I can keenly recall a time in my not-too-distant past where I was openly dismissive of headphones as even a passable translator of audio joy. Said a bit more bluntly, I thought the entire segment to be a criminal waste of money.
On semi-random recommendations, and no real insight, I’d gone ahead and purchased a few pairs of highly regarded headphones and matching/supporting gear. And had been thoroughly bored. “Why would anyone ever trade the experience of a pair of stereo speakers for headphones?”, I wondered. I simply could not grok it.
I wondered if maybe my world of experience was too shallow, so as a good little journalist, I sought to expand that pool, attending meets and show venues over the years, listening, exploring, hoping. And still, not getting it. Worse, all that experience just underscored the feeling that headphone folks were bizarrely ill-informed. It was my lofty and considered opinion that investing in an inexpensive pair of loudspeakers — like the $130 Pioneer SP-BS22-LR — was infinitely preferable to any headphone on the market. Even the very best pair of headphones missed pretty much everything — sound stage, emotional involvement, bass … everything, except perhaps detail retrieval. Snore. And worst of all, headphones were incredibly isolating. Music, in free air, can and should be shared. Headphones were elitist, snobby, and alienating. Anyone asking me about headphones was greeted with an instant and unvarying rant about the flaws of character that must accrue to anyone that disagreed with my Considered Opinion. I was, in short, a jerk about it.
It wasn’t until CanJam in 2013 that I finally was able to see past my own biases and note that I was more than a little behind the curve. I had completely missed the boat.
I’m not sure what, precisely, happened. Walking around the show, I was afloat on a concentration of energy that was missing from the rest of the enormous show. Here, amongst row after row of tables, there was smiling face after smiling face, all crowded around the demos and displays and gathering at the ends of the rows, shaking hands, laughing, pointing out the next bit in a long line of interesting bits. It was infectious. So, I lingered. Surfed. And eventually, was pulled under.
One of the first things that made my head spin around was a brand-new headphone, being offered at an eye-watering $5,495. This thing bore only a passing resemblance to the headphones currently gathering dust at my house; it was all biker chic, black anodized aluminum and black leather. The Abyss AB-1266 looked like nothing else. My first thought was “medieval torture device”, actually, and after living with that headphone for the last several months, that thought is almost hilariously hard to shake.
Abyss comes from JPS Labs, a company renowned for making and marketing high-end audio cables that leverage aluminum in the mix of conductor materials. The headphone transducers are planar magnetic, and carry a low 85dB of sensitivity. Big headphone amps only need apply, which perhaps befits the brawny look and feel. InnerFidelity has a thoroughly detailed review of these headphones, including some measurements and discussion of the design, so I’ll defer for some of the minutiae and focus on the stuff that struck me.
Look and Feel
The first is, not surprisingly, the look. The word I kept reaching for was “butch”, and that really sums it up. There’s this enormous rigid aluminum band that connects the two drivers. It will flex, a little. Okay, not really. Not like you’re used to having a headphone band flex. There’s no grabbing the ear cups and pulling to get these settled onto your ears. Nuh uh. Getting these on means adjusting for the fit and doing that first. First step is loosening the set-screw sitting at the apex of the band; with a quick turn, you can get enough freedom to expand the band (a bit) so that you can slip your noggin in between there. The overall weight is very high for a headphone, but it’s distributed very well by the floating leather cushion — in point of fact, this headphone, while never going to win any points for mobility, is actually not uncomfortable. By contrast, the Audeze LCD-3 feels more precarious. Weird.
The ear pads are magnetically attached to the posts, and positioning is managed by aligning the openings in the pad with the screws holding the drivers together. The pads are asymmetric, with the thicker portion of the pad facing the rear. I found that rotating the cups from having the thick part sitting directly aft at 90° from the arm and more 120º-135º degrees from straight up, gave me a good fit. In my configuration, the pads rest very lightly against my head, but provide a uniform “seal” against my skull but don’t really squeeze it at all. In this position, slipping them on and off was very manageable and I din’t have to mess about with the set screw, so I could “fix” it and stop fiddling with it. All in all, the Abyss are more manageable than first appearances might suggest. Now, they’re not precisely comfortable, but they are manageable.
