Gramophone Dreams #17: Abyss AB-1266 Phi headphones

Recently, a friend played me a masterpiece: Ike & Tina Turner's River Deep—Mountain High, arranged by Jack Nitzsche and produced by Phil Spector (LP, A&M SP 4178). It sounded terrible: murky, distant, with badly booming bass. Even before the first track was over, we both laughed and called it a night.

Nevertheless, I went home obsessed with Tina's inspired singing and Spector's infamous Wall of Sound production.

I have forever lusted for Tina Turner . . . but now, my nerdy old reviewer self wanted to use this dense, soulful recording to bring back my teen testosterone, and also (don't laugh) to use it as a tool to judge how well an audio component can dig through Spector's sonic hash and peer into one of the wildest, most amped-up, reverb-infused pop recordings ever made.

That same night, before I fell asleep, I bought an M-/M- first-pressing LP on eBay, and an original 7" 45rpm single of the title song—just for comparisons.

When I was a little girl
I had a rag doll . . .
Now I love you just the way I loved that rag doll

Room lights are dimmed; I'm wearing Abyss AB-1266 Phi headphones with an 8' cord, pacing back and forth, bending at the waist, fist pumping . . . and singing!

And it gets dee-per, let me say
And I get high-er, in every way . . .

Buying black discs like this, and listening to them with products like the new Abyss AB-1266 Phi headphones, is like getting paid to take LSD, drink Hennessy VSOP, and grind with Tina. The hard part is telling you about it.

Therefore, in this "Gramophone Dreams," unlike most others, I'm not going to get all audio-critical, pink'n'purple prosy, or even quasi-scientific. I'm simply going to play some killer records and describe the actual musical pleasures I experienced while auditioning what many say are audio's best headphones: JPS Labs' Abyss AB-1266 ($4495, now discontinued), and their replacements: the new, maybe even better AB-1266 Phi (also $4495).

I remember very well my first encounter with Abyss headphones. My ol' friend and headphone guru, Steve Guttenberg (C-NET, Sound & Vision, Stereophile), handed me this weird squared-off headset and said, "Try these." I'd just finished being gobsmacked by a pair of AKG K-812s, and right away, everything about the AB-1266es seemed too strange and too good to be true—especially how they just hung loosely on my head, not tightly cupping my ears, but sort of floating right next to them. I thought, These things don't sound like any type of audio gear I've experienced. They sound like life.

I handed the AB-1266es back to Steve. "I love these things. They sound so totally not hi-fi. How much are they?"

He told me the price, and my consciousness froze as I rode the Audio Time Machine back to the 1970s. I saw a Stereophile review of Dick Sequerra's Model 1 FM tuner, which cost $5000—in 1973! Then I remembered the original Wilson Audio Modular Monitor (WAMM), which cost $35,000/pair in 1983. I remembered the legendary Sony MDR-R10 headphones: $2500 in 1989. And who could forget Audio Note (Japan)'s 25W Ongaku amplifier, which cost $90,000 in 1993? Like those notorious legacy products, the Abyss AB-1266 headphones exist in categories of price and performance all their own.

Equally impressive is the fact that audio engineer Joe Skubinski, owner and founder and president of JPS Labs, started out as a humble cable manufacturer who, after wandering about an early CanJam (www.canjamglobal.com), "decided to take JPS Labs in a completely different direction—toward a goal of producing the best headphones ever made."

In late 2013, after five years of research and development, JPS Labs began full production of their now-classic AB-1266: a planar-magnetic design that "broke all the headphone design rules" and, almost instantly, was regarded as the best of the best. Steve Guttenberg told me, "Joe hit a home run in his first at-bat."

I asked Skubinski how that was possible.

"I just tried to design the most linear driver unit possible," he said. "The rest was easy."

I doubt any part of designing a first-quality headphone entirely from scratch is easy, but even a quick look and a short listen will demonstrate that the Abyss AB-1266 headphones are very different from all others.

