Review – AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon Headphones, DragonFly Red, DragonFly Black DAC+Preamp+Headphone Amp, with new releases from Neil Young, Jaco Pastorius from HD Tracks, and Sgt. Peppers Anniversary Edition. Part One of a Two-part article

AudioQuest’s reputation is based on its line of interconnects and cables beginning in 1980, which they sell in a bewildering selection with different materials, construction, and prices. AudioQuest helped start the portable USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier revolution with their introduction of the original DragonFly in 2012, a small black USB DAC about the size of a flash drive, with a cute little backlit DragonFly that lit up when in use.

Now with an expanded line of DACs, the newest unit the DragonFly Red is MQA equipped. Two years ago they took the step from electronics and cables to produce their first headphones, the wood grained open-ear NightHawk, and the closed-back NightOwl Carbon. One thing that AudioQuest excels at is packaging. The NightOwl Carbon comes beautifully packaged starting with an outer box, followed by a full size vinyl case, and then comes the headphones themselves, along with a couple of cables, a soft fabric travel case, and adapter. In other words, this is an especially well-thought out assortment of accessories along with the headphones, all with luxurious materials and construction.

The original NightHawk headphones were an open-air design, so not only could you hear your neighbors, they could hear you as well, so not the best choice for travel, or noisy environments. Thus, the introduction of the NightOwl. The design problem AudioQuest faced was that they wanted to preserve the open, airy sound of the NightHawk, yet do so with a closed-back design. How did they do it? According to the company, “Hidden 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”.

In use, they seemed free from any resonance, and the sound quality feels more like the NightHawk then I expected, although the NightOwl’s seemed to have a bit more bottom end punch. According to the company, the NightOwl’s 50mm dynamic driver employs a carefully constructed bio-cellulose diaphragm, voice-coil former, and compliant rubber surround. “Designed for exceedingly low distortion and high excursion with true pistonic motion, NightOwl’s driver contributes significantly to the headphones’ well-controlled bass, rich midrange, and naturally extended highs”. And the headphones can be driven to high volume levels without a hint of distortion, however unless you are a DJ in a club, we can’t imagine playing them that loud, but they can certainly pump out the decibels.

The fit of the headphone is surprisingly light for a full over-the-ear design. One of our favorite design touches is a repeating pattern of the letters “R” or “L” on the fabric inside the earcups. It might not sound like an important point, but everyone who auditioned them for us commented on that, enjoying not having to search for an elegantly but hard to read guide.

AudioQuest writes that, “NightOwl’s headpad attaches to its outer headband via small, swiveling pins located on either side of the headband’s base, just above the suspension’s yoke. An inner elastic band is concealed by a soft, modestly cushioned pad, which yields and rises when met by resistance or pressure. In this simple way, the headpad automatically adjusts to the listener’s head—no clicking, snapping, cranking, or guessing involved”. And guess what, it works. From large to small heads, the NightOwl’s fit securely, but not with excess clamping pressure, and we found them comfortable even after extended hours long editing sessions. On headphones the relationship between the headband design and the earcups are critical, and we have found some amazing sounding headphones that were so uncomfortable that we simply couldn't deal with them, so it’s a pleasure to report that the NightOwl’s are really comfortable.

When we first saw the prototypes of the NightHawk it was during the Consumer Electronics Show, and in a case they had an exploded model, showing all the components piece by piece. The original versions had a unique type of shiny, almost glowing woodgrain design. By comparison the new NightOwl Carbons are painted with a beautiful grey finish, which turned out to be actual automotive paint, hence their beautiful metallic glow. It turns out that instead of using plastic or wood, the earcups are made from a material called “Liquid Wood”— wood that has been combined with reclaimed plant fiber, heated, liquefied, and processed in such a way that it can be injection molded. Unlike environmentally hazardous plastics or synthetic polymers, Liquid Wood is a natural material—a sustainable solution. The design of the earcups aren’t round, instead the earcups we designed to more closely resemble the human ear, which we found also provided better isolation in addition the audio benefits.

Unlike most audiophile and electronics companies, AudioQuest includes a detailed statement on their attempts to create a product with the least long-term impact on the environment. Stating that, “To the very extent that it is possible and practical, we avoid the use of plastics in designing and manufacturing our headphones. Whereas the production and disposal of plastic is known to present environmental hazards, the production of Liquid Wood (as used in our earcups), biocellulose (as used in our drivers), and 3D-printed grilles (as used in NightHawk and NightHawk Carbon), has minimal impact on the ecosystem. The same holds true for Protein Leather—a bio-derived synthetic fabric that we’ve used to encase our soft, comfortable earpads. Developed by combining a specialty resin with protein powder derived from eggshells, Protein Leather is durable, pliable, and has a softness and surface asperity approximating that of human skin, making it particularly well suited to its application in NightOwl.”

While the current administration might not value the environment, it’s a lovely gesture for AudioQuest to design, employ, and point out the benefits of sustainable materials, and we hope it’s a trend that continues to grow.

Because of AudioQuest’s long experience in audiophile grade cables, one would expect the same attention to detail for the NightOwl’s cables.Utilizing high-purity copper that has been drawn and cast to eliminate as much oxygen content as possible, thereby significantly reducing impurities in the metal that could conceivably affect the audio path. We really liked the included cables, they are solid, color coded for easy connectivity, and just the right length. These are solid feeling cables, and the jacket has a remarkably low-level of “microphonics—the annoyingly audible rustling or thumping sounds that occur when headphone cables come into contact with external surfaces” such as clothing or furniture. As befitting a closed-back design who might spend part of their life on the go, they include a mic and smartphone controls to accept and make phone calls, or, of course, play, pause, and select tracks. They state that their design keeps the phone control circuitry separate from the audio circuit. Finally, the headphone cable plugs use a base metal of Tellurium Copper (TeCu), for a smooth and durable finish with good electrical contact qualities. The included 3.5mm-to-1/4” headphone plug adaptor features a thick Direct-Silver plating over its high-purity copper base metal. Part One of a Two-part article. Next up, DragonFly Red and DragonFly Black, and some great music from Jaco Pastorius, Neil Young, and The Beatles.

Harris Fogel, Posted July 4th, 2017