Again, this in now way means that they’re mobile, however. At some point, I took the Abyss headphones with their stock cables and adapters, added a 4-pin XLR to TRRS adapter I’d gotten from Double Helix Cables, and hung the whole ungainly mess off of my Astell&Kern AK240 for a little walkabout. Yeah … I didn’t make it out of the basement. The headphone’s high mass and low skull-grip entails a tendency toward inertia that makes head tilts and turns something of an issue when you’re “under way”. My recommendation — sit your twitchy bottom down and get your escape on there.
I also have to say that, under no circumstances, are they going to be mistaken for handsome. In point of fact, they’re about as far from it as I’ve seen headphones get and rate somewhere in the neighborhood with the Jecklin Float and hanging a pair of Fostex drivers on a coat hanger. My wife couldn’t figure out what to say, apparently, and simply settled on a nonplussed stare. My children laughed, right to my face. My cat hissed. I don’t have a cat. But it hissed, nonetheless. Yeah, you’re not winning any contests with these, but you may get a call back as Frankenstein’s monster. I’m exaggerating for a point — if social pressures matter more to you than sonic pressures, be warned that the photos do not lie.
The Abyss are open-backed designs, and like most of the open-backed cans I’m familiar with, posses an openness that makes them sound very … open? Ha. But perhaps you know what I mean — with these headphones, there’s absolutely no sense that you’ve got a, well, a can, attached to the side of your head. Of course, that also means that there’s no reasonable way you’re going to be wearing this in public or anything like it. As I already mentioned, not that you would. But I still have images of rocking these like a boss up in first class on my way to someplace awesome. Yeah. Not happening. Not without the flight attendants giving you unfriendly looks and rude pokes. Unlike some open back designs, the sound leakage here is pretty extreme. As in, there’s no containment or restraint whatsoever. Just wanted to put that out there.
Which is almost a shame, really, because if you’re ever going to want to share the sound of your headphones with someone else — while not actually removing them from your happy noggin — this is that time.
Let me be frank. Or Jim, if you don’t want me to be Frank. Anyway, here goes — the Abyss does not sound like any other headphone I’ve ever heard. And that is a very good thing.
In point of fact, they sound like speakers. And exactly in that way I was just complaining about, above — why settle for “mere” headphones when you can listen to this? That’s the kind of thinking that went through my head after that very first listening session at CanJam in 2013.
The first thing I noticed was the absolute refinement of the sound. I’ll try and flesh that out a bit, shortly, but that was the first thing that leapt at me — the sense that I was listening to something extremely well put together.
The next thing that hit me was Thor’s hammer, pancaking my skull like so much wet tissue paper. Splatttt!
Okay, so the volume was a bit high on that first demo, but nothing could have prepared me for the bass.
Oh. My. God.
We in the hi-fi community love to wax poetic. It’s what we do. Hyperbole is as natural and as freely deployed as hot air at a political convention. Personally, it’s a pet peeve, this tendency we have as a group to elevate the most innocuous of molehills into the Mountains of Madness. With that said, I will offer that I have never heard bass anywhere near this quality in a headphone. Not remotely.
First, it had concussive pressure. This is the thing I miss most about headphones — there’s really very little of the full-body immersion that a big, full-range loudspeaker can routinely subject the listener to. That sort of experience, once indulged, is absurdly hard to forget. And headphones will not, cannot, physically move around the fat on your belly like a sub-30Hz wave slamming out of a set of 10″ or 12″ woofers, pulsing less than 10′ away.
Of all the headphones I’ve been blessed to try, only the Audeze really comes close to this kind of experience. Every review of that headphone praises the bass response, both in heft and in speed. In fact, I did in this very review. But if the Audeze LCD-3 is the best in class, it’s only because the Abyss isn’t in that class. It’s somewhere else. Somewhere up in the Mountains of Madness.
It’s absurd how good the bass response is on this headphone. If you are a “bass head”, love bass response, or really just crave the experience of having the jelly in your eyeballs oscillate and shaking the black floaties in there up like a snow globe, then this is the headphone you have to try. It’s crazy. Hearing it for the first time, I think I screamed like a little girl at a Beatles concert, or one about to be devoured by the Thing pouring out of the closet. It’s kinda hard to remember, actually. But I’m pretty sure there were more than a few expletives hurled in full volume to whomever happened to be within ear shot. Or 100′. Apparently, I’m loud.
