It’s always a bit of a gamble, calling something cool. Cool is such an ephemeral term. After all, Limp Bizkit were once cool. So were Capri pants, ironic T-shirts, Blackberries. Had this website existed ten years ago, we would have been telling you to check out our MySpace, which, at the time, was the absolute height of cool. Using the term to refer to…well, just about anything can leave you feeling very embarrassed and not a little bit old. The feeling can come after as little as a few months, when what was once cool seems lame and dated. But in this case – in this review of the AudioQuest NightHawk Carbon headphones – we kind of feel we have no choice. They are cool. They are immensely cool. They are Miles-Davis-relaxing-on-a-leather-couch-while-talking-to-Brigitte-Bardot-as-Denzel-Washington-mixes-them-a-whiskey-soda cool. They are Michael-Jordan-high-fiving-LeBron-James-while-Allen-Iverson-celebrates-in-the-background cool, right before Spike Lee drives onto the court in a brand new Bugatti with Lupita Nyongo hanging out the sunroof. Some things just always will be, and we’re going to put our flag on this one right now: the AudioQuest NightHawk Carbons are cool, and always will be.
You’re probably going to think we’re shilling a little bit for AudioQuest. We wouldn’t blame you. You get fair warning that we are going to orgasm all over these headphones here (not literally; also, ew). Our only defence is, we have no choice. When a pair of headphones makes you feel this good, this special for wearing them, it’s hard not to shout about them to the rooftops.
Even unzipping the case is an absolutely joyous experience. Not for AudioQuest the semirigid zippered bag; the cloth carry case; the utilitarian metal flight box. No, these bastards did something different. Their case for the Nighthawk Carbon is a full-size leather storage container, with the headphones and accessories nestled inside a foam pouch.
Just look at the thing. Look. At. It.
That’s the box it ships in. There’s a protective cardboard slipcover, but that’s all. This is the packaging. It’s impossible not to open the case without a huge smile on your face. And we’re not talking something you throw away, either. This is a case which you will be very happy to have take up space on your shelf, even if you hardly use it (AudioQuest do include a cloth carry case, of which more below).
This is why it might sound like we’re doing a little shilling here. This kind of thing. Because when a pair of headphones can make us smile before we’ve even pulled them out the case, it’s a very good sign.
3D printing. Biomimicry. Liquid wood. Biocellulose.
We don’t want to spend too much time talking about the wealth of technologies that AudioQuest used to create these headphones. Let’s just say that paging through the glossy brochure that comes with them is eyebrow-raising, to say the least. Rarely has an audio manufacturer shown this much dedication to pushing the boundaries of what you can do with a pair of headphones, and although we didn’t rip them open to check if the grille really is inspired by the structure of butterfly wings, we can certainly say that the design is unlike anything we’ve seen before (unless you’re counting the manufacturer’s previous models like the open-back Nighthawk, which is a direct predecessor of this one, and there’s also a closed-back Nightowl Carbon model).
Even the damn name makes a statement. It sounds like a car you’d unlock in Forza Horizons on XBox. Or an optional boss battle in Titanfall 2. One that flies and shoots lasers and has a rocket attack that takes out half your health bar.
These are, essentially, semi-open-back headphones: the unique grille diffuses the sound coming from the drivers, and it results in an eye-catching exterior design. The grille on each cup is suspended in a semicircular chunk of plastic, and the entire cup is made of the aforementioned liquid wood, which feels smooth and robust. These are not headphones you wear without your friends, colleagues or spouse doing a double take. Then again, they’d do a double take if you rolled up on a Ducati with Miles Davis riding side-saddle, so…
Each ear cup is clearly marked with left and right indicators, and you can swap out the pads for different material, which we’ll breakdown in a little more detail below. The pads pop right off with a firm snap, and swapping them out is simplicity itself. They also aren’t completely symmetrical, moulded to fit the shape of the ear. Each cup housing also has its own headphone connector.
The headband is interesting, too. Instead of relying on manual adjustment, the leather and fabric headband is elasticised, adjusting to the shape of your head. It’s an approach that we’ve seen on several other headphone models, like the MEZE 99 Classics (full review here), and it’s one we really like. Above the headband is a length of rigid wire, designed to hold everything together.
