Audioquest Nighthawk – Early Impressions
I purchased these used, from an excellent Head-fi seller. Good bunch of folks there. Thanks James.
Based on my experience with headphones, and the reading currently available on the Nighthawk, I was confident this would be a great pairing for me. And, since they came with approximately 100 hours of play, I’ll not need but another week of listening to get these primed. Or not – we’ll see. It may take longer. The reports vary on this, so as always we must trust our ears.
I have lived with the AKG Q701 for nearly 4 years, so will need to adjust to the closer fit, and sonic signature of the Nighthawk before I I’m done here While they are a semi-open design, there is a more prominent seal created in comparison.
The Nighthawks design diverges from the majority of higher end headphones. Read more about each facet in detail here.
Reports on comfort have not been exaggerated. These are the most comfortable headphones I’ve worn. I’ve got a substantial melon, and, these ‘phones actually feel good. The more ear shaped (opposed to the large round AKGs) ear cups seal gently over my large lobes as well.
I dig the look and high quality feel of the liquid wood cups and the protein leather pads are soft and very comfortable. Not hot either – through the hours I’ve logged (three 8-10 hour sessions) so far, I’ve not had to stop due to any discomfort.
Plugged into the Bottlehead amp – comfortable listening at about 8:00 on the dial – so clearly a low impedance ‘phone that will require little power to get going. Briefly ran them with my Nexus 6 and Tidal app, and my phone had no trouble driving the Nighthawk.
I am noticing a slight hum from the Bottlehead – a first -though stands to reason considering the sensitivity of the NH. Using the Mark Hollis solo record (the quietest record I have owned) as my test, I could hear the hum along with the opening -a very quiet opening, mind you – of the record. Otherwise, it’s not intrusive during playback.
Day 3 (approx. 120 hours in all)
The Q701’s sound blanched, in comparison. Bleached like the midday desert landscape. Nighthawks midrange is luscious, but not unnaturally fleshy.The low end is bedrock solid. Music is anchored by it, but low mids are not overcome.
So, I’m getting the intimate presentation that I dig. Texture. Tone. Dynamics. Presence. Push.
I get a sense of the physicality I would experience with speakers, so listening is a rush.
The NH’s soundstage doesn’t stretch beyond my ears, where the AKG blow it out, knocking down the walls of the acoustic space. The effect, for me, is like playing drums outside – you lose the reflections that boost low freqs – so can’t feel the kick drum like when in a small club, for example. So, smaller and perhaps more realistic, but due to the semi-closed design (in comparison to Q701s wide open presentation) I’m getting more spatial cues. The AKG let in a lot of ambient noise even in my office. The NH provide better definition of the acoustic space due to this, and it’s high frequency performance.
The details are there, and I’m hearing more from the NH despite the more natural (and according to Audioquest, its linear) presentation. Harmonics. Overtones. Air. All subtle clues telling our minds that it sounds ‘real’- ish. Strings sound like themselves. Brass are sonorous, and they – along with all acoustic instruments – have volume. The air apparent. There is a complete lack of unnatural edge on cymbals, yet they sing, splash and cough like they should.
I am really digging the Nighthawks engaging, musical and very balanced presentation. I will follow up with some thoughts after an extended period with them.
For those who want reference to specific music , my notes are below.
Spacemonkey: Chopping Wood in My Brand New Moon Boots
Piano and drum duo. Atmospheric and moody. Effects laden ambient noise surround the instruments and dance about the abyssal stage. They sparkle against the warm piano, and the brushwork is set nicely, center stage.
Sparklehorse: Spirit Ditch
No audiophile music here. Recording quality will range wide.
Bass is creamy. Acoustic guitar is textured, but string attack is not harsh.
Shawn Smith: Suffering (Live)
Vocal is chesty at times – it’s on the record. Hearing the low end resonance of the piano and it’s giving the performance more power.
