I Listened To Sennheiser's Absurd $55,000 Orpheus Headphones

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

I'm one of the first people in the world to listen to Sennheiser's new $55,000 Orpheus headphone system. The new hardware's 20 years in the making. Real, real serious shit. I'm trying hard to concentrate on the music -- trying to give this crazy thing the severe attention I think it deserves. But I keep laughing my arse off.

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

I'm introduced to the new Orpheus by Axel Grell, Sennheiser's top engineer, and the guy who made the new Orpheus happen in the first place. When Grell joined Sennheiser 24 years ago, the company was getting ready to launch the original Orpheus headphones, though he wasn't their designer. Produced for a few years in the early 1990s, the first Orpheus electrostatic headphone system is widely considered the best sounding set that's ever been produced.

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

For those unfamiliar, electrostatic headphones are different from the ordinary dynamic headphones you have sitting on your desk. Dynamic headphones work by transferring audio voltage to a coil that's attached to a magnet, which in turn is attached to a diaphragm. The magnet moves, causing the diaphragm to vibrate, creating the sound you hear.

Electrostatic headphones are much more sophisticated. These create sound via a very thin film that's placed between two big metal plates in the headphones. In the new Orpheus headphones this film is just 2.4 microns thick, and in fact, it's actually lighter than the air around it. When the audio voltage is transferred to the plates, the film vibrates without ever being touched directly. Plus, the film is so light that it has almost no resonance of its own. This results -- theoretically, anyway -- in tonal clarity you just can't get from a dynamic system. (This explainer is excellent if you want to know more about electrostatic headphones.)

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

We covered the excruciating details of the Orpheus design when it was announced, but let's recap a bit. Sennheiser's spared no expense on the headphones at all. It's not a headphone, in fact, it's a headphone with a huge integrated amplifier attached to it. The amp uses eight vacuum tubes, chosen for their superior impulse processing compared to a solid-state system. The trouble is that tubes are susceptible to airborne noise that solid state systems aren't, so to compensate, Sennheiser freely suspended the tubes in a block of Carrara marble.

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

Sennheiser hasn't just thrown loads of money at materials; it's also innovated on some of the finer points of electrostatic design. For example, one of the problems with electrostatic headphones is that they require incredibly high voltages to work. In the case of the original headphones, all of this voltage comes directly from the main power amplifier, and two-thirds of it gets lost on the way to the film. The new Orpheus headphones solve this by introducing an amplifier stage directly in the headphones themselves.

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

Grell tells me that he first started thinking about maybe rebooting the classic Orpheus headphones about 10 years ago. He wondered what could actually be done to make the original better. In 2009 he demonstrated what he calls a proof of concept to the Sennheiser family (Yes, the company is still family-owned and operated.) From there, it took another six years to actually bring the product to market. I'm using the term market loosely of course: each Orpheus set takes something like 400 hours to make. The company plans to produce about 250 a year, and at $US55,000 they will cause as much as a really fast, really fancy car. So you're not going to see these at BestBuy or even at specially retailers.

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

From the very start, using the Orpheus headphones is a luxury experience. Push the power button, and the whole thing comes to life like some kind of portable nuclear reactor. The buttons pop out:

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

So do the tubes...

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

According to Grell, the tubes are ready to to go after about 20 seconds, but they will be operating at optimal performance after about 30 minutes.

The attached box's lid opens, revealing your cans.

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

The integrated design of the whole thing is an interesting decision, although, I suppose if you are going to have fancy headphones that need a dustproof box and and a special amplification system, the whole thing might as well be integrated.

Sitting down in front of headphones like these, you can't help but feel the force of history, and the intensity of the design. This is a fucking thing. I put on the headphones.

Which brings me to why I'm laughing. It's not because these headphones are preposterous and absurd, it's because they sound that damn good.

For years I've heard product designers and audiophiles describe being so overcome with emotion at the beauty of sound that they cry. I've always thought it was bullshit. When I hear music that moves me, I don't want to cry, I want to laugh. It's fucking funny, man! Music!

