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Audioquest NightOwl Carbon

Rating:
4.66667/5,
  1. betula
    NightHawk vs. NightOwl + three types of earpads
    Written by betula
    Published Apr 28, 2018
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Great value for money, nice bass, natural, organic sound. Exceptional comfort.
    Cons - Might be too dark and warm for some.
    Introduction

    I own and love my original wood look NightHawk for 18 months. Out of curiosity I recently bought the NightOwl to compare the two headphones, as the price has dropped significantly since AudioQuest announced they are leaving the headphone business. Both the NightHawk and the NightOwl are available for £349. At this price both of these headphones are amazing value for money.

    At first I thought I will post this comparison as a NightOwl review, but I don't want to start from the basics, so decided to write this comparison for people who already are more or less familiar with either of the AudioQuest headphones or at least read about them.

    The sound signature of these headphones remains controversial among audio enthusiasts, people either love or hate them. I belong to the former group. They are warm and dark compared to almost any other headphones but they sound extremely natural, organic and lifelike. Beside the truly exceptional physical comfort both the NightHawk and the NightOwl offer, they also provide completely fatigue free listening. Smooth, laid back, mellow sound for hours and hours. Some people like it, some don't. I truly love their sound presentation.

    I will start with a short explanation what these headphones and earpads are. If you are familiar with all of this, you can jump straight to the personal impressions.

    IMG_20180428_113640208.jpg

    Three versions of the AudiQuest headphones and three versions of earpads

    Headphones

    Original NightHawk

    This is the original version of the NightHawk, it comes with the hybrid earpads only. The only difference to the Carbon versions apart of the earpads is the wood look coating of the headphones and the different cables. This version comes with two cables: a shorter thin one and a longer cable with silver plugs. The long cable tends to break easily, so I have also replaced mine with the new Carbon cable.

    NightHawk Carbon

    The NightHawk Carbon comes with two new types of earpads: microsuede and full pleather. The only other differences are the Carbon coloured coating and the new cable. Instead of the two cables of the original version both Carbon versions come with a short and thick cable. (The earcup material is the same liquid wood, drivers are the same.)

    NightOwl Carbon

    This is the closed version of the AudioQuest headphones, comes with the same package as the NightHawk Carbon.

    Earpads

    Original hybrid a.k.a classic earpads

    These earpads come with the original NightHawk only. It is a combination of pleather outside and microsuede inside the cup. According to Skylar Gray the designer of these headphones these earpads sound ‘clean, clear, naturally extended through the highs and lows.’

    Full pleather a.k.a. boost earpads

    Available with the Carbon versions, made of pleather only. According to Skylar Gray these earpads 'slightly enhance treble clarity'.

    Microsuede a.k.a. ultra suede earpads

    Made of microsuede material. According to Skylar these pads ‘slightly reduce bass impact’.

    IMG_20180428_113950299.jpg

    All earpads are available for £49 at retailers, although probably for a limited period only since these headphones are discontinued.

    Personal impressions of the two headphones in general

    As stated above I am a fan of the NightHawk sound. If they are plugged into a good quality DAC/amp and you gave time to your brain to adjust to its unique sound signature, they really open up. Initially they might sound very dark and warm with rolled off treble, but after 10-15 minutes as the brain gets used to this unusual sound presentation everything is changing. You realise, nothing is really missing from the treble it just sounds very natural just like the mids/vocals. The headphones do have slightly stronger than average bass, I wouldn’t call them neutral. These are for extended music listening, not for monitoring.

    IMG_20180428_113800423.jpg

    When I first put the NightOwls on my head I was surprised at how small the difference is compared to the NightHawk. They are actually very similar. Same warm and smooth AudioQuest sound with slight differences.

    Bass is slightly better on the NightOwls due to the more closed back design. (It is not completely closed. Still leaks sound and doesn’t isolate much more than the NightHawks.) The NightOwls sound more controlled and cleaner at the low end. The closed version is also a bit more forward, almost more aggressive compared to the Hawks. Still smooth and easy compared to other closed back headphones, nothing like the X00s aggressivity. Bass impact is slightly more in general.

    I find the mids better on the NightHawks. Due to the semi-open design the sound is much more airy. The vocals can breathe and sound more lifelike in comparison.

    I also find the treble better on the NightHawks for my taste. The NightOwls stronger treble presentation can sound more piercing at times. The naturally laid back treble from the Hawks is missing, however I would still call the Owl’s treble relaxed compared to most other headphones.

