Remember these lovely photos of the ~S$2,000 headset? AKG markets the AKG N90Qs as "the first headphones with personalized sound; inspired by Grammy winner Quincy Jones". These premium headphones certainly look the part, coming in a gold hard shell case emblazoned with a large "Q".
Certainly, the first thing that hits you when you see these headphones is their size. The AKG N90Qs are full-sized studio monitors. They weigh 460g, and come with plush ear cushions that are dual-density memory foam wrapped in soft leather. These do a pretty good job of passive noise isolation, and add a degree of comfort that you don’t often get from such large over-ear headphones.
A lot of aluminum is used in the construct of the N90Q, keeping the weight down while providing the rigidity that keeps the headphones from clamping on your head excessively. Certainly, the headphones were very comfortable to wear over our trial period and we think you’ll definitely have no concerns wearing these for extra long listening sessions.
Well, at least up to 12 hours at a stretch before the N90Q requires a connected power source to continue to operate. Perhaps because of this, you get a custom designed power bank along with the headphones. You also get a cleaning cloth (inscribed with a saying from Quincy), a soft carrying pouch and a full set of cables. In fact, the case itself even acts as a charging station for the headphones, so you can be sure they’re well protected during the process.
A large Q is emblazoned on both ear cups, and on top of each face plate you’ll find an aluminum control ring. The one on the right ear cup adjusts volume, while the one on the left adjusts the bass and treble levels so you can customize the sound to your preferences very easily.
At the bottom of the right ear cup, you’ll find a silver button which controls two more functions the N90Q offers. Press it and you can cycle between the headphone’s EQ presets - Standard, Studio, and Surround Sound. Hold it down for a few seconds, and you activate the TruNote auto-calibration system in the headphones. This uses two microphones in each ear cup to measure the frequency response in your ear while you’re wearing the headphones by playing a few pulses and evidently, recording how it echoes off your ear.
It may sound gimmicky, but we found that it really works from listening to tunes before and after calibration. In fact, we noted a significant difference to the audio we were hearing and it really did seem like we were hearing our music more directly after calibration. Everything seemed a little clearer throughout the audio spectrum and we do think there was even a bit more clarity too.
Unfortunately, we’re not sure we can say the same for the EQ presets. For most tracks, the difference between Standard and Surround seemed minimal, but in Studio mode you really get a sense of isolation on the vocals of the track. For example, on Ordinary people by John Legend it felt like we were placed in a more intimate setting, and the naturalness in his vocals really came through.
The control ring on the left ear cup on the other hand, adjusts the balance between bass and treble levels. Again, there are no indicators on the headset to indicate or notify of the levels, but we did detect three clicks as we rotated the dial. The changes were very subtle, and not quite enough to leave us feeling we’d significantly adjusted the sound to our liking so we’d say the best audio adjustment feature at this point is really the TruNote auto-calibration system.
The N90Q has an internal DAC which allows for High Resolution Audio (HRA) playback at up to 24bit/96kHz, and you can actually connect it direct to your computer or Android device via USB cable to allow the headphone’s DAC to override the one in your computer. This again results in better sound as all the digital/analog conversion happens in the final output source itself.
To check that the internal DAC really does deliver, we purposely tested out using our office computer which obviously had nothing more than the integrated audio solution onboard the motherboard's chipset. Compared to that, we’re happy to say the N90Q’s DAC does a fantastic job. Imaging is excellent, as seen on Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. This track really plays with stereo imaging and the N90Q turned in a superb performance – especially during the refrain when the audio jumps from left to right and back to front. Certainly a most enjoyable experience.
Moving on to a live recording of Nirvana’s Come As You Are, we got a feel for the midtone performance of these headphones - slightly warm and nicely controlled. The N90Qs have very good separation to them, so no matter what you’re listening to, you never lose track of the individual elements in the piece. We’d say the N90Q threads the line between neutral and dry, and can sometimes be a bit too accurate to be "fun".
"Best with acoustic pieces" is our early assessment, but that’s not say that the headphones don’t perform well with other genres of music. They do an excellent job across the board, and will certainly make a nice addition to any audiophile’s collection if they can stomach the price - US$1,499.95 (on the Harman Audio website).