As a guy who's listened to a ton of headphones and spent a lot of time obsessing about sound quality, I have to admit comfort looms large in my assessment of any headphone. After all, if it's torture to wear for more than 10 minutes, great sound won't mean much.
So while I found a lot to love about the AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon headphones sound, I was just as smitten with their feel on my noggin. I can't explain exactly why, but there's just something about the overall design that really clicked for me.
The NightOwl's ear cups are crafted from "liquid wood," wood that has been combined with reclaimed plant fiber, heated, liquefied and injection-molded. The NightOwl's ear cups are also incredibly strong and non-resonant, that's hugely important for headphone sound.
Impedance is rated at 25 ohms, and the NightOwls feature 50-millimeter bio-cellulose drivers that were developed in-house at AudioQuest. The user-replaceable 4.25-foot (1.3-meter) cable has a mic for smartphones. The cable is relatively thick and looks unusually durable, and it's virtually impossible to tangle.
The headphone comes with two sets of ear pads, a protein leather and a micro-fiber set. Both types of pads feel great, and they change the sound a bit, more on that later in this review. NightOwl weighs 12.2 ounces (346 grams), and it's an over-the-ear, closed-back design, so this headphone does a good job isolating the listener from external noise. The ear cups are finished in Porsche carbon metallic grey paint, I think the NightOwl looks great.
The headphones resolution and soundstaging abilities shined when I streamed hi-res files of Bjork's "Vespertine" album. The soaring choirs, delicate percussion, synths and Bjork's vocals were all well played. Over and over again I noted the bass was gutsy, deep and controlled. Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop's mostly acoustic "Love Letter For Fire" album sounded absolutely delicious. Best of all, the NightOwls clarity was the sort that never grated on my ears.
NightOwls were unfussy about amps, and sounded plenty sweet plugged directly into my iPhone 6S ($164 at Walmart), but a Cavalli Liquid Carbon 2.0 home headphone amp took the NightOwl's sound to the next level.
I also spent time comparing the NightOwl with AudioQuest's NightHawk semi-open back headphones. The two headphones are similar in design, but NightOwl's sound is "darker toned," a little plumper and softer in its presentation, which I liked. With violinist, singer and whistler Andrew Bird's at turns dreamy or disturbing "Useless Creatures" album, the NightHawk was clearer, but I missed the NightOwl's warmth. With Jake Bugg's hard rockin' "On My One" album, the NightHawks edged out the NightOwls for dynamics and impact.
Then I swapped out the NightOwls protein leather ear pads for the micro-fiber ones. Ah, they livened up the NightOwls tone, more than I imagined changing the 'pads would. While the NightHawk and NightOwl now sounded more similar I'd still give the nod to the NightHawk for clarity, but the NightOwl was close behind.
In head to head comparisons the Audeze EL-8 headphones were more transparent and dynamically alive than the NightHawk or NightOwl, so if you crave detail the EL-8 deserves strong consideration. I certainly like highly transparent headphones, but I kept coming back to the NightOwls long after I finished taking notes for this review. The sound disarmed my audio reviewer brain, so I just focused on the music. That's high praise indeed.
The AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon retails for $699, £599, AU995.