For most people, all you really need is a good pair of affordable, reliable headphones. For audiophiles, words like "affordable" are meaningless; paying a little extra for sound quality is all part of the fun.
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Then there’s the far end of the spectrum: the lunatic fringe for whom money is no object. For those people, there are headphones that are so ludicrously expensive that only a small percentage of audio enthusiasts will even think about buying them. Well, for those people, AKG has something to show you: the AKG N90Q Headphones (MSRP: $1,499.95).
The “Q” in the model name denotes a personal stamp of approval from Grammy-winner Quincy Jones. As the latest addition to his signature line of well-respected headphones, the AKG N90Q have a lot to live up to. But even with his blessing, what could possibly justify spending $1,500 on a pair of headphones? That's still not totally clear, but after a month with the AKG N90Qs, I'm not sure I want to ever go back to regular headphones.
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.
Extravagant in all the best ways
With such a steep asking price, you'd expect AKG to pull out all of the stops. The N90Qs don't disappoint, making a striking first impression as soon as you lay eyes on the case. Shed the outer cardboard sleeves and you’re greeted with a weighty gold and black case stylishly etched with the model name. Ostentatious doesn't even begin to cover it. Scrooge McDuck would be proud.
Crack that case open—not an easy feat—and the first thing you’ll see is a small, black cleaning cloth that’s marked (again) with the model name and a quote from Quincy Jones himself. Once that’s out of the way you’ll find the real prize, the headphones themselves. While there is an all black option, the model we received for review is accented with bright gold highlights, that teeter dangerously on the line between tacky and luxury.
You’ll notice just how bulky they are as soon as you lift the N90Qs out of the case. This is mostly due to the earcups, which are absolutely enormous thanks to the built-in tech and incredibly thick, plush leather padding. Not only do they completely encompass my rather large ears, but the earcups have a wide range of motion, with a headband that can be adjusted for even the biggest heads. Despite their large size and weight, there’s no denying that these are some of the most comfortable over-ears we’ve ever used.
The N90Qs are packed with features, and various knobs to control them. The right earcup houses the majority of the controls, including an aluminum control ring for volume, the power switch, and a small gold button to switch between the three sound modes and activate the TruNote technology (more on that below). The left side only has an aluminum control ring, but it’s used to adjust bass/treble notes—letting you fine-tune your audio experience on the fly.
There is one glaring oversight though: While the bass/treble control ring has audible cues to indicate which setting you're on, there’s no way to tell which of the three main settings—standard, studio, surround—you’re currently using. There’s a distinct shuffle sound when you switch between them, but that’s it.
Sure, in theory the sound of your music should be enough, but not everyone has pitch perfect ears. Some modes—like surround—are far more noticeable if content is mastered for it, but that doesn’t always apply. It’s a small detail, but it’s one we felt should have been included.
In order to play music or use the additional features, the N90Qs rely on rechargeable batteries. AKG claims these will last about 12 hours per full charge and that's right on par with what we saw. In order to help alleviate that hassle, AKG included a small battery backup—in black and gold, of course—that’s about the size of a deck of cards and connects to the earcups via a micro USB cord.
Along with the vault-like case (which has a spot for the battery backup and a built-in micro USB port to charge it through the case), AKG included the usual list of accessories with the N90Qs. First up is a leather carrying bag—and an additional one for the battery charger—so despite its bulky frame, the N90Qs can be ferried from place to place with relative ease.
For connectivity there’s a four foot audio cable with an in-line remote to control music playback, volume, and phone controls. If that doesn’t quite cut it and you’re working in a studio/home office there’s also a 10-foot audio cable, which should be more than enough to reach any hidden port. Of course, sometimes a standard 3.5mm jack won’t cut it and for those circumstances AKG also threw in two adapters—a stereo adapter and a two-pronged airplane adapter.
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.
”Personalized sound”—at least, that’s the elevator pitch
So what exactly does $1,500 get you? Quite a lot, actually. AKG, in partnership with Quincy Jones, has really gone the extra mile to craft a killer pair of headphones, all with the hope of creating the ultimate audio experience for enthusiasts and professionals alike.
The star of the show is the new TruNote technology, which is designed to give every user a unique experience that’s tailor-made to their ears. When the gold button on the right earcup is held for five seconds, TruNote activates and two chirrups echo through your ears. The N90Qs actually has two little microphones in each earcup, which measure the frequency response of your ears and then adjust the sound accordingly. Theoretically, no two people should hear exactly the same thing as the audio will be customized for each person based on the shape of their ears.
TruNote is only the first step, though. Once the headphones are personalized to you, you can use the aforementioned dials to tweak sound output to your liking. To begin with, you have the three base modes: standard, studio, and surround. Standard boosts and lowers certain frequencies to provide a more balanced sound, while studio is designed to have a flat response to help master tracks. Surround sound, much like in a home theater, adds distance to the sounds, giving everything a sense of space.
The wide range of extra features help justify the absurd cost of the N90Qs.
