Big and clever (and bling­ing) head­phones

FOR Clean pre­sen­ta­tion; clever fea­tures; ex­cel­lent build qual­ity AGAINST The price; favours anal­y­sis over en­ter­tain­ment

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Contents -

Celebrity en­dorse­ment for a prod­uct is noth­ing un­usual and gen­er­ally it car­ries lit­tle weight with us. But when that celebrity hap­pens to be Quincy Jones – one of the great­est pro­duc­ers of all time and the win­ner of no fewer than 27 Gram­mys – we take a bit more no­tice. The ques­tion is whether the N90QS are good enough to jus­tify the mar­ket­ing con­nec­tion.

All that glit­ters…

First im­pres­sions are pos­i­tive. Th­ese head­phones come well packed, with a neat metal box, a bat­tery pack to top up the N90Q’S in­ter­nal power re­serves, a classy leather car­ry­ing case and a choice of cables and adap­tors.

The first thing that strikes us when we take the N90QS out of their pack­ag­ing is the gold on black colour scheme. For­tu­nately they don’t look half as gar­ish in the metal, and AKG also makes an all-black ver­sion for more vis­ual sub­tlety.

Just as AKG’S her­itage (and the price point) de­mands, th­ese head­phones are beau­ti­fully made and fin­ished. The use of qual­ity leather, su­perbly ma­chined alu­minium and sen­si­ble de­sign has re­sulted in a classy pair of head­phones that feel like they’re worth ev­ery penny of that hefty price. They’re rel­a­tively large but, de­spite a weight of 460g, sit com­fort­ably. Some of our test team did feel their ears get slightly too warm as time went on, though.

Still, the AKG’S dual-den­sity mem­ory foam ear pads are nicely judged, as is the in­ward pres­sure that’s enough to en­sure a se­cure fit that doesn’t make your head feel like it’s in a vice. They’re well en­gi­neered and ex­ude an aura of qual­ity.

A sense of pu­rity

There’s plenty of tech­nol­ogy here too. Along­side con­ven­tional fea­tures such as noise-can­celling, AKG has added a built-in DAC, a set-up func­tion to op­ti­mise the sound for your ears and var­i­ous sound modes to fine-tune the pre­sen­ta­tion to your tastes. The DAC comes into play when you use the mi­cro USB in­put. Just con­nect the sup­plied USB ca­ble to your dig­i­tal source and off you go. It makes for a neat so­lu­tion that, in the­ory, does away with need for a qual­ity out­board DAC, sim­pli­fy­ing the sys­tem at a stroke.

The dig­i­tal mod­ule’s res­o­lu­tion limit is a slightly dis­ap­point­ing 24-bit/96khz. We would have liked 24-bit/192khz at least, given the high-end level th­ese head­phones are pitched at and the wide avail­abil­ity of such ma­te­rial.

We’re used to au­to­mated set-up sys­tems in home cinema prod­ucts, but find­ing such a fea­ture in head­phones is un­usual. Sim­ply press the round gold but­ton next to the power switch for around five sec­onds and you’ll hear a cou­ple of fre­quency sweeps.

The N90QS mea­sure your ear cav­ity and ad­just the sound ac­cord­ingly. The whole process takes a mat­ter of sec­onds and seems to work, with the sound be­com­ing more even and pre­cise af­ter the pro­ce­dure is com­pleted. The three sound modes (Sur­round, Stan­dard and Stu­dio) are worth play­ing with. Sur­round gives a sense of scale and space that es­capes the al­ter­na­tives, but we find our­selves us­ing Stan­dard most of­ten – its pre­sen­ta­tion is more or­ganic than the rather dry-sound­ing Stu­dio op­tion, and has a sense of pu­rity Sur­round can’t match.

Dial in the tone ad­just­ments

If that’s not enough ad­justa­bil­ity the N90QS also have three tone set­tings – changed by a ro­tary dial on the left earpad – al­low­ing em­pha­sis to be placed at ei­ther fre­quency ex­treme if de­sired. Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, we pre­ferred the bal­anced, middle op­tion.

AKG could have de­signed a bet­ter way of iden­ti­fy­ing each of th­ese set­tings though. The head­phones emit slightly dif­fer­ent sounds when the tone and sound mode set­tings are

AKG N90Q

Noise-can­celling head­phones

£1300

”The N90QS mea­sure your ear cav­ity and ad­just the sound, which then be­comes more even and pre­cise”

switched, and it’s easy to get con­fused be­tween them. It would also be handy to have some sort of in­di­ca­tor to show when the ’phones are be­ing charged too.

