Review: Audioquest Nighthawk – Unique

Sound

The NightHawk isn’t only special in a technical way, it also sounds quite unique. I haven’t read anything on Head-fi about it but when a thread has over 1300 replies, you just know there’s a discussion going on about how they sound.

When the NightHawk arrived I have to admit I was quite underwhelmed as it sounded rather “muffled”. Was this really worth all the hype? You either believe in burn-in or you don’t but to sound their best AudioQuest recommends getting a good number of hours on them. I can only confirm the NightHawk changed even if its core characteristics more or less stayed the same.

Even after burn-in it took me quite a while to get used to the NightHawk’s sound and appreciate it. Actually, it still takes me about 10 minutes each time I put it on my ears to get into their sound but the NightHawk has grown on me. It’s a fairly easy to drive headphone but its sound does depend on the source or amplifier used. As a matter of fact it scales up very nicely to a certain level and when you try it in a balanced configuration, things get even better.

Ever since the NightHawk arrived a few months ago, I have been using it on a daily basis at the office and I have a lot of hours on it by now. Characteristics that come to mind are: smooth, warm, sometimes dark and bassy. Let me explain. While NightHawk’s measurements don’t really show a big bass bump, bass is something you will notice for sure. The overall sound signature of the headphone is on the warm and smooth relaxing side, yet it at the same time has a decent clarity. This clarity depends and improves a lot when using better amplifiers and sources, so in fact the sound signature goes from dark to clear in a certain way. Most of the time though, the smooth relaxing side of the sound is most noticeable and the overall experience is unfatiguing.

I do find the NightHawk to have pretty good depth and layering, especially in the bass and midsection. Same goes for its sound stage and timbre/texture. They’re certainly on par with what you can find in the NightHawk’s price range. It’s a semi open design so the sound isn’t completely out of your head, so to say. It does seem to reach lower than it goes up high.

Bass is something you can’t miss when listening to the NightHawk and it’s more present than the measurements tell you. Luckily its quality is pretty good with good layering and timbre. Bass is a bit on the looser kind though with bigger body and there’s only a medium kind of punch. The mids section probably is the most seducing part of the NightHawk. Like the bass it has good layering and timbre. That in combination with good detail and an unfatiguing presentation make the NightHawk sound very musical. At the same time the mids section is also where you can clear up the NightHawk the most. Treble does sound on the softer side even if measurements show it isn’t distorted as in a lot of other headphones. Treble certainly isn’t lacking and layering is quite good, but it’s an easy kind of everyone pleasing treble.

As said, the NightHawk scales up nicely. When I started using it, I was still testing Fiio’s Q1 and the combination in fact sounded anything but spectacular. I later switched to the Chord Hugo and the clarity came up with a more controlled bass section. At home I hooked it up to the Violectric V281 and got an even more controlled sound, with better clarity and an overall more balanced sound. On that amplifier, using a balanced AQ cable, I get the best sounding NightHawk. A NightHawk that is even more balanced (sigh), controlled, more linear, clear and all that with a good pace. Switch back to let’s say the L5pro DAP and the NightHawk becomes darker and smoother again, it’s that simple. The Chord Mojo surprisingly wasn’t a good match to the NightHawk to my ears, as it resulted in a thick dark sound where bass got the best of it. What a contrast with the HUGO.

The AudioQuest DragonFly (to be featured soon on HFN) is a brighter sounding USB AMP/DAC unit and it surprised me in a positive way, especially with the NightHawk plugged in to it. While you don’t get the quality sound like you do with the Hugo or V281, the DragonFly does manage to clear up the NightHawk and make it sound less dark and warm. I can’t say the DragonFly performs well with all headphones I threw at it though, but in this case it does.

Comparing the NightHawk to other headphones isn’t the easiest of things, as its sound is quite unique. A lot of people seem to ask for a comparison against the HD650 but for me it doesn’t even come close to what that “oldie” can do. It might be more logical to compare it to other, warmer sounding headphones like the Fidelio X2 in example. But they both have their strengths and weaknesses and their sound will also be highly source & amp dependant.

