Big and clever (and blinging) headphones
FOR Clean presentation; clever features; excellent build quality AGAINST The price; favours analysis over entertainment
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
”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.
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
The N90QS are endorsed by Quincy Jones, but are they good enough to justify the marketing connection?