AKG N90Q Headphone Review

Hands-on with the AKG N90Q headphones made in partnership with Quincy Jones

This is not the first time AKG and legendary producer Quincy Jones have joined forces. Back in 2011, Quincy and AKG introduced the AKG Q701, a big pair of studio-focused, open-back headphones that were pretty big but did sound fantastic.

The new AKG N90Q headphones, which launch later this year priced at around £1,299, aim to deliver the same excellent sound quality but also promise to calibrate sound to suit your ears, all from built-in controls.

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AKG N90Q 11

Unlike the Q701s, the N90Q have a more traditional headphone design. It’s the generous helping of gold on the ear cups and on the sections of the headband that will help them stand out. Apparently that was the call of Quincy’s daughter, but if you want something more low-key, there will be a less eye-catching black version available in the UK.

The build quality, unsurprisingly for a pair of £1,500 pair of headphones, is solid and they’re built for comfort. The oval memory-foam ear cushions are covered in leather and there’s a good amount of padding just below the headband. There’s plenty of metal on show here as well, with aluminium on the hinges as well as the control ring and the ear cups. They weigh 430g, so are by no means light, but I didn’t feel like they were cumbersome to wear.

AKG N90Q 19

On the left ear cup, you’ll find a dial, which AKG says can control tone. Like a built-in EQ, rotating the dial lets you scroll through to adjust the bass and treble. Over on the right ear cup is the volume control dial, but below that you’ll find the most interesting feature. Just beneath the on/off switch for the active noise cancelling is a button to activate what AKG is calling its “auto-calibration solution”.

Using its proprietary ‘TrueNote’ technology, the headphones can perform active signal processing using two microphones in each ear cup that scan the anatomy of the ear. This calibrates the frequency and tailors the sound based on your hearing level and the shape of your ears. To activate it, you’ll need to hold the button for five seconds and then let it go. Within a second you’ll hear a short tone and then the music returns adjusted and perfectly suited to your ears. At least, that’s the idea.

But there’s more. The N90Qs also offer three different soundstage settings to further fine-tune and customise audio. The Standard mode disables digital signal processing, letting you tap into DTS and Dolby audio sources. In Studio, there’s a greater emphasis on delivering a more natural reproduction of tracks. Lastly, there’s a surround sound setting to get the greater separation, which is more common with orchestral music.

AKG N90Q 7

Just below the calibration button is the 3.5mm headphone jack and a Micro USB port. Along with the built-in DAC, that means you can enjoy lossless audio from places like Tidal. Powering performance are 52mm drivers, which use a unique Japanese paper membrane to better align the driver and the ear canal, ultimately improving the overall sound quality.

So how do they sound? I was fortunate to spend quite a bit of time listening to them both in a soundproof booth and out on the shop floor at Harman Kardon’s New York store. Bottom line, they sound fantastic even without fiddling with the calibration and EQ features. That’s the very least I’d expect from a pair of £1,500 headphones. Listening through a selection of Quincy Jones tracks, there’s plenty of detail, lovely low-end warmth and good mid-range. Bass complements rather than overwhelms and it delivers excellently across the sound spectrum.

AKG N90Q 13

I also had the opportunity to compare them to the similarly priced Sennheiser HD800 and Beyerdynamic T1 headphones inside the booth. With the addition of ambient noise from the store still seeping through, it wasn’t the fairest way to see how they perform against their competitors. The Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic headphones both sound great in very unique ways, but there was definitely a little more finesse and clarity on certain tracks from the AKG headphones.

Moving out to the demo corner in the store, I had a chance to play around more with the auto-calibration and tonal controls a bit more. Again, it was difficult to judge how well the TrueTone tech worked in this environment, and this emphasises the fact that they are still very focused on home listening. After fiddling around on certain tracks, you can recognise some of the subtle differences at least with the tonal controls. I started with a few Charlie XCX tracks, and was able to reduce some of the harshness in the bass. Next I moved onto some jazz and indie music. Again, it’s here where the EQ makes its presence felt.

From an active noise cancelling point of view, it’s much of what I’d expect from a high-end pair of headphones. They’re a significant step up from the leaky Q701s, showing they’re well equipped to block out fellow commuters or screaming kids running around your house. There’s a built-in battery powering the ANC, which lasts for 12 hours. When it’s flat, you’re out of sound, but AKQ does include a small power bar battery pack that looks a lot like a smartphone charger and can also power up your phone.

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Early Verdict

While the AKG N90Q are headphones pitched at anyone who wants to have more control over how their music sounds, there’s going to be very few who can actually afford to buy them.

On-the-go audiophiles will be happy to hear that these sound fantastic, but do they sound better than a decent closed-back pair of headphones like the £600 Audeze EL-8? I’m not convinced just yet. I’d definitely need to do some more listening to make a call on it.

The tech on board is exciting, though, and it’s clearly going to give them serious appeal for high-resolution music lovers who will warm to the idea of so much sound customisation. I can’t wait to spend some more time with them to see what they’re truly capable of.

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