Sennheiser's Built Probably The World's Best Headphones -- But They Cost $US55,000

Sennheiser's Built Probably the World's Best Headphones -- But They Cost $US55,000

In the '90s, Sennheiser asked it engineers to make the best headphones ever and the result was 300 sets of the legendary Orpheus, each pair of which sold for $US16,000. Now, Sennheiser has created an ever better-sounding successor to those luxurious cans -- but they will set you back $US55,000.

The reboot of the 25-year-old audiophile's wet dream builds on the technology of the original. These headphones apparently took a team of Sennheiser experts almost a decade of continuous work to produce, and they update the electrostatic design and separate amplifier of the old Orpheus for the modern day.

For the uninitiated, the expense of these headphone stems largely form the fact that they're electrostatic: they work by placing a static electric charge on a thin film that sits between two metal plates. Audio signal voltages cause the film -- which typically weighs less than the air around it -- to oscillate and produce sound. But because the film is so light, it doesn't have its own resonances or damping issues, so it produces sound of amazing clarity. The first Orpheus headphones demonstrated that.

Sennheiser's Built Probably the World's Best Headphones -- But They Cost $US55,000

Starting with the amp, Sennheiser explains that it "combines the superior impulse processing of a tube amplifier with the low distortion of a transistor amplifier." In practice, that means the amp features eight vacuum tubes that are freely suspended, atop a housing of thick Carrara marble. "The decoupling of the tubes in combination with the damping properties of the marble has the effect of reducing structure-borne noise to an absolute minimum," explain the audio engineers in a press release.

The amplifier then drives an ultra-high impulse amplifier stage that's integrated into the cups of the headphones. This skirts a major issue with most electrostatic headphones, which is that much of the power of the audio signal is lost in the cable between the amp and thin electrostatic film in the headphones themselves. Sennheiser explains that the amp here uses MOS-FET transistors that "have a square characteristic curve to prevent the hard distortion that occurs in amplifiers with bi-polar transistors."

Sennheiser's Built Probably the World's Best Headphones -- But They Cost $US55,000

Then, we get to the part that actually produces the sound: a platinum-vaporised diaphragm that sits between two gold-vaporised ceramic electrodes. The diaphragms can't be etched or drilled, and are instead created using spraying and grinding process before being coated with a layer of gold to make sure they conduct effectively. The resulting diaphragm is just 2.4 microns thick. The engineers point out that they could have gone thinner, but that 2.4 microns simply worked best.

It's perhaps not surprising that the test of the hardware is high-grade, too. For instance, the cabling is all made of oxygen-free copper, plated with silver and sheathed in a variety of materials to eliminate noise. Meanwhile, digital music input is handles by an ESS SABRE ES9018 chip that uses eight internal DACs to convert audio data with a resolution of 32 bits and a sampling rate of up to 384 kHz.

Sennheiser's Built Probably the World's Best Headphones -- But They Cost $US55,000

There's also some serious pomp to the whole experience: when you press the on-off button, the controls and vacuum tubes rise out from the marble base, and a protective glass cover opens up to grant access to the headphones. The marble's from Carrara in Italy -- it's the same type of material that Michelangelo sculpted with -- while controls are milled from solid lumps of brass.

But enough of all this silly stuff. What the hell do they sound like?

Sadly, we've not been able to try a pair out yet, though we do have some specifications and the word of the engineers to go on. Sennehiser claims that the new Orpheus headphones have a a frequency response of 8 hertz to more than 100 kilohertz -- far beyond what human ears are capable of hearing. That may seems like madness, but it helps Sennehsier ensure distortion is incredibly low in the audible range.

In fact, at 1 kilohertz and a sound pressure level of a hefty 100 decibels, Sennheiser claims the total harmonic distortion of the headphone system is 0.01 per cent. That is all but insane, and it likely makes this set of headphones on the cleanest-sounding audio products ever made.

Sennheiser's Built Probably the World's Best Headphones -- But They Cost $US55,000

In terms of how that sounds to the human ear, Sennheiser's Axel Grell explains that "in some music pieces that I had known for years, I suddenly became aware of details which I had never perceived before. I found this really moving." They do no doubt sound wonderful, and we can barely conceal our excitement at trying them out in real-life, especially given how impressive the original Orpheus headphones were.

