The Real Reason Behind AudioQuest’s Short-Lived Headphone Quest

The rise and fall of AudioQuest headphones
The rise and fall of AudioQuest headphones

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An in-depth look at why AudioQuest’s headphone experiment ended after just three years.

2015 saw an unexpected twist when AudioQuest, a company renowned for their premium cables, decided to dip their toes into the headphone market.

But just as we were getting used to the idea, AudioQuest pulled the plug on their headphone line a mere three years later, leaving many of us scratching our heads.

What went wrong and why are audiophiles still talking about it?

AudioQuest’s Entry Into the Headphone Arena

AudioQuest logo. (From: AudioQuest)
AudioQuest logo. (From: AudioQuest)

AudioQuest’s debut headphone, the NightHawk, hit the market in 2015 with a $599 price tag and a clear mission: to stand out in a crowded market with innovative design and technology. And stand out they did.

For one, the NightHawk’s ear cups material showed AudioQuest’s commitment to pushing boundaries.

Crafted from “liquid wood,” an eco-friendly composite, these cups weren’t just visually striking. They also allowed for versatile molding and featured a special coating inside to reduce unwanted vibrations.

But the innovation didn’t stop there.

The ear cups also had 3D-printed structures inspired by butterfly wings, called “biomimetic grilles.” According to them, these improved sound quality by reducing internal reflections inside the cups.

A close look at the AudioQuest NightHawk. (From: AudioQuest)
A close look at the AudioQuest NightHawk. (From: AudioQuest)

Inside, the NightHawks had 50mm biocellulose drivers for clear sound with less distortion.

Using these drivers, Skylar Gray, the mastermind behind these cans, aimed for a distinctive audio profile. Thats why the Nighthawk intentionally gave a robust bass, slightly recessed midrange, and balanced yet textured treble.

Back then, this was a bold choice in a market where many prefer a more neutral sound.

AudioQuest even called these “earspeakers,” stressing their goal of natural and immersive sound.

Comfort wasn’t an afterthought either.

The NightHawks had a special elastic system to hold the ear cups, making them fit different head shapes well. This, plus their light weight, made them great for long listening sessions.

Building on the NightHawk’s reception, AudioQuest released the NightOwl in 2016. These were closed-back headphones for people who wanted more isolation from outside noise.

At this point, it seemed AudioQuest was ready to shake up the high-end headphone market. And, many of us were eager to see what they’d do next.

AudioQuest’s Decision to Step Away

Notice of discontinuation from AudioQuest. (From: Reddit)
Notice of discontinuation from AudioQuest. (From: Reddit)

Then came the bombshell.

In April 2018, AudioQuest shocked the audio community by announcing the end of both the NightHawk and NightOwl product lines.

This was announced via a message to their dealers. Here, the company explained that even though they sold thousands of units, fully growing their headphone line would take too much focus away from their main cable business.

So, instead of investing more on headphone manufacturing, they are letting it go entirely to focus on making cables again.

To soften the blow, AudioQuest cut the price to $399.95 – much lower than the original $599 – and offered sellers a chance to join a clearance sale.

This was likely to sell off remaining stock quickly while keeping good relationships with their dealers.

Notably, AudioQuest made no mention of future headphone models, signaling a complete exit from this market segment.

What Went Wrong?

The rapid exit from the headphone market raised questions about what challenges AudioQuest faced.

Several factors likely contributed to this decision:

Polarizing opinions on NightHawk and NightOwl

One user's opinion on the AudioQuest headphones. (From: Reddit)
One user’s opinion on the AudioQuest headphones. (From: Reddit)

The NightHawk and NightOwl were like Marmite in the audiophile world – you either loved them or hated them.

Some listeners praised their warm, rich tones and comfortable design. Yet others found the sound overly dark and lacking in detail and clarity.

Critics often compared the NightHawk to the Sennheiser HD650, another warm-sounding headphone. But, opinions were split on whether it was a worthy upgrade.

For example, Oratory1990 criticized Skylar Gray’s tuning philosophy.

“The designer of these headphones (Skylar Gray) has some very … unique views on how a headphone should sound.” he said.

“From my point of view some of his conclusions on the problematics of measurements are just plain wrong, leading to a target “tuning” of his headphones that is, well, wrong.”

In contrast, Audiofail noted that the treble is good on the headphones, and that it’s the bass and mid-bass that’s lacking.

