Honeyed Songs in the Forest’s Shade – A Review of the AudioQuest NightOwl

I love the sound of these things!

They’ve seen over 200 hours of burn-in, and have changed much during that time. Though I fell for the sound right out of the box, the NightOwl certainly grows more dynamic after the hundred-hour mark, gaining proper treble presence.

“Rich” is the descriptor that rises above all others when listening to the NightOwls. It’s like a chocolate sundae with the most luscious cherry on top. Or a fathomless pool in a still, dark cave. They are warm… oh so warm, clear, and imbued with a tremendous sense of space and air. AudioQuest boasts how low the distortion is on these, and let me say, you can goddamn hear it. There is something oddly pure about NO’s sound.

I cannot but begin with the bass, as these headphones are all about that low-end. Not in the sense it is dominant or overpowering. It is not. Yet at the same time, the bass will wow you. It reaches well into sub-bass territory. There is such an absence of grain or distortion… liquid is the best classification, flowing into a million shapes and tones with an effortless skill. NO’s bass can pound, like the sea against the hall of a ship, or wash over you like a gentle tide. Yet it is always rich, and of the highest purity.

The mids are fantastic and a treat to listen to. NO’s vocals possess an unmistakable lushness. That warmth really comes through here, giving the vocals a smooth, organic quality. However, the bass doesn’t muddy this region, and the mids remain beautifully clean. The liquidity is also present, and the vocals are rendered with brilliant deftness. Due to NightOwl’s serious resolution, details are abundant, but in a relaxed, laid-back fashion. Nothing screams out at you, but every micro-detail and texture is well articulated. Male, or female, all pervaded by an extraordinary romantic tonality.

In the first couple hours, the treble is dramatically austere, and the whole presentation can sound rather dull. As time goes on, the dynamics grow, and after the 150h mark, the treble edges up in the mix enough that you get a striking, complete showcase. Nonetheless, the tone is still deeply “warm”. But at least now it feels whole and balanced. The highs twinkle just a tad, and extend well enough to bring great air to the image. Like the other ranges, the treble is as rich, faultless, and pure as you could ever hope. Utterly non-offensive or fatiguing. A true pleasure to the ears.

NightOwl’s soundstage is the largest I own. And since it’s closed-back, that’s just insane. It is wide, and terribly deep. Thick notes give the instruments decent size and heft, while the high resolution creates definitive edges round them all. Separation is outstanding, some of the very best I’ve heard. Imaging is also at the top tier.

When I set out to test NO against the Meze 99 Classics, I expected to hear a veil over the AudioQuest. I remember describing the 99C’s mids as “crystalline”. Whereas I would not use that word for NightOwl. However, I perceive no veil. The vocals are indeed colored. They sound sweeter, with thicker notes. Meze has a thin, airy feel. Very different indeed. Yet NO does not lack in clarity, and this surprised me. If anything, it is sharper, and more vivid.

Meze’s treble is a little more aggressive. It gives an airier, brighter tone to the mids and highs. As a result, the 99C is energetic and not as relaxed. NightOwl’s treble is smoother and thicker, with a touch less sparkle.

That low-end on the 99 Classics was one of the major selling points for me. I love it! NightOwl is better. The 99C is loose and woolly in comparison. NO has greater depth, more control, cleaner production, higher resolution and detail. There is simply no competition. They both exaggerate the bass beyond neutral, with NO going slightly further, but there’s no doubt who wears the crown in technical capability. Not to mention pure, musical opulence.

Meze’s soundstage is impressive for closed-back. NO’s is just barely wider, but noticeably deeper. Imaging and separation go to NightOwl as well, though Meze is no slouch here.

As the price tag would suggest, NightOwl is on another level altogether.

If you ever asked the heavens, “Oh friendly sky lords, when will I find a closed-back equivalent to the Sennheiser HD650?” look no further. A/B’ing the Massdrop + Sennheiser HD6XX and I am delighted by how alike they are. These two share a nearly identical signature: Extra warm, relaxed, and laid-back.

Once again, NightOwl champions the bass like no other dynamic driver I’ve heard. It does everything the HD6XX does, while delving lower, creating true sub-bass rumble, and a flowing, unblemished naturalness Sennheiser cannot match. The HD6XX’s lows are great. NO’s are ethereal.

The mids also have more or less the same color and lushness. Senn’s vocals are a step forward, making them bigger. NO places them at a more neutral spot on the stage. Other than that, we’re talking just the slightest differences. NightOwl seems to render at a higher resolution, so the mids come off a little better defined. There is that supreme lack of distortion, which makes the background blacker, allowing for finer relief. But to be honest, I’m just splitting hairs. They are cut from the same cloth.