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

To be a little more specific, the headphones are startlingly clear in their reproduction. Sennheiser asked me in advance to name a few tracks I like so reps could pull a good file. I gave them Bowie's "Space Oddity" and New Order's "Age of Consent." I know these songs well enough, and I've listened to them with so many different headphones that I'm past the point where I'm going to hear something new in them.

"Space Oddity" is very well known for it's binaural recording. Bowie's main melody and harmony are panned left and right, and the various parts are recorded such that a good reproduction will create a very realistic spatial image. The Orpheus reproduced perhaps the most striking image I've ever heard on this song. Every piece of the band is in its own place, and in particular, hearing the rubbery plunk of the beautiful bassline all on its own is sigh-inducing.

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

"Age of Consent" isn't nearly as meticulous a recording, but it's probably my favourite song of all time. The thing to listen to here are drummer Stephen Morris' super fast hi-hat shimmies. On an inferior reproduction they will start to blend together into a wall of shinning cymbal. On the Orpheus, you can hear each hit distinctly, with its unique ring.

I Listened to Sennheiser's Absurd $US55,000 Orpheus Headphones

It was in listening to these hi-hit hits on "Age of Consent" that I realised I was staring out into space not blinking and barely breathing. I was subconsciously trying not to move thinking that I might disturb the perfection of the sound. In a little over five minutes I'd been so taken by the sonics that basically everything else had stopped existing. And so yeah I laughed. Because come on, $55,000 sound, man -- this is ridiculous.

Photos by Michael Hession


Comments

    All it lacks is a vacuum sealed, sound isolated, dust proof, glass display case covering the whole assembly.

      Inside of a room filled with argon- both to protect it indefinitely and suffocate the sorts of wankers who're attracted to it.

      Hell, for 55000 sennheiser should send engineers to build you a faraday cage to listen to it in. The author is wrong; this isn't 55000 dollar sound, it's 10000 dollar sound at best wrapped in overpriced marble and with more unnecessary servos than a child's robot fantasy. Hell, even the top of the line STAX (original creators of electrostatic headphones) cost 5000 USD for the headset alone and 2000 more for a driver/amplifier unit.

    I am so glad such an absurd piece of audio equipment exists, even if I will never have the opportunity to listen to them. Rather this than some million dollar watch!

    And yet, unless the music itself was created using these devices then you're not ever going to hear how it was supposed to sound. That's the irony you get with this strive toward audio perfection- When the listening equipment is so much better than the equipment used to create the stuff in the first place all that extra quality you imagine you hear is in your own mind.
    -Like watching a classic film on an 8k OLED screen. All it really enables you to see are the imperfections.

      Exactly. Such a wank. Overpriced and you wouldn't even be able to hear a discernible difference between a $55k system or a decent set of $500 headphones. Purely for the wank factor.

    By no means am I an audiophile, and don't think much of the nuances of the timbre that you can hear in the guitar track blah blah blah. However.....
    After reading this article, I'd pay good money to do an hour long listening on these in order to see how different they are.

    You can just imagine an ageing, down and out rockstar heading into cash converters in a few years time attempting to palm these off to the guy behind the desk "Yeah this cost me like $55k back in '15, but I'd be happy if you can swing $50 my way."

    That being said, I would still love to try these out. I used to do some work years back for the guy that owned Metaxas audio in Melbourne, he had some very high end/priced systems back in those days and it always amazed me what people were willing to pay for stuff.

    I would have been...so where does the ipod cable go?

    People get that this is 90% marketing exercise, right?

    How do you get 'average' people talking about your brand of (imho overrated) headphones instead of Beats or Bose? Make something ridiculous that gets you coverage everywhere.

    What does shinning mean?

      The Simpsons explain it:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oiyl-EtGeVk

    I'm surprised some idiot hasn't made the ridiculous assertion that this would be a perfect companion for their turntable. You know, that thing for spinning one of those black plastic pieces of shit that purported to have a recording on it but instead introduced so much noise that was NEVER part of the original performance that only an insane person could sit there and tell you how great it was.

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