Sharon Van Etten: Tarifa
This recording had spit and spark in the vocals – that’s still here, along with the grain in Van Etten’s vocals in the harmony parts about 3/4 through the tune. Her lower register is more breathy and present. Nice. First sign that while low mids and bass are glorious, it’s not because highs are buried – they simply aren’t boosted – as much. I do feel like there’s a touch too much bloom in the low mids and upper bass, but I have a feeling this will change with burn in. The glare is missing – this tune can set my teeth on edge, and make me taste copper with the AKG. That’s not happening with the Nighthawk.
Shabazz Palaces: Forerunner Foray
Bass is large and is plumbing the depths of the NH, but not smothering the mids – very cool. Skittering sampled hat sounds are sparkling yet do not cut. Lead vocal is tucked into this potential mess of effects laden keyboards. Female vocal parts sibilance is still wince inducing.
Sean Jones Quartet: Dark Times
This high res recording of the quartet is excellent. Warm overall. Lots of cymbal work here – all the colors and tone are reproduced naturally. No harsh edges here. Hats have color and a warm splash. The trumpet is strident though has body.
Compressed piano part blooms in a pleasant way. Vocals are intimate and set over this complex tune.
Portishead: It’s A Fire
The organ, bass and bass drum all blend nicely. This recording was always dry and digital sounding for me. Not so now. Gibbons vocals are airy and have presence – more fleshed out now.
Patrick Watson: Turn Into the Noise
This is a dense and fuzzed out tune. Dig it. The NH wrangles all the bits together into a meditative romp with chest thumping bass drum.
Perfume Genius: No Good
This record can be harsh sounding at times. The vocal and piano are more natural here. Bass clarinet parts are more defined and textured.
Nils Frahm: Chant
Solo piano – though a very, large custom built piano. The low notes resonate and oscillate – but not unnaturally. The NH don’t make a caricature of the music. Incredibly satisfying. The lowest notes have almost no edge or attack, so I hear/feel them like an organ note. Earth movers.
Open Mike Eagle: Idaho
Vocal is intimate – dry. Kick drum part punches and hi hats sparkle. The NH are coherent, yet allow the parts their own space too.
Joshua Redman: Mantra #5
I am hearing the breath of the sax yet there’s more tone than before. Light taps of the keys are there – tons of detail – though they aren’t highlighted. Lower bass notes have bloom – again, not sure how much of this is the recording. String buzz and attack are subtle. The drums come in, and the ride cymbal opens up under the stick pattern. So cool. There’s momentum in this performance, and the NH are transferring that energy.
Fiona Apple: Valentine
Holy balls. Ok, my early experience very closely matches what I have read – low end seems bloated and muddy. Not so. The heartbeat drum pattern opens this tune, and it’s well defined and I can feel it. These drivers have a nice shove to them already.
Deafheaven: Dream House
While the stage is less wide, the trade is more mid and upper bass – drums punch and sound more like themselves. The guitars are huge and envelope everything else. The vocals are tucked in, but are more defined and clearer.
The Rhodes that opens Roads is molasses thick and swollen. But when Beth Gibbons vocal comes in it floats above the mass and is as dry as I know it to be. The kick drum pumps through both the bassline and the keyboard part.
Source: Win10 PC with Tidal/Roon
D/A Conversion: USB out to Schiit Gungnir multibit via Schiit Wyrd
Amplification: Bottlehead S.E.X amp (4 ohms)
This system is highly resolving and relatively neutral.
So, compared to my Primaluna with 6CA7-Zs, it is leaner and drier, though that should be no surprise. Those PSvane black bottles are luscious, and, I do miss that touch, texture and presence. Of course, this comparison is made with speaker output in mind, as the PL did not have a headphone output.
That said, the Bottlehead is a better match for my system and listening space.
Headphone Reference – AKG Q701
I’ve had the AKG Q701 for 3+ years, and I initially used them for recording at home. They are generally known for their analytical presentation, huge soundstage and for most it seems, a less than desirable bass response.