What's the best speaker or headphone you ever heard?

Did you ever have one of those moments where the sound and music were in perfect sync?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

Abyss AB-1266 headphones (left), Wilson Audio Watt/Puppy speaker (right) Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Before we get going on this, let's think about what the "best" speaker or headphone means -- is it the most exciting, realistic, accurate, musical? Or just the one you can't stop thinking about?

As a reviewer, I think about this stuff all the time, but in my writing I'm also trying to be a neutral reporter. My personal tastes are held in check; I'm just telling it like it is. You guys can shoot straight from the hip, so share your thoughts about what's the best in the Comments section -- which speaker wowed you the most?

Looking back on many standouts, the time I spent with the Wilson Watt/Puppy speaker system always comes to mind -- that one always made me smile. It was intense when it needed to be, so rock was a feel-it-in-your-bones visceral experience, and acoustic music was invitingly warm and natural. To me, the best speakers are chameleons; they take on the characteristics of the music in play. More than that, they engage the listener, so you can't help being drawn into the music. After all, if you're playing the music you love, it should have your undivided attention. If that's not happening, start looking for another speaker.

As for the Watt/Puppy, I never owned a pair, but I worked in a store that sold them, and from time to time I would come to work early just to spend an hour of uninterrupted time playing tunes. Since I had my pick of amplifiers, sometimes I hooked up a Krell solid-state, or Conrad-Johnson or VAC tube gear. I'm not saying these Wilsons were the best-sounding speakers I've ever heard, but they're the ones that I still think about, 20 years later. I hope to spend some quality time with the newest Wilson speaker soon, the little Sabrina.

As for my all-time favorite headphone, it's the Abyss AB-1266; it's the Dodge SRT Viper of high-end headphones. The AB-1266 is big, heavy and outlandishly expensive ($5,495), but it sounds better -- a lot better -- than anything else! As expensive as it is, it's still a whole lot cheaper than the very best cars, cameras, watches and so on.

The mostly metal design is heavy, almost 1.5 pounds. That's twice the weight of the average full-size, audiophile headphone. That was a concern until I put it on my head, but the weight is evenly distributed. And since the AB 1266's real lambskin ear pads barely contact my ears, there's no "clamping" pressure at all. With good recordings you feel like you're in the room with the band -- no other headphone can come close to producing that level of realism. It's nowhere as convincing as surround sound produced by speakers, but the sense of "being there" is far ahead of other headphones. I like the AB-1266 so much I bought a pair. In the two years since I wrote the review, the best headphones are all getting better, but they still can't match the AB-1266's power, dynamics or spacious imaging.

What headphone made you sit up and take notice? Share your impressions in the Comments section.