Review: The Abyss AB-1266 Planar Magnetic Headphones

The Abyss AB 1266.

Some call it the Medieval Torture Device. I call it audio heaven.

I shall not mince my words: Abyss is butt ugly. On first impression, I doubt anyone will even figure how the heck to put it on to your head. Followed by its weight, its one of the heaviest in the 640g range. It is on first sight highly unadjustable and uncomfortable. How can something like this sound good? Add on the initial price tag of more then 5K, maybe JPS Labs went mad or something.

But the truth is actually far from it. Price has fallen to 4k + (Abyss Lite Edition. Same thing just less accessories). I got mine cheaper then a LCD4 in my area. Its actually highly adjustable, and quite comfortable once you are done with it. Infact due to its design, you wont be as affected by the ears and its surrounding area heating up like most other headphones. The sound can also be describe in one word: Sublime.

First lets look into the design. The Abyss is made of out of solid aluminium pieces bent and merge together. I have a feeling that if you throw it at someone, concussion ensures. Its probably the most solid built headphone I touched, even beating those of Beyerdynamics. The frame will probably last you a lifetime unless you get a car to run over it. The elastic bend is where the headphone rest on. The headphone was designed to actually rest on your head, with the ear cups lightly touching around your ears.  This will put bulk of the weight on top and thus making it rather comfortable. And since there is little clamping force, its more comfortable then many headphones out there, lets not forget it also reduces the chance your ears heating up and sweating! The next question in most people mind now is how do you actually adjust it to there.

First we take a look at the top, the joint there can be extended by about an inch and slightly bent forward or back. So depending on your head size, just pull or bend accordingly. Next is the ear cups. Its of a asymmetric design. Attached with a magnet, it can rotated up to 18 positions. So just rotate them till you feel comfortable and the entire cup is resting on the side of your head. This adjustment takes around 20-30 min in my experience and its the most important phase of using this headphone. Infact, it will determine if you ever enjoy the headphone, both comfort and sonically.

The issue of this headphone and why many cant understand it when they do auditions is this: The adjustments of the entire headphone determines the sound. Clamp down too much and you lose bass impact and make the overall signature warm. Pull it too far apart and you will get a relatively bright signature. If the earpad fully sits on the side of your head, you get a full sound. But if you want alittle more dynamic, leaving a gap in the seal will give you a better experience. The thing is this headphone is finicky until you get it right. Once you obtain the fitting and sound you want, its onward to audio bliss, SUBLIME!

The Abyss is quite the monster to drive. With 85db/mw, its just slightly better then HE6 which is 83. On the Hugo TT, that will equate to violet or light blue for volume and even white if your track is soft. Its power requirements are also quite high, many amps will not have the grunt to fully power it to its fullest. Best to get something that can do 1w on output. When I first audition it with the Hugo, its rather flat and boomy. The TT did a much much better job as it had the current to swing. For me I use the Cayin IHA6 pictured on top. The IHA6 amp outputs 7w per channel, its a monster in power in a relatively small package. The abyss never needed more then 12 position to be too loud for me.

Sound:

Equipment:

Laptop -> Hugo TT -> Cayin IHA6 ->Abyss

HD800S

HE500

Tracks used:

Powder Snow by Suara (Female Vocals)

Musouka by Suara (Female Vocals)

Liberi Fatali by Distant Worlds(Orchestra/Chant)

Send my Love by Adele (Female Vocals)

Hotel California

 

This section is based on a properly fitted Abyss.

This headphone is fast. Faster then my HE500 and HD800S. This gives it a more dynamic feel with nicer blacks as instruments tend to not decay longer then they should. In Liberi Fatali, the bass and the treble will never mix. I can hear the xylophone in the background clearly even with all the other instruments and chants. In Hotel California, you can clearly hear the guitar pluckings as the bass pounds away.  Instrument separation is just fantastic as everything could be easily identified and heard.

Soundstaging and placement is fantastic. Its soundstage is wide and huge, comparable to the HD800S in size. However its Z Axis doesnt feel as great the HD800S, I will say HD800S feels a little more holographic then the Abyss.This also lead to a slightly better separation in the HD800S. In Liberi Fatali, instruments could be heard clearly but on the Abyss, you cant exactly pin point its position all the time unlike the HD800S. There is also a slightly different feel to the soundstage. HD800S felt like a concert hall with mid row seat while the Abyss is a more closer to the front. This is very apparent in Hotel California, where everything felt closer with the sound radiating out far.