The bass was, in short, like the difference between a room-corrected subwoofer system and what you’d find in a loudspeaker with delusions of full-range-ness. Everything was clean, precise, and richly textured. How deep? Well, given that the headphone’s called the Abyss, I’m just going to wave at that, nodding like an imbecile. Yes. Yes, it’s like that.
So, that’s the bass. Considered by itself, it makes this headphone special. Unique, in my experience. I have not heard another headphone come close to touching it.
As for the midrange, this is a bit different. It’s also where that sense of finesse comes from. There’s a grace, an elegance, to the presentation that says “pricey”. Part of it is the detail retrieval — this headphone quickly underscored what I heard with the Sennheiser HD-800 and the Cricket Test — lots and lots of birds, way down in the mix. In fact, this kind of mid-range rich detail delicately gilds the presentation of just about every tune … and it’s luxurious.
That said, there’s a bit of a sonic gap between this headphone and the Audeze LCD-3, the reigning King of the Mids. That latter headphone is by far the more forward and immersive of the two, and that’s saying something because it’s also voiced a little dark. This comparative leanness, then, with the Abyss isn’t so much a misstep as a voicing preference, at least to my mind. Let me explain.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the Abyss (paralleling complaints about “certain” hi-fi speaker brands, for whatever that’s worth) being “analytical”. One colleague used the term “soulless” to describe this approach to sound reproduction. Let me reassure you, the Abyss is not Stormbringer; no souls have ever been recorded as won, lost or eaten as a result of enjoying this headphone.
Reaching around in the bag-of-audio-experience, the Abyss reminds me a little of listening to a Wilson Audio loudspeaker, a Revel, or maybe a YG. There’s very definitely a signature to this approach that, at least at first blush, will either enthrall or alienate depending on your audiophile predilections. I’ve written about this before, and probably will continue to do so for pretty much for forever, but I submit that there is a hi-fi kind of sound that many (myself included) find absolutely exhilarating. It’s almost as if I’ve suddenly stumbled on a live 4k video feed — BAM! It’s mesmerizing. I call this voicing approach “detail centered” and usually contrast it with “tone centered”, though “solid-state vs tubes” gets trotted out as a ham-fisted way of attempting to capture the divide. I find the Abyss to be very definitely centered on the detail-centered side of voicing. Whether that’s because of an apparent V-shape to the frequency response, or something else, I can’t tell you. But like I said, it’s very similar to what I’ve heard with many so-called State-Of-The-Art audiophile speaker brands. Again, you’ll probably love it or hate it.
That preference probably also depends, in large part, on your musical tastes. If you’re a big Diana Krall fan, or prone to reach for Norah Jones, or if you’re the kind of person that has ever responded to the question “What would you like to hear?” with “Female vocals”, then this kind of sound may not be your cuppa. No judgment, there. If, by contrast, you’re a a fan of Boards of Canada, or EDM generally, then this is a whole ‘nuther thing. Me, with my “typical” playlist inclusions of Kansas, AC/DC, the Scorpions and other 70’s and 80’s rock band greats (remasters, where possible, of course), this sonic signature is just brilliant. Carry on, wayward son ….
Moving on to the treble, things get a little more uncertain. Tyll, in his measurements of the headphone on InnerFidelity, noted a few inconsistencies in the numbers. Generally speaking, I find numbers to be a rather cold way to evaluate anything, but I do wonder a bit about his findings — there seems to be a significant recession in the upper-mids/lower-treble in his measurements that doesn’t seem quite so exaggerated in my pair, and the “excess energy” in the treble that he calls out, to me sounds like air, space, separation and light. Perhaps Tyll got some duds? Dunno. It’s certainly a possibility. That said, I will add that the presentation here is not as sweet up top as the Audeze or as penetrating as the Sennheiser. But aggravating or fatiguing? No, not really. I’m a bit at a loss here. As far as I know, my hearing is still reasonably intact, so I’m going to scratch my head at his numbers, shrug my shoulders, and move on.
