in ,

AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon: additive-free headphone listening

  • Kicking the habit. From the high fructose corn syrup used by cookie companies as a sweetener to the MSG used by fast food joints to boost their dishes’ flavour, the flavour enhancements are artificial.

    Prolonged exposure to artificial sweeteners makes adapting to a new, more healthy ways of eating exponentially more challenging.

    How does this relate to audio?

    According to the Director of AudioQuest’s ‘Ear-Speaker Division’, Skylar Gray, we as headphone listeners have been exposed to upper-frequency distortion for so long now that we have become accustomed to its artificial sense of aural excitement. In other words, headphone transducer distortion has become normalised.

    The high-end headphone sector isn’t immune to Gray’s critical assessment: the ‘fizzy’ treble that I hear in pair of AKG K-702 is, according to our man from California, an example of aural MSG – an unnatural additive that gives music an edgy presence.

    AudioQuest’s NightHawk (US$599) illustrated how Gray’s additive-free thinking might translate to real-world results. By focussing on the proper pistonic motion of a dynamic driver housed in a semi-open earcup, Gray would lower distortion, notably at 3kHz and above.

    This in turn begat a disarmingly smooth treble response and slight mid-bass bump for a richness not heard from the likes of Sennheiser’s HD650 or OPPO’s portable-friendly PM-3. Compared to the Sennheiser HD800’s chilled spritely fizz and down the bone x-ray vision, the NighHawk’s presentation proved to be far plusher. Was this the sound of lower distortion, conspicuous through an absence of lower treble razzmatazz? According to Gray, yes.

    The NightHawk offered up the least nervy presentation I’ve to date from ANY headphone. Tonal mass was also thicker than average. Elsewhere, NightHawk were seemingly devoid of personality. Is that not what we want from a headphone: for it to step aside and let the music speak for itself? To get there however, the NightHawk demanded patience. As Gray saw it, our ear-brains need time to acclimatise to an absence of low-level high frequency distortion.

    Despite obvious talents with macro dynamic drama, tonal colour saturation and low frequency handling, the NightHawk’s treble politeness led some commentators – myself included – to interpret them as better suited to the more discerning (possibly mature) listener: someone prepared to ignore this headphone’s absence of first-listen titillation in favour of deeper, long-game satisfaction. The earcups’ wood burl finish (think: luxury car dashboards) and a slightly elevated mid-bass did little to disabuse us of the notion that the NightHawk might be our Fathers’ headphones.

    Could it be that Skylar Gray, a mere 34 years old, had overplayed his hand? Follow-up question: does it matter when the design objective of lower distortion from a dynamic driver headphone was apparently achieved?

    In late 2016, and in (part) response to customer demand, AudioQuest introduced the NightOwl Carbon, a closed-back variant of the subsequently revised NightHawk, now dubbed NightHawk Carbon. We bid farewell to the wood burl finish. In its place comes a more “technical looking” (Gray’s words) high gloss automotive paint. Colour: grey. Ergo, Carbon.

    The press releases that announced the new NightHawk/Owl Carbon models’ spoke of “Modified internal parts: Tighter tolerances reduce air leakage for improved airflow and lower distortion” and “Improved plugs: High-purity Tellurium Copper (TeCu) base metal for smoother surface, higher plating quality, better mating contact, and, consequently, less noise.”

    The new models would sell for US$699 apiece.

    Six months prior to press release arrival and behind closed doors at Munich High-End, Gray had a pre-production version of the NightOwl Carbon on hand. How about a little show and tell? In this video, Gray goes deeper on their specifics than the text that follows it:

    ‘Same platform’? Same bio-cellulose driver with rubber surround using the same patented “split-gap Tesla motor”, all housed inside the same liquid wood earcups suspended from the same rubber-damped stainless steel headband.

    How did the NightOwl Carbon’s development start? According to Gray, by sealing an existing NightHawk; the 3D-printed grille was replaced with a makeshift plug and a tiny hole drilled in the earcup to end the perfect seal and relieve pressure build up.

    From there, Gray reworked the internal damping to remove peaks and troughs from the emerging NightOwl Carbon’s measured frequency response whilst maintaining a sharp eye on a house sound.

    Gray says the NightOwl Carbon measures almost identically to the NightHawk Carbon – almost – but that their presentation is every so slightly different. To these ears, the mid-bass baby bump has been banished, which in turn opens the door to a slightly more forward midrange and an altogether more open sounding headphone.

    Getting my conclusion out of the way early: I much prefer the NightOwl Carbon to the original NightHawk.

    R.E.M.’s Out of Time recently received the 25th anniversary treatment. However, for those that find Michael Stipe’s singing (“Half A World Away”) too earnest and Mike Mills’ songs (“Near Wild Heaven”) too whimsical, New Zealand’s Mutton Birds strike the middle ground. Hooks as catchy as Stipe’s but without the overcooked angst.

    Envy Of Angels, piped from Sony NW-ZX2 DAP to NightOwl Carbon, Don McGlashan’s vocal shows up as more throaty than chesty than as per the original NightHawk, as conferred by my (admittedly unreliable) long-term auditory memory.

