Articulacy: The Nighthawk does a very good job of capturing and delineating the leading edges of notes, which gives the amp a decidedly high-definition sound. There is no sense of the amp blurring or rounding off the transient sounds that announce the arrival of new notes or sounds within the mix, but neither does the Nighthawk overstate or over-emphasize those sounds, so that the net result is an almost understated quality of clarity coupled with an ability to navigate complex transient passages with grace. This quality plays well with most headphones, but it really brings models such as the Shure SRH1440 alive in a most revealing way.
Control (Bass Control): The Nighthawk’s sound reminds of certain full-size hi-fi amplifiers that have very high damping factors and that have an uncanny ability to get drivers to behave themselves and just follow the outlines of musical signals. For some, especially those who are looking for amplifiers that will—in a subtle way—help to “warm up” the sound, this element of control might not seem a positive thing, in that it can on some records make the Nighthawk sound a bit “cold.” But the beauty of control is that it buys you the sonic honesty I spoke of above; it means you are listening to the musical signal (more or less)—not to an embellished and editorialized re-interpretation of the signal. Again, this is a good thing in our book. Interestingly, the Nighthawk’s control becomes more and more evident the lower you go in the audio spectrum. Paradoxically, upper bass and mid bass frequencies can at times sound a bit thin (because they are tightly controlled and not allowed to run wild), while low bass frequencies are terrifically powerful and clean (again because they are tightly controlled, and thus are compelled to unfold with full power and weight).
So far, these comments have all been positive, but what of drawbacks? Well, there are a few, which I’ll explain here.
First, we come to the area of dynamics and power output, where I would say the Nighthawk is very good, but not necessarily the best in its class. The headphone that proves to be the acid test, here, is the excellent but difficult to drive HiFiMAN HE-6, I found that the Nighthawk could drive the HE-6 adequately, but was it seemed somewhat hard-pressed to do so (meaning that on vigorous dynamic passages I heard signs—faint traces of hardness or roughness—that led me to think the Nighthawk was being pushed to the edge of its “comfort zone”). Can other amps in or near this price class do any better? Most cannot, but a few can: HiFiMAN’s admittedly more costly EF-6 amp ($1599) and Burson Audio’s less expensive Soloist amp ($960) both handle the HE-6 and other difficult loads with more grace and ease.
Second, let’s consider the matter of three-dimensionality—not just in terms of reproduction of spatial cues, but also in terms of rendering the entirety of individual notes, from attack to sustain on through to decay. We’ve already established that the Nighthawk is an ace at reproducing the attack or leading edge part of the note. But how does the Nighthawk do in terms of capturing the whole envelope of the note? Once again, I’d say the Nighthawk is very good, but not necessarily the best in its class. Again, I found that both HiFiMAN’s EF-6 amp and Burson Audio’s Soloist amp did a superior job of capturing the envelopes of notes in their entirety—especially in terms of capturing subtle modulations that occur as notes bloom, unfold, and then fade into decay. The net result is that both the HiFiMAN and Burson amps tend to sound more three-dimensional (presenting human and instrumental voices as living, breathing entities). While the Nighthawk delineates notes with the best of them and offers impeccable clarity, it can sound somewhat flat or two-dimensional at times.
In sum, I regard the Nighthawk as a fine first effort from Cary’s new Audio Electronics division. It’s a product with many laudable strong points, though one that does face significant competition at or near its price point. The good people at Cary Audio have told me that in the future there may well be a Cary-branded version of the Nighthawk, featuring hybrid tube/solid-state circuitry. Based on what I’ve heard of the Nighthawk thus far, I can’t wait to hear the Cary version.
For a brilliant example of the Nighthawk’s purity and articulacy in action, listen to the track “Zui-Zui-Zukkorobashi” from Yo Yo Ma’s Japanese Melodies [Sony]. Here, you’ll hear an old Japanese song as arranged for Ma’s cello and the Kyoto ensemble. Throughout the song Ma’s cello, which is played with a bow, is supported by variegated groupings of tradition Japanese percussion (picture small chimes or cymbals, wood blocks, drums, and the Japanese equivalent of a marimba) and Koto-like stringed instruments, which in contrast to the cello are plucked and not bowed. The result is, as some writers have noted, a merger of modernism and Asian traditionalism, where the music becomes beautiful not only for its melodies and rhythm, but for the unexpected combinations of timbres involved.