Several years ago Joe Skubinski, the founder of the high-end audio cable company JPS Labs, took a momentous decision. Specifically, he decided to spin off a sub-division of JPS Labs for the specific purpose of developing and marketing the finest high performance headphone in the world. Skubinski did not equivocate by saying he hoped to build “one of the finest” headphones, but rather made the unequivocal claim that his would be “the finest headphone” yet produced. Accordingly, Joe Skubinski and his son Eric worked assiduously for over two years to bring their dream to fruition. The result is the Abyss AB-1266 planar magnetic headphone (£4,254), which entered full production earlier this year. Does the Abyss live up to its designers’ ambitions? I would say it does for reasons I will explain in this review. But, before moving on to talk about the sound of the Abyss, let me first provide some background on the AB-1266 design.
As the Skubinskis began design work on the AB-1266, they were mindful that the Stax SR-009 electrostatic headphone was widely regarded as the reigning ‘king of the hill’ amongst high-end headphones. The Stax, quite frankly, is one of those landmark high-end audio components that can (and often does) change listeners’ perceptions of what is possible in the art and science of music reproduction, forcing us to reconsider what words like ‘resolution’, ‘detail’ or ‘nuance’ really mean—or ought to mean—in an audio context. In short, the Stax SR-009 routinely unearths subtle aspects of the music that most competing headphone and/or loudspeaker-based audio systems tend to miss or to gloss over. To meet the goal of offering the finest headphone in the world, Abyss recognised the AB-1266 would need to equal or surpass the iconic Stax headphone in terms of resolution, focus, dynamics, frequency extension, and all around ease of use. With these ends in view, Abyss implemented a number of innovative design strategies in the AB-1266, with extraordinary results.
First, the AB-1266 is a planar magnetic design featuring what Abyss describes as a “proprietary very thin, very low mass diaphragm”, which speaks to the related issues of low-level detail retrieval and transient speed. Second, the Abyss motor assemblies use “custom made high power neodymium magnets with (an) optimised slot pattern”, which in part addresses the issue of dynamics. Moreover, the driver frames use a “low-carbon steel front baffle with integrated resonance control” said to yield “minimal added (frame-induced) colouration.” Yet another noteworthy construction detail is the fact that the driver assemblies use “no rear magnet structure”—an uncommon design feature said to eliminate “annoying reflections from behind (the driver diaphragm) allowing for a completely open sound.” Finally, Abyss’ precision-matched drivers are put through extremely rigorous performance tests and quality control evaluations before installation (in many instances, even very good drive units are deemed not quite good enough for use in the AB-1266).
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the AB-1266’s design has to do with the extensive steps taken in order to provide a stiff, stable, and resonance free mounting platform for the AB-1266 drivers. Where most designers offer headphone frames that have springy, flexible frames that offer provisions for allowing the earcups to tilt and swivel, the AB-1266 does none of these things. Instead, the Skubinskis have given the AB-1266 a stiff, thick metal frame that is shaped like an inverted ‘U’, with beefy milled aluminium driver/ear cup housings firmly bolted to the downward-facing legs of the ‘U’. The resulting frame is a seriously stout piece of kit, making most competing headphone frames seem rickety by comparison. Given the unusual stiffness and rigidity of the Abyss frame, the fact is that the AB-1266 is somewhat heavier than many competing headphones and also appears, at first glance, as if it might not be very comfortable.