Viva-Abyss valve driven speakers have been compared to Frankenstein. Photo: supplied
Listening to music with headphones is a pastime that spans generations. For many, it’s just an alternative to listening to music loud, without upsetting the rest of the household.
More recently, new generations have embraced listening through earbuds , thanks mostly to Apple’s iPod and smartphones. More people appreciating music is never a bad thing.
Listening through headphones is a personal experience, intimate even. With the driver or ‘membrane’ so close to your eardrum you also remove the chance of problematic room acoustics, resulting in more natural and accurate sound quality. But to experience and enjoy the very best musical fidelity you’ll need to aim higher than the buds that came bundled with your smartphone.
For those on the go, you already have a highly capable music player in your pocket. Unfortunately, phones have a less than average digital-to-analogue convertor, or DAC, built-in. That’s the circuit that turns your digitally stored files back into music when you press play.
They also have an even less impressive amplifier. After all, phones weren’t primarily designed to play music.
Thankfully, there is a solution. The MOJO ($899) from Chord Electronics is a portable headphone DAC and amplifier that’s small enough to fit in your hand, but powerful enough to drive just about any pair of headphones, or even high-end buds. The in-built DAC is also world-class, thanks to revolutionary technology that rivals products costing many times the price. This simply connects to your smartphone via a USB cable and has two headphone outputs.
While useful for the travelling listener, it’s more than capable connected to your computer at home or in the office, and will certainly elevate your headphone listening experience to new levels.
But for a less portable headphone system – and when the very best is in order – you’ll be looking a few rungs up the ladder.
Resembling something more akin to Frankenstein, the Model AB-1266 Deluxe headphones from JPS Labs Abyss is hand-made in the USA. You won’t be wearing them on a train. Arguably one of the best headphone sets on the market, it uses a proprietary planar magnetic transducer design with a very thin, very low mass diaphragm.
With a very broad frequency response covering 5Hz through to 28kHz, where the AB-1266 excels is in its exceptional ability to retrieve low level detail in the bass, mid, and high frequencies. Each driver is hand matched, and by design the lack of any rear magnet structure eliminates annoying reflections from behind, allowing for a completely open sound.
The unique aesthetic design does serve a purpose, of course. The rigid chassis is machined from solid aluminium and has a two-piece headband that allows for complete adjustment and fit to your head-shape and ears, while allowing you to tune the sound to your preference. They’re presented beautifully with leather, lamb wool, and a handcrafted felt-lined wooden box. While oozing high-end luxury, Abyss AB-1266 commands an asking price of $7659.
To do such a high-end headphone justice, you will need a similarly high-end dedicated headphone amplifier. Viva Audio of Italy deliver this in spades with their Egoista valve headphone amplifier, weighing in at $15,999. Egoista is a 30kg beast delivering 15 watts per channel of pure class-A amplification to the most demanding of headphones, with unparalleled resolution and dynamics.
Just like the Abyss, Egoista is hand-crafted and finished with the finest automotive lacquers in a virtually unlimited array of colours. It features a multitude of inputs and offers two quarter-inch headphone outputs, while providing all the beauty and theatre of vacuum tubes.
Natural, majestic and unwavering in performance, a pairing of such refined products can deliver an uncompromised listening experience that may even surpass the accuracy and realism of many full range traditional speaker systems. Be warned and keep the wallet open, though – you’ll still need a high quality DAC and cables.
Marc Rushton is the publisher of Australia’s largest independent Hi-Fi and Home Theatre publication, StereoNET.