Nighthawk Stereo Headphone
Sources: iPhone6+ with Oppo HA-2/Beyer A200p DAC/amps, various computers using the HRT Microstreamer/Audioquest Dragonfly/FiiO E17k/FiiO E07k DAC/amps.
How to describe the sound of the Audioquest Nighthawk? The term liquid comes to mind, as a smoothness that’s like water on a plate. As I’ve been listening the past few days I thought “This is like listening to average solid-state amps for years, and then hearing a highly-regarded tube amp for the first time.” That’s an imperfect analogy, since I’m dealing with the complexities of sound, and audiophile sound at that.
There are aspects of audiophile sound that fall into a hierarchy of sorts – frequency response, balance, signature – those three terms describe the thing that’s most obvious to beginners and advanced users alike. There are theories and there are preferences. My personal take says that the Nighthawk is both warmer and softer (less harsh) than the classic hi-fi flagships from Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic, to name some examples. But that’s also my impression of good tube sound, so the question then is “How much does the Nighthawk actually differ from those ‘flagship’ headphones?”
The answer is “Not a lot” – a few dB plus or minus, i.e. within flagship range. But that’s just the signature. There’s the tonality: A critical audiophile who has perfect pitch suggested a test – Dvorak’s Ninth, Movement Two, Alsop and Baltimore Symphony, at ~0:40 into the track: There are two instruments (horn and reed) that play the same short passage one after the other, and some of the pricier flagship headphones can’t resolve which is which. The Nighthawk does.
Smoothness is a third property of reproduced sound, and headphones that aren’t well-damped to eliminate resonances can sound peaky or drop certain tones. But even some of those that are treated for resonances and other anomalies will still have a subtle roughness left over, and I’ve had a couple of those recently. The Nighthawk on the other hand is very smooth. Soundstage isn’t easy to evaluate since it’s dependent on so many other properties, so I’ll just say that the Nighthawk’s soundstage is like being there.
Dynamics is not an aspect of sound quality per se, but if your amplifier isn’t powerful enough, dynamic peaks will be clipped and the resulting sound may vary from slightly dull to a bit mushy. The Nighthawk plays loudly and cleanly with my music tracks on the iPhone 6, but some users may have a few low-volume tracks that won’t play loudly enough with cellphones and other similar devices.
A good DAC-plus-headphone amp will provide better sound than pocket music players do, but selecting such DACs and amps can be a daunting process without a lot of research, or having a hi-fi guru handy. Don’t expect a good amp to make bad or harsh recordings more enjoyable. There may be music in some users’ collections that’s right at the edge of listenability, and using a better amp (especially a tube amp) could nudge those tracks back into the enjoyable zone, but that’s more the exception than the rule. The Nighthawk at least should make more of those tracks enjoyable than many of the aforementioned flagship headphones.
In addition to the music tracks listed below, I want to make a special mention of a high-resolution song by David Chesky and Wonjung Kim – Girl From Guatemala. This track has a lengthy burst of very strong upper treble percussive sounds from several instruments at 3:00, which sound spectacular with the better amplifiers, with energy and sparkle whose harmonics seem to reach nearly to infinity. I highly recommend this music track for anyone who wants to know just what the Nighthawk is capable of.
The Nighthawk cost me $599 USD, and given that I’ve paid more for headphones that weren’t nearly as good, I’d say it was a pretty good deal. Physically, the Nighthawk is one of the best I’ve had, so if you’re even slightly familiar with premium headphones, the Nighthawk will not disappoint – a nice fabric-and-leather headband, hi-fi tuned “liquid wood” earcups, soft spongy earpads, and a double-entry cable that’s optimized for purest sound quality.
This is a “semi-open” design, so there’s a minimal amount of sound leakage that says private use only, i.e. no sitting next to other persons in a public library or a very quiet office. In environments with moderate noise levels like some coffee shops, the leakage is less likely to be an issue with average playback levels. Isolation is minimal as well, but I’ve found it useful in places that aren’t extremely noisy, which excludes trains, planes, and high traffic zones.
The weight is average for a full-size headphone, but that weight should be much less noticeable than with many other designs, due to a nicely padded low-stress headband and very soft squishy earpads that are deep enough to preclude any pressure on the ear pinnae. The cables (see below) are terminated with standard 3.5 mm 45-degree angled miniplugs – ideal for computer headphone jacks as well as portable music players. Included is a 3.5 mm to 6.35 mm plug adapter for use with 6.35 mm (1/4 inch) headphone jacks found on some desktop amps.
Two cables are supplied, both fabric-covered. The larger cable is more-or-less flat, 5 mm wide and 2.5 mm thick, but it doesn’t lay perfectly flat, although it doesn’t really kink up. Not a bother. The smaller cable is very thin (but feels durable), and all I can say is it works! Both cables are approximately 9 feet long. Audioquest is noted for their high-quality cables, and the Nighthawk cable should be as good as it gets.