The Abyss is transparent and detailed. To me its more transparent then HD800S and the HE500. Other then my KSE1500 which sounds about the same, everything else felt like there is a veil over them muddles things a little. In the tracks for the female vocals, the voice is just crystal clear with all the instrument sounding right.  In Musouku, you can hear the little guitar plucks that is usually lost. It does mean that many modern recorded song for the masses will sound bad. You can probably pick up every crackle which can be downright irritating.

Vocals and mids are great, natural but a little recessed.The Abyss is just so much more relaxed and natural in the mids then the HD800S. In Send My Love, there are those claps. The Abyss just renders them like exactly how you would expect, a slap like impact followed by quick decay. The HD800S however sounded like just a mass of sound that feels like a clap. You cant tell the exact point of impact.  The mids are slightly recessed on the mids for the Abyss. This gives them a feeling of being slightly further away. Due to the way the Abyss is voiced, it sounds perfectly fine, but put it next to the HD800S and it becomes apparent. In Powder Snow, Abyss felt like the vocals were aligned with the instruments while on the HD800S, the instruments played a more supporting role. That said, even though its slightly behind, the Abyss felt more natural. The HD800S vocals felt a little constricted when compared. However there is an issue at times. In Hotel California, the bass can at times feel like it overpowered the vocals due to the slight change in placement. Though if you are a basshead then this is totally up your alley.

Cause Abyss is King for bass. I tried many headphones before I purchased the Abyss. He1000, LCD4, HD800S, LCD3, TH900. When I tried the Abyss properly, I just could not forget how it sounded. I told a friend of mine who ran one of the shop that sells everything but the Abyss: “Sorry but I will probably purchase the Abyss. It is deep… deep like its name stake, The Abyss” The thing is the Abyss bass goes not only deep, it sounded like a sub woofer. It impacts the side of your head and ear. You can feel that rumbling vibration that was lost in almost all headphones. Most headphones just had a tight, deep and impactful bass. The Abyss had all that plus a bass that can be felt just like a Sub. Its controlled, you can pinpoint the point of impact, then its decay, rumble and vibration there after. That was not the only thing great, with all the rumble, definitely the mids will get affected, but it isnt. It really felt like a properly integrated sub woofer, clearly separated but part of the total audio landscape.

The last part is the treble. Here, I will say the HD800S had a more distinct treble that sparkles a little more but never confusing. It also means the Abyss due to its treble being a little more tamed to me, sounded much more pleasant with almost no sibilant. The treble also sounded more natural. The little bells in Powder Snow just felt like the small bells you would hear. It was reported in complex treble tracks, the Abyss may sound confusing in the treble region. I did not personally heard it in the tracks I used. Maybe it needs a full orchestra with lots of instrument in that region which I did not have access to.

There is something I noted of the Abyss when I tried it out with my friend. I usually listen on the Hugo TT at around Dark Blue while he does it at Light Blue. This translates to around 85db peak at 90+ vs 97db peak at 100+. We noticed at my levels, everything is in control, but at his preferred level, the bass had this weird vibration which we believe is distortion. We therefore believe that at higher volumes, the Abyss may have big and powerful bass but it will distort and therefore if you are sensitive to such things, do audition it at those level before purchase.

The Abyss is a medieval torture device that sound as deep as the Abyss. As a TOTL, I believe it deserves its place in todays context. You will be called nuts 3 years ago at 5.5k when it first debutted but now with pricing reaching similar levels of LCD4 (and maybe even the Focus Utopia), it is definitely a must try if you are in that market. Especially if you like quality sound with bass sounding like a sub woofer that is clearly missed in almost all headphones. Lets not forget its one of  kind look which is actually quite comfortable.

Shures KSE1500 Review

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The KSE1500 is world first In Ear Isolated Electrostat. Its not the first portable or earphone electrostat but definitely the first isolated one. Coming in at USD$2999, it cost a lot for in-ear monitor. The biggest question is: IS IT WORTH IT? 

Packaging:

The KSE1500 comes with everything and the kitchen sink.  The main unit and earphones, 5 Cables, wall charger, cleaning cloth, case  for both the amp/dac unit and the earphones. Theres really nothing to complain about what is given except Shures should have just design a special pelican case that can hold both the amp and earphone together with a custom partitioned foam.

Quality:

The amp/dac is really well built. Comes with its very own LCD screen that’s clear and bright even in the day. The amp is solidly built. The connectors used for the Shures are LEMO 0B connectors. This are dust proof connectors that can survive quite some abuse and cost a good amount too. The earphones themselves have non replaceable cables. At first I thought it may be a problem but looking at the connectors, the kevlar cables, the thickness of them, I think its not going to give way anytime. Which brings to the final buds themselves. I wonder what Shures was thinking cause sadly the buds looks and feels cheap. The left and right buds moldings are actually slightly different, with one side have fine lines on it while the other can be seen with the driver touching the outer shell. To summarise, the buds don’t look like they are worthy of a 1k IEM and this is a $2999 system. The buds are fully sealed and very light so I doubt they will get damage but definitely the premium feel could have been achieved just to pamper the buyer.