You could argue that these headphones lose a little bit of the high-end lustre, as several parts of them are plastic or simple fabric. And to be sure, they don’t adhere to the all-metal, all-leather aesthetic of something like the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless (full review). To which our response is: so what? When there’s so much innovative design going on behind the scenes, it seems churlish to demand certain materials appear simply because they have a high-end reputation and look. If this really was the case, then every pair of Stax electrostatic headphones would need to be upholstered in marble to get a look-in – and these are headphones that are revered by audiophiles while looking like something an alien would use to turn human brains to mush. No, the design of the NightHawk Carbons is superb: bold, eye-catching, innovative, and more importantly, fun. They are a joy to look at.
One thing – and this is a genuine downside. While these headphones work perfectly well off a mobile device, they are absolutely not portable. For one thing, they are huge, and for another, we’re not sure that we’d want to risk these in the chaos of a backpack, whether they’re in a carry case or not. AudioQuest do offer a full year’s warranty, but you might want to leave these headphones at home. Preferably close to your leather couch. And collection of fine single malts.
It’s all about the pads.
You get two pairs of them: one made of protein leather, the other made of suede. They both impact the sound differently, and we’ll talk about the differences in the next section. What’s important is that they feel superb: both of them, and although we preferred the suede pads for reasons of audio quality as well as comfort, both kinds were an absolute joy to use. It helps that they aren’t symmetrical, as we mentioned earlier, meaning they fit snugly around the ear. Even when wearing glasses, it didn’t feel like the headphones were being pushed away from the head.
Although the NightHawk Carbons aren’t particularly light (12.2oz), they are immensely comfortable to wear for long periods. It’s not just that the stretchy headband is perfectly accommodating to any size and shape of skull. It’s that the clamping pressure from the cans feels natural, neither too loose nor too tight, clasping the head without crushing it.
The design qualities of these cans would mean nothing if they felt uncomfortable - and when we first saw the design, we were a little worried. Cool it might be, but so is a Lamborghini Gallardo, and that has seats that more or less declare war on your ass cheeks. Not a problem here. The comfort level of the Carbons is superb.
AudioQuest know their audio. Not only do they have a nice line in cables, but they also make superlative amp/DACs, including the nifty USB-friendly Dragonfly Red. As you’d expect, then, their headphone game is crazy.
For a pair of headphones that costs around $700, the NightHawk Carbons are surprisingly easy to drive. With an impedance of 25 ohms and a sensitivity of 99dB, these can quite comfortably be driven by a smartphone. We spent quite a bit of time listening to them on our OnePlus Two, and the sound was…good. Even great, at times. It felt clear, dynamic and natural, with a good range of expression. Then again, these aren’t exactly portable headphones – not unless you enjoy Uber drivers asking you what on earth you’re wearing on your head – and that’s hardly the point anyway. Plug these into a decent amplifier, and they absolutely sing.
For whatever reason, the NightHawk Carbons respond particularly well to amplification, more so than other headphones. We tested them with at least five different amps/DACs, including the Schiit Fulla 2 (full review), the Hafler HA75 (full review), the iFi Micro iCAN SE (review coming soon), the Sony TA-ZH1ES (ditto) and the Peachtree nova300 (ditto ditto), and each time, we discovered something new about them that we fell in love with.
On neutral-sounding amps, the NightHawk Carbons have a clear, sharp, detailed quality to them – hardly surprising, given their open back design, but it’s got a quality to it that we found completely addictive. Even at low levels, we were able to hear every single detail on a track, and the soundstage took our breath away. Part of this, we think, is down to that butterfly-mimicking grille, which AudioQuest claim actually diffuses sound, stopping it being reflected back into the ear. It works brilliantly, and it was a real joy to try out different genres and artists with these cans, seeing how they responded.
When we added some tube goodness to the mix (and if that makes no sense, here’s what we mean), we got the best of both worlds: the warm, gooey quality of the tubes, with that outstanding clarity and crispness. There is a truly staggering level of science and thought that has gone into the headphones’ 50mm driver units, and it shows: we never lacked for bass, or tight dynamics. It helps that you can switch out the earpads to customise the sound; the protein leather pads gave us better isolation and slightly more detail in the highs, while the suede pads sacrificed the former to add in a better bass response.
