Not all headphones are made equal. The AKG N90Q epitomise this by offering a number of technological firsts – including TruNote, the ability to read your ears for a bespoke listen – paired with the stamp of approval from legendary producer Quincy Jones. And on the 26 June in New York City, we met with the man himself at the Harman Store on Madison Avenue to be introduced to this latest project.
Earlier Quincy Jones projects with Harman, AKG's parent company, resulted in Signature: the giant, green-tinged over-ear cans designed for the studio. The N90Q are more subtle by comparison, although hardly inconspicuous: daubed in a bling gold-colour trim, which complements the black leather and aluminium finish. But comparison isn't the point here: the N90Q are built from the ground up; a project to show off AKG's engineering skills when it comes to home listening.
They're not small scale over-ears by any means, but they sure as heck are comfortable. Two giant marshmallow-like earcups protrude from the head when worn, ears almost floating freely within them. They're not too tight, there's no lobe contact with the headphones' driver or internal mesh like some smaller cans, making for a comfortable wear.
But these large earcups aren't just for show, they're designed with audio quality in mind. And so on to the clever stuff. Once switched on – and the N90Q are active headphones that will only work when the build-in battery has sufficient juice available – a secondary control button can be held for five seconds to begin what AKG calls TruNote calibration.
TruNote works by emitting a signal (which sounds like two percussive shakers, lasting less than a second) from two microphones within each earcup, which are used to measure the individual listeners' ear canal shape and their individual frequency response accordingly. Yep, it knows if your ears are broken if the signal comes back a bit, let's say, "wonky" compared to a pitch perfect listener. It can effectively map your ears and compensate the playback based on what it finds. That's the power of software.
Sounds very space-age, doesn't it? The obvious question being whether such calibration make a genuine difference for the better. Having popped the N90Q on and immediately made the calibration we couldn't tell the difference. But, and as other listeners of the public and press pointed out, a sustained non-calibrated listen for a couple of minutes before holding the TruNote button to calibrate made the before and after experience more defined. It is better, but subtle, the kind of thing that high-end audio heads will appreciate.
In many respects the N90Q are all about such subtleties to set them apart from the competition. Because they sound exceptionally good from the off – we even had a listen in a sound-proofed Listening Cube that's within the Harman Store for an isolated listen – akin to sinking your brain into a warm pool of water. Which is where the next bit of tech comes in: audiophile-grade noise-cancellation, as a combination of passive deflection from the earcup design, coupled with active microphones.
With the ability to achieve 20dB wide band noise reduction, we spotted a few differences with the N90Q's active noise-cancellation compared to some altogether more budget headphones. There's no associated "hiss" (however quiet that can be with competitors), while the placement of exterior microphones are protected within the headphone chassis so there's no "tearing" sound from moving air, such as air conditioning or the wind. Although we don't immediately envision seeing many N90Q owners venturing out donning these cans for the morning commute – they feel more like luxury listening headphones to us.
But back to the audio for a moment, because it sounds great. There's a wide-ranging frequency response from the pistonic motion drivers delivers silky bass and all the twinkling and snap you could hope for from the high- and mid-levels. Nothing is overpowering, and because those earcups are so large it really helps enhance the stereo mix, with sound swirling around the ears, giving great spatial awareness.
In addition to a 3.5mm jack, there's also Micro-USB for hard-wiring a cable should you want to support high-resolution audio (at 24-bit/192kHz). However, this is also why Bluetooth is excluded, or so we're told: as the wireless transmission hasn't got the smarts to sustain hi-res quality. We think that's a big absence in the feature set though.
The on-board battery is one of the N90Q's essential features, as there's no option to listen passively once the 12-hour battery life has depleted. According to AKG this is to ensure the best and most consistent sound. We've had headphones that sound quite different with noise-cancellation switched off, so it's understandable the N90Q desire to sound the same each and every time they're switched on (although you'll need to calibrate each time).
Built-in rotational controls on each earcups' exteriors add a fun way of adjusting controls too. Want to turn the volume up, then simply rotate the right earcup's dial. The opposite left side has a similar rotational dial, but it cycles between three equalisation presets, accompanied with a satisfying pitched "tongue click" sound to represent whether you're in the bassiest preset or the middle-high balanced ones.
However these are really subtle presets; any presence of surrounding background noise and it's tricky to discern a huge difference between the three available options. As these are Quincy Jones headphones, the presets are fixed and not adjustable. But as the goal of the N90Q is to deliver rich and natural audio we're not surprised: we wouldn't actually want a Beats-style bass bomb preset to feature here.
There are another set of presets for widening the soundstage too. There's Standard (which is DSP disabled, so can be used in conjunction with external 3D sound imaging such as Dolby headphone); Studio (which is flat and natural); and Surround (delivering pseudo three-dimensional audio). These are accessed by pressing the TruNote button to cycle between each of them.
Now this might sound odd, but there's also the N90Q box. And we really can't not talk about it. The gold-topped case is huge, containing a number of cables (no Micro-USB though) and – here's a rather cool idea – a 2,400mAh battery pack for back-up charging when on the go. If, that is, you carry a giant box around with you every second of the day. The battery is even default wired to a Micro-USB socket on exterior rear of the box itself, so you can plug in without even opening it up. We're not sure we've ever been so excited by a headphones box; perhaps mainly because, with dwindling smartphone power we were able to take benefit from its versatility and plug in to steal a bit of a top-up.
The AKG N90Q are big, bold and full of high-end features. Which all adds up to a sizeable price point: $1,499 in the US, the same sum in Euro and (we can only presume until further official information follows) the Sterling price will likely be much the same.
Are the N90Q worth it? It's a lot of money to spend on what we would call luxury at-home headphones, but then again they are staggeringly good. However, if you can't surrender Bluetooth and passive listening then don't think about spending such cash, as the slightly old school approach – no surprises given these have Quincy Jones' old school character imprint on them – won't suit all.
Comfortable, with exceptional noise-cancellation and world-first intelligent features, the AKG N90Q deliver sound quality every bit as good as you could hope for. We'd happily plug in, put our feet up, hunker down into the sofa and just let the music take over. It's a listening experience; and that pleasure should be enough to distract from the sizeable price point.
Although there's still time to save if they sound like the headphones for you, as the AKG N90Q won't be on sale until around September.