    IMG_20180428_113743594.jpg

    Due to the closed back design the upper mids and the treble sound more closed on the Owls. This is not a big surprise. Swapping for the Hawks was always like a breath of fresh air. The ‘cap’ from the sound was removed.
    This however was only obvious when A/B testing with the Hawks. When I used the Owls only for long time I got completely used to it. The slightly better bass impact is great on the Owls, but I wouldn’t trade off the more airy and natural approach of the Hawks. The bass is not that much better, especially not with the right earpads. (More on earpad swapping in a bit.)

    If you already own the Hawks or the Owls you simply do not need to buy the other version. The difference is not that big and there are compromises on both sides. There is no obvious winner here. The Hawks have the edge in my opinion, but this is absolutely subjective.

    Earpad comparison

    Microsuede pads

    These pads intended to reduce bass. To me they just made the sound boring, I found them too neutral. Bass impact, one of the main attraction of these headphones, is gone. To me these pads kill the character of both the AudioQuest headphones. Someone who likes a simple neutral sound might prefer them with orchestral music, but why does such a person bother to buy either of these headphones on the first place? There are much better alternatives out there if you want neutrality. I put these pads aside after 10 minutes of listening.

    IMG_20180428_114248944.jpg

    Full pleather/boost pads

    The NightOwls with these pads sound a bit aggressive here. Treble peaks can be slightly too much within the AudioQuest realm. They sound more forward. Mids are slightly recessed and less natural compared to the NightHawks. (Lack of air.) Bass has more impact and clarity but together with the enhanced treble and the closed back design sometimes it is just too much to sensitive ears.

    The NightHawks with the boost pads however sound really exciting. In fact this might be my favourite combination. Compared to the really smooth and laid back presentation of the original hybrid pads, the boost pads slightly enhance the treble and tighten up the sound a little bit, giving the impression of enhanced overall clarity not just in the treble but everywhere. Vocals still sound slightly better with the hybrid pads, but the cleaner, clearer, more impactful sound is more exciting and fun compared to the hybrid pads.

    IMG_20180428_114236914.jpg

    Hybrid pads

    These provide the original, signature sound of the NightHawks. Very smooth, very laid back, dark and airy. The smoothest and most laid back treble, good bass quantity but less control over bass. Mid-bass bloom is more obvious. Still fun however, I still like them.

    The hybrid pads on the NightOwls was a pleasant surprise. In my opinion they tame down the slight aggressivity of the boost pads and give more air especially to the mids. Vocals can breathe a bit more, treble is friendlier and you hardly loose anything in the bass.

    IMG_20180428_114122269.jpg


    My subjective list of preferred combinations:
    (May depend on mood and music genre.)

    1. NightHawks + boost pads

    Keeps enough of the signature sound while gives more excitement without hurting your ears.

    2. NightOwls + hybrid pads

    Very similar to the NightHawks with boost pads, however it sounds more ‘closed’.

    3. NightHawks + hybrid pads

    Original signature sound, I still love it. The most relaxed sound although the least controlled.

    4. NightOwls + boost pads

    A bit further away from the signature sound. Slightly punchier lows and highs are sometimes too much.

    5. Anything with the microsuede pads. Not really for me.

    In my opinion these pads take away the fun. Trying to make something of the NightHawk/NightOwl which is against its nature. Like forcing a race horse to walk. Or putting silencer on a Lamborghini’s exhaust.


    IMG_20180428_114027029.jpg

    Conclusion

    Both of these headphones are unique part of audio history. It is a shame that AudioQuest decided not to sell them anymore. On current retail price (£349) they are simply a bargain, one of the best value for money these days. If you haven’t heard them, I can just encourage you to give them a try. Use a good DAC, give yourself time to adjust to the sound. They are unlike anything else out there. The sound is organic, smooth, lifelike, relaxed. Simply the most comfortable headphones I have ever tried not just on my head but to my ears too.

    The differences between the Hawks and the Owls and between all the three earpads are not huge at all, but present. Minor tweaks of the original AudioQuest sound. They do not make the sound better or worse, but give you the option to further tweak the sound according to your preferences.

