Abyss AB-1266 Planar-Magnetic Headphones

In Pursuit of Absolutes

Equipment report
Abyss Headphones AB-1266
Abyss AB-1266 Planar-Magnetic Headphones

Finally, Abyss has come up with a clever means of achieving a comfortable and acoustically correct fit between the AB-1266 ear cups and your ears. Abyss, like a handful of other top-tier head- phone manufacturers (e.g., Audeze) equips its headphones with flexible, lambskin-covered ear pads that, by design, are thicker on one side than the other (viewed on edge, the ear pads appear wedge-shaped). The clever part is that the Abyss pads are magnetically attached and held in position by locating pins on the driver frames, meaning a user can relocate the pads to position the thickest parts to best fit the contours of his head. With the Abyss sys- tem, the drivers themselves do not move; instead, the pads move in order to achieve a firm but surprisingly comfortable, personalized fit. Does all this emphasis on providing a rigid, low-resonance driver platform really make a difference you can hear? I think it does, judging by the extraordinary resolution of the AB-1266.

Everything about the AB-1266’s packaging is top-shelf. Thus, the headphones arrive in a beautiful felt-lined wooden presentation case whose lid is stained a deep aquamarine blue with a silver Abyss logo on top. Inside, one finds the headphone, a set of JPS Labs signal cables (separate left and right cables are provided), plus two Y-type connection yokes—one terminated with a high-quality 4-pin XLR-type balanced connector and the other terminated with a 1/4" TRS plug for use with single-ended amplifiers. Completing the package is an Abyss-labeled aluminum headphone stand and a thick leather carry pouch (or “man bag”) embossed with the Abyss logo. While this is undeniably an expensive headphone, it is plain to see that careful attention that has gone into even its smallest details. But does the headphone’s sound quality justify its stratospheric price? The simple answer is that it does, and in spades.

Unlike some top-tier ’phones, which can require a good amount of run-in time before sounding their best, the AB-1266 sounded terrific straight out of the box (it might get even better over time, but it’s so good from the outset that I think most listeners will immediately be pleased). For my listening tests, I drove the AB-1266s primarily with two headphone amplifiers: the excellent AURALiC Taurus MkII (reviewed in TAS 239) and the spectacular new Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold. I used both my reference Rega Isis CD player/DAC and an AURALiC Vega digital audio processor as primary source components.

From the start it was apparent that the Abyss AB-1266, much like the Stax SR-009, is an exceedingly revealing transducer that is highly transparent to associated sources. However, unlike the Stax, which in my experience can be finicky about amplifiers, the AB-1266 seems willing to make the most of a wide range of high- quality headphone amps. True, the AB-1266 will quickly show you why superior headphone amps such as Cavalli’s Liquid Gold are worth the price of admission, but at the same time the AB-1266 will give a good account of itself when driven by lesser amps. I don’t mean to suggest the AB-1266 is in any way soft-sounding or “forgiving” because, in truth, it’s not; it’s just that the Abyss appears to be a moderately low-sensitivity but otherwise straightforward (i.e., non-reactive) load to drive. This amp-friendly quality is one area where the AB-1266 is plainly superior to the Stax SR-009.

Can the AB-1266 equal or surpass the resolving power of the mighty SR-009? That question is almost too close to call and I must admit that when I first heard the Abyss my thought was that the Stax might still enjoy a very narrow edge in absolute transparency. Over time, however, my opinion has shifted in that the Abyss effectively sheds light on what may be a very, very subtle coloration in the Stax (specifically, a tendency for the Stax to exhibit an extremely slight touch of forwardness, roughly in the 4kHz region). While this characteristic makes the Stax sound consistently exciting and “transparent,” it may nevertheless be a coloration (albeit a livable and potentially euphonic one).

By contrast, the Abyss seems no less detailed than the Stax, yet it is arguably the more neutral and thus more chameleon-like performer. What is the “sound” of the Abyss? Well, if you spend enough time listening through these ’phones you may conclude that their sound is neither more nor less than an amazingly accurate mirror of the sound of the recordings in play. Put on a dark, powerful, brooding, metal-inflected rock recording (e.g., Dogman from King’s X [Atlantic]) and the Abyss will sound dark, powerful, and brooding—almost overpoweringly so. But play a delicate, subtle, sonorous, and polished string quartet (e.g., the Cypress String Quartet’s recording of the late Beethoven string quartets [Cypress Performing Arts Association]) and you’ll hear a performance that is as gracious, delicate, and elegantly refined as a formal, black-tie dinner. On and on this pattern goes, with the Abyss exploring in astonishing depth and detail the sound of each of the recordings with which it is fed.