Audioquest: NightOwl

A little over a year ago I crowned Audioquest’s semi-open-back NightHawks the most comfortable pair of headphones EVER. In a way, they have returned as champions for 2017. Only, this pair is called the NightOwl and they are quite a bit different in every way but shape and comfort.

The new ‘carbon’ metallic grey finish is flawless and stunning. The frame and headband feel the same and comfort is once again remarkable. However, you switched the headband material to new synthetic leather didn’t you? It squeaks and pops as the elastic tensioners shift on my head. Yes, I could fix this with a quick dust of baby powder, and it might wear-in, but last year I don’t remember the creaking.

The biggest difference with the NightOwl is that they are closed back headphones. This changes the expansive soundstage from the NightHawk’s to a more in-head experience. As someone who often uses his headphones in a noisy office, I LIKE IT A LOT. They don’t actively cancel noise but that extra few degrees of dampening allows me to dial them in low and retreat into my own sonic space

The frequency response is once again that baffling curve where Audioquest manages to smooth out harsh treble and keep a tight bottom end without losing any fidelity. I am at a loss to explain the phenomenon. At first it feels like the track is softened. So I try to listen for lost fidelity in cymbals and high-hat. There isn’t any, so I try to feel out the bass; also solid. Everything is there in the correct measure.

After a while, I start to wonder if perhaps all my other headphones are coloring the audio and the NightOwls are the only pair presenting the track on a neutral soundstage. The listening experience is at once beautiful, flowing and utterly baffling. The only thing I can say to a prospective owner is: “give them a moment to steal your heart”. They don’t sound like you will expect, and it’s a beautiful thing. Imagine buying a supermarket apple pie and tasting it to discover they are using your grandmother’s orchard-fresh recipe. Suddenly you realize you have previously eaten many overly sweetened pies (and liked them; just not in the same way).

Finally we come to the new cable. It doesn’t grab my stubble anymore, and the microphone for taking calls is a welcome addition. Gone are the machined strain reliefs and the material textures that added je-ne-sais-quoi to the aesthetic. I liked the simple woven jacket cable from last year’s NightHawks but I respect that Audioquest is a cable expert. The new cable is tougher and it certainly reduces rustling and scuffing noises.

So ultimately what’s my impression of the NightOwls? At first, it might sound like I’m a bit conflicted. I’m not. NightOwl’s are great headphones. I loved listening to them. These are truly audiophile grade cans that I would proudly set amongst the greats.

Audiophiles are a funny bunch. The closer manufacturers get to perfection the harder we critique the minor choices. We see they can take the critique, we see they are masters of their craft; we know there must have been other considerations. We are here to remind manufacturers that some of us really, truly care as much as they do.