NightOwl Carbon Headphone Review
The closed-back answer to the incredible NightHawk.
THE HIGH NOTES
- Long-term comfort
- Two types of ear pads
- Closed-back design w/ open-back sound
Company & Product Overview
Audio Advice has been a big supporter of AudioQuest since the early 1980s. They have a decades-long track record of producing cables that stand the test of time.
In 2013, AudioQuest set up a team led by Skylar Gray to produce a headphone that would remain true to their overarching goal of “Do no harm”. While it took two years for the team to revolutionize headphone design, the original AudioQuest NightHawk was worth the wait. Soon after it’s launch, AudioQuest began to receive requests for a closed-back version to allow more privacy in a work environment. This also gave them the opportunity to look at some enhancements to the NightHawk design. The closed-back AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon is the culmination of these enhancements.
Packaging, Design & Build Quality
Just like with the NightHawk, the AudioQuest NightOwl headphone arrives in a well-made, embossed leather carrying case. We’ve found the case to be very durable and a great way to protect your headphones during travel. When you remove the lightweight NightOwls, you will see one of the first enhancements. We’re always slightly annoyed by headphones whose earcups aren’t clearly labeled for left and right ears. The NightOwl achieves this simply and discreetly. On the inside of each earcup is a marking, either L or R. It’s actually part of the fabric, so it doesn’t create any sonic issues. It’s a slick way to show how the headphone should be positioned on your head for accurate stereo sound reproduction.
The design of the NightOwl is over-the-ear and closed back. The earcups are made of a liquid wood material that is environmentally friendly, incredibly lightweight, and when properly braced it has almost no resonances that might color the sound. The earcups are shaped in such a way as to resemble the human ear, providing a fit that is one of the most comfortable we’ve ever experienced in headphones.
After experiencing so many groundbreaking designs in the NightHawk, we were not really surprised to see the NightOwl break all the rules for a closed back design. First, the AudioQuest design team replaced the NightHawk’s sound-diffusing grille with a damping system that helps to create better isolation, minimizing external noise.
The team at AudioQuest wanted to create the most intimate headphone experience available with the NightOwl, but they were faced with a common problem all closed-back headphones have -- how to let the headphone driver breathe. According to AudioQuest, beneath the central circular portion of NightOwl’s earcups, a vent runs along the perimeter of each dome and exits through a hidden airflow-resistive port. Thus, unlike other headphones that use a sealed enclosure, NightOwl is designed to effectively relieve the buildup of pressure, allowing the drivers to breathe freely, ensuring that any impulses quickly return to an innocuous resting state—with no ringing, oscillation, or resonance.
AudioQuest created a highly sophisticated headphone driver with a diaphragm made of bio-cellulose. If you examine it closely, it looks more like a speaker than most headphone drivers. The driver includes a rubber surround that allows it to have great piston action but almost no distortion. This helps give rich bass and smooth treble while at the same time resulting in far less distortion than the typical mylar headphone driver. It’s efficiency helps you hear micro dynamic changes in the volume much easier, which really draws you into the music. The tech they used in this driver has a side benefit of a super flat impedance curve. Most headphones impedance curve will vary all over the map at different frequencies presenting a varying load to the headphone amp depending on the tones being played. The ideal speaker or headphone driver would have a flat curve. AudioQuest has pulled this off beautifully with their bio-cellulose pistonic driver. What this means to you is pure sound and the ability to drive the NightOwl with any device. You will still benefit from a dedicated headphone amp like the AudioQuest Dragonfly’s, but you don’t NEED it to listen to and enjoy your music, like you do with other headphones.
Being a highly regarded cable manufacturer for over 35 years, AudioQuest did not skimp on the cable itself. First of all, like most great headphones, it’s detachable. AudioQuest has done a lot of research on the actual connections used on the ends of their cables but had to go down a different path for their headphones. On a typical stereo system, you plug a cable just a few times over many years. However, a headphone cable may be plugged in and out every day or more. For their headphones, they came up with a special copper that not only sounds great, but won’t change with hundreds or even thousands of connections being made. Another thing we have noticed on some headphones is that the cord itself sends noise up into the earcups that you can hear as the cord moves. This is called microphonics. For the NightOwl, AudioQuest completely redid the cable to reduce microphonics to a minimum and also added a mic and smartphone controls.