NightOwl’s treble twinkles more. It has sharper definition. While the highs on the HD6XX are softer and sort of vague in comparison. Neither sounds harsh or fatiguing. Nor do they succumb to sibilance, unless the track has an excessive amount of it. You get about the same amount of treble, though I feel NightOwl may extent further and possess a little more air.

AudioQuest gives you a bit wider soundstage, and depth. Due to the open-back nature of the HD6XX, I want to say it has greater separation of elements, but I just can’t. While it is hard to compare open and closed headphones, I feel NO meets those high standards, if not surpasses them. Imaging on both is phenomenal.

Depending on what year, and what version, the Audeze LCD-2 can sound like almost anything. At least that’s what I take away from reading all the disparate impressions online. Mine is from Nov 2014, and is the LCD-2 v2 with Fazor. It is not a warmth monster, like the LCD-2 was originally described. In fact, it’s mostly neutral, with just a hint of warmth. Compared to the NightOwl, it’s downright bright.

The LCD-2’s treble is far more present, bringing out detail and light to the whole stage. Even the Meze fails to reach this level of air and clarity. NightOwl looks utterly dark when A/B’ing the two.

Vocals are so clear, bright, and resolving on Audeze you cannot help but feel a veil over NightOwl. Against the LCD-2, NO does not seem detailed or sharp. It comes off thick, slow, and muffled. Of course, if you’ve read my review so far, you know I don’t feel that way at all. Such is the contrast between these cans that my beloved NightOwl pales so.

Bass is the one aspect AudioQuest regains some composure. Is it better than Audeze? No. But it’s more, and comes close in quality. Extension is nearly the same. Tonality is similar. Still, that huge Planar Driver is unmatched in speed and resolution. Those sub frequencies have a realism no Dynamic Driver I’ve heard has bested yet. Again I emphasize, NightOwl comes close, but it’s just not quite there.



Picture of Pinky Powers

Pinky Powers

Pinky is an artsy twat. Illustration, graphic design, writing. Yet music escapes him, and always has. He builds his own cables, and likes to explore the craftsmanship of others. He's a stabby one, also. At the first hint of annoyance, out comes the blade. I say he's compensating for something... in a big bad way. If we all try really hard as a collective, maybe we can have him put down.


15 Responses

  1. Then I take 6XX is what I need at the current moment since I am spending more of my limited time in my home system watching movies than listening to music. And since I even use tubes with my TV system them 6XX seems better choice than NO for me for watching movies.

    I understand that NO is excellent and superior for long listening music sessions but unfortunately for me I have not that luxury. It is shame though they go out of production they just needed to have a lower price from the beginning (of course, maybe this was not possible due to the production costs. 3 months ago when I was starting looking for headphones I would have taken them immediately at the current price.

  2. My HD6XX gets more use than any headphone. I use it for movie and TV watching. Gaming. YouTube. Basically EVERYTHING other than sitting down with my music library for serious listening sessions.

    They make everything sound so natural, warm, and engaging.

  3. I have the 99 classics and I love them. But it seems you are really again spot on in your observations because in comparison with a HD650 I heard couple of months ago the mids are thicker in HD650. In music, the mids are sufficient in 99 for me but I have a feeling that in movies I miss something from HD650 and thus I ordered the HD6XX which will take some time to arrive.

    Unfortunately, I also ordered before the HE4XX and now I do not have the money to buy the nightowls in that amazing price but I am trying to find solace to the fact that NO needs some time for a mental burn in that really I have not right now. I was literally one click from buying them and this is because of your great review skills…

  4. In some ways. But in others, the 99C is better.

    99C has deeper, more satisfying bass. And clearer, more sparkly highs. The treble also extends further, giving the stage more air.

    The 6XX has lusher mids, with more body.

    To be perfectly honest, my tastes lean in favor of the 99C. I just adore that signature.

  5. Thanks so much for your honest and fast response.
    Just to make sure you believe also that HD6xx is better than 99 classics? ( Is not so clear from your review)

  6. I can never answer the question, is X worth twice of Y. Diminishing returns being what they are, and personal financials playing the biggest roll, it’s simply not possible to say.

    What I can say, is I always felt NightOwl was worth the asking price of $700. So it’s current price is, in my opinion, a true steal.

    What makes the price question even more unfair in this case, is that I consider the HD6XX to be priced WAY below it’s performance level. $200 for something like this is a mad bargain.

    So while I do think NightOwl is the better headphone, as my review lays out, both are great, and both can be had for super prices.

  7. Your reviews are excellent, especially classics Vs Neo you are the only one that understands the difference between these two so well. Therefore, I trust your opinion very much.