    My personal conclusion is that I am selling the NightOwls but buying the boost pads for my NightHawks for times when I want a little more excitement.
      jazzfan, rafaelo, Light - Man and 6 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. mbwilson111
      good to know... I was going to try the boost but might stick with the hybrid. I wonder if you would like the suede more if you were to give them some time.
      mbwilson111, May 2, 2018
    3. betula
      Bass is just not enough for my taste and music with the suede pads. No doubts about that.
      Boost pads are still fun, but for limited time only. With the treble elevation they are definitely closer to the taste of a wider audience.
      betula, May 2, 2018
      mbwilson111 likes this.
    4. betula
      Hybrid pads provide the original NightHawk sound as Skylar dreamt it. More controversial, more dividing but that is the original sound. I am not quite sure how much Skylar liked the new pads. He definitely created them due to the pressure from the crowd. A few times he referred to the original NightHawk as a complete creation which needs no further refinement. He approved the new pads, but I have a feeling he much prefers the hybrids. Would be nice to hear from him.
      betula, May 2, 2018
      mbwilson111 likes this.
  2. Spandy87
    Audioquest Nightowl Carbon review and comparison
    Written by Spandy87
    Published Oct 12, 2017
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Great detail,
    Tighter bass, better slam than the NH,
    Good texture for music with instruments (jazz)
    Exceptional comfort
    Cons - Slightly tighter soundstage than the NH,
    Build quality remains to be seen.
    My choice was between the Nightowl and the Aeon (and I had tried the original Nighthawk for a week), and I did some A/B comparisons for a long time, running off various different amps as well.

    Comfort:
    While both are on the more comfortable side, the Nightowl wins here. The Aeon has a nice big space for your ears to fit into, which is great especially if you have big earlobes like me. But the headband and clamping system make it not as "floaty" as on the Nightowl/hawk. I can wear the Nightowl for 10+ hours without any comfort issues (eventually I do feel a bit of an irritation but that's to be expected at 10+ hours with anything on your head).

    Build:
    I feel like the Aeon wins here. Both are good but there are these rings on the Nightowl near the seal that just sort of float (intentional I think), as well as the rubber pieces holding the cups in place, but because of this it feels like there are more "moving parts" and makes them feel less solid and cohesive than the Aeon, although I have no idea how that will turn out in the long run.

    Sound:
    They are polar opposites. The Aeon lacks the bass warmth and intensity, and even though it goes deep and is tight and impactful, it lacks the overall body of the Nightowl. Highs are definitely more sparkly on the Aeon, but not in a way where I preferred it necessarily. Mids were probably better on the Aeon but it was hard to tell, since the body of the Nightowl made up for anything missing in the mids. Soundstage was also maybe a bit wider on the Aeon, and the imaging was also probably sharper (not more accurate, just more distinctly noticeable), but not by much. Both have good texture and layering. I think that was maybe a bit more noticeable on the original nighthawk than either of these two, but I wouldn't give an edge to either of them since they have such a different presentation of it.

    Conclusion:
    I think headphones like the Aeon are the direct target of Audioquest's message of "clinical isn't necessarily natural", but with that said you still get all the detail in the Nightowl, it's just that the detail is perhaps a bit more explicit and obvious on the Aeon. So the Nightowl has somewhat of a softer presentation. I think it would be a really tough choice between the two if I could put the sound quality and signature of the Aeon into the housing of the Nightowl, especially if I were running off of a good amp. It would be a toss up between 'Analytic' in the case of the Aeon and 'Natural' in the case of the Nightowl, and you'd have to go with the type of sound you preferred. But as it is, with the long-lasting comfort of the Nightowl it was the winner for me. Plus I didn't have the kind of amp I think you'd want to run the Aeon off. Also, the Nightowl has way better aesthetics in my opinion. The Aeon does look better in person than in images, but they still scream "I'm a dork", which might actually be fine with you haha.

      Soundizer and volly like this.
    1. Soundizer
      Thank you for the review and I really like the YouTube videos. If you had to choose 1 which would it be? Also did you ever get a chance to listen to the Original Nighthawks with the Boost Pads?
      Soundizer, Jul 12, 2018
  3. Cinder
    A Dose of Reality
    Written by Cinder
    Published Mar 7, 2017
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Very good 3D-audio placement, lots of detail retrieval, great extension on both ends, eco-friendly packaging, great case, comfortable, classy look
    Cons - Expensive, only comes with one cable
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    AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon Review: A Dose of Reality