When we first tested the NightHawk, we felt it was one of the most comfortable pairs of headphones we had ever tried. Over the past year, it has become our reference point for comfort when testing out other over ear headphones. The NightOwl continues this tradition, including the same infinitely self-adjusting head strap and the suspended earpieces that we fell in love with on the NightHawk.
AudioQuest gives you two choices of ear pads! One is a soft, protein leather over memory foam like the NightHawk, but in addition, you’ll get a soft microsuede set of pads. We felt these offered slightly more isolation from the outside world during our testing. After wearing the NightOwls for almost three hours straight without any sense of pressure or fatigue, we have to say, these AudioQuest headphones are still at the top of our list for pure comfort.
Comparing the NightOwl to the NightHawk was a pretty interesting experiment. Since the drivers are the same, you would think the sonic character would be similar, and it is. However, the NightOwl seems to have a bit more high-frequency extension than the NightHawk. It’s subtle but we feel it’s there, even though AudioQuest says they measure virtually identical.
For those of you who have not read our review of the NightHawk, the NightOwl is cut from the same cloth. The goal Skylar and his team had for their headphones was to create a more natural, intimate headphone experience, rather than the experience of listening to speakers. With headphones this good, you will definitely hear things you may not even notice with a great set of speakers!
Just like the NightHawks, the NightOwl definitely leans towards a warm, rich, alluring sound. If you have ever heard a classic tube guitar amp or ultra high-end tube audio system, you’ll know what we mean. The bass is warm and full, while the high frequencies have this sense of airiness without the shrill sound you get with many other speakers and headphones. This sound is why you see your favorite artists on tour with vintage tube amps for their instruments -- it gives their performance that timeless, classic sound.
If you have never experienced this type of sound, the NightOwl may sound slightly dull at first. We highly recommend you give them an extended listen as we are sure you will become addicted. It’s just so natural, you can listen for hours!
Testing the NightOwl turned into a three hour session, as we could just not stop listening!
We started with one of our favorites from the Rolling Stones, “Dead Flowers”. The live version on the album Stripped is a fantastic recording. The NightOwls put you right in the stadium. Close your eyes, and you’re there.
Next was Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Texas Flood” on the album of the same name. The guitar riffs on here are just so pure and clear you feel like you are listening to the master tape as he runs through all those great blues progressions. It’s amazing how full just three instruments sound on the NightOwls. Tommy Shannon’s bass lines are rich and warm, and you can hear all the emotion both he and Stevie Ray are putting into their guitars. The sound seems to extend beyond the earcups -- a pleasantly surprising experience from a closed-back set of cans.
After letting the entire album play through, we moved over to some of our favorite headphone testing tracks to really put the NightOwls to work.
Amber Rubarth’s “Good Mystery,” from Chesky Records, uses a binaural recording technique. The way the NightOwls reproduce the violin in the right channel and cello in the left really shows off this technique. Once again, the sound seems to come from far outside the earcups! The attack on the upper drums is sharp and precise, but the really fun part is how you can hear the lower pitched drum have the attack, then fade out naturally, letting you hear the acoustics of the recording space.
“The Moon is Harsh” from Radka Toneff’s Fairytales is a simple, well-recorded track with just vocals and piano. The piano fills your head from left to right and the NightOwls are so revealing, you can even hear the foot pedal action. The way Radka’s voice just floats right in the middle of the stage is simply amazing.
If there was ever a perfect headphone for the work environment, I think we have found it in the AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon! The key to long-term enjoyment without fatigue is a natural sound and tons of comfort with little pressure on your head. The NightOwl totally nails this, coupled with the fact that they don’t leak any sound which may disturb your coworkers.
Their isolation also makes them great for travel, helping those hours on a plane melt away as you escape into their rich, full sound.
The combination of a great design, extreme comfort, sustainable materials, incredible sound, expert craftsmanship, and cutting-edge technology has us confident that the AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon will be around for many years to come.
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Not only are they under 350 grams, everything that touches your head is designed for long-listening sessions. Their unique, completely adjustable system assures no head fatigue, even after hours of wear.
Two Types of Ear Pads
You’ve got a choice of memory foam based protein leather or micro suede that easily pop off for switching things around and future replacement. Both softly conform to your head for the ultimate in comfort.
Closed-Back Design, Open-Back Sound
The NightOwls have a unique closed back design with a hidden vent to allow the air pressure to escape, giving you many of the traits of open back sound while keeping things quiet for anyone sitting nearby.