While it’s tempt­ing, we wouldn’t sug­gest judg­ing th­ese head­phones straight from the box. Their sound im­proves no­tably with a few days of use, gain­ing nat­u­ral warmth, re­fine­ment and more ex­pres­sive dy­nam­ics.

And the Beats go on

From the start it’s ap­par­ent that the N90Q’S noise-can­celling abil­i­ties are ex­cel­lent. Once they’re switched on, the hub­bub of our of­fice qui­etens to a very low level. The head­phones’ wellde­signed struc­ture of­fers a good de­gree of phys­i­cal iso­la­tion too, help­ing re­duce the amount of noise that gets through to the ears in the first place. All in all, full marks to AKG in th­ese re­spects.

In­trigued by the built-in DAC, we con­nect our Macbook Air (loaded with Pure Mu­sic play­back soft­ware) and play a 16-bit/44.1khz rip of First Aid Kit’s Ghost Town.

The re­sults are pleas­ing. The N90QS have a clean and clear sound. Voices and in­stru­ments are ren­dered in a pre­cise man­ner, with lead­ing and trail­ing edges de­fined clearly. Once the var­i­ous sound and tonal modes are sorted out to our sat­is­fac­tion the over­all tonal bal­ance is wholly con­vinc­ing too. There’s no un­due em­pha­sis here, and the whole fre­quency range from low bass up­wards gels seam­lessly in both level and char­ac­ter. This kind of con­sis­tency isn’t as com­mon as it should be thanks to the im­pact of Beats head­phones, which ac­tively pro­mote un­nat­u­rally high bass lev­els.

Ex­cite­ment un­der­played?

First Aid Kit’s vo­cals come through with pu­rity too, and are de­liv­ered with im­pres­sive ar­tic­u­la­tion and a great deal of fi­nesse. There’s fine or­gan­i­sa­tion and the abil­ity to keep low-level de­tails ob­vi­ous even when louder sounds come into the mix. Af­ter hav­ing a care­ful lis­ten we be­gin to be a lit­tle con­cerned that the AKGS un­der­play the ex­cite­ment and drive in a piece of mu­sic.

Lis­ten­ing to Outkast’s Hey Ya! shows that to be true, though not to a par­tic­u­larly large de­gree. There’s speed here and a great deal of agility, but th­ese head­phones tend to take an an­a­lyt­i­cal view of the mu­sic, pre­fer­ring to dis­sect it rather than con­cen­trate on the fun as­pect. This kind of pre­sen­ta­tion may ap­peal to some but we place fun high up on our list of pri­or­i­ties.

The story re­mains the same with higher res­o­lu­tion files from the likes of Tay­lor Swift and The Rolling Stones. We plug Chord’s mighty Hugo DAC into our set-up to see what the N90QS do with top class Dac/head­phone am­pli­fi­ca­tion, and it comes as no sur­prise that the ad­di­tional £1400 buys a no­table up­lift across the sonic board.

We play a range of mu­sic, tak­ing in Eric Clap­ton, Michael Jack­son and Beethoven, and find the N90QS at home re­gard­less. There’s a lot of in­sight here, and the abil­ity to re­veal in­stru­men­tal and vo­cal tex­tures that some ri­vals may over­look. They are ca­pa­ble of punch­ing out huge dy­namic swings while hav­ing the fi­nesse to ca­ress nu­ances.

We think they’re a lit­tle too clin­i­cal with mu­sic though. That dis­tinc­tive, lay­ered rhythm track on Bil­lie Jean just doesn’t thun­der along as we’d like. Equally, as re­veal­ing as the dy­nam­ics are, cheaper (though non-noise can­celling) head­phones such as Grado’s PS500 are just a bit more ex­pres­sive in this re­spect.

By most stan­dards th­ese AKGS are ter­rific. They’re beau­ti­fully made with high qual­ity ma­te­ri­als, and pack in plenty of use­ful and un­usual fea­tures. They’re hugely ca­pa­ble son­i­cally, too. We haven’t come across an al­ter­na­tive with such a broad range of abil­i­ties, yet against this that price tag de­mands qual­i­ties that the N90QS don’t quite ace. They’re a lit­tle too straight-laced son­i­cally to get an un­re­served rec­om­men­da­tion.

”By most stan­dards th­ese AKGS are ter­rific, They’re hugely ca­pa­ble, but a lit­tle too son­i­cally straight-laced”

You’ll no­tice the

dis­tinc­tive gold on

black here. But

the N90QS also

come in a sub­tler

all-black ver­sion

The N90QS are en­dorsed by Quincy Jones, but are they good enough to jus­tify the mar­ket­ing con­nec­tion?

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