Description
The Abyss AB-1266 Phi headphones are available with three different combinations of accessories. The most basic package, the Lite ($4495), includes minimal accessories, JPS Labs' standard four-pin XLR headphone cable with ¼" adapter. The Phi Deluxe ($5495) includes a heavy leather man bag, an Abyss-branded headphone stand, and a set of JPS Labs' dual-balanced cables. The Phi Complete ($7495) is the same as the Deluxe, except that its headphone cable is a 2.4m length of JPS's Superconductor HP.

817gram.lite.jpg

The Lite Package ($4495)

The AB-1266 Phi headphones arrived in a luxurious wooden box. When I opened it, I was impressed by how precisely manufactured their heavy black-anodized aluminum frame looked without the sculpted, magnetically attached, rotatable lambskin earpads. The Abyss's industrial-looking, square-cornered frame and suspended leather headband pad reminded me of the famously short-lived AKG K1000s—which I used to call "headspeakers" because they, like the Abysses, suspended their drivers near the listener's ears, without enclosing and creating a seal around them.

I studied the Abyss website for specifics of what's new and improved about the Phi edition of the AB-1266, and finally gave up. It all seemed intentionally vague. I wrote Skubinski and told him his headphones looked industrial-strength outlaw, but his website was dodgy. "So Joe—what exactly is different about your new replacement model?"

817gram.deluxe.jpg

The Phi Deluxe ($5495)

"Yes, the website is vague . . . ," he admitted, "but the new AB-1266 Phi represents a significant refinement in planar speaker-driver technology. For the original Abyss we created a single-magnet planar with a specific magnetic field pattern, and now, the new version dramatically increases [magnetic]-field line contrast, allowing for greater accuracy in relation to the driven trace pattern. We've reduced micro-phase distortions on the planar surface to crazy-low levels. Acoustics are fine-tuned without the need for absorption."

I hope you understand all that better than I do.

"In layman's terms, this is the perfect speaker in a perfect room that audiophiles seek. Musical information no longer is blurred, harmony can easily be heard as individual singers within the group, instrument separation is crazy good, bass drums have the rolling of their skins—'bass within bass,' as we call it—snozzberries taste like snozzberries. You get the idea." Joe knows I love snozzberries.

"With flat phase and impedance, the directly driven AB-1266 Phi simply sounds like you are standing on the surface of the microphone."

This I understood perfectly—and agree with completely. Joe continued:

"Compared to the original AB-1266, sensitivity is increased a few dB (to 88dB/mW), [and] impedance came down 4 ohms, to 42. Harmonic distortions are lower in key regions. Overall, they're a bit easier to drive; you'll find yourself playing them at lower volumes."



Footnote 1: Abyss Headphones, A Division of JPS Labs LLC, 16 Lancaster Parkway, Lancaster, NY 14086. Tel: (716) 288-9112. Web: www.abyss-headphones.com.
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

Still, I was hoping and would've loved to read your report on the new Diana.

My local Linn Dealer i.e. Overture in Ann Arbor is a JPS Dealer that carries the Abyss. They are very nice but not nice enough to bump my Sennheisers off my gear.

I suppose I'll have to venture over to Ann Arbor to hear the new Diana versions. Oh-well

Headphones are cheap. Especially compared to stuff like those Rockports from Maine.

Headphones are probably better transducers, at least I think they are and perhaps Bob Katz, who compares his Audeze 4's to his Superb DynAudio Mastering System.

We're getting great stuff at comparably cheap prices, now-a-days! : the Chord Hugo 2 is about $2,000, the portable Mojo runs about $1,100 fully loaded and those new Schiit Separates will cost out around $2,100 for the very powerful Mono System. Phew!!!

This stuff is giving PrimaLuna a darn good run for the Money $$$$$$!

We're winning!!