Conclusion

The NightHawk really has a special sound. Most of the time it sounds darker and warm but a clear sounding amplifier can and will lighten it up. Using higher end gear will make the NightHawk sound more tight and clear and I for one appreciate the NightHawk most when using it in a balanced configuration.

Lifting the veil is something that is often seen when discussing the Sennheiser HD650 but it’s actually a nice description of what seems to happen to the NightHawk when you use one of the better amplifiers. I have to admit that when I was watching series or movies on my laptop I really didn’t need a different or “cleared up” sound, and the NightHawk straight out of the headphone out sounded really engaging. I actually think it sums up to this: it’s a musical headphone with bass presence that makes watching movies very engaging and emotional but in order for it to have the same effect when listening to music, you need to pair it with a good amplifier. For my ears, of course.

The NightHawk is a headphone that surprised me with its upscaling capability. With the right amplifier and the right synergy it will sound a lot better than straight out of your (portable) source. I just doubt a whole lot of people will be able to experience how it can sound as not everyone can just go around and test the NightHawk in different setups.

The AudioQuest NightHawk sells for $599USD on Amazon.com and you can also get it from their dealers.

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Lieven is living in Europe and he's the leader of the gang. He's running Headfonia as a side project next to his full time day job in Digital Marketing & Consultancy. He's a big fan of tube amps and custom inear monitors and has published hundreds of product reviews over the years.

28 Comments

  • Reply December 17, 2015

    szoze

    Thanks Lieven for another great review. Your conclusions are very similar to mine. The problem with the Nighthawk is that it inspite of their good scaling capabilities they will never sound as good as HD650, HD600, T90 or HD500 no matter what amp is used. The NH are more similar to Fidelio X2 but even here I actually prefer X2. Another problem with the NH is the ridiculous pricing ($599 :-D) It means it costs more than twice X2 costs. The NH costs as much as T90 🙂 No way! Audioquest is using the old marketing trick. Put a high price on a product and make people believe it actually performs as good as it costs. Who believs in this? Not me, thanks. 🙂

    • Reply December 17, 2015

      dalethorn

      The frequency response, or signature, is definitely like molasses on a cool day – thick, syrupy, dark …. but change the response even a little with EQ, and a marvelous hi-fi sound jumps out. Why EQ a Nighthawk when you can just buy a “better” headphone for less? Because the end result is better with the Nighthawk. Like the old Chinese proverb – look in the pot, there might be gold inside.

      • Reply December 17, 2015

        szoze

        What Equalizer should I use if I use a CD-player or a turntable as a source? Recommendations? By EQing, you are not actually changing the characteristic of the headphone. You are making changes to the signal itself.

        • Reply December 17, 2015

          dalethorn

          Yes. But modern electronics are miracles, and there are 100 ways you can do what you need to do. The theory doesn’t usually matter as much as the end result. In engineering (my specialty) we say “If the output isn’t right, adjust the input accordingly”. My contribution re: the Nighthawk, is to suggest the possibility of great sound. The NH is like a chameleon – it not only scales unusually well (given its not-so-good starting point), but it EQ’s much better than anything I know. It’s not for everyone, especially those who prefer to listen with the proverbial hand-tied-behind-their-back.

          • Reply December 17, 2015

            Ryan Rahman

            Thing is, if a certain headphone has exaggerations in the FR it’s going to respond well to EQ. I own the Nighthawk along with the HD650. It’s fantastic for bass tracks but in the mids things do take a back step. I don’t think it’s as good as the HD650 but it does have a better bass response. The treble on the Nighthawk is also a bit rough sounding but the big bass bloom takes a lot of attention away from that. This headphone takes time to understand you have to train your ears to adjust to it’s sound. You will find it’s pros, i.e fun, low distortion, good treble air but also it’s cons, recessed mids, rough treble, lack of cohesiveness.

            • Reply December 17, 2015

              dalethorn

              No way did I ever “adjust” to its sound. I simply flattened the awful response with this curve, then it was wonderful sounding. And BTW, very smooth – the opposite of rough. And the interesting thing about the Nighthawk to me is how much it improves with a modest EQ – much more for less EQ than any other headphone of the 150 I’ve owned.

              http://dalethorn.com/Photos/Audioforge/Audioquest_Nighthawk.jpg

              • Reply December 17, 2015

                Ryan Rahman

                Personally I’m not into EQ I wouldn’t want to spend £500 to have to EQ them. I enjoy the sound stock for bass tracks and also when listening to them for a while my brain filters out the bloom more.

