AudioQuest Nighthawk Carbon Review

I wasn’t expecting the AudioQuest Nighthawk to arrive on my desk today, but I’m very glad it did.  Having heard some of the hype, I’m more than anxious to see how this semi-open headphone sounds.  But at $699, is it worth the cash?

AudioQuest Nighthawk Carbon Review

AudioQuest Nighthawk Carbon Review

The Nighthawk Carbon is comes in a huge, black pleather case.  Accompanying the headphones, you’ll find a softer drawstring pouch, a removable 4.25 ft (1.3 m) cable, and two sets of removable earpads – one suede set and one pleather set.  There’s also a short user guide and a 1/4” stereo adapter plug.

Utilizing a suspension-type headband, the Nighthawk Carbon is light but durable.  The around-the-ear design easily ensconces your ears – even big elephant ears.  Padding on the headband and earpads is deep – you could wear these things all day (or night) and still be ready for more.

Perhaps the most serious-looking headphone cable I’ve ever seen, the audio cable is dual-entry.  There’s a thickness to it that reassures you:  this thing will never break.

Specs

Frequency Range:  NA
Impedance:  25 ohms
Sound Pressure Level (SPL):  99 dB
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD):  NA

As you can see from the specs, AudioQuest doesn’t offer any data regarding the frequency range or harmonic distortion.  If I had to guess, I’d hazard the frequency range being somewhere around 12-30,000 Hz.  A low impedance of just 25 ohms means this headphone will work fine with low output devices.  Sound Pressure Level might appear a little low at first glance, but it’s about what I’d expect from a semi-open headphone.  Finally, Total Harmonic Distortion seems low – probably close to <0.2% or <0.1%.

Low End

With tons of detail and a strong sense of precision, the clarity in the Nighthawk Carbon’s low end is a thing of beauty.  Furthermore, there’s enough control here to really eliminate any bleed, leading to remarkably clean listening experience.  On the down side, bass seems a bit subdued – but perhaps more natural-sounding as a result.

Mids

Keeping up with the low end, the mids host just as much detail and accuracy.  Vocals and instrumentation seem to drip with definition.  In one word:  revealing.  Lacking any distortion or compression, it’s clean as Hell.

High End

I was actually expecting the high end to be brighter – even the least little bit.  Unfortunately, though, the Nighthawk Carbon sports a fairly subdued high end.  Unlike the relaxed bass, though, this high end doesn’t sound more natural, but instead just seems lacking.  While most of the detail is there, hardcore listeners may be put off by a lack of attention where high high-notes are concerned.

Soundstage

Plenty of depth and exacting placement come together to deliver a real sense of soundstage.  There’s so much going on here, you can close your eyes and almost see what you’re hearing.  Usually, I’m not this impressed by semi-open/semi-closed designs, but the Nighthawk Carbon has serious chops where soundstage is concerned.

Other Observations

The low end continues to grow on me.  Forget bass – there’s so much detail in that low end.  I keep listening to staple tracks and hearing sounds I’ve never noticed before.

The overall clarity and precision is reason enough to buy this headphone.  Accept the lack of bass and the less-than-stellar high end.  There’s just SO MUCH DETAIL.  Also, the freaking soundstage, man.

Recommendations

Okay…here’s the deal MajorHifi Readers.  I’ve tested tons of headphones and earphones.  I’ve listened to flagship models and I’ve listened to cheapo Chinese samples.  But when I try to think of headphone to compare to the AudioQuest Carbon, I draw a blank.  Nothing else out there sounds quite like this.

If you really want more bass, you could probably get by with the open-back Audeze EL-8 ($699).  Or, if you want more high end, consider one of my personal favorites, the Grado RS1E ($695).

Really, though, neither one of these contenders is going to come close to delivering the level of detail you’ll find in the midrange-heavy Nighthawk Carbon.  And, with its subdued-but-natural low end and relaxed highs, you’ll be hard pressed to find another headphone that offers such a new and refreshing sound.

Final Analysis

Lacking some oomph in the bass and some very fine nuances in the high highs, the AudioQuest Nighthawk Carbon nonetheless delivers an amazing sound overflowing with detail.  At $699, this headphone won’t be courting any casual listeners, but the refined listening experience is definitely aimed at a more serious, more mature audience.

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