Tony in Michigan

ps. Trumpcare is dead

Vai82's picture

High-quality headphones can always do something that even the best live music experience never can: put you in the middle of the musical action. With live music, the music appears separate from you and in front of you—lower in energy, smaller in size. With live music, we sit in our soft chairs and observe the fuzzy or sharp illusions they cast with an unavoidable degree of detachment—a detachment that, I imagine, most audiophiles find comforting. But! Therein lies the intrinsic FAKENESS of live music. With live music, the entire illusion of the musical performance is ghostly, and distinctly over there. The listener, separated from the illusion, must mentally reach out and adjust to apprehend it.

Not so with headphones, where the illusion is attached—in and around your head and body.
It's exactly like you experience voices/sounds your whole life. In your head or pretty close to it ;)

Sorry, i couldn't resist :)

Herb Reichert's picture

You make a VERY good point and I wish I had said what you said also :-)

Vai82's picture

I think you understood my sarcasm/irony and took it with humor ;)
If that's not the case, i will explain it again. English is not my first language but i will do my best :)

I replaced speakers with live music to demonstrate how strange your speaker vs headphone comparison is!
With normal stereo recording(99,99...% of every recording) it's the headphone presentation that's unrealistic. When you listen to live music or sounds in general you have a distance to the sound source. That's the way people experience sounds their whole life and it's natural and pleasant for them. If you listen with headphones the "in your head" soundstage is a stressor for many people because it's not the way humans perceive sounds.
It's very strange when you say "lower in energy, smaller in size" about loudspeakers because headphones produce less energy because of the missing sound that hits your body( of course if you listen with the same volume that most people don't do. They listen louder with headphones ;) ).
The soundstage of headphones is much smaller because the distance of the transducers mostly dictate the size of the soundstage. By the way even most headphone enthusiasts will admit that the soundstage of headphones is unrealistic in comparison to speakers.
Of course people can like that intimate presentation of headphones but it couldn't be further from the truth to say the distance or "detachment" of speakers is a problem. In fact it's quite the opposite because it's the natural way of experience sounds and music. And the imagination that the microphones are our ears is not desirable because microphones don't pick up sounds like humans do. In my opinion all the arguments about the soundstage of headphones are constructed to hide the fact that the soundstage presentation of headphones is a big weakness of them. That's the reason why there are so many attempts to fix it( crossfeed, smith realiser...)

But of course you are right when we talk about binaural recordings. They are made for headphones and sound better on headphones than on speakers. The recording head/mics simulate some aspects of natural hearing so we don't need a sound source a few meters away. But the vast majority of recordings are stereo recordings that sound more natural on loudspeakers than on headphones.

Headphones have other advantages like the way they let you hear every detail on the recording or their precise bass reproduction. These are the things i also like about them!

Besides my criticism of your loudspeaker-headphone comparison i really like your writing style and how you describe the sound of the Abyss Phi. I know the original one and i'm looking forward to check out the new version!

Best regards!

dalethorn's picture

Disagree. A realistic soundstage is dependent on several factors. One, proper equalization, since headphones are typically very uneven, even the so-called flagships. Two, the recordings. Three, adapting.

Fact: Your eyes see upside down but your brain adapts to the extremely unusual picture. It's easier for me to adjust to headphone soundstage than it is for anyone to invert their visual image for the first time.

That's why hi-fi listening on headphones far exceeds hi-fi listening on loudspeakers all across the world in 2017. And that's why recordings absolutely must be at least partly tuned for headphones - anything less would be suicide for the recording industry.

Edit: I have a few binaural recordings BTW, but I could lose them and not miss them. They don't sound even as good as the late 1950's Living Stereo recordings.

Vai82's picture

Hello dalethorn,
we've had that discussion already and i won't repeat everything i've said. You won't accept any argument against headphones even if it's based on physical facts.
I will try it one last time:

Your point about the way people see the world is inadequate for the following reasons.

1) The flip is essential for humans in order to have a correct picture of the world. It's done your whole life and it's a natural way to experience the world. It is not essential for humans to adapt to a sound coming from two small transducers fixed to your ears.

