Gramophone Dreams #17: Abyss AB-1266 Phi headphones Page 2

I told Joe he was a super-nice guy and a super-talented engineer, but a below-average explainer.

All I know for sure is that the new Abyss AB-1266 looks the same as the old, costs the same, weighs the same (620gm), and sounds only slightly different. I had both models here to compare.

Listening
The new and old Abyss headphones were voiced using a Woo Audio WA5 integrated/headphone amplifier, with 300B tubes, like the one I reviewed in the January 2017 issue. Therefore, to get the full measure of authorized Abyss pleasure, I used the Woo WA5 for most of my evaluations. I also used Schiit Audio's Yggdrasil and Mytek HiFi's Brooklyn DACs, as well as Linear Tube Audio's microZOTL2.0 and Pass Labs' HPA-1 headphone amplifiers.

With the Woo: I'm an artist, so I tend to favor artful modernist-expressionist, and mercurial compositions like fellow painter Arnold Schoenberg's Suite, Op.29, performed by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players (LP, Deutsche Grammophon 2531 277). The Suite is a lighthearted and slyly intelligent atonal work in which bass clarinets dance the foxtrot while cellos speak in voice-like tones. In this composition, Schoenberg relies heavily on the contrapuntal actions of three types of instruments: strings, clarinets, and piano. This beautiful recording is deeply satisfying, both for its rich instrumental tones and its wide, deep, transparent soundstage. I've played this engaging recording countless times, on innumerable stereo rigs, and never has it sounded as natural, open, and real as it did through the original Abyss AB-1266es. While listening, I scribbled the phrase perfectly natural several times. I never felt more kindred or connected to Schoenberg than I did while enjoying the Suite's four variations and coda on "&#196nnchen von Tharau," a folk-like song by Friedrich Silcher, and a final Gigue that made me forget I was wearing headphones.

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The original Abyss AB-1266es made Schoenberg's wistful Suite into a full-spectrum chromatic delight that appealed to both my mind and spirit. The Boston Players were so well proportioned and properly toned that I found it difficult to listen for sound quality. But I swear, the sound was exquisite: no peaky aberrations or frosty bites, no haze or grain, no forced detailing—just smooth, easy-flowing musical forms. The original Abysses distinguished themselves from the herd of perfectionist headphones by being what I've already suggested they are: the opposite of hi-fi.

With the Woo WA5 amplifier, part of that oppositeness resulted in a reproduction of transients and musical energy that just rolled by, almost softly, very organically, never drawing any attention to itself. This highly musical motional effect kept me from being distracted by unnecessary instrumental details and textural reliefs, as I often am with more blatantly high-resolution audio devices. With the original Abyss AB-1266es, my mind was always on the music, consistently and contentedly directed forward. I couldn't imagine how JPS Labs could improve on their supreme quality.

My attempts to find easily recognizable differences between the old and new Abyss AB-1266es brought me to a Christmas Eve fiesta in Oaxaca de Juarez, capital city of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where I stood before the Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, surrounded by throngs of revelers. Wearing the old Abyss AB-1266es, I felt like a happy tourist as I played "Christmas in Oaxaca," from David Lewiston's field recording Mexico: Fiestas of Chiapas and Oaxaca (LP, Nonesuch Explorer H-72070). I collect these Nonesuch Explorer recordings because I'm a student of world music and because of the simple way they were recorded. On this fantastically spatial recording, Lewiston placed his stereo microphone tree in the zócalo (main plaza), and the brass and percussion ensembles performed almost randomly around it. It sounds fantastically real: bottle rockets arc noisily and repeatedly overhead. People clap, blow whistles, shout in the distance. Children squeal happily as adults sing in groups. Bands march by with that ol' Doppler pitch-change effect. This spectacular recording makes me feel as if I'm actually there—and especially so with quality headphones.

The new Abyss AB-1266 Phis exposed those real-life carnival sounds and chaotic spatial coordinates exactly as well as the discontinued model, but instead of noticing a subliminal amount of transient gentleness (as I had with the original), I heard a bit more cinematic display and precise camera focus. The Phis sounded two brushstrokes less colorful and one tequila less relaxed than their predecessors, but were unquestionably more focused and panoramic. They made the Christmas moon shine a little brighter over Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.

Attention Luddites
High-quality headphones can always do something that even the best two-channel loudspeakers never can: put you in the middle of the musical action. With stereo speakers, the music appears separate from you and in front of you—lower in energy, smaller in size. With speakers, 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 stereo sound from loudspeakers. With speakers, 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.

