The practice of building a home system and tweaking it to perfection is a time-honored tradition among music lovers and audiophiles. And I'm not just talking about buying equipment and is plainly evident within my review of the Abyss AB-1266 headphones and you'll soon learn. It's about perfecting the angle of the speaker. Damping the reflective surfaces of the room. Perhaps even rewiring the electrical sockets in search of that last one or two percent.
Few understand this practice better than Joe Skubinski of JPS Labs, a man who has built a name for himself in the world of high-end cables. A close listen to other JPS designs such as the Aluminata Power Cable ($3999) reveals a prodigious level of attention to detail at every stage of the build. In his first headphone, the Abyss AB-1266 ($5495 for this Deluxe version and $4495 in Lite version), Skubinski has captured some of the magic of the personal journey to audio perfection and scaled it down to size. You see, to be fully appreciated, the Abyss demands that you make it your own. It is uncompromising, and for those who don't have the passion, patience and love it takes to personalize this system, it can be quite frustrating. I'll admit, my initial reaction to the headphone was somewhat cold. But with time and tweaking, I learned to make it my own. And as my journey continued, the Abyss rewarded me quite handsomely with some of the finest audio I've ever experienced.
The Ergonomic Enigma
Below the adjustable upper frame, there is a soft leather headband suspended by an elastic strap. This headband is quite comfortable, and the elastic strap can be twisted, increasing tension to provide some level of height adjustment. The next layer of customization takes place at the ear pad. The pads are made of soft, supple leather, and are individually sewn in California. They connect to the headphone through a clever series of magnetic connectors, allowing rotation in 20-degree increments on both sides. This gives the listener 360 control of the size of the gap between the head and the pad itself, a small change that affects the sound greatly, in my experience.
Experimenting with the headphone, I found over-sealing the pad in front of the ear increased the bass quantity and add some unwanted coloration to the sound. Opening up the pad too far in the front increased the amount of treble and added a fair amount of sibilance to the sound. Splitting the difference however, leads to a sort of sonic Goldilocks zone, which is quite impressive. According to JPS Labs, the Abyss is ideally positioned when it is "floating" over the ear, barely touching the head. In this position, I experienced the best frequency balance, soundstage and detail retrieval.
Overall, this degree of ergonomic variability can be a bit of a mixed bag. It's a positive in that the listener gains the ability to optimize the headphone's performance for their individual head shape and size. But it can also be a negative in that it can be easy for the headphone to come out of the ideal position. There have been multiple times where I've adjusted for comfort without thinking, and I lose the perfect fit, taking me out of the moment. When the line between perfection and disappointment is so paper thin, it breeds a natural sense of anxiety.
For me, I found that setting the proper height with the elastic suspension strap was key to maintaining a proper fit. The Abyss is far more forgiving for me when it sits a little higher. Furthermore, I was able to rotate the leather pads in a way that allowed the headphone to stay in the ideal position with some light contact above my ears. Just like a two-channel (stereo) system, individual listeners will need to take the proper time to adjust and lock-in a perfect fit by spreading the frame, rotating pads, twisting the headband, perhaps even bending the arms very slightly to get the drivers positioned ideally relative to the ear. Patience is strongly encouraged. Once it is properly fitted, the Abyss is quite comfortable and the sound is simply fantastic.
The Sweet Science Of Sonic Pugilism
The midrange is very clear with a little extra emphasis on the lower portion of the midrange, but can come across as a bit recessed overall in relation to the massive bass on some recordings. Guitars and pianos are delivered with a nice weight and warmth, though at times I feel a little extra lift in the upper midrange would make vocals a little more emotionally engaging. There is a yin and yang to this principle however, and this recession from the upper midrange into the lower treble leaves the headphone relatively free of harsh sibilance, with a proper fit.
Moving up the frequency range, treble is well extended with an incredible sense of transient snap. The sound here is truly high definition. Cymbals resolve with full definition and timbre, rather than the incoherent blobs of treble presented by so many other headphones. Furthermore, the force of the cymbal strike resolves with a stunning clarity matched by only a handful of other headphones in the world. In my opinion, capturing the intent of a musician through fine microdynamics and inner resolution is one of the most impressive things a piece of equipment can do, and the Abyss does it well.
Soundscape is fantastic as well, easily rivaling my reference HD800. The transition between individual image placements across the soundstage with big drum rolls is absolutely seamless. You can easily close your eyes and imagine the placement of each individual drum, with zero obfuscation. Listening to The Bucky Pizzarelli Trio's "Three for All" on 24-bit/96kHz FLAC, the soundscape feels transparent and borderless. Each of the three guitarists occupies a distinct space, and it feels very much like you are right there in the room sitting with them. If I had to nitpick, the front and rear depth toward the center of the stage could be just a pinch deeper, but this is really splitting hairs.
Attack and decay are beyond reproach throughout the frequency range. Transients strike with realistic authority and notes never overstay their welcome. This allows ambient microdetails to come forth effortlessly, further adding to the sense of realism from the fine image placement with acoustic insights from the performance space. It is really very rare for a headphone with such a weighty sound to offer such an apparent level of detail.
Equipment Used In This Review