I’ve really already highlighted the differences between the main contenders, but lets take a second and get a bit more explicit.
Bass: this goes to the Abyss. On a scale of 1 through 10, this performance screams 11. There really is nothing like it. By contrast, the Audeze LCD-3 is a clear step or two down, and the Sennheiser HD-800 is several steps down. Again, nothing wrong with those other headphones. This difference is, in large part, a voicing thing. But with voicing aside, there’s a brutal reality that the Abyss crystalizes — competence is not excellence. And in this category, the Abyss is the best there is and the best that has ever been. Ska-doosh.
Mid-range: this goes to the Audeze. It’s natural, immersive, detailed. Given that most of the life of the music happens here, this is obviously the most important region to get right — and the Audeze mids are the best I’ve heard. By contrast, the HD-800 is a small step back, with the Abyss trailing.
Treble: there really is no question that the HD-800 dominates in the treble. It’s a freakin’ laser, too, and detail in this region is shockingly present. This headphone’s top-end performance is the reason I’ve never been willing to let it go, even when the bass performance was so clearly lagging. By contrast, the Abyss is the more lit up of the two challengers, but the Audeze presents a more coherent frequency extension.
Comfort: The HD-800 are the lightest of the bunch, and the all-too-common caliper pressure in this kind of design is fairly minimal on my oversized noggin. The new LCD-3 has improved leaps and bounds over the old head-in-a-vise squeeze in the earliest models, but even with that alleviated to a large degree, it still feels bulky and cumbersome. The Abyss has … challenges here. This one goes to the Sennheiser, no question.
Fit and finish: the Audeze definitely has an antique chic with a bespoke execution, like a retro bit of audio couture. The head band and the ear cups are extremely comfortable, and the metal and wood on the transducer are begging for a lingering touch. By contrast, the Sennheiser has an ultra-modern design and it looks a little … juvenile. Like there ought to be a frickin’ “laser” on your head (thank you, Dr Evil). Pew-pew! Contrasted with these, the Abyss almost looks steampunk. I don’t think there are winners, here, as this is aesthetics. My preferences land on the Audeze, but I kinda am sweet on the Abyss for all of its unapologetically chunky charm. Points to Audeze.
The question, I think, is what you value. Are you looking for a SOTA sonic presentation? If so, any one of these three headphones will scratch that particular itch. Unfortunately, there isn’t one of them that does everything that the others do.
The most difficult design problem, at least in my experience, is coherence. That is, providing a consistent top-to-bottom sonic presentation. All things being equal, consistency is the key here — and failing that could amount to a disqualification.
But this is like pooh-poohing a Bugatti because it’s 12-cylinder engine isn’t fuel-efficient. The correct response to this is, “Yeah, too bad about that … and?” Consistency across all domains is just not always relevant. Especially when performance goes so radically past expectations.
I think this is where the Abyss fits. If you’re “into bass” — and not big, flabby, blattt-y noise, but true percussive power, with a visceral impact, with real texture and full articulation, then there really is no better choice. If you’re not a “bass head”, well, you’ve got options.
I wired up the Abyss with a set of aftermarket cables from Double Helix, bringing them inline with my other two references from Sennheiser and Audeze. The stock cables, from JPS Labs — a cable manufacturer of no little renown — were in every way excellent. The exercise was not an indictment of JPS in any way, but more of a variable-removal, or at least an attempt at one.
The stock cables are fully balanced in that each transducer gets its own cable. Each of the two cables is terminated at the amp-end with a 3-pin XLR adapter. The cables use JPS Labs’ own peculiar blend of conductor materials called Allumilloy, which includes aluminum, and are fully shielded and encased in a rubbery-plastic coating/sheath. The look and feel of these cables is about as far away from “stock” cables as the bass performance is from “regular” headphones — it’s unquestionably a “thing” with these headphones.
But it also has its own contribution. I heard, in direct contrast with the Double Helix Complement² cables, a distinct voicing toward “neutral”. Again, page back up to the comments about voicing, above. With the Complement² cables, the tone of the headphone shift (modestly, to be fair) more toward the warmer, fuller, more tonal side of the house. Now, I have no issue with the “house sound” of the JPS product, but if you know that you prefer a less clean-and-lean signature, then the Complement² might just be your ticket.