    How do the NightOwl Carbon compare to __________? As per any DAR review, A/Bs are determined by whatever gear I have to hand. As much as I might wish for a pair of MrSpeakers’ Ether Flow C to be present for comparative listening against the NightOwl Carbon, they aren’t.

    Instead, the incoming AudioQuest first go up against Sennheiser’s HD 800S. With the bigger Germans running with ‘Ring Radiator’ drivers and selling for a full thousand dollars more than the NightOwl Carbon, this might seem like a pointless comparison.

    Make no mistake, the Sennheisers are objectively the superior headphone. Subjectively? That’s a different story.

    Consider the average Radiohead fan asked to pick his/her favourite album from their catalogue: OK Computer or Kid A? Completely different beasts but equally enjoyable for different reasons. And so it goes with the NightOwl Carbon vs. the HD800S – equally enjoyable but for different reasons.

    The top shelf Sennheisers give us tighter bass and a more overt delivery of textural information but they’re not as impactful in the low end as the NightOwl Carbon. A feeling of surgical analysis is never far from one’s mind with the open-back HD800S. As one might expect from a closed-back headphone, the NightOwl connote a greater sense of intimacy.

    Which do I prefer? Neither. However, with the NightOwl Carbon, I can more readily put my investigative thoughts into park and sit back and enjoy the music.

    Does that mean the NightOwl Carbon are the more ‘musical’ of the two? If only we could agree on a definition for ‘musical’. For this reviewer, it remains as meaningless as it is slippery.

    Does that mean the NightOwl Carbon are coloured? Nope. Remember: Kid A vs OK Computer. Or the White Album vs. Revolver. Or Highway 61 Revisited vs. Blonde on Blonde.

    Unlike the Sennheisers, the NightOwl Carbon play nicely with portables, even smartphones. The Americans aren’t as fussy about amplification and source quality as their German rival. That’ll be the NightOwl’s 25 Ohm impedance and 99dbSPL/mW sensitivity at work; their absence of (artificial?) presence region animation finds an iPhone 6S Plus’ tonal rigidity more easily forgiven.

    On desktop dance partners, I prefer the leaner, zippier illumination of the Rupert Neve Headphone Amplifier over the Schiit Jotunheim, which is more inclined to double down on the AudioQuest’s creamier, more opulent acoustic mass, particularly in the low end. This makes the silver machine a more agreeable HD800S companion.

    Should we be so inclined, any of NightOwl Carbon’s remaining richness can be infused with a little treble caffeination without switching up DAC or amplifier. Snap off the protein leather pads and snap on the Ultrasuede variant (supplied). The latter open up the skylight on treble extension – especially useful for those with a thirst for a music’s ambient information. The trade-off is less overt low frequency thump, sometimes a good thing, especially with electronic music’s greater dependence on bass. Techno fans – Headless Horseman, Objekt, Ansome etc. – should start with the Ultrasuede pads.

    The point here is this: the NightOwl Carbon’s tonal balance can be seasoned according to taste with ancillary gear but also in spite of it.

    With lossy sources like Spotify and Apple Music, the NightOwl Carbon are more forgiving than the HD800S (expected) but also the Final Sonorous III (less expected). More obvious: the NightOwl Carbon’s closed-back design makes them a viable option for use on public transport or at the office.

    This nudges us toward our second comparison, one with a smaller price differential and closer in topology. The Sonorous III from Tokyo’s Final are an excellent closed-back headphone. They sell for US$399. The AudioQuest are more expensive but, to my mind, also the better headphone.

    The Final feel heavier on the head, look bigger and sound more urgent. Their bass impact hits harder and more readily dominates; layer separation is more cleanly defined but on acoustic mass, the Final are thinner and drier.

    Flipping this A/B on its head, the NightOwl Carbon sound fleshier – they put more meat on the bone – but swap out the Final’s crispness for a more casual aural repose. The NightOwl Carbon come on as the more open-sounding of the two.

    Fret not on disturbing others. Despite the hidden airflow-resistive port that runs the circumference of the central circular portion of NightOwl Carbon’s earcups, very little sound makes it over the border, hence Cubicle Approved®.

    The revised, shorter, more robust cable with in-line microphone – that sits apart from the main signal path – and basic smartphone control only enforces the NightOwl Carbon’s go anywhere spirit. Whilst not foldable or as handy as other portable headphones, Gray should be congratulated for designing retail packaging that doubles as a carry case. We don’t get such luxuries from Final.

    However, all of the above would count for nothing were it not for the even distribution of the NightOwl Carbon’s 346g weight. That’s none too far from the HD800S’s own 330g and unlike say Audeze’s EL-8 or even the Final Sonorous III, Skylar Gray’s NightOwl/Hawk Carbon are easily the most comfortable headphones to grace this commentator’s head, bar none and at any price.

    A DAR-KO Award lands here not only because the NightOwl Carbon isn’t as rich as its predecessor. Nor because it is more open sounding too. It’s because the NightOwl Carbon, like AudioQuest’s DragonFly DACs, arrive a) fully-formed with zero price-point quibbles and b) are several steps apart from the competition.

    Further information: AudioQuest


    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

    Between A/D and D/A: the power of pragmatism

    Download to own: Bowie, Blur and Joy Division in MQA