    I took a tour of AudioQuest’s headquarters in Irvine a couple months back and was pretty impressed with their setup. From their hand-assembled cables to their headphone development rooms, I found it all to have an air of quality to it. As I toured through the warehouse section of the building I could tell that AudioQuest’s employees really enjoyed working there. About four or five of them were taking a break to engage in their regular ping-pong tournaments, their laughter and ping-pong-ball smashes echoing off the high-vaulted ceiling as they competed. As one might imagine, this attitude has been channeled well into developing some very special headphones including one of AudioQuest’s newest offerings, the NightOwl Carbon, the headphone I’m reviewing today.
    You can find the official NightOwl Carbon page on AudioQuest’s website here. It retails for $699 at these official AudioQuest retailers.
    Disclaimer: This unit was provided to me as a loaner for review purposes. I am not affiliated with AudioQuest beyond this review. These words reflect my true, unaltered, opinion about the product.
    Preference and Bias: Before reading a review, it is worth mentioning that there is no way for a reviewer to objectively pass judgment on the enjoy-ability of a product: such a thing is inherently subjective. Therefore, I find it necessary for you to read and understand what I take a natural liking to and how that might affect my rating of a product.
    My ideal sound signature would be an extended sub-bass with a leveled, but textured, mid-bass. The mids should be slightly less pronounced than the treble, but still ahead of the bass. I prefer a more bright upper range.
    Source: The NightOwl Carbon was powered like so:
    Hidizs AP100 3.5mm out -> FiiO A5 3.5mm out -> earphones
    or
    HiFiMAN SuperMini -> earphones
    or
    PC optical out -> HiFiMe SPDIF 9018 Sabre DAC 3.5mm out -> earphones
    All music was served as MP3 @320Kbps or as FLAC.
    The NightOwl was demanding in terms of power, so I could not use some of my lower-amperage setups well, such as my Nexus 6P. I also refrained from using my full-sized amp in this review as the NightOwl hissed horribly when using it. My Sherwood AD230B seems to pick mortal enemies almost at random these days.

    Sound Signature

    Initial Impressions:
    The NightOwl sounds rather unimpressive at first. It lacks that essential “wow” factor that one might expect from something so expensive. However, as you spend more time with it and give your ears a chance to actually listen to them you begin to nod to yourself in appreciation. There’s truly something special going on here. The detail retrieval, instrumental separation, and 3D-placement is head-and-shoulders above anything I’ve previously tested. Moreover, the NightOwl is incredibly natural-sounding with no hint of artificial bass or treble boosting. It sounds like a very gentle U-shaped sound signature, though that would be dismissing much of what I assume are very careful tuning choices.
    Treble: Songs used: In One EarMidnight CityOutlandsSatisfy
    Treble extends really, really far. Frankly, I’m impressed. I’ve not heard a pair of headphones that can quite do what the NightOwl can do. High-hats sound nearly perfect. The effortless placement, articulation, and decay of the treble-bound instruments in In One Ear really impress me. The chaos of the song is well set by a very dynamic treble.
    Midnight City’s intro sounded really good, particularly because of how much air the synths had to them. They sounded like truly their own instrument, not bound by the confines of the song at all. I never lost them in the mix during the chorus or the bridge.
    The extra treble extension and well-placed emphasis on the NightOwl really opens up songs like Outlands. Violins sound full, airy, and energetic. You can almost picture yourself sitting in concert hall watching the violinists play their scores.
    Now for the real test: can the NightOwl’s treble maintain its extension and emphasis without shredding the ears of the listener on very treble-heavy songs? Well, in Nero’s single Satisfy I can definitely say that the NightOwl Carbon was not sibilant at all. I’m impressed, and this is a testament to the careful engineering that stands behind the products at AudioQuest.
    Mids: Songs used: Flagpole SittaJacked UpI Am The HighwayDreams
    The upper-mids are very well defined and have the same air to them as the treble does. Electric guitars sound great, and as a guitarist myself, I can safely say that they sound pretty close to what you would hear directly out of a decent amp. The distortion of the lead-guitar in Flagpole Sitta resolves very well, leaving me no choice but to nod my head along with the song.
    To uninitiated ears such as mine, the NightOwl Carbon redefines what “micro-detail” means. In the beginning of Jacked Up you can hear, if you listen, a very faint creaking sound. I actually had to listen to the track a couple times before I could accept that I wasn’t hallucinating. Furthermore, the pianos sounded wonderful. The lower-mids, which have a tinge of warmth to them, really filled them out well, something you generally don’t think biocellulose drivers of doing.
    Vocals sound great as well, though female vocals can sound a bit thin depending on the mastering style of the track. I found intelligibility to be far above average, at least compared to other headphones I’ve tested (ZMF Omni/Ori, ZMF Vibro Mk. II, Cascadia Audio Talos, etc). Chris Cornell’s voice in I Am The Highway sounded phenomenal and really took control of the song without sounding too disconnected .
    Bass: Songs used: MothGold DustIn For The Kill (Skream Remix)Leave Me
    The general gist of the NightOwl is to be super accurate. This means that you won’t find any bass boost or un-realistic impact. While not a “flat” frequency response in the low-end, it certainly is reserved. At this point, however, I find that most instruments really don’t need any extra emphasis to be heard well since there is such great separation. The bass guitar in Moth held its own throughout the entirety of the song.
    There is a decent amount of mid-bass impact coming from the NightOwl Carbon, but it really isn’t up to the task of satisfying a bass-head's expectations in popular electronic genres such as Dubstep and Progressive House. Sub-bass extension is quite good, but isn’t intended to rumble excessively.
    In For The Kill, despite not being as rumbly as I was used to, was a very good listen through the NightOwl Carbon. I found that the great extension and shaping in the sub-bass really did make up for sheer impact and rumble.