“I disagree completely. Nighthawk and Nightowl are headphones that do treble very well. It’s the bass and mid-bass that are unconventionally tuned. I say ‘unconventionally’ because their message is that “everyone else is doing it wrong”. I found it annoying, but if you focus just on what you’re listening to, the treble is resolving, detailed, and smooth.”
Skylar Gray talking about the AudioQuest NightOwl at Munich High End 2016. (From: YouTube/Darko.Audio)
Skylar Gray talking about the AudioQuest NightOwl at Munich High End 2016. (From: YouTube/Darko.Audio)

Audiophile reviewer Richard Barclay added to the controversy by stating that AudioQuest headphones were benchmarked against one undisclosed flagship model.

Skylar Gray responded to this criticism by clarifying, “Yes, it’s correct that several of the graphs on our website show comparisons between NightHawk and one other headphone, but this is for simplicity. AudioQuest now has on hand close to 200 headphones of various types, brands, and price points.”

This split in opinions made it hard for AudioQuest to find a solid place in the market and build a loyal customer base.

Competitive market and pricing challenges

Let’s face it – the high-end headphone market is a shark tank. With big names like Sennheiser, Audeze, and Focal already popular, AudioQuest faced a hard battle to win a big share of the market.

The $599 price put them up against well-known models from established brands.

In fact, the later price reduction to $399.95 suggests that the original pricing may have been too ambitious. So it potentially limited their sales and market penetration.

Also, the NightHawk’s sound changed depending on the amp used, which adds another layer of complexity for potential buyers. As much as audiophiles love to tinker with their setups, this variability may have limited its appeal to those without high-end audio rigs.

Resource allocation and limited product line

AudioQuest’s statement about headphones taking focus from their cable business tells us a lot. It suggests they might have underestimated what it takes to succeed in the headphone market.

Developing, manufacturing, and marketing headphones is a whole different ballgame from producing cables. It requires huge investment in R&D, production facilities, and marketing strategies.

For a company mainly known for cables, this shift might have stretched their resources and possibly hurt their main business.

The AudioQuest NightOwl (left) and NightHawk (right). (From: betula)
The AudioQuest NightOwl (left) and NightHawk (right). (From: betula)

Plus, with only two models (NightHawk and NightOwl), AudioQuest had a small lineup compared to competitors with more extensive product ranges.

People’s preferences range from analytical to warm, and from bass-heavy to neutral. So, this limited range might have made it hard for AudioQuest to appeal to a wider audience and compete well in different market segments.

Company reputation

AudioQuest’s reputation was built on their high-end cable products – a contentious topic in itself within the audiophile community. This background likely influenced how their headphones were perceived in the market.

Some might have been skeptical of a cable company’s ability to produce high-quality headphones. Others may have had unrealistically high expectations based on AudioQuest’s reputation in the cable market.

Also, AudioQuest’s history of making expensive cables, which some critics say have no proven benefits, might have led to more scrutiny of its headphones.

This extra pressure could have made it harder for AudioQuest to build credibility in the headphone market, despite the new features and design of their products.

Reactions From the Audiophile Community

The decision to stop making the headphones drew mixed reactions from the community. Some had less diplomatic responses, suggesting that cables are more lucrative for the company.

Speculations on the discontinuation. (From: Reddit)
Speculations on the discontinuation. (From: Reddit)

Other users expressed disappointment but acknowledged the innovation and effort behind these headphones.

Respect for AudioQuest headphones. (From: Reddit)
Respect for AudioQuest headphones. (From: Reddit)

One user wished that AudioQuest had fully committed to the headphone market and moved away from their cable business.

“I wish they’d have gone all in on headphones and dropped their fancy cables. At least their headphones weren’t a ripoff,” said gregotav.

Several users also sympathized with Skylar Gray and the negative reception he received.

Sympathy for Skylar Gray. (From: Reddit)
Sympathy for Skylar Gray. (From: Reddit)

💬 Conversation: 1 comment

  1. Hi,
    There is also a third one, the “Nighthawk Carbon”, with a different tuning.
    I had a MrSpeakers Aeon (mk1) and trade them on Headfi for a Nightowl. I absolutely not regret this choice. Plus with padswap and/or EQ they still compete very well these days IMO.
    They are still in one piece, I just had to change the “vegan” leather earpads that peeled off for “animal” leather.
    The comfort is a 10/10.
    It really is a shame that SG and Audioquest were so bashed. They could have improved.
    IMO the right price for the Nightowl today, regarding sound and especially construction would be easilly 499 or 549.
    I know I may sound like a fanboy but I have plenty of other headphones and the Audioquest and Oppo ones are special to me.
    I did not fing something I really wanted to by since then, except maybe some ZMF or the Tungsten.

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