AKG N90Q Noise Canceling Auto-Calibrating Over-Ear Headphones

This story originally appeared at InnerFidelity.com

AKG N90Q ($1499)
Oh my! What an extraordinary headphone. The N90Q represents the first real effort to deliver seriously good sound quality using DSP corrections. It's my feeling that in the long run this type of headphone may eventually be able to deliver a superior subjective listening experience compared with passive headphones of the same price. On the other hand, I also have a little saying, "The first one is usually the worst one." Seems to me the proper perspective here is that the N90Q will be a good indicator of where we're starting on the road to DSP headphones, and how far they're likely to take us in the future. Let's get to it!

Build Quality, Styling, and Comfort
Weighing in at a hefty 450gr the N90Q is a headphone of considerable substance...and some pretty nice substance at that. The build the headphone itself and all accessories, feature gold anodized aluminum and black leather primarily with a few nicely finished synthetic parts. Headband pad is leather covered and thinly padded; earpads are supple leather cover over dual-density memory foam. Earpad openings are a genrous 60mm H X 40mm W—even folks with big ears will find these roomy.

Ear capsules swivel forward to back on a pivot in the headband end and have a limited but adequate up and down movement on a single sided gimbal attached to the rear of the capsule. I found no slop or creaky sounds from this mechanism, it adjusted quickly and intuitively on the head. Headband adjustment sliders are integral to the headband either side of the central pad. Movement has detents and sufficient friction to be adjusted without fuss and remain securely in position once fitted.

The outside of each ear capsule has a large black metal cover on which the Quincy Jones stylized "Q" in gold is emblazoned. A knurled metal ring around this logo on either side act as controls for volume and EQ. The inward part of the ear capsule is covered in black leather. Other controls and connections are located on the right side ear capsule below the gimbal mount. Earpads are not removable or user replaceable.

I found the N90Q much more comfortable than I would have expected given the bulk and weight. Though it's just a little insecure on the head if you shake your noggin around, I found the mix of headband, earpad, and caliper pressure spot on for relaxed listening. The headphone seemed be slightly warmer than average, but not excessively so.

The styling is big and bold, maybe a bit too bold. It's sophisticated, but veers a bit towards ostentatious. A bit like Quincy Jones himself: bold, lush, putting it out there, sexy booty. The thing that might otherwise go unsaid at this point is that AKG engineers needed a significant amount of space inside the headphones to pull its particular acoustic tricks off within. Their bigness is unavoidable, and that accepted, I think they did a pretty good job of making their size palatable to the eye.

The accessorization of the N90Q is quite impressive. Included is a matching set of four black fabric covered cables with gold metallic accents: a 40" USB cable; a 10' long analog cable; and two 48" 3-button mic/remote mobile cables—one for iOS devices and one for Android/Windows use. The analog headphone cables are terminated at the player end with 3.5mm straight plugs. The headphone connection end is a 2.5mm TRS straight plug with no other locking or mechanically stabalising mechanism.

The 2.5mm plug at the headphone jack is a very weak point. This type of connector relies solely on the strength of the very thin 2.5mm plug, should it be tugged or land on the connector it becomes very vulnerable. I was worried about this from the start, and sure enough, while listening on the long cable, I put the headphone on the table to go to the other room, and as I rose to leave caught my shoe in the cable and pulled the cans off to land on the hardwood floor. I don't know if it was the tug or if the relatively heavy headphones landed on the plug when it hit the hard wood floor, but the 2.5mm connector did snap right at the base of the plug. Bummer. A headphone at this price should not be this vulnerable. At a minimum the body of the plug should be mechanically inserted into some sort of socket in the headphones to take the strain off the connector itself. Also, because the USB cable can be used for audio listening, I felt its 40" length too short to give me local mobility around my desk as I listened to the computer. 60" would have been significantly more useful. Otherwise these cables are nicely designed to fit in with the overall look of the headphones, and it's really nice to get both the iOS and Android cables.

But wait...there's more!

The N90Q comes with a large hard-sided, injection molded plastic clam-shell case with gold anodized aluminum cover. This is a really well thought out case that integrates secure storage for the headphones; a lidded compartment for stowing cables and adapters; a battery pack for recharging the headphones on the go; and a USB connector on the outside of the case with internal connection for charging the headphones or storage battery while stored in the case.

The only minor gripe I have is that while the case permits the stowed headphones to be connected to the internal USB cable for charging while in the case, it is not designed to allow the analog cable to remain attached during storage. You can leave the cable plugged in and close the case, but the connector does somewhat interfere with the top interior shape, which puts pressure on the plug when closed. I would prefer to leave my 2.5mm plug in to reduce the number of insertion cycles, but I don't like the idea of the case putting the plug and jack under constant pressure while in the case.

Also included is a very nice, magnetic snap closure, leather bag with Ultra-suede lining for compact transport of the N90Q. It has both an interior pocket for headphone cable storage, and an exterior zipper pocket that could be used for the storage battery and charging cable. This is one of the nicest soft cary cases I've seen. It has a very soft, sexy feel.

All told, though tending a bit towards ostentatious, this is a really nicely appointed piece of headphone kit. Very much appropriate for a headphone of this price. The one major failing is the unprotected 2.5mm connection at the headphone—you're just going to have to be careful with that.

Harman International Industries, Incorporated.
400 Atlantic Street
Stamford, CT 06901, USA