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Not so with headphones, where the illusion is attached—in and around your head and body. Headphone listening creates a unique you-are-actually-there illusion of audio reality because headphones and microphones are the same form of full-range electromechanical transducer. When you listen with headphones, the recording microphones and your ears become precisely coincidental; the recording mikes are no longer little phantom things that we search for between the speakers—they are our ears! With headphones, we are the mikes. (Remember what Joe Skubinski said about "standing on the surface of the microphone.")

Because of headphones' perceived ear-microphone coincidence, the illusion of realistically sized performers is more accurately preserved. Energy is reproduced more believably. When loudspeakers reduce the size of an opera stage to something that fits between the speakers—that is a gross distortion.

The space of the recording venue is now the space I perceive that I am in. I'm not staring at some ghostlike, doll-sized hologram superimposed over my equipment rack.

I suggest that you not underestimate the power of this experience of being inside the music to positively enhance your emotional and intellectual connections to a musical performance. It really works.

Don't believe me? Well then . . . just purchase some David Lewiston field recordings (Nonesuch Explorer) or some David Chesky binaural recordings (HDtracks), and play them alternately through headphones and speakers. If you use the new Abyss AB-1266 Phi headphones, you'll likely be surprised at how you-are-there live a recording can sound.

There is, however, one unfortunate side-effect of this synchronicity of ear and microphone, and sometimes the extreme verity of the Abyss AD-1266 Phi headphones made it distractingly obvious. With headphones, our listening pleasure is extra-dependent on microphone placement. This is especially true with recordings of solo instruments such as piano, flute, or guitar. Obviously, it's exciting to feel as if I'm in the room with the musician, but it can feel weird to have my face inside a piano, or 12" from Pepe Romero's guitar strings. As I wrote this, the JPS headphones made Romero's performance of Joaquín Rodrigo's Fandango (LP, Philips 9500 915) sound enjoyably natural (guitar timbre was perfect) and dynamically lifelike—but I was annoyed and disoriented to find my head that close to the strings. For me, close-miked instruments such as Romero's guitar are easier to enjoy via the over-thereness of loudspeakers.

So what about Tina?
I spent a whole morning listening, with every headphone in the bunker, to that LP of Ike & Tina Turner's River Deep—Mountain High. I played it on the Palmer 2.5 turntable with Audio Origami tonearm and EMT TSD 75 cartridge, feeding an Auditorium 23 step-up transformer, connected to a Parasound Halo JC 3+ phono stage feeding my reference Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amplifier.

Without LSD or cognac, it was hard work—but Tina's sweaty hotness and deep soulfulness came through every set of 'phones. So did the rough character of her voice. What differentiated all of these excellent headphones was their widely varying ability to accurately delineate the bass—and sort out all that Wall of Sound hoopla happening behind Tina. I felt that the Audeze LCD-Xes displayed Tina's voice in the most exciting and expressive way, but they lacked the Abysses' or the HiFiMan HE-1000 V2s' resolution and deep space. I thought the HiFiMan HE-1000 V2s were the most precisely detailed, but that detail seemed to add one more layer of haze to Spector's already fuzzy Wall.

And I was surprised to hear how unreasonably close Sony's MDR-Z1Rs ($2299) came to equaling the relaxed, resolved deep space of the Abyss AB-1266 Phis. Next to the Abysses, the Sonys are the most natural-sounding, most musically satisfying headphones I have experienced.

Two more comparisons
Many headphone connoisseurs consider the Stax SR-009 electrostatic headphones ($3825 + dedicated amplifier) to be the best-resolving of all candidates for best headphone. My numerous but brief auditions of this venerable classic suggest that the SR-009 does indeed generate the most beautiful and fascinating midrange, but it also sounds identifiably electrostat-like—and, hence, less natural than the Abyss AB-1266 Phis, which appear to have almost no sound of their own.

Besides producing more authentic-sounding bass and more naturally rendered upper octaves than the SR-009s, the Abysses delivered detail and soundstage images with an uncannily visual—nay, infinite—depth of field; the Stax SR-009s' focus was distinctly more limited and camera-like.

I've spent a lot of time with another five-star headphone model: Focal's Utopia ($3999). The Utopias make music with a sparkling neutrality that reminds me of dry Champagne. They also possess a unique, breathy athleticism that may exceed the dynamic capabilities both the Stax SR-009s and the Abyss Phis—but! The Abysses took absolute openness, lack of grain, and relaxed purity further than the Staxes or Focals could go.

View from the bunker
JPS Labs' Abyss AB-1266 Phi headphones appear to be the most solidly built, luxuriously packaged, and most true-to-life–sounding of all headphones. And if that statement is true, then the JPS 'phones must also be the best value in perfectionist audio. And if any of these ravings are not true, I must sit on the naughty step until I learn to eat my okra and listen better.

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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