A quick note about cabling.
The Alumilloy cables that come with the Abyss are, as I mentioned, straight wires terminated on each side with their own 3-pin XLR. This is great fun for an amp like the Liquid Gold from Cavalli Audio, or the GSX Mark II from HeadAmp, but for just about anything else, you’re gonna need some help. Abyss does come with some very handy adapters, one for a dual 3-pin XLR to single 4-pin XLR for your more typical balanced headphone amplifiers, and one dual 3-pin XLR to single ¼” phono plug for your everything else.
Which brings me to power.
Of the three flagship amplifiers I had access to, the Abyss really preferred to be driven by the Liquid Gold and driven balanced. Prospectors be warned.
Liquid Gold from Cavalli Audio
I have this section here more for structural continuity than for actual content — the notes, above in the “Sound” section, are all taken with the Liquid Gold as the amp driving the headphones. Fuller notes can be found in Part 1 of this review.
GSX Mark II from HeadAmp
I found the pairing with the GSX Mark II to be just excellent. The headphones were clearly able to show off their finer points — bass and detail — and do so with wild abandon. Bass precision was excellent, as was detail retrieval. The GSX is pretty linear, however, so the pairing with the already lean Abyss might not tick off all the boxes for the persnickety. Just something to keep in mind. I’ll also note that in direct comparison with the Liquid Gold, the sound stage with the Abyss gained significantly in all three sonic dimensions.
HP4 from E.A.R.
The headphones “worked” with the HP4, but I was able to drive them with a lot of amplifiers that “worked”. That said, with the HP4, there simply wasn’t enough on tap to create a fully immersive sound stage. Dynamics suffered, and so did impact, though tone was doing some really nice things with these headphones. All in all, not a good match.
I’m extrapolating, but if you’re amplifier isn’t cranking out at least a full watt (preferably more), you’re just not going to be doing yourself any favors with the Abyss, which means that we’re probably not going to see many tube amps ready to take these on. Perhaps the new Viva Egoista? I know that the WA-234 from Woo was outstanding at RMAF last year, so that killer combo might be viable. But neither of those amps are precisely cheap.
Burson Audio Conductor
That thought led to another, and after the hamsters had a quiet meeting, they saw fit to remind me of my old Burson Conductor headphone amp/DAC and the Oppo HA-1 that I have here for review. While both amplifiers are excellent performers, I’m fairly confident that there’s little chance of their deployment with a pair of $5,500 headphones. Their inclusion here is not precisely real-world, but for the sake of entertainment, and to deflate the balloon that’s rising that says you must have a super-expensive amp to drive the Abyss, let’s detour.
The Conductor, which apparently cranks 4 healthy Class A watts into 16Ω, really ought to do the trick, right? Guess what — it did! Of course, I had to grab the adapter to take the dual 3-pin XLRs down to a single ¼” TRS plug to do it, but that worked fine. I wired up, plugged in and turned the volume knob over and let fly — and guess what? It flew! The Burson brought a big, bold and warm-tinted presentation, with a great grip in the down-low. Ba da bing! The only real issue I saw here was that the volume knob was pegged way over. Treating the volume knob like a clock, the off position on the Burson is about 7 o’clock. Cranking away into the Abyss, with the gain set to “high”, I had the knob over at 4, maybe 5 o’clock, and could take it all the way to 6 o’clock (hard stop) without blowing my doors off. Not saying you will (or should) be listening at this kind of volume, but “Carry On Wayward Son” kinda demands a heavy hand, so there. By contrast with the Liquid Gold, I usually came to a rest, at high gain, closer to 12 o’clock or maybe 1 (max is about 5 o’clock), with farther revolutions scaling up to “punishing” and beyond. That aside, the Conductor had the power and the warmth to fill in some of the mids — not a bad thing, at all. Yes, the Liquid Gold clearly outclassed it in terms of sound staging and overall dynamics, but for less than half the money, the Burson wasn’t embarrassed by the experience.
