AKG N90Q - Reviews
Pros: Isolation, portability, whiz-bang feature set
Cons: Lacks transparency, digital input problems, bad DAC
AKG’s glory days are behind it. K812/872 is a fine headphone—single ended only—and the infinite K700 series revisions kept the brand alive for much of the last twenty years, but one has to go back to K1000 to see the company really innovate, and those innovators left the company long ago and have since done it again with MySphere, a headphone I am extremely interested in but have yet to try. N90Q, with its gold body, Quincy Jones branding, and whiz-bang feature set, seem to channel Aaron Spelling’s motto of “if it ain’t working, just glitz it up a bit.”

I spent a week with the headphone, but eventually returned it, as there were both some technical problems with my unit and I found the sound not to my taste. The reader should know that I listen primarily to classical music and opera, and my perspective will reflect that. I will proceed with my usual pro/con, and then conclude with my bottom line. Watch out for my coining of the word analogize to mean the opposite of digitize. I would have used analize but I assume my friends at Schiit have that as a registered trademark.


ISOLATION: N90Q is a closed-back can and features active noice cancellation. It is highly effective at isolating an open-plan office, though I did not listen to it on the go or on a plane. Though its ANC may not be quite up to the intensity of Bose or Sony, and while I can't declare it "ANC King," I can declare it the best overall headphone among headphones with ANC. There is, however, a small amount of hiss in the background when ANC is enabled, which it always is.

BUILD QUALITY: N90Q is a rugged, durable headphone built from lightweight aluminium. The leather earpads have a premium feel, though as a vegetarian I would have preferred faux-leather, like Sennheiser typically does. (Don't get me started on Audeze's alligator absurdities.) It definitely has a premium feel and I get the sense that I could toss it around without much ill coming to it. The fabric cables — both 3.5mm-2.5mm and the MicroUSB to USB-A — are both high quality, though the digital cable is extremely short — 40 inches, and makes usage difficult. It is the most solidly built headphone with ANC that I have come across.

COMFORT: N90Q is a reasonably comfortable headphone to wear. Despite containing DAC, ADC, amp, transducers, DSP stuff, and a battery, it did not fatigue, and the weight was well distributed on the head. On long flights, I am confident that it would stand up well. Though not as large as HD800, the earcups were far larger than the Bose Quiet Comfort series, the Sony 1000 X series, and the Sennheiser PXC 550 series. N90Q sits in a different part of the market from these, as it is 4x the price, substantially larger, and requires a wire connection. My ears didn't seem to get warm after an hour or two of listening.

SOUNDSTAGE: Among closed-back, ANC headphones, N90Q is soundstage king. The soundstage was broad and enveloping, and, compared to its closed-back ANC peers, served large orchestral works extremely well.

FUN: N90Q has a fun, “V-shaped” sound signature. The Carly Rae Jepsen and Katy Perry I listened to was engaging and went by fast. Pop music is enjoyable on N90Q, as are broadway musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone and Book of Mormon.

CALIBRATED SOUND: AKG claims that the microphones inside the ear cups can listen to the frequency sweep and personalize the sound to your precise ear shape. The sound did seem a bit clearer after calibration.

DSP 'ROOM' SETTINGS: N90Q features three DSP "rooms"—off, studio sound, and surround sound. Studio seems to have a small amount of crossfade, and surround seems to have a lot. They’re fun to play with, but didn’t add much to classical music, where recording engineers have (1) their own real-life acoustic space to use and (2) their own vision for the recording. I did not have the pleasure of watching a move with them, though others have said that this makes better use of the surround feature. I liked the "studio" setting for my few pop tracks.

TUNABLE: The amount of treble/bass can be adjusted to your taste in real time. It’s not a massive swing, but it’s noticeable and appreciated.

MOSTLY GOOD UI: Left cup — swivel dial forward for more treble, swivel back for more bass. Right cup — swivel forward for louder, swivel back for softer. I enjoyed this ease of use - particularly the volume. Press mode button to switch DSP modes; press and hold to trigger the ear-calibrating frequency sweep. The only problem is that there's no indication as to which DSP "room" you're in, so you just have to find the one that has the most reverb (surround) and know that the one after that is off, and the one after off is studio.

PORTABLE: Although I didn't wear it around town, I could see myself doing so. It is lightweight and comfortable, though its headphone jack is now complicated by Apple's eschewing of 3.5mm jacks. It would block out much of the ambient sound, and give one a pleasant experience on public transportation, airplanes, or just walking around. If it were ever updated, using a lossless wireless codec would be near the top of my list of updates (after a better DAC).


