AudioQuest NightOwl Audiophile Stereo Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Jun 6, 2018.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Youtube review:


    Sources: iPhone7+ with Oppo HA-2/AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC/amps, various computers using the Meridian Explorer2/AudioQuest DragonFly Red/DAC-amps.

    Review notes: My first impressions of the sound of the AudioQuest NightOwl headphone (NightOwl hereafter) are based on direct comparisons to other headphones, particularly those that resemble its design (full-size closed-back), but also to a few premium headphones for reference. I'll describe how I relate to the NightOwl (i.e., my objectives and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the technical issues. Note that my comparisons are not to suit "personal taste", but rather to compare the headphone sound to the sound of live acoustic music.

    Caveat: In spite of my objections to the factory tuning of the NightOwl (see below), the potential tonality of this headphone with a judicious EQ is clearly superior to most non-premium or non-audiophile headphones, and certain of my music track examples below testify to that. Note my comments on the tambourine sound in the Chromatics track and the 'clop' sound in the Porcupine Tree track, and compare those to my other headphone reviews that reference these tracks. Those other headphones were EQ'd for the most natural sound possible (ditto the NightOwl), but the tonal quality and detail with many of those other headphones just doesn't compare to what I hear with the NightOwl.

    I passed on the NightOwl last year after having given away the NightHawk and the Sonus Faber Pryma I purchased, since neither had a hi-fi** signature without EQ, and since they were basically fashion items. However, I recently discovered that several distributors were offering new NightOwls for little more than half the original MSRP, so I couldn't resist buying one. I read quite a few reviews before purchasing the NightOwl, but I was still surprised at how much worse the sound was compared to the NightHawk. The NightHawk had a broad emphasis through the upper bass and lower midrange, while the NightOwl has no emphasis, and in fact rolls off below ~200 hz to approximately -6 db at 40 hz. The NightHawk had a broad recess from ~1 khz to ~8 khz averaging about -4 db, while the NightOwl has a bigger recess averaging slightly greater than -6 db, beginning around 1.5 khz and extending to above 10 khz.

    **The only way I can relate a hi-fi signature is by comparison to live acoustic music, but due to the vagaries of recording and certain unavoidable distortions, I tend to EQ my headphones slightly darker than that.

    I understand that there are experienced headphone users who like the mid-treble recesses that have been in fashion in recent years, and that could well be because of the "Loudness Wars" phenomenon where the "presence" range of vocals and instruments are boosted for commercial airplay, where that kind of headphone tuning is a partial compensation for it. The NightHawk had it, and the NightOwl has it to an even greater degree, but the NightOwl's weak bass combined with its treble recess is an odd tuning that probably explains its lack of popularity. Note that I'm using only the pleather earpads that were installed on the NightOwl by the manufacturer. Those earpads are very soft and squishy, and the openings are big enough to accomodate slightly larger than average-size ears. The other included earpads are fabric-covered, and switching to those earpads could change the sound quite a bit.

    The NightOwl's isolation is modest - good enough for most home use, but not good enough for noisy areas such as public transport. Leakage is low, but playing music at audiophile volume levels in a quiet office might not work - anyone sitting very close will hear the sound faintly at least.

    The NightOwl comes with a double-entry cable that resembles a rubber hose, it's ~1.5m long, and terminated with a 3.5mm Apple-type plug. There's a single button at the "Y", which provides for start/stop/previous/next functions. A 3.5mm to 6.35mm (1/4 inch) adapter is included. The plugs that go into each earcup are 2.5mm mono plugs. I asked the manufacturer and distributor for a flexible cable for on-the-go use, and they said no, unless I were to order a custom cable costing more than the NightOwl itself. The headband is the one-size-fits-all stretch type, which I find very comfortable for use at home. The earcups don't swivel, but a decent amount of flex is provided which will accomodate most heads. The NightOwl can be worn around the neck all day if need be, but because of the self-adjusting headband, the earcups tend to bump against my chin. The leatherette zippered carry case supplied with the headphone is bulky - 11 x 9 x 4.5 inches, so it's not practical for backpacks or most carry-on luggage.

    In previous reviews I've included the following music samples with comments about how the headphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you could compare my notes here to those other reviews and see how the NightOwl compares with each individual track. These tracks were evaluated using the EQ settings linked above or found on my website. Note that this EQ is not to "personal taste", but rather to approximate the headphone sound to the sound of live acoustic music.
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has good detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The NightOwl plays this extremely well.

    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled very well by the NightOwl.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, but you can feel a little of the weight they carry with the NightOwl.

    Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The NightOwl plays this music very smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Great sound quality - this is a good test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled very well by the NightOwl.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The NightOwl plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are bright, crisp, and well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The NightOwl reproduces the space and detail very well.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the NightOwl renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The NightOwl plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are very detailed but not edgy - very musical in fact.

    Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sounds very realistic - much better than what I hear with most headphones.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The NightOwl reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed.

    Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The NightOwl plays this music perfectly.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have enough of the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound that indicates a passable deep-bass response. Overall, the NightOwl plays this music very well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has excellent detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The NightOwl plays this track extremely well.

    Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce fairly well with the NightOwl. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The NightOwl provides excellent reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the NightOwl plays those very well.

    Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The NightOwl plays this with just enough weight and detail that you can hear/feel some of the 16 cycle per second "beats" of the fundamental tone.

    Mantovani - Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor** who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani's accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn't tolerate the notion of "light classics" or "semi-classical" music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960's through mid-1970's had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2015, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it's not always the case. This track as played on the NightOwl is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    **Mantovani developed the "Cascading Strings" sonic effect circa 1950, a famous "Wall of Sound" effect for mono hi-fi systems that predated Phil Spector's own famous Wall of Sound effect by 10 years or so.

    Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is subtle with the NightOwl.

    Pinback - Non Photo Blue (Pop-Rock): Crispy sound with "crunchy guitars and bashing drums" - the NightOwl renders this music as perfectly as I've heard an energetic pop-rock recording played with any headphone.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The NightOwl's reproduction of the 'clop' sound is near-perfect.

    Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The NightOwl provides some of that experience, but the lean low bass lessens the realism. The tympani have good impact here.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the NightOwl renders the tones and transients extremely well.

    Tiger Okoshi - Bootsman's Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant "bite". The NightOwl's reproduction is excellent, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are strong and work extremely well with the horns and other instruments. The NightOwl delivers the impacts with decent weight and detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.

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