But the price. Oh, the price. When the reference products -- for that's what this is, rather than a consumer product -- goes on sale in mid-2016, it will cost a staggering $US55,000. You could buy a very nice car for that amount of money. Perhaps even property. Perhaps even one of each if you shopped around hard enough.

Or, if you really, really appreciate high-fidelity audio, you could buy a pair of headphones. Your call.

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Comments

    I'm waiting for my owl ear transplants before I get these... I really want to take full advantage of the sound spectrum...
    Either that or I have more money than brains...

    Last edited 04/11/15 1:35 pm

      Yep, exactly what I was thinking...
      In a flooded market with no where else to go, this is capitalism at its best!

      harmonic distortion of the headphone system is 0.01 per cent
      Great, now all I need is a set of ears that can actually hear the difference between 0.01 and 0.1%

      8 hertz to more than 100 kilohertz
      Cool, now my dog can hear on these as well! Im well aware that harmonics above 20kHz (human limit!) can "color" sound but please...100kHz, I bet the amp cant do that.

      And the last factor, the one that always makes me laugh...did the studio that recorded what Im actually listening too keep the signal path in as good a quality....I doubt it, it more then likely used Protools and a great sound card, so now I get to hear all those imperfections perfectly (well if I could actually hear them anyway on a standard system), through a perfect amp and headphones. People never truly get in an audio path, the weakest link brings the entire system down to a common level. Don't get me wrong, I love audio, but we truly can cross the line into stupidity sometimes...valves suspended on marble...lol what a joke, my brain hurts!

        ...I still want one...its so cool!

          I think you may be missing the point a little though.

          Pretty sure they did this as an exercise in engineering more than an exercise to maximise profits.

          Its a little like formula 1. There weren't road cars 15 years ago that used carbon fibre, there is now.

          Agreed though you would have to have more money than sense to buy them.

          I too would love to try them though.

          Last edited 05/11/15 11:04 am

            For sure, I have to give them credit for the engineering. 0.01% distortion is an amazing value. But It was more an exercise in getting audio amplification and monitoring to a state of near perfection, and I commend them for it. The problem being though, our ears as you know are sooooo "inaccurate" to those specs, it would literally be impossible doing blindfolded tests to hear the difference between say this unit and a top of the line pro system, results would be 50/50...guessing territory.
            Cheers

    I'm sure they sound great, but I'm equally sure that amp will still be bringing in un-necessary distortion, to appeal to the hipster/old golden-ear crowd with it's valve stage, plus going to 100KHz could actually degrade the experience rather than enhance it.

    Last edited 04/11/15 1:37 pm

      Yeah I'm sure that these engineers who had no limits on producing the highest quality headphones they could made a marketing decision aimed at hipsters.

    Want.

    I recently bought the Sennheiser HD 201 as my first set of headphones. TBH I'm a little disappointed given the brand name. It seems unbalanced e.g. strong bass from the left cup and weak bass from the right cup. When I'm listening to music it's like the "centre" is is somewhere left of centre.

      Sennheiser make great can's...... but at a price point and some are good others are not. I have a few sets at the moment and even some of the more expensive ones still have problems with balance.

      The best way to buy any audio equipment is to take some of your favorite material be it music, movie or what ever and listen before you buy.

      The right headphones/speakers are the ones that sound best to you, irrespective of price or what someone else tells you even if they are far more learned on the topic. Use reviews and opinion to get a short list but let your ears make the final decision. It Would save some people thousands if they used that advice.

      It would also make the Brand X v's that brand Y is better rubbish go away as so many people are quick to tarnish a particular brand because they heard a single item in the range and expect them all to be the same or have a completely different opinion on what sounds right to them. We all have different shaped ears, ear spacing and frequency response due to all kinds of factors hence why something might sound good to you but not to someone else.

      Last edited 05/11/15 11:04 am

    meanwhile I'm listening to my music on a pair of $30 Bluetooth earphones and not noticing any issues.

    STAX SR009. I'd rather one of those over any Sennheiser setup any day. Also Sennheiser makes their sound signature unnecessarily warm.

    My $9.95 headphones from Woolworth sounds great thanks.

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