The Nighthawk is issued with an ideal carry case, or as nearly ideal as possible for a full-size headphone – 11 x 9 x 4 inches approximately, a leather-like exterior, zippered, with a foam insert. The case is stiff enough to resist crushing, but soft enough not to hurt or harm if bumped into.
The comments in the music tracks listed below can be compared to other headphone reviews I’ve done, to get an idea of how the Nighthawk plays the different music tracks listed here compared to other headphones. My suggestion is instead of reading each comment below as an absolute unto itself, you could compare these notes to other reviews as they get posted, and see how the Nighthawk compares with each individual track.
Antonin Dvorak (Alsop-Baltimore Symphony): Just after 0:40 of Movement No.2 begins a counterpoint between two instruments – one followed by the other (woodwind and horn), but not necessarily in that order. The Nighthawk resolves those clearly, and I leave it to the listener to discern which is which.
Ben Goldberg – Root and Branch (Jazz): The horns and clarinet have a rich tone, the bass provides excellent supporting weight, and the percussion is crisp and detailed. There’s a lot going on in this track, and the Nighthawk delineates it all perfectly.
Boz Scaggs – Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality – this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled extremely well by the Nighthawk.
Cath Carroll – Moves Like You (1980’s New Wave/Techno): This track’s percussion and voice are crisp and well-balanced, and there’s a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The Nighthawk reproduces the space and detail beautifully.
Chris Isaak – Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The Nighthawk plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly – the voice and instruments are very detailed but not edgy – very musical in fact.
Christophe Beck – Slayer’s Elegy (Soundtrack): The voice, percussion, and other sonic effects occupy a huge soundstage, but it all sounds natural and coherent with the Nighthawk.
Chromatics – I’m On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sound is as realistic as I’ve heard with any other headphone since doing these detailed reviews.
Cranes – Adoration (Goth-Rock): This track begins with some realistic piano notes, and the percussion and voice improvisation are blended in to create a very atmospheric effect. The Nighthawk plays this perfectly.
David Hazeltine – Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The Nighthawk reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are extended and detailed.
Ed Palermo – Crazy (Pop Vocal): A dose of big band, pop, country, and jazz with a unique vocal is Ed Palermo’s Big Band, and this track is a great demo for the Nighthawk – for instrumental tone and ambiance, and a perfectly-recorded vocal. The saxophone lead at 2:51 is especially gratifying.
Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) – Peer Gynt-Solveig’s Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950’s) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg’s amazing voice are as close to “being there” as I’ve heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The Nighthawk plays this music perfectly.
Hubert Kah – The Picture (New Wave): The voice and electronic effects sound quite natural, and the bass synth is properly warm and very detailed. The Nighthawk plays this lively music with great energy.
Mantovani – Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor (see below) who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani’s accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn’t tolerate the notion of “light classics” or “semi-classical” music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960’s through mid-1970’s had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2015, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it’s not always the case. This track as played on the Nighthawk is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.
Mantovani developed the “Cascading Strings” sonic effect circa 1950, a famous “Wall of Sound” effect for mono hi-fi systems that predated Phil Spector’s own famous Wall of Sound effect by 10 years or so.
Marc Johnson – Prayer Beads (Acoustic): The upright bass has excellent string tone and weight. The Nighthawk plays this effortlessly.
Michael Buble – Nice ‘n Easy (Jazz): The voice is prominent but well-recorded, the massed instruments are delineated nicely, and the bass line especially is clear and detailed. This sounds pretty good with most headphones, but it’s a special treat with the Nighthawk.
Porcupine Tree – Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of “clip-clop” effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The Nighthawk reproduces that sound effect pretty well.
Scarlatti-Kipnis – Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the Nighthawk renders the tones and transients perfectly.
Sophie Milman – Lonely in New York (Jazz): The instruments (trumpet, violin, percussion, etc.) and the vocal are very strong, and the voice can be rather sibilant on many headphones – especially those with a strong treble. The Nighthawk renders this track as musically as I’ve ever heard.
Tiger Okoshi – Bootsman’s Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant “bite.” The Nighthawk’s reproduction is near-perfect, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.
Tutt-Keltner – Drum Improvisation (Jazz): The drums have great impact with realistic “skin” tone, the cymbal harmonics are very shimmery, and the transient sounds are cleanly reproduced. The Nighthawk really brings this track to life.
I award these exceptional headphones a MyMac rating of 9 out of 10 with a personal recommendation – for exceptional soundstage, resolution, and tonality. We’ll be able to make a final audiophile expert judgement in a few months, when all the professional reviews are published.