Is the $5,495 Abyss AB-1266 planar magnetic headphone the best device of its kind on the planet? Based on some preliminary listening I’ve recently done, I think it very well might be. However, what follows is a blog and only that—it’s not a full-on Hi-Fi+ product review, which will come later on. Instead, it’s more of an audio snapshot designed to capture first impressions and also, I hope, to piqué readers’ curiosity.
Now that we’ve got that bit of housekeeping taken care of, let’s also address one more issue. If you are the sort of person who finds the very idea of a $5,495 headphone A) pure lunacy, B) offensive, or C) ipso facto evidence confirming that P.T. Barnum was right and there really is “a sucker born every minute,” then you probably can stop reading right now. Also, if you have already made up your mind that headphones, no matter how good, can never be taken seriously as true high-end audio components, you should also stop reading now, because everything I hope to tell you about the Abyss AB-1266 will only cause you to gnash your teeth. If however, you are nominally open to the idea that great headphones might afford sublime listening experiences not easily matched by loudspeakers regardless of price, read on…
The AB-1266 is a planar magnetic headphone developed over a period of many years by Joe Skubinski, who is also the founder and president of the high-end audio cable company JPS Labs (www.jpslabs.com). For those of you unfamiliar with the term ‘planar magnetic’, let me offer a very brief crash course of sorts.
In a planar magnetic driver, the diaphragm consists of a very thin, film-like, planar membrane covered with a specific pattern of also very thin conductive metal traces (these traces play roughly the same role as the voice coil wires do in a traditional dynamic driver). This membrane is gently tensioned and then attached to a rigid perimeter frame that also positions the diaphragm—and more importantly its conductors—in precise alignment with an array of magnets. As audio signals are applied to the diaphragm’s conductors, the entire membrane is either attracted to or repelled from the magnet array and thus moves inward or outward in response to the audio signal. For what its worth, the planar magnetic drivers used in headphones like the Abyss (and models by Audeze and HiFiMAN. See below) are conceptually identical to the much larger planar magnetic drivers used in the critically acclaimed range and award-winning range loudspeakers produced by the US-based firm Magnepan.
Planar magnetic drivers are very low in mass—typically much lower than equivalently sized piston-type dynamic drivers—and as they offer quite a lot of surface area, they don’t have to move very far in order to produce satisfying sound pressure levels. Also, unlike piston-type dynamic drivers, planar magnetic diaphragms are driven over virtually their entire working surfaces—not just driven by a voice coil positioned either at the center or the rim of the diaphragm. In theory, then, planar magnetic drivers can be lighter, quicker-to-respond, and better controlled than their dynamic counterparts. The only tradeoff is that planars tend to be pretty power-hungry as a rule, but the ‘silver lining’ is that planar magnetic drivers represent relatively simple, straightforward loads to drive (meaning that, assuming the headphone amp is powerful enough, there is otherwise nothing particularly difficult or ‘tricky’ about powering magnetic drivers).