First Listen: Abyss AB-1266 Planar Magnetic Headphones

Abyss Headphones AB-1266

The pair of AB-1266s I was able to borrow for this blog belonged to a private party, so I did not get a chance to see how the headphones come packed when they first arrive, but my understanding is that they come in a lovely wood presentation case that includes the headphones, a set of very serious purpose-built JPS Labs (what else?) signal cables, a beefy tooled-leather ‘man bag’ carry case, and a well-made tabletop headphone stand. I’m very eager to receive Hi-Fi+ review samples, which Mr. Skubinski tells me should be coming in a few weeks. All of the foregoing, however, is only a prelude to the main event, which is the actual sound of the Abyss ‘phones.

Four things that struck about the AB-1266s were their neutrally balanced and very wide range frequency response, their stunning levels of resolution and top-to-bottom focus, their impressive transient agility, and—last but certainly not least—their almost mind-blowing ability to reveal dynamic contrasts at virtually any sane volume level. I have on hand what I regard as the other two best planar magnetic headphones presently available (the Audeze LCD-3 and the HiFiMAN EF-6) and I would have to say that—good though those two worthy competitors are—the Abyss ‘phones have, in virtually all performance areas, raised the already high performance bar by a not subtle margin. Are we talking about minute differences only a pretentious and overly self-serious ‘golden ear’ would claim to hear? Absolutely not! Rather, we are talking about difference that pretty much anyone who enjoys music and listens with an open and attentive mind could discern and appreciate immediately. We are talking about the kinds of differences that can stop jaded listeners in their tracks and cause them to murmur, “Oh, man; I didn’t know it could ever get this good. I’ve never heard so much of the music before.”

I only know of one headphone that can, in some respects, give the AB-1266 a serious run for its money and that would be the Stax SR-009 electrostatic headphone. One might argue, in fact that the Stax may be, by a hair, just slightly quicker (in terms of transient speed) and perhaps just slightly more resolving (at least at some frequencies). However, the Stax cannot, I think, equal the Abyss in terms of sheer accuracy of tonal balance nor can it match the Abyss’s uncanny ability to sound equally focused and coherent at all frequencies. But the biggest and most obvious differences fall in the area of dynamics, where the Abyss captures both large- and small-scale dynamic contrasts with greater impact, subtlety, and precision than the Stax can. And, when or if push comes to shove, the Abyss can just plain play more loudly—and do so more gracefully—than the Stax can.

My point is that you don’t have to be what some might regard as an over-the-top high-end audio nutball to get what’s so very right about these ‘phones. The only pre-requisites, really, are that A) you actually like music, B) you use an amp good enough and powerful enough to show what these headphones can do, and C) you play at least a few truly well-recorded tracks just to hear the levels of sound quality the Abyss have on offer. After that, the ‘phones will pretty much take care of the rest. The only catch is that, once you’ve heard the AB-1266s, there is no going back (well, that and the fact that many of us would find the $5,495 price tag a pretty major stumbling block).

But if that price strikes terror (or fury) in your heart, then consider this: not even the best $5,495/pair loudspeakers can even come close to matching the performance of the Abyss (to make a plausible comparison, I think you’d have to start looking at loudspeakers in the mid-to-high five-figure or—gulp!—even the six-figure price range). Once you grasp this, the Abyss’ $5,495 price tag doesn’t seem so crazy after all. All I know is that, once I returned this particular pair of AB-1266s to their rightful owner, I felt almost a palpable sense of withdrawal. They really are just that addictive to hear in action.

Be on the lookout for our full-length Hi-Fi+ review of the Abyss AB-1266, which is slated to appear later in the year.

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