    NO in original price was something I would never consider. Now the price seems ok but unfortunately I spend the allocated funds elsewhere and I would like to ask you how much of an upgrade NO is to HD6XX regardless of one being open and the other closed. In terms, of sound quality alone is NO worth double the price of HD6XX?

    Many thanks for your great reviews.

  8. Now if you really want to hear the NO at a higher potential ( & you listen to well recorded Genres of Acoustical based music) there are two things I suggest doing to them.

    #1) Don’t use the supplied AQ earpads ,they really are unable to produce the highest level of fine detail in wide dynamics music. The pads that do the best job with this music is the Audeze LCD Micro Suede earpads. They do a remarkable job at letting you hear the complete dynamics of what is on the recording . I have no idea whatsoever whether or not I could even recognize what the “Full
    Dynamics” of non Acoustical music should sound like ! He,he,he…. As I heard Joni Mitchell say once “There is very little “Muse” in today’s Music”. It’s way too much work trying to enjoy “Stylistic” mediocrity , so I try to avoid letting it beat my eardrums (& Psyche) up as much as possible . I could never hear all of the music I do like ,so I have no shortage of source material I will listen to (a lot of Stravinsky & Gordon Lightfoot lately).

    #2) The music I listen to doesn’t really need the benefit of “Dynamics” re-enforcement” (or whatever sound support was intended) from the Ported Dome earcups. Out of curiousity I removed the NO domes . I can put both domes back in place in less than a minute, but I’m detecting a slightly less (& not really necessary due to the recording technique used) “Forwardness” to the music. As a result I don’t have to work that hard at letting the “recording” get out of the way of the music I’m listening to.

    The perfect headphone doesn’t exist , but it’s definitely possible to find a headphone that comes close to what you’d like . All it takes is a less Democratic outlook of what sound qualities best benefit
    the music that you prefer. I find it hysterical whenever people start talking about “Dark Sounding” playback . My normal reaction is to think “Most people are way to used to acceptably listening to haphazardly,overlycompressed,too loud (to compensate for compression) recordings”

    It isn’t the playback equipment, that’s at fault .

  9. Thanks anyways. And you should definitely check them out some time. They are neither warm, nor bright and have quite good bass (alas the treble is too tamed) but they have wonderful mids and are (IMO) the best portable (foldable) closed back planar in that price category.

  10. I hope to review the Aeon soon. But I’m not sure that will happen. Would be great, though.

    I’ve always wanted to try the PM3, though. Never did get the chance. If you read my Meze 99 Classics review, there is a strong comparison made to the Senn M2.0. And the M2.0 has been compared many times to the PM3, so you can try and make some tangential references that way. Sorry, it’s the best I can do.

  11. It would please me greatly if you found your way to these by the strength of my fondness for them. But only if you know your tastes in signature, and know you love profound warmth. If you like a brighter, more neutral sig, these won’t give you the same pleasure.

    I come from creative writing, and reviews are not natural to me. The way I’ve found my style as a reviewer is to focus on the emotions I feel when listening to different gear. Trying to remain clinical and dry as I discuss a headphone would never work. That would be disingenuous. While my prose may possess some measure of hyperbole, I call them honest for it, for that is honestly how I feel. I listen, and I write, attempting to channel the experience into words.

  12. Now THAT is the kind of review that literally makes me want to buy on Amazon with next day air. When you/they stop using techno/audiophile babble and describe what you hear and feel, that’s when i was sold on checking these out. Graphs may paint a certain sound but it’s the sum of all things that truly make a great review. Well done… Apparently the Night Owls are everything I hoped they would be.

  13. Hi Pinky,

    thanks for that review! Have you ever heard the Oppo PM3´s and the new Mr Speakers Aeon. It would be great if you could get your hands on those closed back hp´s in order to put them in perspective to the other mid tier closed HP´s you reviewed. I haven´t heard the Aeon but the PM3´s excel in the mids, and they are the most portable of all of them because they are foldable. You should definitely give them a try.

  14. Both do a decent job of isolating, but they aren’t absolute. They’re good enough when music is playing, though. With some tunes on, you won’t be likely to hear any of the normal office sounds. The NightOwl does a slightly better job, probably due to its thicker ear pads

    I work at an electronics test department. We have this MASSIVE air compressor. When it’s being used, I can still hear it, even with the music up. But we’re talking LOUD NOISE. All the regular sounds around me are drowned out.

    Neither headphone leaks very much, and should be well suited for a cubicle.

  15. Hey Pinkie, informative and entertaining review as always. Thank you for sharing. Would you mind commenting on isolation between the NO and 99C? Both from the perspective of isolation from the wearer’s surroundings and the amount of sound leakage from the headphones. Which do you consider a more cubicle friendly headphone? Cheers!

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