It’s worth saying that there were a couple of issues with bleed, the sound leaking out of the grille while we were listening to music, but it was a minor problem – something you have to be in relatively close proximity to the headphones to notice.
In the instruction leaflet, AudioQuest advise a burn-in time of 150 hours for the headphones to reach their full potential. We listened to them for around this length of time, and didn’t detect a huge change in sound quality, but it’s not as if listening to them was a hardship, and it’s not as if the sound wasn’t spectacular to begin with. It had almost zero distortion from the get-go.
Are these going to beat a pair of multi-thousand-dollar planar-magnetic open-backs, like the Audeze LCD-3? Probably not. But for under $1000, you would have to look very long and very hard to find sound this good. In audio terms, the NightHawk Carbons don’t put a foot wrong.
Hoo boy. Where do we start? There’s a lot to talk about here.
Perhaps it’s a good idea to begin with the cable. It’s not like other headphone cables. To start with, it’s thick, with a chunkiness and solidity that we really like. AudioQuest say this is to reduce ‘microphonics’ - those annoying rumbling bumps you get when touch a cable of lower manufacturing standards. Well, we bumped and knocked and touched and thump, and didn’t hear a single microphonic. Job done.
At 4’3” length, the cable in question is not that much shorter than other headphone cables, but it feels shorter, perhaps due to its tendency to curl in on itself a little. And while the cable is tangle free, the smaller, thinner lines above the Y-bracket due tend to get a little twisted, which can be a bit annoying. The connector is standard 3.5mm, and it comes with a 6.3mm adapter
There was, to our surprise, an in-line control unit on the bracket. This didn’t work with our Android smart phone, but it worked just fine on an iPhone, even if you have to exert quite a lot of force to push the button.
The cable connections are actually quite interesting. They are made of Tellurium Copper, which AudioQuest say results in a smoother plug surface, and therefore, higher audio quality. It also, unfortunately, has an interesting side effect: you need to clean the conductors quite regularly, and this is probably a good time to talk about the other accessories that come with the headphones.
Put simply, if we didn’t clean the connectors once every few days with the specially-supplied silver cloth, we got slight interruptions in the signal. This wasn’t a huge issue – cleaning the connectors didn’t take much more than a few seconds – but it was a surprise. First, we thought we’d been shipped a defective unit, but cleaning the connectors showed an immediate improvement in the quality and transmission.
The company cautions you not to use the silver cloth on the headphones themselves, supplying a basic black microfibre cloth for this purpose, which does a good job of cleaning the liquid wood housing. In addition to that, you not only get a simple cloth carry case for the headphones (to save you having to hump around the wonderful but substantial leather box), but you also get an entirely separate one for the cable. That’s a level of dedication to accessory goodness that we don’t think we’ve seen before. There is so much here – the four ear pads, the two cloths, the multiple carry bags – that we almost want a separate carrier to hold them all in. One that isn’t made of leather and displayed proudly on our headphone shelf.
Along with the NightHawk Carbons, AudioQuest also shipped us a headphone stand, the Perch.
We are never going to devote a full, three-thousand review to a simple stand (because, come on). But there’s no reason we shouldn’t talk about it here, especially since it’s designed first and foremost as a spot for you to hang your Carbons. You have to order it separately, and it costs around $80, but we think it’s worth it.
Firstly, there is zero assembly required: you take the stand out the box, and put your headphones on it. Secondly, it feels like it could kill somebody if you hit them hard enough with it, which is an important factor when you’re groping around for a pair of headphones without necessarily looking to see that you aren’t about to knock your stand off the shelf. What’s interesting, however, is that the stand claims to solve a particular problem with headphones. Namely: that if you hang them in one spot for long enough, you risk deforming the headband, as all the weight is concentrated on one point. The curved bracket at the top of the Perch evenly distributes this weight, and although we’d need months and months of testing to know for sure, it seems far less likely to change the shape of the headband. If you care about your headphones, we suggest picking up a Perch as well.
Here’s the kicker.
There are plenty of companies that make high end headphones. And there are plenty of headphone models that are, objectively, better than the NightHawk Carbons. But do you want to know the difference between those models and these? Headphones from your big manufacturers – your Sonys, your Beyerdynamics, even your Audezes – often feel like they’ve been designed and packaged by robots. They do a phenomenal job, but they don’t seem particularly concerned with how they make you feel. Whatever engineers labored over the audio signature in the lab, making it just right, the packaging and user experience was handled by Bob from management, who drives a Volvo and enjoys comparing snow blowers.
