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'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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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:
So do the tubes...
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.
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!
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.
"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.
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