Among high-end audio electronics manufacturers there is a long, honorable tradition of creating sub-brands geared toward building accessibly priced equipment for those with champagne tastes but beer budgets. It is with precisely such thoughts in mind that the Apex, NC-based firm Cary Audio created a sub-brand called Audio Electronics back in 1993. In recent years Audio Electronics had more or less fallen off the radar screen, but Cary is now re-launching the brand with the release of its new Nighthawk solid-state headphone amplifier ($1195), which was first introduced just a few weeks ago and which is the subject of this review.
In keeping with longstanding Cary Audio tradition, the Nighthawk pays almost no attention to gongs, whistles, and fancy cabinetry to focus instead on simplicity and elegance of circuit design, very high quality parts, and—most of all—sonic purity. Cary believes that sound quality must always come first—a viewpoint that leads us to think that Nighthawk will have its priorities straight (or at least in alignment with values most Playback readers hold near and dear).
• Cary claims the Nighthawk features “top quality parts mounted on a thick gauge fiberglass circuit board.”
• The Nighthawk uses a power transformer rated at three times the output capacity required for the amplifier’s design, which “feeds a fully regulated discrete power supply for best sound quality.”
• Circuit details:
o All Class A design.
o Front end uses “monolithic high-speed FET devices.”
o Uses a “fully complementary, high-speed buffered output stage for extremely high linearity and low distortion.”
o No global feedback is used in the design.
• The amp is said to be able to handle virtually any headphone “with an impedance between 20 and 600 ohms.”
• Five-second muting circuit prevents pops and clicks when the Nighthawk is first powered up.
• Simplicity is the order of the day with the Nighthawk. The amp sports a tastefully understated, half-width (that is, 8.5-inch wide) chassis finished in satin black. The faceplate is adorned only with a high-quality power switch, a pilot light, a ¼-inch phone jack, and a medium-sized aluminum volume control knob with a brushed metal face and camera-finished sides. The rear panel is even simpler, with just one stereo pair of analog inputs (via gold-plated RCA jack) and a matching pair of analog pass-through outputs. In short, you get everything you need to play music and nothing you don’t.
For this review we used an Oppo BDP-95 universal/Blu-ray player as a primary source component and listened to the Nighthawk amp through a wide variety of headphones including the Audeze LCD-3, the Fischer Audio DA-002W, the HiFiMAN HE-6 and HE-500, the Sennheiser HD-800, and the Shure SRH1840 and SRH1440. We also had on hand for comparison several competing headphone amplifiers including the Burson Audio Soloist, the CEntrance DAC Mini, and the HiFiMAN EF-6. A wide range of music was used, spanning all musical genres.
In my listening notes and in conversations I’ve had with colleagues about the Nighthawk, several characteristics keep rising to the surface: purity, articulacy, and control (especially bass control). Let me talk a bit about each of these qualities as they apply to the Nighthawk.
Purity: There is a certain unembellished, let’s-stick-to-the-facts, honesty about the Nighthawk that I found immediately appealing. This honesty stems, first, from the fact that the tonal balance of the Nighthawk is quite neutral, which means the AE amp seems—unlike some amps—not to have an identifiable “sound” of its own. Rather, the sound you hear is that of the recording: if the mix sounds warm and has touches of midrange liquidity, then that’s how the Nighthawk will sound, but if the mix sounds flat and dry, so too will the Nighthawk convey those qualities. One way to think of this is to note that you don’t so much listen to the AE amp as you listen through it in order to hear what the recording itself has to say. In our book, this is a good thing, though I it can under some circumstances make the Nighthawk’s seem a little “cold”—largely because the amp adds little if any artificial low-end weight to help warm-up the sound in any way. Similarly, there’s no top-end roll-off to help smooth (or mask) treble flaws in recordings. What you hear is what’s on the record.