    Packaging / Unboxing

     
    IMG_2053.jpg IMG_2054.jpg IMG_2057.jpg
     
    AudioQuest paid a lot of attention to the packaging of the NightOwl Carbon, ditching the traditional box-based approach. Instead you can find the NightOwl securely snuggled into its leather-covered carrying case covered only in a small cardboard wrap-around. It’s a great way to save materials and spare the environment.

    Build

    Construction Quality
    The NightOwl is built from what AudioQuest calls “liquid wood”. This is a material made from (primarily) ligin, a real wood byproduct from making paper. The ligin is also mixed with various fibers and resins and waxes to get it’s acoustic traits and unique look.
    Unlike the original, styled headphones from AudioQuest, the NightHawk, the NightOwl Carbon’s housing is a stark black with a small number of gray flecks in the paint. The finish is a classy gloss, reminiscent of a black piano.
    1eW54rkLjCgqKkIzlET9F1Q.jpg

     ​

    AudioQuest decided to go with a simple single outer-band for the weight-distribution, and a self-adjusting inner-band for the headband. The outer-band is made of a very tough nylon-fiber coated metal. It is flexible, but retains shape quite well.
     
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     ​
    The earpads that come pre-installed on the NightOwl are first-rate, and deserve high praise. They sit comfortably on my above-average-sized ears while not feeling cloying or warm. On the inside of the cup you can see a “L” or “R”, depending on the side of the earphone. This makes it a breeze to determine whether or not you are about to put on your headphones backwards.
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    The NightOwl is closed-backed. Still though, it does not isolate much from your surroundings, making this certainly a home-based headphone. This isn’t an issue if you have room mates, for example, as there is actually enough isolation to block out a video playing at a medium volume without any problems.
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    The cable that comes included is quite thick and has ample stress relief. It is detachable and has a standard rubber coating. It doesn’t catch on random surfaces but does have some minor microphonics. This isn’t an issue for me personally, as I rarely move around enough while using the NightOwl to actually notice it.
    Comfort
    My strangely-shaped head had no problems using the NightOwl during extended periods of time. My ears didn’t get too hot nor did the headband weight down on the top of my skull. I applaud AudioQuest. It’s not often you find headphones that fit so effortlessly.

    Accessories

    The NightOwl Carbon comes well stocked with accessories. The briefcase-style carrying case that also functions as the primary packaging of the NightOwl has plenty of room in it to store all the other accessories. Inside the case you will find:
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    1. Micro-fiber headphone carrying pouch
    2. 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter
    3. 3.5mm cable
    4. Extra earpads
    5. Earpad micro-fiber carrying pouch
    Every accessory included screams of quality, and I have no complains. The only place I can see room for improvement is that I would have definitely appreciated the inclusion of an extra cable, though I’m sure AudioQuest really wouldn’t mind if you decided to buy an extra from them.

    Summary

    The NightOwl is a top-tier headphone whose sound signature is grounded well within the bounds of reality without sounding boring or flat. While bassheads should steer clear of this pair of headphones, anyone who is looking for a very balanced and incredibly detailed headphone can find solace in the sonic embrace of the AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon.
      jaco61, volly, koover and 13 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. WhatToChoose
      Nice review. The part you mentioned about the initial impressions is an excellent indicator as to the SQ imo. Headphones that WOW on first listen usually tend to be bad in th long run, and vice versa. A good indicator to weed out the useless hype reviews from quality ones like this. Nicely done.

      Not sure what it is, but there is something strangely enticing about the AudioQuest headphones.
      WhatToChoose, Mar 10, 2017
      jaco61 likes this.
    3. ngoshawk
      I must say that I am amazed at how the NO and NH open up after 100+ hours...approaching 150+ on the NO and 250+ on the NH now, and I am thoroughly impressed with both. Well done!
      ngoshawk, Mar 13, 2017
      Cinder and jaco61 like this.
    4. jaco61
      Very good and profund review, thumbs up! :)
      jaco61, Apr 30, 2018
      Cinder likes this.