LACKS TRANSPARENCY: Among my various problems with the headphone, this is paramount. For $1500 MSRP, one expects a lot. Yes, the feature set is extensive, but the net total is a headphone that places music at some distance to me. This is a very interesting headphone, but I find that in large part, with respect to classical music, it gets in the way and puts itself between me and the music I want to experience. While it is much better than Bose, Sony, and Sennheiser ANC headphones, it seems not to want to compete against those offerings but the summit-fi cans in its price range. However, Q701 and HD600 both get me far closer to my music—both give me a more palpable sense of immediacy. Yes, some credit is due to @baldr’s extraordinary gifts as a DAC engineer, but therein lies the problem. Don’t hand me a $1500 headphone and then tie it to a…

BAD DAC: Sibilant, muffled, and artificial are just three words I could use to describe the Brahms D minor concerto (Arrau/Haitink/Concertgebouw) as rendered by N90Q. KSE1500, for the sake of comparison, includes a (to my ears better) DAC, but the DAC can be circumvented. Because N90Q’s calibration, tuning, and DSP modes all occur digitally, though it can accept analog in, this input is digitized, processed, and analogized. The DAC cannot be circumvented, and thus it is impossible to separate the transducers, DAC, and amp internal to the product. It is a black (and gold—very, very gold) box and cannot be picked apart. To my ears, AKG should not have gone to the trouble—the end result is too crippled to be worth it. Or if they insisted, they should have called someone better suited to their craft.

VOCALS: Vocals are not one of the high points of these headphones. To my ears, the mids are sucked out, and vocals in particular lack the natural tone I hear in other four-figure headphones. Comparisons are weird, of course, because we have a complicated, compromised package with N90Q and in this price rage, are comparing to "pure" headphones; N90Q is the first of its kind, both in the 4-figure market and more broadly. Nobody else is stuffing so many features and capabilities into a pair of headphones. And as this review suggests, that may be for a reason: let headphones be headphones.

DYSFUNCTIONAL DIGITAL IN: At least it has a USB input though, right? Wrong. The digital input failed with my two different MacBooks, and only once worked with my iMac. When it did work, it had that old finicky habit I heard with KSE1500 hooked up to a laptop—it would pop ~once per second, making listening intolerable. If this worked, it could help N90Q make the claim of being the "only high end you need"—just plug in to your MacBook Pro and begin your one-stop summit-fi life! Alas, the one-stop was abject failure.

REQUIRES CHARGING: All the whiz-bang circuitry requires power to function, and this means that you have to charge it, and if the battery dies, no sound for you! Thankfully, there is an included battery pack to extend the life if you drain the 11-odd hours it can go on a charge, and if you can make the digital-in work straight out of your laptop, the internal battery is charged automatically.

However, batteries of any kind add significant downside. With AirPods, we learned that embedding batteries in headphones gives them a definite shelf life—the charge capacity degrades over time because of battery chemistry. All the more when you build in DSP, DAC, ADC and the rest. The battery in my used unit had difficulty holding a charge.

HAS AGED QUICKLY: From my vantage point in mid 2019, this 2015 product feels quite dated—and not just because of MicroUSB. The whole glitzy package and dizzying "everything but the kitchen sink" array of features is a very interesting window into a particular slice of techno-optimism. Today, that sentiment has reversed. Further, because the firmware and feature set can't (or at any rate hasn't) be updated over time, and because the battery can't be replaced, it is a lot more disposable even than peers like KSE1500. That product, yes, has a battery and a DAC, but its DAC can be bypassed, and (if necessary) its KSA1500 unit can be replaced down the road with (1) a new battery, (2) an improved DAC, and (3) unknown other features, including DSP. KSE's separability speaks to the comparative advantage of the electrostatic earbuds themselves. Further, the disposability of $300-$400 headphones is a lot easier to swallow than $1500 headphones. (This is regrettable environmentally.) I only compare the two products because they are two four-figure products that tout mobility and isolation as key differentiating features.

On the fence:

DESIGN: Though the black version is more understated than the gold version, the whole thing is too garish for my taste. To each his own.

ACCESSORIES: The airplane adapter was a bit of a throwback to the 1990s, all the odder for is luxury gold-colored casing. The 1/4-inch adapter has a gold-colored sleeve that doesn't serve any functional purpose except looking luxurious. It slipped off and revealed some glue underneath. I slipped it back on before I returned it.

Bottom Line:

N90Q is a headphone that tells one more about the industry and about the company who made it — Harman Kardon was auditioning for its sale to Samsung at the time, which went through — than about any music it could attempt to play for the person wearing it. It tries a lot of interesting technical things, and kudos to the team on that, but the many shortcomings listed above make me think that N90Q is more of a prototype than a finished product. It gives the impression of a frenetic product manager stuffing every feature possible into a corporate slideshow, engineers be damned. It certainly checks a lot of technical boxes. If you are able to buy it with the ability to return — as I did, tee hee — and see if the digital works for you, it could be an interesting toy.

Ultimately though, it seems more like a flash in the pan than a product with a lasting contribution to make. K1000 had decades of relevance before being superseded by MySphere. I question whether N90Q, for all the interesting technical hobbies it pursues, has influenced much of anything, and seriously doubt that it can change the course of AKG's now-assured dissolution into the double bureaucracies of Harman-Kardon and Samsung caused by two successive acquisitions.

For the money:
New, $1499: D
Used, ~$500: B
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