Without a doubt, Sennheiser’s Orpheus headphones are the best ever made.
It’s fading now, but not too long ago my hands literally tingled as I went through one of the most visceral audio experiences I’ve ever had. Delivering this sonic punch to the senses: a $55,000 moon recording made by German headphone makers Sennheiser, called Orpheus. Yes, I said $55,000 and yes, that is absolutely outrageous. But it could also be one of the best pieces of audio technology to ever hit the world.
To get to this point, I’ve crossed an ocean, visited two cities, and logged nearly 12,000 miles of travel in the process, all in just 20 minutes with just this unprecedented hearing device. But in the end, the experience I got was worth it… and something else. But to convince you that the cans that Sennheiser calls “the world’s new best headphones” are more than just hype, you’ll need a bit of backstory.
birth of orpheus
In 1991, Sennheiser created the Orpheus HE90, a $16,000 headphone system complete with a custom amplifier that combined for what is still known as one of the best personal listening devices ever made.
The headset features the specs you’d expect from a top-secret secret weapon in a spy movie.
About 10 years ago, Sennheiser hired a passionate engineer, Axel Grell. Grell and the Sennheiser brothers, Dr. Andreas and Daniel (the company is still family-owned), set out to try to create something that would represent another significant advance for the company: a new Orpheus created from the latest technologies, worthy enough to to succeed its predecessor. The company spent countless hours over the next decade building new headphones from the ground up, breaking new ground in the engineering world along the way to do so.
Ahead of Sennheiser’s 70th anniversary in September, the company fired several journalists (including myself) over a secret project. We receive very little information; in fact, it wasn’t until we landed in the UK that we were told what the product would be: headphones designed to blow everything in front of them out of the water. Even then, we didn’t get a name, and the headphones were only taken out of the aluminum casing for a few seconds before being hidden away for another two months, with no one outside of Sennheiser’s elite listening to them. Speaking of hoarding!
The result of Sennheiser’s tireless engineering efforts is the $55,000 monstrosity known as the Orpheus. Full of decadence and handcrafted from over 6,000 components, the electrostatic headphone system features motorized vacuum tubes and custom control knobs, a new hybrid amplification system and, to top it all off, a chassis cut from a block of Italian marble from Carrara.
Underneath, the headphones pack the kind of specs you’d expect from a secret secret weapon in a spy movie: The cans swap out traditional dynamic drivers for magnet-driven 2.4-micron platinum diaphragms, and a rock-solid frequency response is boosted. ranges from subsonic to supersonic (8hz to only-bats-can-hear-it 100kHz). The system is powered by a total of 8 vacuum tubes, along with a secondary amplifier built into the headphones themselves.
After the disappointment in London, some journalists flew to Los Angeles to finally complete the experience. Before arriving at a posh apartment in the fast-growing Westlake neighborhood, we were instructed to choose three songs to audition in high-definition format; three try to diagnose the world’s most expensive headphones.
My experience started with Peter Gabriel Blue skyfrom their 2001 album Above. Things started as usual, as the song slowly climbed up, feeling almost like the tense click of a skyscraper as you work your way to the top. Then the song started to develop and all of a sudden I felt the hairs on my arms stand up. I was experiencing something close to my body, almost searching for something to hold on to as Orpheus and I plummeted into the heart of the song at top speed.
What really surprised my worn ears was Orfeo’s almost supernatural transient response.
Every breath of Gabriel’s voice, every gritty click of the percussion, and the core of every string and keystroke were vividly exposed in the cacophony of sounds. But that part of the experience isn’t what impressed me: As an audio engineer, I’ve spent countless hours in studio control rooms listening to live recordings through $250,000 soundboards and $60,000 ATC monitors, and as a reviewer I’ve also had my fair share epic headphone experiences, including Sennheiser’s original Orpheus. No, what really surprised my worn-out ears was Orpheus’s almost unearthly transient response as each note was thrown with instantaneous force. A twist of the silver control dial brought it up to distortion-free speed, like flash boiling water: the Orpheus amp’s seemingly limitless power described a dynamic tour de force on the song, flinging every drop and volume into my ears. with brilliant precision and tactile clarity.
Interestingly, the next song on my list, by Michael Jackson suspenseIt brought things back down to earth a bit. Make no mistake, the complexity of Quincy Jones’ rich blend of percussion and synths was impressive, but I was left feeling like a junkie craving the same drug I had just experienced through Orpheus’s blending and Mr. Gabriel’s amusing shooting acumen. (After all, the man owns the professional audio company SSL.)
As such, I requested audibles for my third track, trading my original acoustic track selection for Radiohead’s frenetic whims. paranoid android – and I was No disappointed. While the entire experience was amazing, literally amazing on their part, the money for the song came (unsurprisingly for those familiar with the tune) from Jonny Greenwood’s second guitar solo tirade, which is the response of Orpheus’s astronomical frequency to the test in rich, shimmering waves of electric bliss.
Those wondering if the sound the Orpheus reproduces is worth shelling out $55,000 are asking the wrong question. Would I like Orpheus to wait for me every night, sitting next to a crumpled leather armchair with a glass of bourbon, ready to whisk me off to the land of sonic reverence? You are absolutely right, I would. But even for those with that much money to spend, the sound alone probably doesn’t make Orpheus worth it.
Those wondering if the Orpheus is worth $55,000 are asking the wrong question.
But like McLaren’s supercar, the Orpheus doesn’t place a monetary value on performance. We build things like Orpheus to see if it can be done, to see where our technology can take us, and to break down the barriers put up by those who came before it. And perhaps more practically, creations like Orpheus were built to inspire new technology, technology that could one day benefit regular everyday listeners.
As Axel Grell said, in the same way that disc brakes carried over to his Toyota Corolla from pro racing in the ’50s, Orpheus innovations could one day become headphones, speakers, and amplifiers that we can all afford. In this way, headphones could improve the music experience for all of us.
Until then, I have an idea of how Sennheiser can monetize their new creation: set up Orpheus right outside Disneyland (or some other theme park), buy a red velvet rope, and sell tickets for 20-minute rides on the $20 Orpheus express. each. I know I would buy one.