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.
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
HiFiMAN SuperMini -> earphones
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.
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 is very careful tuning choices.
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 was not sibilant at all. I’m impressed, and this is a testament to the careful engineering that stands behind the products at AudioQuest.
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 out well, something you generally don’t think bio-cellulose 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 NightOwls to actually notice it.
My strangely-shaped head had no problems using the NightOwls 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.
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:
- Micro-fiber headphone carrying pouch
- 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter
- 3.5mm cable
- Extra earpads
- 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.
The NightOwl Carbon 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.
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