Some reviews have a long gestation period, but this one takes gold. I first encountered the AKG N90Q back in June 2015, and received my review sample toward the end of the year. Almost immediately, the UK agency approached me and begged me not to review the headphones until the unprecedented order book had cleared a little. More than a year later, I’m still waiting for clearance, but if we don’t write about it soon, the product will be old enough to draw a pension.
AKG has a substantial reputation in the pro-audio world. That’s not an exaggeration because there are few studios that don’t have at least a pair of 414 microphones and several sets of the company’s headphones for engineering, mixing, and monitoring in the tool kit. So, when it was time for AKG to make a new flagship headphone for the domestic market, it was clear that the company should leverage at least some of that reputation. As a result, it looked for one of AKG’s power users in the music business – not simply as endorsement, but someone capable of bringing some serious input to the product design. And that explains the ‘Q’ suffix in the name, because the person who brought that serious input to the design was the ‘Q’ himself – Quincy Jones.
If you don’t know who Quincy Jones is and you are reading this magazine, I can’t really help you. Jones is a legendary polymath in the recording industry who received an unprecedented 79 Grammy Award nominations, and won 28 Grammys in the process. He has worked with everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra (he was conductor and arranger for Sinatra and the Basie Band on the 1966 album Sinatra at the Sands), and produced a couple of somewhat well known albums called Off The Wall and Thriller for Michael Jackson. He isn’t known for endorsing products (Jones is more likely to put his name to a charitable foundation), so his moniker on a pair of headphones means more than just a lucrative contract and a photo shoot. This is not the first pair of AKG headphones to carry his name as the Q701 brought the K701 studio model into the home, but this time, Jones was heavily involved in the concept more or less from first principles, in terms of voicing and choice of DSP options.
AKG could have made a flagship headphone that meets or exceeds the performance of the likes of the best from big name brands like Sennhesier and Beyerdynamic, or even take on the best of the newcomers like HiFiMAN. However, this kind of ‘best in breed’ approach is fleeting; what is best today is eclipsed tomorrow. So, instead, AKG moved the headphone market on by creating something genuinely unlike any other top-grade headphone, by making in essence a headphone system in one big, reassuringly expensive package. The headphone is a complete ear-adaptive, noise cancelling, DAC with DSP tone-shaping design, with a built-in amplifier, if you so desire. And it can be all of these things or (almost) none of them.