That’s the difference with these headphones. They feel like they were made by human beings: by people who care very deeply not just about the sound going into your ears, but the entire experience, from the moment you open up the packaging to when you hang the headphones back on the stand. They feel like they’ve been designed by people who enjoy what they do, and who want you to enjoy it, too. They’ve been made with care, and pride, and devotion.
How many headphones can you say that about? Up until recently, only companies like Grado really nailed it. And their down-home, folksy Brooklyn family business charm is great…but somehow, we prefer these. And let’s be real: we didn’t just spend damn-near 3000 words of orgasmic, overblown prose to give the NightHawk Carbons nothing more than a perky thumbs-up. These get fireworks. These get the ticker tape parade. These get the goddamn key to the city, and a blowjob in the back of the limo.
What it comes down to is this: we absolutely adored the NightHawk Carbons. They sound terrific. They look fantastic. Their accessory game is off the charts. And for the price, as far as we’re concerned, there’s no better pair of headphones. If you care about your audio, even a little bit, then you owe it to yourself to try them. They are quite simply the coolest pair of headphones we’ve ever used.
- Stunning design.
- Groundbreaking science.
- Clear, dynamic, addictive sound.
- Easy to drive.
- Accessories are to die for.
- Coolest headphones around.
- Cable connectors require cleaning - and the cable itself twists a little.
- Definitely not portable.
(UPDATE: This review was written on the understanding that the headphones would be returned after publication, at AudioQuest's expense. After it was published, AudioQuest offered to let TMS keep the headphones at a discounted rate - roughly half the market price. This is not a common arrangement, but we've decided to take them up on it; it does not and will not alter the content of this review, and we are satisfied that this arrangement doesn't compromise our ethics in this regard.
As standard practice, we will continue to assume companies who send us products wish them to be returned - this is the case with almost all equipment we review. If a company indicates that they do not need a product returned, we sell it, with the proceeds donated to charity.)
Well, why not? After all, when you've got a pair of headphones this unique, the easiest comparison is a model that looks just like it, and that has the same devotion to groundbreaking science.
The Nightowl doesn’t have the sound-defusing grille (obviously), and it doesn’t have the same open, airy quality to the audio, but it still packs a huge amount of scientific innovation inside it, and is still an absolute joy to use. You’d go for this pair of headphones if you wanted the AudioQuest experience, but needed to use the headphones in an environment where audio bleed could be a problem, such as an office. The differences between the two models are minimal, outside of the fact that the Nightowl is closed-back, and they cost roughly the same, so making the choice is an easy one.
Usually, Sennheiser are all about the whole user-experience-designed-by-robots thing. Their headphones sound wonderful, but boy, do they look boring.
The HD800 is one of the few models from this company that broke the mould there, and in doing so, it became a firm favourite of just about every audio geek on earth. The open back design and unusual, eye-catching earcups make it a serious looker, and the sound has really and truly stood the test of time. For many, this is the go-to headphone for testing out new amps or DACs, and it isn’t hard to see why. More expensive than the NightHawks, and nerdy rather than cool, but well worth the money.
These don’t offer quite the same level of audio quality as the NightHawks. And yet, in the months we’ve spent with them, we can’t help but find the sound addictive. They might not have the same clarity, but they have a richness and depth that makes them a serious alternative – and a cheaper one.
You sacrifice the groundbreaking driver structure and design, and you don’t get the same airiness and clarity – these are closed-back, dynamic driver cans, with all that implies. But they are absolutely gorgeous, supremely comfortable, and a pair of headphones that you just have to experience. If you don’t have the budget to stretch to a pair of NightHawk Carbons, give Romania’s Greatest Export a go. Check out our full review, too.
|AudioQuest NightHawk Carbon||$699||12.2oz||50mm||25Ω||4'3"||99dB|
|AudioQuest Nightowl Carbon||$699||12.2oz||50mm||25Ω||4'3"||99dB|
|MEZE 99 Classics||$309||9.2oz||40mm||32Ω||Various||103dB|