along two additional cables, a three-pin dual balanced and a single four-pin balanced version of the Castle Rock for use with my Moon Neo 430HA Solid State headphone amp. Thanks Stephen!
Stephen Mejias at the AudioQuest booth RMAF 2015 showing off the NightHawks
One thing I enjoy while prepping for a review is spending time on the manufacturers website. It is always interesting to see what they post about a particular product. In the case of the NightHawk, I have NEVER seen a website offering so much detail into the development behind a product. I probably spent an hour perusing their information. The photos are gorgeous and the detail is extraordinary. I highly encourage everyone to take a NightHawk tour!
Another thing that I found interesting is the free rein and obvious large budget AudioQuest devoted to a first effort into a new product arena. They were not simply attempting to provide a “Me Too” wink toward the exploding headphone marketplace; they approached it with two years of world-class engineering and a respect for the headphone community. The fact that the results are stellar comes as no surprise when viewing the efforts that they have put forth.
The NightHawks are a semi-open dynamic headphone using a bio-cellulose 50mm driver. The cups are made of Liquid Wood that is injected into a mold to create their unique shape. The four-point floating suspension system uses elastomer bands that allow the cups to float with your heads movements. The ear shaped pads are made from protein leather and are very comfortable. The drivers are angled allowing a more natural sound delivery to reduce fatigue and provide even more listening comfort. No other company has taken this combination of design approaches to create a set of headphones.
I decided to approach the listening sessions from three perspectives. First, I would do a shoot out using the ALO Audio Studio Six SET amplifier. Next would be a balanced cable session with the Moon Neo 430HA and then a portable session with the Questyle QP1r digital audio player.
L-R Alpha Prime, HD800, HD650, NightHawks, QP1r in front of the iPhone
The ALO Studio Six is a TOTL tube based single-ended Triode amplifier that has the power to drive most any headphone, capable of producing gorgeous sound for up to four headphones simultaneously. Paired with the Wyred 4 Sound DAC2 DSDse, I sourced from both the Apple Mac Book Pro with Audirvana and Amarra, as well as the VPI Scout 1.1 Turntable with the Dynavector 10X5 hi-output moving-coil cartridge running through the ALO Audio Phono Stage.
First up, the Dave Brubeck Quartet and “Take Five” from the Time Out album (DSD64 Acoustic Sounds). This is a classic from one of the all-time best-selling Jazz albums. It has been used in countless soundtracks. I love it because it is an intimate setting with four world-class musicians. Paul Desmond’s alto sax is smooth and energetic with just the right amount of nuance and bite. Eugene Wright’s stand up bass provides a firm foundation for the arrangement. Dave Brubeck’s piano is clean and delivered with correct timbre and tonality. Joe Morello’s drums are exact and crisp. Snare and cymbals shimmer. I have listened to this track many times on my two-channel system and the NightHawks allowed the same into the music moments while making the delivery a more intimate one than listening in a speaker setting. Very nice! I then switched to the Sennheiser HD650s and the room got bigger due to the fully open headphones. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing. It was a different presentation. I love the 650s and have used them for many years. The NightHawks had a crisper and slightly more specific attack. The drums seemed farther away with more echo and reverb. Considering the four-piece group and the intimate setting this actually lessened the experience. It was as if the members of the group had been moved apart somehow. A win for the NightHawks.
Next on the hit list was some vinyl: Foghat’s Fool For The City (LP Mobile Fidelity half speed master recording MFSL 1-295). This funky blues-based bar-band special always brings the energy. Most fans really enjoy Lonesome Dave Peverett’s fast guitar work. It is well represented here. I always appreciate the solid powerful bass guitar work of Nick Jameson. The NightHawks can be a bit of a basshead’s delight and that crushing groove drove hard and clean. Great energy and separation of the band makes for a terrific recording. I moved on to the MrSpeakers Alpha Prime closed planar magnetic headphones. The Primes are my closed reference headphones and I love their clean full-range presentation. Interestingly here they seemed bright. One thing I have noticed about the NightHawks is when I first put them on they seem like a dark headphone. After awhile, I begin to realize they are accurate. It is like going to the TV store and seeing all the new flat screens. They are all bright. The contrast is boosted, so they seem like a dynamic set. If you view a properly calibrated set next to them, it seems dull until you get it home. Then you see the colors are what they are supposed to be. The Primes are a fun party on your head can and are probably a better match for Foghat. However, this is the first time I heard them as somewhat bright. This was very interesting. Still, both gave a great presentation. Given the music selection, I would probably go with the Primes mainly for their compatibility with this music genre.