2) I agree with you that you can get used to the headphone soundstage or even like it, like Mr.Reichert described, but that doesn't change the fact that a soundstage in or close to your head is not a realistic soundstage. I've talked about live music as a reference where you also have a soundstage in front of you and a few meters away.

The main reasons for the trend to listen with headphone are the rise of mobile listening, the limited living space people have in urban centers and the much lower prices of headphones. It is not based on sound quality alone. Otherwise the trend would have emerged much earlier ;)

Please don't have such a one-dimensional view. Both loudspeakers and headphones have positive and negative aspects.
You said that the music is sacred and i absolutely agree with you :)
In the end it doesn't matter which transducer you use in order to enjoy your music!

dalethorn's picture

Some of what you say about "...the physical fact is..." etc. etc. may have limited merit, but your interpretation about the importance or necessity of adaptation is wrong, your insistence about one-dimensionality is itself one-dimensional, and arguing that "you won't accept any argument..." is profoundly illogical. I'll add just one indisputable fact: All reproduced soundstages are artificial - speakers and headphones both. From there, wisdom flows like a well-played symphony.

Vai82's picture

Let me add one more indisputable fact: All reproduced music is artifical!
But the question is: How close do we get to the real thing ;)

dalethorn's picture

Ha - I think we're getting closer already.

Vai82's picture

Sorry, you don't get it. And something like "your insistence about one-dimensionality is itself one-dimensional, and arguing that "you won't accept any argument..." is profoundly illogical" just doesn't make sense because even with language barriers it should be obvious what i want to explain. That you've made up your mind and that you can't stand the fact that headphones have some downsides.

dalethorn's picture

You should watch some "court TV" where they explain the difference between offering an argument and "being argumentative". I truly don't know if there are two of you under that 'nym of yours, because sometimes you seem focused on real things and other times not. To the point: Your accusation of one-dimensionality is not an argument, it's a mere unfounded accusation. I'm the last stop when it comes to resolving headphone issues. If you believe you know better, you might as well be talking to the wind.

Vai82's picture

Don't worry, i know the difference.
And you are right: Talking about one-dimensionality is no argument. I've offered you enough arguments about the subject here and in the Guttenberg article. One-dimensionality is my conclusion after i've had the discussions with you.

dalethorn's picture

Would you argue astrophysics with Neil Tyson, or conducting with Zubin Mehta? Why argue headphone sound with me?

dalethorn's picture

I'm usually good at connecting the dots, but some things just get past me, such as a political opinion on sound reproduction. I realize that someday I may have to have the approved TV monitor in my flat, both broadcasting the official line and collecting my responses, but I consider my music to be above and beyond that - sacred even.

On that note, while the sound of the Abyss (as described here) is very compelling, and ignoring price, there are two worries I have: One is the bulk of the thing. As an experienced user of heavy headphones, I know that I *can* get along with the Abyss, but the question is will I use it enough? The other worry is the somewhat nebulous distinction between the detail and accuracy of the SR009 and the 'natural' reproduction of the Abyss. I would like to learn more.

On another note, I find the Abyss Diana extremely interesting, for its cuteness if nothing else. My worry there is that some of that nebulosity between the detail of the SR009 and the 'naturalness' of the big Abyss could turn into a sonic veil with the cheaper smaller Diana.

lo fi's picture

Nice review. I haven't heard the Phi iteration but I found the original Abyss a fabulously dynamic and engaging listen. However, it is heavier than any headphone has a right to be and I think that's an issue for a pair of transducers that are designed to be worn on your head. Like the Audeze LCD models, these massive planar magnetic headphones are not well suited to long listening sessions.

The original Abyss was not the last word in resolution, clarity and refinement either. Both the Stax SR-009 and the Audzeze LCD-4 bested it in those areas to my ears. They also have more even frequency responses which (arguably) makes them the more linear headphones.

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