Once you’ve nailed down which of the settings you’d like to use, you can use the left control ring on the earcup to finely adjust bass/treble levels. When you spin the dial there are four tones ranging from "low" to "high" marking each shift. It might be hard for someone to pick up the differences in the audio unless they have a finely tuned ear, but for audiophiles it might be that extra level of control they need to justify such an immense purchase.
Rounding out the list of high-end features is active noise cancellation. It’s not among the best ANC we’ve ever seen on a pair of headphones— the Bose QC20i is better—but you can still expect the relative volume of ambient sounds to at least be cut in half. The only downside is that there isn’t a separate off/on switch for the ANC, and it's one of the biggest drags on the battery.
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.
With so many settings to choose from, it’s easy to find one you’ll like.
I spent a lot of time with the N90Qs—both in the lab and at my desk—listening to podcasts, rock, pop, electro, and even a bit of classical. I cycled through each, seeing what you get with headphones that cost more than my laptop. And while the N90Qs aren't entirely flawless, with the right settings they’re only a sliver away from being perfect.
For the average listener—and even the audiophiles these are targeted at—they'll sound absolutely fantastic and the flaws that we did find were only caught by the highly sensitive ear of our audio testing robot—or as we like to call him, HATS. Even so, HATS only uncovered a few minor nitpicks. (Of course, $1,500 price tags tend to invite nitpicking.)
The bass/treble control ring certainly had a profound impact, boosting some frequencies by as much as 10dB between the highest and lowest setting. If you want to tweak the heck out of your music this should absolutely be your first stop.
As far as the three main settings? On both standard and studio, the heaphones produced a consumer friendly sound profile. It wasn't quite an equal-loudness contour, but had a bit too much of a curve for an ideal studio response. While it’s a little disappointing not to have two truly unique settings that highlight each style, you can still expect top-quality audio.
Surround sound is an entirely different beast that does some strange things to the audio in order to create that illusion of space. Unlike the other two modes—detailed in the charts above—the surround sound charts—both frequency response and tracking—are much noisier. By drastically shifting the audio between channels and adjusting how the loud the frequencies are, the headphones are able to fool your ears into thinking the sound is coming from all around you.
If you like listening to full-orchestra classical music, it's a real treat. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to get the full home theater experience from your laptop while traveling—as long as you bring a separate amp for an extra bit of power. Just keep in mind the quality won’t exactly be top tier. We noticed a higher amount of distortion using the surround sound setting, but that's most likely a necessary evil of that immersive spatial effect.
Our tests and data seem to indicate the N90Qs were designed to combine the performance and capabilities required by a professional with the balanced sound of premium consumer headphones, and it largely succeeds. That combination results in some unfortunate sacrifices, but they're so minor that it seems almost silly to bring them up. Bottom line is, the N90Qs already sound near perfect. Throw in the standard equipment of an audio enthusiast—like an external amplifier—and you've got a surefire win.
For a full breakdown of the 12 settings and how they affect the frequencies across the audible spectrum head over to the Science Page to find out more.
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.
They're undeniably good—but are they $1,500 good?
With 12 customizable settings for audio, always-on ANC, an extremely comfortable fit, and the most opulent case we’ve ever seen, the AKG N90Q Headphones (MSRP: $1,499.95) are a luxury product through and through. Unfortunately, based on cost alone they’ll only appeal to a very small group within an already small demographic. There’s simply too much here for the average consumer. Unless you’re an audiophile who’s willing to blow a paycheck on a single pair of headphones, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get the most out of this product.
But, that’s okay. Now and again it’s fun for a company to go all-out and throw caution to the wind. AKG has done that, and in the process created some of our favorite headphones to date. Sure, they're overpriced, absurdly opulent, and over-the-top—but we love them anyway. Would we buy them? Probably not, but we don't have $1,500 to spend on headphones. And why would we when there's arguably better Quincy Jones-branded headphones, like the AKG Q 701 (MSRP: $479.00), which you can get for a fraction of the price.
If you like the idea of a customizable pair of headphones, our best recommendation are the Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro Plus (MSRP: $229.00). While they don't have all of the same features of the N90Qs, they do offer four customizable settings to adjust your sound, as well as an unprecedented level of customization for the design of the cans themselves. We liked their predecessors so much that they were our Best of Year top picks for 2013 and 2014.
There's also the Denon AH-D5000 Over-Ear Headphones (MSRP: $699.99). They have a beautiful wood (or wood-like) earcup and rival the N90Qs in terms of style—without going over the top with glitz and glamour—with the sound quality to match. Expect a rich, balanced sound that will go great with practically any genre you listen to. The only downside is that there’s no customization here—in sound or design—and if you like a little more control over your audio, you’ll need an equalizer.
Ultimately, the N90Qs are in a league all of their own. The wealth of features, accessories, and high-end design is unmatched in the category. It has an absurd price, but if you’re a serious audio enthusiast and want everyone to know it, these will get the job done. The N90Qs are currently up for pre-order on the Harman Audio website. They might cost you a pretty penny, but if you can afford it, it’ll be 149,595 pennies well spent.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.