CES 2017: AKG N90Q Auto-Calibrating Noise Canceling Headphones

I really had to go out of my way to hear this one. Harman had a completely separate exhibit from CES at the Hard Rock Cafe. It was one of those big, swanky, "invite only" sort of things that don't typically deal with walk-ups very well. Some internet headphone writer in a Hawaiian shirt is looked at with quite a bit of skepticism usually. None the less, after a chat with the reception folks, a PR rep for JBL headphones came to usher me around.

She showed me the JBL line-up for a little while and then, just about willing to burst, I said, "Look, I'm really a high-end dude, and I'm curious about the new AKG N90Q." She walked me over to a glassed-off showcase and pointed to the headphone and its box.

"Any chance I could get a listen?"

She raised her shoulders and eyebrows and said she'd have to find someone. Shortly an AKG rep appeared with keys and got it out, set it up, and I had a short listen. Then I started asking questions. Pretty quick the guy says, "Um...man, I'm going to have to find someone more technical." And of he went. I continued to listen, and found the cans fairly good...certainly good enough to peak my interest.

Finally, Dorothee Debacker, who has a position in headphone product management at AKG, arrived to help. She knew who I was. It's weird...when I go to any of the big companies at CES none of the normal PR and sales folks have any idea who I am, but if I can find an engineer, they'll know. Most of them will thank me for all the headphone measurements. It's very satisfying to know the people who are at the heart of headphone development know of my work. I'm grateful.

At any rate, this new $1499 active noise canceling headphone has a number of cool things up its sleeves: digital operation over USB or Lightning; a continuously variable EQ circuit; and, I kid you not, voice prompts by Quincy Jones himself! The coolest thing of all is TruNote auto-calibration for individual listeners. When you push the TruNote button, the music stops, and you hear little chirps from first the left ear and then the right. The reflections from these chirps are heard by the internal ANC feedback mics, and are somehow interpreted in order to develop a DSP algorithm solution for your exact ear shape to improve listening fidelity. It's quite a trick, and I'll try to learn more before the review sample arrives.

Lots more on this interesting headphone in the video and its product page.

Hi-Reality's picture

Hi Tyll,

Thanks for the very interesting reports from CES; for me the Swedish Dirac VR approach is the most significant one!

In 2002, my bachelor thesis work (which took us 9 months to complete :-) was 'Applying Active Noise Control in headset systems'. We modified a pair of closed-back Sennheiser headphones with microphones, and built other electronics like mic preamp, headphone amp, and programmed a pair of Analogue Devices SHARC DSPs to dampen a helicopter noise as much as possible.

An initial process we implemented was 'System identification'; that is each time a user put on the phones the DSPs learned the unique 'Channel' to optimize the performance of the ANC algorithms (kind of estimating an individual HRTF).

AKGs approach seems to be similar. If so, it will be interesting to learn if AKG N90Q use this in both ANC mode AND to optimize the sound quality.

Regards, Babak
Hi-Reality Project

Tyll Hertsens's picture
In the video she says that the ANC and auto-calibrate functions were completely integrated into the DSP algorithms. They work as one and can't be separated.
tony's picture

Still, seems like more complexity than I'd want to travel with. It certainly is the most feature laden transducer system I've ever seen. Even has a DAC, hmm. ( don't have to buy a Yggy if I own this thing ) Annnnnnd, finally, ( it's about time ) a user friendly EQ, phew. $1,500 bucks for a complete music system, this darn thing could be useful. Do they work well on a AirBus?

Nice catch, Mr.Tyll!

Tony in Michigan

ps. Made in Austria?

ps.2, How does this Lady stay so fresh & bright ?

ps.3, How do the do the Service on this thing, send it back to the Factory?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
1) Don't know where it's made. I think they shut down the factories (or will be soon) in Austria.

2) She's whip-cracking smart? Folks like that tend to be cheery.

3) Either that, or they fly some Autrian engineer to your house with a big tool box full of tools and meters.

tony's picture

This Gal works for Harmon, she does AKG for Europe annnnnd she has a long 20 year history in Specialty Marketing! Quite a Resume.

She's a bright penny, for sure. I like her instantly, despite her not quite knowing the technical stuff.

I'd hire her in a minute.

CES would seem out of her territory, maybe she's covering for someone.

I think she's the Head of AKG's ( Harmon's ) European Marketing, she's THE Boss! She reminds me of my Lady CEO.