Usage and Comfort:

The connection is straight forward as the connectors are grooved. The connector is well secured and cannot be pulled apart without releasing the catch. The amp operation initially can be awkward and requires some help or the manual to understand the basic usage.  Once you get pass that stage, its straight forward. The LCD shows the input volumes and aim is to keep them from clipping. The screen also shows the volume which can be changed by the knob on the top left of the amp.  The knob is nice but the steps are quite sad. Shures actually thought 25 steps are enough for volume.

The amp has some additional function. It has a build in equalizer that actually works with minimum distortion to the sound. I use it quite often to get the music taste I want which I will touch on in the later sound quality section. The equalizer is a 4 point parametric with various choices and +-6DB setting. It has 5 build in presets and 4 additional user defined ones. Sadly you cant rename them so memorisation of which setting you did up will be needed.

The other options are setting of input volume reduction especially for high output dacs like the chord or AK players. The last item in the menu is the utilities to set things such as charge while using, battery report, lcd brightness.

The earbuds are easy to fit and comfortable. Being a 1 driver earbud, its small, light and can fit into most ears. The recommended were the foam tips and base on my personal usage its true. It also removes the most ambient noise. Shures claim 37 db reduction and I don’t think its that far off, definitely a better fit then my Lyras with complys.

The amp unit comes with a leather pouch and like every other amp you can choose to strap it to your player. The pouch has the ability to hook the amp through a belt or bag which is a nice touch but that will need a long interconnect cable which Shures actually provided (there is a shot 20cm and a long 1m long one)

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Sound quality:

For 3k USD it should sound like the best ever thing right? The answer to this: Subjective.

To start off I need a disclaimer, I never tried Layla. I tried most things below 2k USD, anywhere from the Shures SE215 to the UM Legend and JH Roxxane. So where do the Shures stand?

Compared to most earphones below the 1k USD, there is no fight. From the 1-2k USD mark, preference and genre of music plays a very large part to where the Shures stand. So lets start with the basic parameters of treble, vocals, bass, and sound stage followed by the characteristic of the sound which will cover the rest.

Track origin:

Liberi Fatali: Distance World from Final Fantasy

Hello: Adele 25

Powder Snow: Suara

Sometime When we Touch: Susan Wong

Hotel California: Eagles, Hell Freezes Over

Gate: Kisada Kyodan and The Rockets

Treble: Very good extension and smooth. The bells in Powder Snow can be heard very clearly with the “Ting” that’s extremely realistic. This is one of the greatest magic in KSE1500, guitars, bells, violins, all sound extremely realistic with almost no coloration. Its like hearing the real instruments themselves with great realism. Theres no harshness in the treble though some may find it bright as its reproduces everything. Also due to the treble extension and prominence, it adds a effect of airyiness in the sound which I will elaborate in the later section.

Vocals: Vocals are very strong. Both for female and male, they sound just right with a lot of air and smoothness. I especially love female vocals by Susan Wong and Suara on the KSE1500. Adele sounds magical too especially on the track Hello. The vocals are a little laid back by default compared to say my Lyra or UM Mage.  They have a smoothness that’s unmatched on any IEM I tried so far.

Bass: This is where the KSE1500 is both good and bad. The bass is tight, fast  and punchy when needed. However it lacks the slam and the boom. You will not get the shake in the ear feeling that some of the BA or Dynamic can give you. You also cant get the boom and decay like those of the Dynamic similar to the Lyra. What you get is extremely tight bass with no delay. This does mean it comes and go really fast, does not affect any other sound in the spectrum and respond very well to tracks that have a lot of fast beat. The KSE1500 do go deep, but you wont get the rumble like a dynamic  IEM. If you want the impact, rumble and the boom, get something else.  Else the KSE1500 is just right.

Soundstage: The KSE1500 has a soundstage that’s wide but not the widest of IEM. I couldn’t put a finger on the exact size but it’s a IEM scale sound stage so don’t expect open can stax like stage. It does have very good separation and depth.  The requirement though is you must get the best sealing else things start getting muddle up which is the case with silicon tips I tried initially.

