AKG N90Q Headphones Review
An absurdly good pair of headphones, for an absurd price
The Insides That Count
There’s no doubt the AKG N90Q (MSRP: $1,499.95) try to do it all. With twelve different sound profiles, ANC, and the fancy TruNote tech, there's plenty here to get excited about.
Our first thought was that this was a bit of overkill, but using our reliable pal HATS (head and torso simulator) we were able to put the N90Q through their paces and see how exactly those settings compared—and if it was worth it in the end.
In order to test frequency response we start by inputting a parent signal of 82dB and measuring the response of the headphones across the audible spectrum (20Hz–20kHz). Now, the N90Qs have three primary settings—standard, studio, and surround sound—and, in addition to that, the control ring on the left earcup adjusts bass and treble levels. All counted, there are 12 unique settings for how to listen to your music.
The first setting, standard, is billed as being for the everyman and with that the usual buzzwords of “rich” and “balanced sound” immediately spring to mind. That typically translates to an equal-loudness contour (ELC), which means certain frequencies are boosted or diminished so they can all be heard equally as well by the human ear.
Meanwhile, the studio setting is meant to be as close to flat as possible, which in this scenario would mean a reading of 82dB across the audible spectrum. This is most beneficial to anyone looking to equalize their own music—professionally or as a hobby.
Our lab tests showed that instead of two distinct results, the standard and studio settings are near identical and look closer to a blending of an ELC and a flat, studio response. In both settings sub-bass starts at about 82dB (our parent signal) and then stays relatively flat through the bass frequencies (60Hz–300Hz.)
The midrange frequencies, on the other hand, differ between the two settings. On standard, there’s a drop that nearly touches 70dB around 600Hz, while on studio the midrange holds steady around 80dB until 1kHz. Once the frequencies are high enough to reach the treble range the two settings are very similar again, with peaks and valleys to emphasize the bright, airy notes against the deeper bass sounds.
Surround sound, as noted in other places of this review, is really a series of audio tricks that the headphones use in order to create the illusion of space in your music. While the curve follows the same general pattern of the other modes, you’ll notice a much more jagged response—one of the necessary side effects of creating the illusion of surround sound.
Active Noise Cancellation
Typically, we like to measure the passive isolation of a pair of headphones in order to determine how well they’re able to block ambient sound from diminishing the quality of your music. While the N90Q have thick, plush earcups that form a fantastic seal and would do wonders with passive isolation, music can’t actually be played without the active noise cancellation (ANC) being turned on as well—so all of our results feature ANC.
While isolation varied slightly based on which setting was selected, for the most part the N90Qs are able to block enough ambient noise to keep you trapped in musical bliss. The relative volume of sub-bass and bass sounds (0–300Hz) are reduced to about a quarter as loud as they are normally, which is fantastic for anyone planning to wear the N90Qs on a subway or for a trip on a plane.
Unfortunately, the N90Qs don’t do nearly as well at blocking the midrange frequencies (300Hz–2kHz). Instead of dropping to a quarter as loud, midrange sounds will only be diminished to about half as loud as they would be normally. Expect the dull hum of any HVAC units to be cut out completely and the general chatter of an office to be brought to a barely audible whisper.
It’s unlikely that you’ll run into anything that registers in the high mids and high frequencies (2–20kHz), but if you did it would be reduced from anywhere from half to 1/8th as loud. So while you won’t be completely blocked off from the outside world, only certain ambient sounds are going to affect the quality of your music. Just make sure to keep the battery charged because the headphones are useless without it and ANC is a real drain.
One of the biggest impacts to the quality of music is the fuzzy, scratching sounds that are typically introduced by internal components. Each of the settings handled distortion a little differently, but on average distortion was never enough of a concern to be a major problem.
Using the N90Qs in standard mode keeps distortion low. While the different bass/treble controls affected distortion slightly, it never reached higher than 5%. In fact, on average, distortion hovered closer to 1% across the audible spectrum. This means that unless your music was mixed to include fuzzy, crackling sounds, it’s highly unlikely you’ll hear anything that wasn’t meant to be there.
Switching over to studio mode nets almost identical results. The highest distortion measured was 2.5%, which only occurred when the bass/treble control was turned all of the way down. Otherwise, it stayed consistent at 1.0–1.5%.
Surround sound is a different story entirely. In order to create that illusion of space in your music, the N90Qs have to do some weird stuff to the music. And while our ears might not be able to pick up on it, carefully calibrated hardware—like HATS—can. Most of the frequencies stick close to the 2% distortion that we saw in the other modes, but there’s anywhere between 40–50% distortion between the frequencies of 500Hz–1kHz. While that may seem alarming at first glance, it isn’t immediately noticeable by most people and is ultimately just a strange byproduct of the surround sound experience.
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