Thanks Tyll

Tony in Michigan

ps. it took a very careful examination of your video to see her misspelled name.

ps. by the way, this lady is the very person you could ask to get AKG stuff done, betcha she's accessible. Wouldn't hurt to send her a Thank You note! Women, like this, usually feel under-appreciated.

ulogin's picture

It's made in China, and the built quality is a joke even for a $150 headphones, never mind a $1500 one. Not saying the materials are cheap because they do use expensive real leather and stuffs, but they need to pay attention to the details.

That being said, they are the best closed-back headphones I have ever tried. Much better than the LCD-XC and the Ether C Flow IMO.

ulogin's picture

And there's NO lightning support, contrary to what Tyll sated. Won't work with a camera kit, either, unless the USB hub you add works to trick the iOS device.

Richter Di's picture

I would have thought Tyll that everyone knows you in the Headphone world ;-)
Very cool headphones indeed. Interesting concept. Looking forward to hear more from it.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Nah, this hobby, and my roll in it, is small bananaas compared to the big bad consumer world out there. We've come a long way...but we've got a ways to go.
BaggedMilk's picture

Did they have the K872 there, and was it just as ringy and zingy as the 812?

Sven Hebinck's picture

Hey Tyll,

Have you tried B&W's new p7 wireless headphones? They seem to be getting many awards and having better sound quality than the normal p7.
They must have a lot of burning in though it seems!
Tell me what you think about them....

jcheadphone's picture

Nice report Tyll! Have you tried Sony's new MDR-1000X wireless noise cancelling headphones. They are the best sounding (fairly balanced) and best noise cancelling headphones that I have tried. Jude from Head-Fi raves about them. They do not have all the bells and whistles of the AKG N90Q but are substantially less expensive and have a noise cancellation optimizer feature which tailors the noise cancellation specifically to you. The MDR-1000X also features Sony's LDAC Bluetooth streaming which sounds better than standard Bluetooth streaming (AAC, SBC, or APT-X) in my opinion.

ADU's picture

The term "auto-" anything fills me with trepidation. But I'll be interested to see how this reviews. I'm sure Mr. H will have plenty o' fun playin with all the dials, buttons and gizmos on this puppy.

Where's the JBL luv tho? Nobody likes poor ole JBL. ; )

speedwheels's picture

The JBL Everest Elite 700 (and maybe the 300) has TruNote Auto calibration as well..

zobel's picture

I'm looking forward to your review. Just a few questions;

1) What is an Autrian engineer?
2) Do you roll in this hobby, or have a role in it?
3) What are small bananaas? Are they similar to small bananas?

Tyll, it's a good thing you are so good at evaluating the performance of, and understanding the technology of headphones! Don't apply for work as a proofreader...as if you would :-)

kilspeed111's picture

Hello Tyll!

First of all, I'm hoping you're going to do a more detailed review of those. I own a pair for daily commute, and have to say I absolutely love them.

Those little 'chirps' you talked about on the left and right are not the Trunote technology, however. By pressing that button and releasing it shortly after, you change the Virtual EQ. There is normal, studio and surround. Or, in more technical terms, normal, 2.1 and 5.1 mode. You have been changing those around.

To activate the Trunote in this headphone, you need to hold the gold button for atleast 5 seconds, until you will hear your volume go down a lot, and hear a 'beep'. Once you hear this beep, let go of the button. Once you've done this, you will hear two more bleeps, this time different beeps as the one before. Those beeps are measuring your ears, so to speak. After that's done, the music will kick back in and the Trunote will be active.

It sounds like a long and complicated process, but it takes just a few seconds to set up.

I hope you get the chance to read this comment and to try Trunote for real. The difference you heard must've been the Virtual EQ :p

kilspeed111's picture

First of all, sorry for the double post. I completely missed the video.

After having watched it, I'm not so sure if what you heard was the Trunote or Virtual EQ. If it was a one note beep you heard, that's the Trunote. If it's a sort of 'shaking rice in a can' sound to the left and then the right that's the virtual EQ adjusting.

I do have to add, there actually are EQ presets. Rotating the left side either side will result in either a higher frequency 'TING!' or a lower frequency 'TING!'. The higher frequency 'TING!' means you've adjusted to EQ to be more present (more bass/treble), and the lower frequency means the EQ is less present. There are 3 presets, and while they're not very noticeable, they are a welcoming addition and a nice little touch.

Again, I'm looking forward to your thoughts on them once you get a review sample in!

zobel's picture

I think AKG is out ahead of the competition with this headphone in concept at least. I would buy one if they review well from several reviewers with different sized and shaped ears especially with larger heads and ears.