AKG N90Q Noise Canceling Auto-Calibrating Over-Ear Headphones

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

tony's picture

I thought she would: Dorothee de Becker, I think.

You're on AKG's good side now.

One hell-of-a-review, more thorough than any review I've read ( in the last year ) .

I hope you get an Invite to visit their Austrian Design Center and do a Video ( like the 3 day thing Fremer did at Rega ), meet the design staff, get to see all of their exciting stuff, etc, etc... . Betcha Harmon would get behind that sort of thing now that Stereophile Staff are doing beautiful Video work. ( Print seems rather Static compared to an Active Video supported with written journalism )

Stereophile stuffs got mojo.

Superb work!

Tony in Michigan

ps. I listened to your video report while doing a project, I'll read the "print" context later tonight.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Congrats on making it through the video, I think it's the longest on I've ever done.

tony's picture

Geez, there's a whole lot to let sink in :

1.) Eq is going mainstream acceptable. Audiophiles ( like Mr.Fremer ) say things like "everything" affects Sound Quality, which is saying that everything is doing a bit of Eq. for gods sake. Our own Herb Reichert is reporting that the very important Rega Turntables is heavily microphonic ( providing a Boogie inducing feedback circuit ) which seems to me to be a mechanical Eq. design.

2.) The Europeans are way out front on Audio Stuff. Graham Nash went Head to Head with our Mr.Fremer on D/A - A/D sound quality proclaiming Digital's excellence. Nash says he lives in the Future! I applaud.

3.) Paper vs. plastic diaphragms . I'm agreeing on paper. Plastic seems "blubbry" sounding to me, I'm not a plastic diaphragm man. Maybe I'm mental on this to the point of not liking Planer Designs as a result. Although Magnapans make nice room speakers for walk-around music systems in the home.

4.) I'm seeing two powerful "Forces" waving over all things Audio: DSP and MQA. Generic have a DSP system that optimizes for any listening position in the room ( it has a small microphone that you move to where you want to sit to listen, their DSP readjusts the entire system to that spot. It's an affordable device ) .

In this detailed review you seem like a flat pebble skipping across a pond, touching on a wide range of advancements. Exciting stuff!!

Stereophile seems populated with Analog writers that have 7 decades of media collection ( like me ), that's momentum but I can't see folks getting excited about Nina Simone's variations in sound quality from her various vinyl releases or the horrible sound quality from most of the vinyl thats ever been released.

Thank you for taking the time and effort, you're stuff is where all the action is.

Tony in Michigan

hfvienna's picture

.. most probably, due to the fact that Harmann Kardon will closed this center April 2017 (announced 4 month ago) , sending away all former designers with a rumoured offer of about 1500 bucks per month and working place in Hungary. But if you love this N90 you will not be harmed that much, because this was designed anyhow in US and China, not Austria/Vienna. And Harmann is now Samsung , so things will be very much different anyhow.

tony's picture

Phew, I'll take this as "Bad News".

Thanks for reporting.

Tony in Michigan

Feilong4's picture

First off, just watched your video review. Excellent in-depth review!

Secondly, tried clicking on the measurements to expand it but seems to say that the page cannot be found.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Yeah, we switched FTP servers late last week and there were some hiccups. Should be working now.
steaxauce's picture

I just got a pair of these yesterday, and I think they're pretty phenomenal. The pair I have seems to be defective--it has a pretty high level of background noise--but other than that I think they're very good and I'll definitely be getting a replacement.

I have an HD800 that I've equalized pretty carefully, starting with Sonarworks' curve, and the N90Q sounds surprisingly close to those out of the box. I probably know what you mean by the "digititus" comment and complaints about the slightly hard sounding upper mids and treble. It's hard for me to focus too closely on the sound of these headphones with the background noise my unit has, so maybe I can get some better impressions once I get a replacement pair, but so far I think any deviations from neutral are a lot smaller than what I've heard from any passive headphone, especially closed back.

My equalized HD800 sounds a bit better than these, but without EQ, I'd definitely take the N90Q over my HD800, Sony MDR-Z1R and the Ether C Flow I used to have. I absolutely consider them competitive with top passive headphones.

We all have different heads and different HRTFs, so the headphone frequency response that sounds flat for me may not sound flat to you. Could it be that Harman/AKG tuned these for what they consider an "average" ideal response, and my ideal FR is closer to what's used in the N90Q than yours is? I ask because it just seems odd that Harman wouldn't have been able to get what they consider to be a flat response when they're using DSP.

By the way, how close are the different EQ settings to equal loudness contours? Could that be their purpose?

GNagus's picture

Is it enough to affect lip syncing in movies, TV shows, po....YouTube videos?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
No. You need about 20mSec to start having an effect.
Phoniac's picture

Your extensive description of the implemented crossfeed matches the standard bs2b (Bauer Stereo to Binaural) effect 100%. See here:

Tyll Hertsens's picture
You bet, this stuff has been around a long time, and I've heard lots of them. The N90Q imlementation is the cleanest of the bunch I've heard so far.
ulogin's picture

Tyll, you said you heard "digititis" and uneven treble, and as such N90Q is not really competitive with other headphones at this price point. Now if I read your review correctly, all these problems were observed without TrueNote being activated, right? If so, wouldn't it be fairer if assessment is done with the feature being activated, given the main selling point of N90Q is TrueNote?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
No, all subjective impressions were done with fresh TruNote calibrations. It was definitely worse with TruNote misscalibrated, but it doesn't entirely go away after calibration.
ulogin's picture

Fair enough. I still think it would be fairer if your assessment about N90Q's competitiveness is done by comparing with closed-back headphones. These sound better to me than other closed-back headphones I have tried, including Ether C Flow, LCD-XC, SRH1540, PM3, etc.

Corsair's picture

Thanks for your diligent work on that review That was extensive and very interesting. I've been trying to get the balance right between external noise blockage and sound quality. There are more than a few choices out there. Many thanks.

peterj's picture

Many thanks for your review. I purchased these headphones after reading your review and I am really pleased with them. I agree with virtually all of your comments.
They are not as good as my Mr Speakers Ether with my big rig but for general/portable use they are wonderful.

I tried them with my Smyth Realiser A8 just for fun and the sound was terrible - too much processing!

rumzell's picture

The AKG K 490 NC is probably the best value for money if you are looking for an active noise reduction headset. Its sound performance is really impressive for this price and the noise cancellation works very well without degrading the audio quality. It is clearly a good deal if you are used to listening to your music in noisy environments

Mihalis's picture

I dont think you are right that you can connect to an iPhone. The lightning to usb connector gives a "too much power used" error and would only work with a hack (which some say includes including an entire hub in the chain.) This hurts portability which is the point (for me at least) for these headphones.