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.
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.