                What I hear in the mids is very good, not great though. The treble I like but it’s also rough and a bit jagged. I feel that when I played around with some EQ the faults came out more.

                It seems the guy’s on headfi are eating up the snake oil low distortion quotes from Audioquest! While it does have low distortion the mid bass actually makes them less clean compared to say, a 650 or HE-500. I think it works best as a 2nd headphone rather than a standalone but some can deal with the sound on it’s own fine it seems.

                • Reply December 18, 2015

                  dalethorn

                  I think it’s a fabulous headphone, but if you haven’t heard it the way I have, then you wouldn’t know. Sorry…

      • Reply December 19, 2015

        digitldlnkwnt

        Most times i find myself tweaking the EQ for any headphone i use. Using an EQ has a nasty connotation, but really, why wouldn’t you want your music to sound it’s best?

        • Reply December 19, 2015

          dalethorn

          If the headphone is fairly smooth to begin with, there’s a good chance of having an excellent result. But some headphones that aren’t so smooth can require a lot of work EQ’ing just to be OK enjoyable. And then there’s a few (i.e. Flare R1) that I wouldn’t EQ except as a test exercise. On average though, it’s a good way to increase the value of your investment, if you get both the response and soundstage working good.

      • Reply March 11, 2016

        Andreas Yankopolus

        Replacing the stock earpads with the Brainwavz velour memory-foam ones also gives a much more pleasing response curve.

        • Reply March 11, 2016

          dalethorn

          I got the Brainwavz pads on Jan 2, 2016 – a slight improvement, but not that good.

          • Reply March 11, 2016

            Andreas Yankopolus

            Interesting. I’m running my Nighthawks from a Dragonfly v1.2 and was on the verge of returning them due to their dark, congested sound until I tried the Brainwavz pads. I didn’t see that level of improvement coming!

            • Reply March 11, 2016

              dalethorn

              The Dragonfly helps a lot. Good that you found the right combination.

    • Reply December 17, 2015

      Headfonia_L.

      Glad you like the review!

  • Reply January 17, 2016

    Juan Luis Quiroz Guevara

    How compared with hifiman he400i?

    • Reply January 17, 2016

      Headfonia_L.

      Hifiman is cleaner, it’s an ortho, has tighter bass, more precision

  • Reply June 24, 2016

    Josh

    These might just be my endgame headphone under $1000. The sound so smooth and warm with the most natural vocals I’ve heard, and the bass sounds great when listening to edm. Audioquest really did hit a home run with this headphone as the build quality, fit and SQ are all top notch imo.

  • Reply December 20, 2016

    Brandon McKinney

    I am planning on getting these now that the price has dropped, but I am having trouble cutting through the cloud of jargon. Every review seems to pit these phones up to the same cans from Sennheiser and other “audiophile” brands and the same results are reported. I am currently using BOSE Quiet comfort 25s. I used to sell high-end speakers, so I am well aware of BOSE’s less-than-par reputation, but these phones reproduce sound with clarity and with a wide expansive soundstage. I use them with Neutron Player running FLAC files on a AudioQuest DragonflyRed DAC. However, I believe I have hit the sound ceiling on these phones and am hoping the Nighthawks will break through that ceiling. Sadly, no one wants to or can’t compare the sound.

    Any help?

    • Reply December 21, 2016

      Lieven

      I will recommend the NightOwl over the NightHawk anytime, unless you prefer a warmer, darker kind of presentation. the Owl’s clarity is extremely good and it to me is the best of both headphones

  • Reply December 20, 2016

    Dale Thorn

    I’ve had several Bose’s including the QC25 and 35, and the NightHawk. The Bose achieves its generally neutral response with decent clarity and soundstage, because it equalizes the sound at the same time it applies noise cancelling. That’s the advantage that Bose gets in the market, due to their excellent DSP. But the downside is a slightly rough sound, and noise cancelling artifacts.