NightHawks with the ALO Studio Six and VPI Scout 1.1
Finally, I wrapped up the Studio Six shootout with perhaps on the surface an unfair opponent, the Sennheiser HD800s. At $1500 the HD800s are close to three times the price and are a longtime flagship top-of-the-line detail monster. For this I decided to use female vocals. Norah Jones Little Broken Hearts (DSD64 Acoustic Sounds) has been out for a while now, but is my second favorite album alongside her original work. The title song is a tuneful almost noir song that has a haunting felling to it. There is a steady drumbeat and guitar accompanying Norah’s subdued breathy singing. The NightHawks really paired up well with this song. Their ability to accentuate the bass in a clean and tight manner served the song perfectly. The coolness of her voice was translated just so by the NightHawks. Switching to the HD800’s gave a very different but also excellent presentation. The 56mm dynamic driver is the largest used today. In an open headphone this gives great power and spaciousness to any well-recorded track. The HD800 was an equal in the low-end department. It was also just as precise in its placement of instruments on a larger soundstage. It was not so large as to detract from the setting. Unlike the HD650s that gave too much room earlier, the HD800s setting was clearly defined and Norah owned the club. The story here is how well the NightHawks performed against a much more expensive headphone. No apologies needed. They were fun, accurate, and entirely up to the task of delivering Norah at her finest.
AudioQuest NightHawks and Moon Neo 430HAD
Moving over to the Moon Neo 430 HAD and the LH Labs VI DAC I switched cables to the dual three-pin balanced AudioQuest cables provided to me by Stephen Mejias. After spending several hours with tube-based SET fun switching to solid-state power from the Moon was like getting a new flavor of ice cream. The dual balanced cable is a fuller sound than the single-ended. There is MOAR there as they say. I have not noticed a particular difference between the dual three-pin and the single four-pin balanced cables. Time for some Supertramp “Bloody Well Right” from Crime of the Century (AIFF 24/192 HDTracks). What strikes me is the detail and precision. This album is a very active mastering job with instruments placed just so all over the physical space. Some are very subtle, like the soft cymbals on the right that add to the driving beat of the song. The guitars are an overarching presence covering both channels, but in a supportive and not overwhelming way. The honky tonk-styled piano had the right plinking sound. One of the words Skylar used to describe his sonic goal was “immersive”. This song really nailed that. I could listen for the sheer joy or I could sit and extract individual notes and instruments and enjoy each of their contributions to the music. This is for many of us what the show is about. To find this in a $599 pair of headphones is wonderful. Every day a new TOTL $1000+ can is being released. They are amazing, but…. You have to pay for them. The NightHawk gives hope to affordable audio without significant compromise.
Finally, I went portable. The Questyle QP1r portable DAP comes in at $899. Paired with the $599 NightHawk, we have an aspirational portable rig that does not completely break the bank. The QP1r can compete with the very best (and most expensive) portable DAPs for sound quality. It also is full Class A for amplification so it has no trouble driving the NightHawks to uncomfortably loud levels. I selected the Rolling Stones “No Expectations” from Beggars Banquet (AIFF 24/88.2 HDTracks). First, the synergy between the NightHawks and the QP1r is fantastic. Using the thinner second cable, I set out for Panera to enjoy a hot chocolate and watch the early snow. What I got was all the string plucking and distinct fingertip strumming I expect from both a well-mastered recording and top quality reference gear. The slide guitar work had that perfect note and scratch as the slide moved down the neck. Bass guitar was deep, solid, and sure. Mick was at the microphone singing with clear emotion. Great tunes, great gear, and some hot chocolate. And to think I left the house with no expectations. Instead I was very fulfilled. Thank you, AudioQuest!
So, what to do with the review sample when I have several reference headphones? Simple, I bought it. It is a happy addition to the family. A great example of value priced gear that is so solid you never think of it as your affordable gear — just another of my terrific choices for another great day of being immersed in the music.
PROS: Very accurate positioning of sounds and instruments. A speaker like center to the imaging of the soundstage. Very comfortable fit for long listening sessions. Many innovative technologies that are firsts for headphones. Not one but two very high quality cables included. Best in class fit and finish.
CONS: A solid 100+ hours of break-in is needed for best sound quality.
A 30+ year Audio veteran, I sold high-end two-channel in college and defected to Multi-channel for many years only to be pulled back in to two-channel once more. Tubes are a favorite. I run Cary gear. I am a Sennheiser and Apple fan-boy. I switch between Vinyl and digital. If it sounds good, it is, and the chain is the thing.