The Nighthawk has a veritable field day with the various percussion and plucked stringed instruments, drawing crisp, clean lines to announce the launch of each and every note. With the AE amp in play, you have the reassuring sense that nothing is getting lost, blurred, or smeared, so that you can fully appreciate how the ensemble interacts (and interlocks) with the deeper, darker, more woody sound of Ma’s cello. The intricacy of the percussion and string ensemble, which could daunt or fluster some electronics, is actually an opportunity for the Nighthawk to strut its stuff. Remember, delineation of notes is one thing the AE amp excels at.
The tonal neutrality of the Nighthawk also comes into play on “Zui-Zui-Zukkorobashi”, so that the sounds of the percussion and string ensemble are neither too bright-sounding nor piercing, as they might be through some amps. Instead, sounds of the ensemble are presented in balanced proportions so that they add support and additional tonal flavoring to complement Ma’s cello, yet without overwhelming the cello or robbing it of its central role in the recording.
But if “Zui-Zui Zukkorobashi” shows off the Nighthawk’s strengths, it also exposes areas where other amps offer strong competition. As I drank in the timbres of the various instruments used in the track through the Nighthawk, I was well satisfied with their tonal purity—right up until I did a side-by-side comparison with the Burson Soloist amp. While the Nighthawk’s performance on leading-edge transients was exemplary, the Soloist served up a markedly more three dimensional sound that more fully captured the overall shapes and modulations of notes, and also captured the inner voices of the various instruments in a more believable way. In short, while the Nighthawk offers an admirable cleanliness and purity as it goes about its work, its presentation can seem a little more two-dimensional and less “holographic” and expansive than that of some of its competitors.
To get a handle on more of the Nighthawk’s strengths, try listening to the “End Credits” music from Danny Elfman’s soundtrack score from the film Sleepy Hollow [Sleepy Hollow: Music from the Motion Picture, Hollywood Records]. This recording presents a simple and appropriately eerie-sounding melodic theme stated by piano and (I think) xylophone, offset both by very low-pitched string, brass, and bass drum passages and by much higher-pitched and quite ethereal chime-like percussion accents and choral lines soaring up above. What is more, all of these elements tend at times to be big, bold, and dramatic, as is so often the case with film scores, so that when they swell up to full voice each element is exposed—as are any sonic errors the amp might introduce.
But what I found is that the Nighthawk’s crystalline purity also affords terrific pitch definition from top to bottom, so that where some amps might begin to sound muddled, confused, or overloaded by the score’s demanding orchestration, the Nighthawk sails through cleanly without becoming flustered in any way. Musical challenges that would seem almost to be “torture tests” for some amps become opportunities for the Nighthawk. During the “End Credits” music, for example, I loved the way the amp handled the big, bombastic low-frequency string, brass, and percussion passages, while at the same time reproducing the multi-layered voices of the chorus and the delicate, just barely audible sounds of high-pitched chimes—all at the same time. One of the things you are paying for when you choose an amp of the Nighthawk’s quality is this ability to meet multiple complex musical demands at once. The very lowest frequency passages in the “End Credits” music show off the AE amp’s remarkable low-frequency control and power, too, where as pitches descend lower and lower the amp simply wades right into the thick of things and makes the music happen.
Using the Sleepy Hollow score as a test platform, I again compared the sound of the Nighthawk to the Burson Soloist, and as before the Soloist did exhibit a more three-dimensional and thus more involving sound. However, to its credit, the Nighthawk demonstrated what I think many listeners would find to be a superior level of very low frequency power, control, and pitch definition—qualities that really helped to unlock the mysterious and evocative character of this soundtrack.
Consider this headphone amp if:
• You want a well made, well rounded, and not frighteningly expensive headphone amp sourced from one of America’s premier high-end audio electronics manufacturers.
• You prize pristine clarity, neutral tonal balance, and a high definition sound, replete with excellent control over low frequencies.
• You believe “simpler is better” when it comes to electronics components; the Nighthawk is a pretty minimalist design, but arguably sounds all the better for it.