When Sennheiser first launched its ultra exclusive £10,000 headphones and amp in 1991 they tempted fate by naming it after Orpheus, a Greek musician who played music beautifully, yet was literally ripped apart by people who couldn’t understand it.
Despite the ominous name and it looking a bit like an early Thunderbirds set, the incredible quality won over the world’s audiophiles and the Orpheus HE90 sets are generally accepted to be some of the best headphone-amp sets ever made, now selling for around £20,000 due to their rarity. So rare in fact, that when Sennheiser displayed a set at IFA last year, someone went to the great effort to nicking it (no mean feat considering its hefty weight).
However, it did attract some Emperor’s new clothes style criticism, mainly regarding bass impact and what some users described as muffled directionality.
With these issues and modernisation in mind, Sennheiser have spent the last ten years developing a new and improved model, the Orpheus HE 1060. Invited to test this £35,000 model in the soundproofed basement of a London hotel, despite being an avid music fan, the thought of using a set-up more expensive than what I’m likely to ever spend on a car was oddly intimidating.
Just to put this into perspective, instead of these headphones, you could buy a house in some parts of Wales, a brand new Audi TT or a year-long round the world holiday.
Hands-on with the world's most expensive headphones: Sennheiser Orpheus HE-90
The room was empty except from a deep lounge chair, the new Orpheus model and a handful of CDs. Set in Carrara Marble with eight vacuum tubes protruding from the top it looks a mix between a Nigella’s kitchen and Frankenstein’s laboratory, though I doubt very few potential buyers will be dissuaded by this utilitarian strive for perfect sound, even if aesthetics falls by the wayside a little to get there.
Sank back in the chair, eyes closed, headphones on, the undulating, syncopated rise of Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine began. Each instrument and synth track spread out in a soundscape vaster than was even imaginable when the song was produced, as the HE 1060s surpass even studio monitors in precision and distortion reduction.
A common remark after using the Orpheus range is that it’s like being in the studio with the artist, but it’s truly better than this. The incredible frequency (8Hz – 100kHz), in-cup amplifiers and four channels in parallel for each studio side make it much closer to having the studio engineer curate and collate every element just for you.
As the song progressed, adding layers and building slowly, the stand-out difference between the HE 90 and the new HE1060 came into its own. The in-cup amplifiers mentioned above allows the voltage in the headphone cable to be greatly reduced, which in turn reduces impedance and distortion by equal measure. Also new in the self proclaimed “World’s new best headphones” is digital support, using eight conversion chips alongside SPDIF and USB inputs to bring the Orpheus into the 21st Century and allowing lossless audio formats like FLAC to come into their own.
As the headphones are finely calibrated to the amp, those looking to share the experience with others will need to invest in another set of Orpheus HE 1060 headphones (although Sennheiser don’t currently have a price for the separate headphones), this is the same system as with the previous HE 90s, where the extra headphones sold for several thousand a pair.
With the headphones off and trundling back to the office through the significantly less pleasant soundscape of Oxford Street, I tried to work out how to discuss value for money, or how many times better they were than a £50 or a £500 set, but a product like this is the exception.
It’s almost incomprehensible for me to consider spending that much on this, even when taking into account the phenomenal quality so exceptional that it ruined my enjoyment of regular headphones.
However, if I had a million I’d buy it in an instant, which is why I’ll be pawning my current headgear for lottery tickets.