Several years ago Joe Skubinski, the founder of the high- end audio cable company JPS Labs, made a momentous decision. Specifically, he decided to spin off a subdivision 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 ($5495), which entered full production earlier this year. Does the Abyss live up to its designers’ ambitions? I think it does for reasons I will explain in this review. But, before talking about the sound of the Abyss, let me first provide some background on its design.
As the Skubinskis began design work on the AB-1266, they were mindful that Stax’s SR-009 electrostatic headphone was widely regarded as the reigning “king of the hill” among high- end headphones. The Stax is one of those landmark high-end components that has changed 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 system. In short, the SR-009 routinely unearths subtle aspects of the music that most competing headphone and loudspeaker-based systems tend to miss or to gloss over. To meet the goal of offering the finest headphone in the world, Abyss recognized the AB-1266 would need to equal or surpass the iconic Stax headphone in 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 headphone whose drivers feature 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) optimized 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) coloration.” Further, 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 extraordinarily 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 Abyss’ design may be its unorthodox frame, which aims to provide a stiff, stable, and resonance-free mounting platform for the AB-1266 drivers. Where most designers offer headphone with springy, flexible frames that allow the earcups to tilt and swivel, the AB-1266 frame does not. 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 equipment, making most competing headphone frames seem rickety by comparison. Despite (or perhaps because of) the frame’s impressive stiffness and rigidity, the AB-1266 is somewhat heavier than many competing headphones and appears, at least at first glance, as if it might not be very comfortable.
Happily, Abyss has addressed comfort and fit issues in several creative ways. First, at the top of the headphone’s U-shaped frame, Abyss provides a milled-aluminum, friction-fit, slip-joint that allows users to adjust the side-to-side spacing of the headphone’s ear cups. By design the slip-joint requires considerable effort to adjust and once the desired spacing is achieved the frame remains in the position the user has chosen. Second, to allow for correct vertical positioning of the AB-1266 ear cups, Abyss provides an elliptically shaped leather headband pad that is suspended by beefy elastic bands from the side arms of the U-shaped frame.
Abyss spent considerable time working out the exact composition of the leather pad and bands, settling on a design where the pads nicely conform to the curvature of a human head and where the support bands provide a just-right amount of tension to hold the ’phones at whatever height the wearer might choose. While the AB-1266 is relatively heavy, I found the support bands masked the weight of the ’phones fairly effectively, provided the listener remained seated in a more-or-less upright position (if one tilts one’s head far forward, backward, or to the side, however, the weight of the headphone becomes more apparent).