Characteristic: The KSE1500 is extremely neutral. High clarity, High details, everything just feels right, nothing feels overly emphasized as a whole. This lead to a sound that’s soo clean that sterile maybe the word to use. Its transient response is fast, nothing gets muddle up even in the most complex track with bass and guitar all mixed together. I quote a friend: “Listening to the KSE1500 feels like listening to the pure music in a sound proof room”. There is no distortion, no coloration, just pure music that feels like how it originally is.  Which lead to the biggest issue of the KSE1500: ITS BORING! In a recent gathering of 8 of my friends, some audiophile and some casual listeners, those that did not like it biggest complain was its just boring after a while. The sound feels in your face,:clear and correct with no wow or spectacular factor.  This can be rectified in EQ, my favourtie being the vocal boost, to bring the qualities that you prefer up front. The KSE1500 equalizer is very good,  almost no distortion and the earphones respond very well to them. Somethings can never be rectified such as a warmness of sound and increasing the bass impact, at least not with the build in EQ or those on most devices.

Value:

How can we be talking about value for the world most expensive IEM? Or is it really? $2999 you are getting a earphone AND a amp/dac. Now lets look at top of the range IEM such as the Siren series on Nobel K10, couple them with a decent amp and you will probably break the $2999 mark easily. Lets not forget the KSE1500 is working at 100% potential due to a whole system design while for most IEM, you will probably need to hunt for the most synergy amp which can cost anywhere from few hundreds to thousands. You also get a DAC which may not be the greatest but definitely a step up from your mobile phones and entry DAPS.

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Conclusion:

So where does all this leave the KSE1500. Is it the GREATEST? The answer for me is YES, a true TOTL, flaghip of flagships. But to many others it will be no. Its probably 1-2k good but 3k probably not unless you are into its sound signature. The KSE1500 excels in clarity, detail, transcient response, and seperation. Bass is good but probably not the quantity some wants them to be. Nethier is its soundstage the widest ever. So before you make a purchase on the KSE1500 or any othe TOTL iem, make sure you can audition it or comes with a return policy.

 

And for me, Im loving it everyday more then the previous. It has reached a point that my HE500 no longer sounds right and my Lyra is actually muddy even through a Chord Mojo.

Review: Chord Mojo Portable Dac – The Magical Black Box

Mojo-1

The Chord Mojo is the newest product launch just this Mid October by Chord Electronics. Mojo, the short form of Mobile Joy, is the 3rd battery powered DAC by Chord and also the smallest and most affordable of the series at just S$899. Hugo(S$2800) and the Hugo TT(S$6500) before it are many times the size and price yet provide the performance that almost any audiophile will rave about. Will Mojo rise up to the standards of its predecessors?  In short, totally!

Design

Mojo-2The Mojo is the size of a park of card and maybe a little thicker. Made of solid aluminium coated black with 3 round balls as buttons with various sockets. The words and icons are laser etched to the surface and the black matt coat is relatively scratch resistance.

A total of 3 digital inputs and 2 3.5mm stereo outputs are found on the Mojo. There is no analogue in or balance ports, the whole design purely focusing on its DAC and output to portable headphones. The digital inputs are Optical, Coax and USB, covering most input types that a DAC could consume.

The 3 balls work as buttons, with 1 as power and 2 as volume. Each of them will light up in a series of rainbow color to represent the bit rate and volume. The colors are honestly hard to remember but are really useful and will be described in the next section. The balls spins about in their socket but so far I do not really think they are better then buttons except being fancy.

In totality, the Mojo is a solid design that is relatively small and solid. Balanced out would have been nice in the form of AK 2.5mm but I’m not really complaining at this price point.

In Use

The Mojo in use is rather interesting.

First the the size: Yes it is rather small but it makes stacking with everything touch screen troublesome. The straps will have to go over the screen as most touch devices are rather long and big (16:9 ratio). Considering the market that Mojo is targeting, making a long and thin device would have been better. Other then that, it  is really small for its capability and if you have a AK100/120 or DX50/90, this guy would be right at home as a stack though a little thick. Using a velcro will probably solve the issue, though it will leave a mess when you want to remove it.Mojo-3

Secondly is the ports: They are good but for a portable, I wonder if it would have been better if all the ports are on one side. The issue is wires going in and out of both sides means stacking and putting it into the pocket is rather impossible without hitting the cables on either end. Infact I lost a few connections via USB with my ZX 2 when my digital cable was leaning onto something in my bag. If everything was one side, it would have been a more optimal layout for portable usage.