HA-1 from Oppo
If it weren’t for the 3 watts that the HA-1 from Oppo can produce, I’m not sure I’d have included it in this strange little round-up. But it does, and that power is important when looking into the Abyss, so I think a word or two here will be useful. According to the website, the HA-1 is a Class A design, like the Burson, but with that said, it manages to sound more Cavalli, it’s just a touch warm, but not really pushing the mids forward like the Burson. It has a good grip on the down low and a wonderful transparency to the “everything else” … this sounds like the beginning of a real value play. Compared head-to-head with the three times more expensive Liquid Gold, via the 4-pin balanced jack, the HA-1 doesn’t quite manage to lift the sound stage as effortlessly, nor does it take you as deep into it, but if I had to push, I’d say that the differences are more in degree than in kind. It’s a familial kind of thing. The Cavalli just takes it all a bit farther. That said, the HA-1 does a far better job at driving the Abyss than I would have thought. Like the Burson, the volume knob tends to roll a bit farther over than I would have like or would have anticipated, and the increases in gain seem to have a gradually diminishing impact after half the rotation. Clearly, there’s only just so much these two amps can do. But that said, unless you’re a total moron with a clear wish for deafness, what is on tap ought to be enough to get a better than credible performance out of the monster from the deep.
Astell & Kern AK240
I mentioned this earlier, but I did attach the stock cables to the 4-pin XLR adapter and from there to a TRRS adapter in order to use the Abyss with my Astell & Kern AK240 portable digital audio player. That was hilarious. I think the cable adapters alone weighed more than the player! But arranging everything just-so was possible, and it was also possible to get adequate sound out of the Abyss. Now, I’m not going to endorse this as remotely viable, but it is possible. And yes, the sound was “okay”, though you ended up with more hints of performance than actual performance, but whatever.
My recommendation is go for power. With the Abyss, you really ought to let your inner Tim Taylor out.
Summaries & Conclusions
This pairing, the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold and Abyss AB-1266 headphones is, in many ways that matter to me, one of the most satisfying headphone experiences I’ve yet had.
I’ve had some truly remarkable headphone experiences, too. The AKG K1000 driven by a Woo Audio WA5 was altogether magical and I still occasionally wonder if it’s worth looking for a pair of those now out-of-production head speakers. The Stax 009 driven by the Blue Hawaii amplifier from HeadAmp was a benchmark of finesse, detail, and speed — I’ve never heard anything like that match up, and probably never will. The Sennheiser HD-800 driven by the E.A.R. HP4 headphone amplifier is the closest I’ve come to a still-in-production “tool” that I, as a reviewer, could happily and helpfully use till my ears fell off.
To that rather short list, I’d happily add this one from Cavalli and Abyss. They rock. And rock hard.
The Stax, to me, never really had me reaching for my favorite tunes. I was always too enthralled with the inner revelations that continuously were unraveling in front of my ears — this kind of approach, magical though it is, always had me putting them down. It’s fatiguing to pay that much attention to anything, and I found I was paying attention to everything. The AKG K1000 was more “natural” sounding to me than just about any headphone, ever, but that might also have a lot to do with the fact that it’s not really a headphone at all, but speakers dangling near your noggin. Sadly, AKG has decided to take its favorite ball home and out of the game, forever. The Sennheisers-on-E.A.R. had me thinking of things like the differences between male and female vocals — that is, it’s full-time audiophile stuff in almost the stereotypical kind of way. But it was the Abyss-on-Gold that had me giggling like a kid in a candy store, raiding my archive of metal, near metal, hard rock, rock, and all that new stuff I cheerfully and ignorantly lump under the aging moniker of “electronic dance music”.
There isn’t a single bullet in the hi-fi gun, no single sonic signature that silences all objections and speaks to all souls with a single, compelling voice. Despite all expectations to the contrary. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised that there isn’t one in head-fi, either. The hardest part, the Oracle says, is knowing yourself. That done, the choice of tools to reach your own slice of Platonic heaven is a bit more clear. Me, I think the Abyss is silly-good, and the bass presentation is the best that I’ve heard for anything that sits on or in your head. And nothing lights them up like the Liquid Gold.