Headphone Arts

Audio Electronics Nighthawk

Unless you’ve been in the audio community since the early 90’s, chances are you haven’t heard of Audio Electronics by Cary Audio. Audio Electronics (AE) was created in 1993 as a way for Cary to reach out to budget minded music lovers and audiophiles. AE offered award- winning products that are still highly regarded to this day. In 2009, Cary Audio put Audio Electronics into hibernation concentrating on their core brand. Today, Audio Electronics is back – offering new products with a focus on sleeker designs, smaller footprints, and superb performance still at an affordable price point as in the past. The first product to hit the streets is the Nighthawk headphone amplifier – at $1,199.

The Nighthawk is considerably larger than the average portable headphone amplifier at 14.5” L x 8.5” W x 4” H, but don’t let the size scare you. It is well designed and easy-to-use featuring only the basic neccessities – inputs, output, power.  A silky smooth volume control, and a rock solid ¼-inch headphone jack adds to the feeling of quality, but an additional 1/8-inch jack would have been good for added flexibility, especially considering how many phones are showing up on the scene with the smaller plugs.

There are two pairs of outputs on the rear panel, one of them a pass through.  The five second soft start/mute circuit is a nice touch – nothing worse than hearing a headphone amp make a loud click when you have your phones on!

Unlike the more expensive Cary HH-1 headphone amplifier ($1,595) which is a hybrid design, utilizing a pair of 6922, the Nighthawk uses a Class-A solid state circuit with no feedback.  We’ll be revewing the HH-1 at a future date for comparison, but the Nighthawk proves no slouch with a wide range of headphones.

Test drive

A Mac Mini serving up CD rips through the McIntosh C50 preamp/DAC was used for all source files.  Even after three solid days of 24 hour operation, burning in another pair of headphones for another report, the Nighthawk remains cool, generating less head than my iPhone.  A great thing for those keeping their headphone systems in tight quarters.

Listening with everything from entry-level cans to the higher end models like the Denon D7000, Beyerdynamic T1, the Nighthawk proves clean and natural, adding no discernable flavor to the sound. However, system synergy is everything in headphone world, and with some phones more difficult to drive than others, the Nighthawk is not a perfect match with the Sennheiser HD800s.  A much better match is my reference Lehmann Audio Black Cube Linear – similarly priced but totally different sound.

The Nighthawk pairs well with the mid priced phones in my stable.  The AKG K550, Sennheiser HD600 and Pioneer SE-MJ591 all proved a breeze to drive.  Synergy rears its head again, with the AKG 550s a sweet match.  I went back to these phones repeatedly and have never had a better experience with the K550.  Natalie Merchant’s Ophelia album proved highly satisfying with rich vocals and well controlled bass response, yet no hint of bleeding into the vocals or background instruments.

This versatility makes the Nighthawk a perfect choice for the budding or seasoned headphone enthusiast.  Even my $99/pair Sony MDR-XB600 (Extra Bass) phones that sound mediocre at best with my iPhone really came to life with the Nighthawk.  A playlist of Deadmau5 favorites showed how well controlled and powerful the bass response could be even with budget phones.  All I wanted to do was turn it up!

Pub note:  Those with Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3 phones can also rest assured that the Nighthawk is an excellent match with these planar favorites, which can be tough to drive.  -Michael Liang

The Audio Electronics Nighthawk

MSRP:  $1,195