Audio Electronics by Cary Audio Nighthawk Headphone Amplifier (Playback 58)

Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Audio Electronics by Cary Audio Nighthawk
Audio Electronics by Cary Audio Nighthawk Headphone Amplifier (Playback 58)

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:

oAll Class A design.
oFront end uses “monolithic high-speed FET devices.”
oUses a “fully complementary, high-speed buffered output stage for extremely high linearity and low distortion.”
oNo 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.

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.

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.

Look further if:

•You want an amp that offers purity, clarity, and accuracy, but that also digs way down deep into the inner voices of instruments to produce a believable, three-dimensional sound (the Nighthawk does well here, but has competitors that can do even better).
•You were hoping for a hybrid tube/solid-state design (in which case, you may want to wait for the Cary-branded version of the amp to come out).
•You need multiple inputs and/or switch selectable master gain settings (features that several competing amps in this class can provide).

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced headphone amps):

•Tonal Balance: 9
•Clarity: 9
•Dynamics: 8
•Flexibility: 5 (at this price point, it’s becoming commonplace to see headphone amps with multiple inputs and switch selectable master gain settings—neither of which the Nighthawk provides).
•Value: 7.5


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. Fans of clarity, purity, and neutrality will love this amp, while those seeking the elusive qualities of inner detail and three-dimensionality may find they want something more.

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.


Audio Electronics by Cary Audio Nighthawk Headphone Amp
Frequency Response: 5Hz – 35kHz (-1dB)
THD: <0.01%
Analog Inputs: One stereo analog input (via gold-plated RCA jacks)
Analog Outputs: One ¼-inch headphone jack, one stereo analog pass-through output (via gold-plated RCA jacks)
Input Impedance: 50k Ohms
Output Impedance: 5 Ohms
Output Power: 400mW/300 Ohms, 600mW/30 Ohms
Recommended Headphone Loads: Designed to drive headphones with impedances ranging between 20 and 600 Ohms.
Dimensions (H x W x D): 4” x 8.5” x 14.5”
Weight: 10 lbs.
Price: $1195

Manufacturer Information
Audio Electronics by Cary Audio
(919) 355-0010

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