    The NightHawk is much cleaner, but not equalized, it has a bit too much lower-mids emphasis and mid-treble recess. How much varies according to the playback gear – I got best results with a laptop Mac and a DragonFly v1.2, in other words a DAC/amp that’s somewhat lean and maybe a bit bright.

    The NightHawk designer pretty well insisted that user perception of its sound would be skewed because of the special technology used, much like the same had been said about the new Focals, or the Flare Audio R1 of a couple years ago, by their respective designers. I will give him credit for producing an unusual and potentially great headphone, but in the end I think if you want a good hi-fi response that’s close to neutral, you’ll need to EQ it a little.

    • Reply December 25, 2016

      Brandon McKinney

      Thanks for that description of the BOSE. It makes sense with what they are calling their “Active EQ.”

      Thankfully the Neutron Music Player has an EQ that is extraordinarily robust. I have heard folks adjusting the 500hz range. Howdver, when looking at graph data, the roll off seems tof occur at 1000 to 3000 hz.

      I have actually received the Nighthawks and I was horrified by how terrible the sound was right out of the box. It was like the bass was being played out of a megaphone, the Mids played out of a bull horn and the highs litterally sounded like it was being played through a cardboard cone. After 2 hours of burn in, they started to really open up. Richer sound, detailing, etc. I have witnessed minimal increases in burn in before….but dang, never this drastic!

      I am going to wait until it has burned in enough before I experiment with EQ settings. 🙂

      • Reply December 26, 2016

        Dale Thorn

        I tried using the Reply button but this software kept defeating me, so my answer appears separately.

  • Reply December 26, 2016

    Dale Thorn

    In this graph, you can see where I boosted 1, 3, and 8 khz by nearly 6 db. Then I reduced 160 hz by about 6 db, tapering off to -3 db at 600 hz. And that’s way after break-in. But that’s using an iPhone 6 and Oppo DAC. The EQ for desktop use was less dramatic, but still about +/- 4 db. In this graph, the vertical divisions are 6 db, and the vertical lines missing are 300 and 3000 hz.

    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/Audioforge/Audioquest_Nighthawk.jpg

  • Reply March 30, 2017

    Ben

    Can you play back FLAC / HD Music sources via the Audioforge EQ app?

    • Reply March 30, 2017

      dale thorn

      As far as I know, the Audioforge app plays from the Apple music library only, which allows lossless WAV and Apple formats only, 44 to 48 khz. My experience with FLAC indicates that for lossless 44 khz, there’s a 33 percent reduction in file size – not such a big deal, but if you had a different player (without the parametric EQ) that allowed 88/96 khz and 24 bit FLAC files, those files would be huge, and you’d probably need a 256 gb iPhone or iPad to host them.

      So for my use, I keep the bulk of my high-res files on my Macbook, and use the primitive equalizer in the Vox player, and on the iPhone7, I keep only about 50 lossless files and the remainder in 320k MP3, for portable use. I’m still looking for a better desktop/laptop player, but for the iPhone etc. devices, I’m OK with the 44/48 khz limit, since the noise floor is too high in portable use to justify using a high-res player that requires its own library.

      Maybe someone here has an idea how to get a parametric equalizer onto an Apple phone or iPad, with high-res capability. Or Android, if that’s possible.

  • Reply December 17, 2017

    Russ Myers

    These headphones are amazing with no EQ from my Lotoo Paw Gold Diana!

  • Reply July 29, 2018

    Michael Feehily

    Lucky for me I’ve got both the dragonfly red & chord mojo ,so I’ve been able to switch the nighthawk carbon between both . I’ve only had the headphones for a week so this is not an in-depth A/B comparison. The dragonfly , I think brings the recessed mid/ treble more to the fore giving a more instant engaging sound . For me though Iove the mojo/nighthawk combo simply because of the huge bass it allows to come through & I feel it’s more faithful to the nighthawk sound signature.
    I’ve come from using the Grado RS1e which for me were just too bright ( Grating at times) to the deep mellow nighthawk. So for me personally I don’t want to change the sound signature. I like them just the way they are ( big bass & all)

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