Review: AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon Headphones
You should hear the AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon. At $700, it might cost more than you plan on spending, but you should hear it. When you do hear them, you might think they sound too dark or even dull, but you should keep listening. The NightOwl was a challenge to review – it asks for time, re-listening, and re-calibration of expectations about what it means for a headphone to sound “accurate.” It appears that the NightOwl was designed thoughtfully and purposefully, such that the sound coming through its drivers is exactly what AudioQuest wanted us to hear. Though the NightOwl’s tone is an acquired taste, we feel that it is a headphone that sounds like its’ designer’s choices rather than compromises; a rare bird indeed.
AudioQuest has done very well with the design of the NightOwl, making sure that the listener’s contact points are babied and nothing about the headphone’s physical design detracts from the experience. Its “Liquid Wood” cups, finished with a jaw-dropping metallic gray paint, are suspended from the yokes by thin rubber buttresses that are just compliant enough to let the cups adjust to your head. The included ear pads (protein leather and “Ultra Suede” options are included) are, in our opinion, perfect – perfect depth, perfect size, and perfect softness. The NightOwl sits lightly on the head, suspended by an Ultra Suede band entirely separated from the thin arched wire that provides clamping force. The NightOwl is an extremely comfortable headphone with an exquisite design; we applaud AudioQuest for what they’ve accomplished here.
Ironically, our only complaints about the NightOwl’s physical design lie with its cable. It’s too thick and stiff for such a delicate headphone, and it’s too short for a headphone that we think will be primarily used in the home. The cable’s silver-plated plugs are beautiful, but require more maintenance than the gold plating common in other high-end cables – ours showed wear in just a few weeks of use. The stiff, angled strain relief is so large that it looks like it could provide a dangerous amount of leverage against its comparatively small TRRS plug. Our review sample’s 1/4-inch adapter made scratching sounds when rotated, even after cleaning. Though the inline control/mic works and we are sure that the cable is internally well-built, we can’t help but wish that AudioQuest had included a second, more traditional cable option.
Cable nitpicks aside, AudioQuest was generous with the NightOwl’s accessories. This headphone ships in a rigid leather travel case with plenty of interior padding. Inside, there is room to store the extra ear pads, two microfiber storage bags, cleaning cloth, and silver polish cloth. We didn’t see the NightOwl as a “portable” headphone, but AudioQuest has made it as “transportable” as possible for no additional cost.
On AudioQuest’s website you’ll find over 2,000 words of technical discussion about the design of the NightOwl, its ear cups, its biodynamic driver diaphragms, and unique acoustic design. Though we highly recommend reading the NightOwl’s design story, it all boils down to a single claim – the NightOwl is promised to have extremely low distortion. AudioQuest claims that what we might initially perceive as a lack of treble detail in the NightOwl is instead the elimination of false detail caused by distortion in traditional headphone design. This is challenging; having used many headphones with a variety of dynamic, biodynamic, and planar magnetic drivers over the years, it’s hard to accept the proposition that this may be the first time we’re hearing a truly accurate presentation of our music. What if the distortion we’re used to hearing is in the recording? What if we enjoy the presentation of our other headphones, even if they’re imperfect?
Ultimately, we took the easy way out – we simply listened to the NightOwl until we were ready to decide whether or not we liked it. AudioQuest recommends that users spend at least 150 hours with the NightOwl before forming an opinion, and that’s exactly what we did.
Our first impression of the NightOwl’s sound was one that AudioQuest has apparently come to expect – they sounded veiled, dark, and a little dull. For nearly $700, we were puzzled, but AudioQuest bade us to keep listening. After several long nights focusing on individual instruments, plugging the NightOwl into different amplifiers, and pitting it against other top-tier headphones, we gradually adjusted to the sound, and came to like it very much. Instead of “dark and veiled”, we think it’s fair to say that they’re “dark and smooth.” Bass is present to the point where the ear cups’ vibration can be felt, but the lows are always detailed and controlled. Treble extends high, but is never sibilant. The NightOwl’s midrange is also detailed, though there may be a dip somewhere — we noted a lack of texture with things like distorted guitars on some tracks.
Though we are satisfied that the NightOwl is detailed and can extend well in both directions, there is no escaping that its voicing is dark. We found treble and vocals to have a “rounded” quality that is non-fatiguing and pleasant, but can be jarring in comparison to other headphones, especially those like the HD800 where you can nearly “hear” the singer’s facial expression. The NightOwl isn’t the first headphone to have a presentation like this – the Audeze LCD-3, also known for its “dark” sound, does nearly everything better than the NightOwl, with none of the perceived loss of detail. The LCD-3, however, is a huge, heavy headphone that is not at all portable, requires significant power to drive properly, and costs more than double. In that context, the NightOwl is probably a good entry point into what we might call “high quality darkness”. Still, if we’re being honest, we would have liked the NightOwl more with a slightly different, less-dark voicing.
There’s a reason why we never say that any headphone we review is the “best:” in our opinion, there’s no such thing. The choice between high-end headphones is often more about individual preference than objective quality. We think the same music can be enjoyed even if it’s presented in different ways – we need not obsess over “accuracy” if we like what we’re hearing. Experimenting with different sound signatures and re-discovering familiar music is part of what makes this hobby fun. The AudioQuest NightOwl is an extremely competent headphone with a unique sound that we think is worth a listen for any headphone enthusiast. It’s possible – maybe even likely – that the NightOwl’s sound is too dark to be your one-and-only, but it’s undoubtedly worth the 150-hour investment to find out.