Thirdly buttons (or balls): Its a love hate relationship with those balls and where they are. I quite love to just fiddle with them and roll them about, but the way they are positioned makes them either really hard to press when stacked, or really prone to being pressed by anything. If you faced the words “mojo” inwards, the balls will need your finger to reach in to toggle them, if you face the words out, anything just touching the device from an angle probably will mess with your volume.

Forth the rainbow colors: This is actually one design I actually love. You can dim or brighten them by pressing the volume buttons together. Knowing the device is on or off is simple with those big balls of glowing lights. The colors initially were confusing but after a while you just need to know red is the lower, green is middle and violet/white is up top. In-fact what I love most is based on the headphones I use and the color I listen them at, I can set the volume before playing easily. There is also a small colored led under the power port. It works rather well to tell how much power is left.

Some other stuff: Line out is achieved by pressing the two volume buttons at start up. This result in two violet lights and if its too high voltage for your amp (3v), just press the volume buttons to reduce it. 3v was too high for my CDM but perfectly fine for the WA22. The device runs for about 8hrs via USB and high res songs, gets quite warm and even hot when its charging. However no worries as there are internal circuitry which will shut itself off at 65c. This prevents damages to itself or accidental burns to your skin.

Sound Quality

Mojo-5

The most important part for any audio device especially a DAC/AMP. Mojo in one word: Superb.

Headphones: Lyra, H6, ESW10, RS1

Transport: ZX2

Songs: Orchestra from FF:Distant Worlds, Gate, Hotel California, Songs by Susan Wong, Songs by Suara

Amps: WooAudio WA22, ALO CDM

Firstly to start of, its a relatively neutral sounding amp, leaning towards energetic and musicality. Hearing it through the many song, I find it has no true preference to any genra, making good work of anything thrown at it without any emphasis or harshness.

The greatest value of Mojo to me compared to any DAPs and DACs till 5k SGD is the energy in the song. No matter which song I played, it always has this energy that no other device I heard could match. The moment I switched to my ZX2, iPhone or my CDM in built DAC, they immediately felt for a lack of words: tired. It is like the vocals and instrument lack that little shim and power. Mojo felt like the performer who just arrived on stage full of energy while the other devices felt like the energy has all been used up and winding down.

Then there is the effortless of the sound. No matter what you throw at it, no sound in the spectrum will feel like its catching up or lacking in energy. This also makes the sound more realistic to me, similar to a live performance.

The other really notable sound quality which I would point out is how realistic the highs are yet never feeling harsh. The cymbals, bells and strings all felt really natural, especially in this tracks of distant worlds, no matter how much the bass or number of instruments, the highs will always be notable yet never distorted in any form.

Lastly the bass of this device is quick, punchy but without the feeling of emphasis. If the songs have little bass, like those from Suara, they felt well balanced in the background as support elements. But in Gate, a mid bass heavy track, its quick, punchy yet never bleeds into the vocals or mask the highs.

The only complain if I really want to squeeze one out about the sound is it sounds “Matter of Fact”. The output of the device just sound right, but sometimes this can get boring and this is where amping comes in. By default, Mojo vocals in most track felt well centered with good mass, running it through the WA22, the vocals spread out a little more and in general more soothing. Between raw or amped in this case is more of a preference. The CDM however shows some interesting improvement which I will cover in the next section.

Drive and Matching

On its own, the Mojo is really powerful. I do not think any headphone will have insufficient volume or authority. Everything I thrown at it sounds great. It may not be the absolute best of each headphone, but definitely no complains and enjoyable. Even with the harder ones like LCD2, it sounds perfectly fine.

Mojo-4

However to put it at its best, to me a ALO CDM acting as its amp, sublime. It actually adds even more energy to the sound, providing a touch more air especially in the vocals and highs. Euphoric sounding, it may just be the best stack that can fit into a bag.

Value

Of all the audio gear I purchased, I rate this the best value product. It sounds great, small enough and could be used by itself perfectly fine. At a sub S$1000 price, it beats DAC/DAPS twice or even triple its price. I really can’t think of a source device that provides more value based on the performance it provides.

In conclusion, Mojo to me is Magic in the pocket. A worthwhile purchase for any audiophile who wants the best without paying a king’s ransom.

ALO Continental Dual Mono: Preview

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Recently I went back to my audio hobby which started way before even my photography days. Did a few new purchases and recently got my hand on a ALO Continental Dual Mono.

CDM-1

 

Pictured here with my Sony ZX2, this amp is both a looker and sounds really great. Makes the headphones I have for the last 8 years sound greater then they ever had. Gives a warm, smooth sound with great clarity but nice bass slam.

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The glowing tubes make for great photography subject. Will probably go around doing a review for it together with my recent audio gears and even more pictures.