AudioQuest broke into the Headphone world a couple of years ago with their breakout hit, the NightHawks. Featuring a number of innovative designs including ear cups made from liquid wood, the NightHawks were environmentally sustainable and an instant classic. Coming in at a price well under $1000 made the semi-open NightHawks even more desirable. Not content to rest on their laurels, AudioQuest recently released their twin new models, the NightHawk Carbon and NightOwl Carbon. The NightHawk Carbon continuing the Semi-Open design, and the NightOwl Carbon offering a closed design with aperiodic venting to manage sound pressure on the ear. The Carbon models still utilize liquid wood for the ear cups, but the finish uses a painting process in the vein of luxury cars. How about Porsche Panamera Grey paint, complete with multiple top coats, for a high gloss shine! Beautiful!
AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon Closed back Headphones.
I received the NightOwl Carbons recently and after a recommended 150 hour break in period started the review. I was anxious to give them a try as the original NightHawks were so impressive I bought the review sample. Anytime a new headphone can hang with the big boys, without regard to its price, it is a winner. I was hoping that the NightOwl Carbon would measure up as well in the closed headphone world.
One of the aspects of the AudioQuest headphone family I enjoy most is their speaker like performance. My reference speakers are Vandersteen Treo CT’s (and yes, I do use AudioQuest speaker cables!). Vandersteen is famous for the pistonic functionality of their drivers. The speed and linearity of the pistonic delivery provides effortless sonic flow. The NightOwl Carbons are built along these same lines, with their 50mm high excursion biocellulose driver and highly compliant rubber surround allowing the sound to arrive at the listener’s ear with speed and precision. Another striking aspect is the virtually distortion free musical delivery compliments of the patented split-gap motor. Intermodulation distortion is virtually non existent to the listener.
The NightOwl Carbon’s come with two pair of ear pads and a high quality carrying case.
As an AudioQuest product, you can be assured the NightOwl Carbons come with state of the art cabling. Leveraging technology refined since 1980 the NightOwl Carbons benefit from high-purity copper and a cable sleeve developed to eliminate microphonics. Since the NightOwl Carbons are designed to be a portable headphone, they feature iOS controls with standard one button functionality (one click pause/restart, two click next track, three click previous track). There is also a built in mic for phone calls. The cable does not offer, however, a volume control. The cable itself is 4.25 ft long and a 1/8” to ¼” adapter is supplied. A variety of other cables can be ordered from AudioQuest, such as dual 3 pin or single 4 pin balanced, or longer lengths. As for which side is left or right, just look at the fabric inside each ear cup, L and R are stitched into the fabric. Build quality is first class. They even provide two sets of ear pads for you to chose. Comfort and quality throughout the design.
For listening, I started out with a long time favorite, Toto IV and Africa (1982 Columbia). Plugging the NightOwl Carbons into the ALO Audio Studio Six SET tube amp, I got down to business. Songs were served up via Roon 1.3 using the PS Audio DirectStream DAC with the new Huron FPGA software. The first impression was clarity. The presentation was precise and had no hash that I routinely hear on lesser headphones. The drum work and percussion was lifelike and traveled across the soundstage. Tonality was very musical. The bass line was firm and drove the song forward without dissolving into a bloated and indistinct lower register. Overall it was a superb presentation of an old favorite.
Speaking of bass, next up is a thrash classic, Peace Sells from Megadeth (1986 Capitol). The driving bass line starts the song and the NightOwl Carbons delivered the power and precision. The twin guitar attack was crisp and powerful. Turning up the volume (As any good thrash fan would) I experienced no distortion even as I reached my personal max listening level. It was clear and very precise. Critical factors for any fan of the genre.
Toning it down I switched to Leonard Cohen’s The Essential Leonard Cohen and Hallelujah (2002 Columbia). Moving over to the Simaudio Moon 430HAD the NightOwl Carbons were just as tuneful on the solid state reference amp as they were on the Studio Six. Great space and a soundstage that seemed endless. The massed choir’s voices blended in beautiful song. Leonard’s deep baritone came through with soul. The bass guitar offered up a solid foundation to move the song forward. A truly beautiful rendition of a very special song.
AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon’s with the Pass Labs HPA-1 and Aurender A10
Next up was a switch to the Pass Labs HPA-1 sourced by the Aurender A10 DAC/Server. (Reviews for both upcoming) Paul Simon’s Stranger to Stranger album and Wristband (2016 Concord). This is a formidable combo to serve up digital files. The song is a live track featuring an upright bass and a drummer keeping time with the snare’s rim and high hat. The bass players fingering and string plucking were well defined, with the wonderful timbre of a live performance. The high hat work was fantastic, with the positioning of the drummer just to the left and behind Paul as he sang. It was an infectious performance. The NightOwls conveyed the concert hall’s space with aplomb. Sometimes a performance is simply fun. What a treat to listen to.
Finishing up I switched to the iPhone 6s+ and put on Shawn Mendes’ Treat You Better from his Illuminate album (2016 Island – Universal) This is an iTunes download in 16/44.1 AAC format. This was perhaps the best quality sound I have heard on on iPhone. Certainly this leaves some room for improvement but it was an excellent listening session. Clarity was strong with great space and reverb. Vocals were clear and delivered with plenty of power and emotion. The Latin rhythm was catchy and haunting at the same time. Many of us have high quality portable audio players but there are a lot of times when it is just me and my iPhone. To be able to enjoy a track without feeling like I need to bring along another device for good quality is a nice thing. The NightOwls bring out all that the iPhone can deliver.
So, can they compete with my current top of the mountain closed headphone the MrSpeakers Ether Cs at over twice the price? Let’s say they can stand proud. The Ether Cs are faster and are my choice for king of the closed headphone world. At $1499.00 USD the Ether Cs are flagship priced too. The NightOwls at $699.00 will give you exceptional sound and terrific value. They are likely one of the few truly audiophile quality closed headphones you could buy. It is hard to balance closed headphones and over driven bass. No issue here as the aperiodic venting does its job. In the end you may decide the AudioQuest NightOwl Carbons are as far up the mountain you need to go with a closed headphone. I know I am keeping my pair. Highly recommended!
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.