It’s wearing off now, but not long ago my arms were literally tingling as I was rushed through one of the most visceral audio experiences I’ve ever had. The conveyance for this sonic gut punch to the senses: A $55,000 moonshot from the German headphone artisans at Sennheiser, called Orpheus. Yes, I said $55,000, and yes it’s absolutely outrageous. But it also may be one of the coolest pieces of audio technology ever to grace 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 for a mere 20 minutes of alone-time with this unprecedented piece of aural hardware. But in the end, the experience I took away was worth the trouble … and then some. But to convince you the cans Sennheiser dubs “the new best headphones in the world” are more than just hype, you’ll need a little back story.
The birth of Orpheus
In 1991, Sennheiser created the Orpheus HE90, a $16,000 headphone system complete with a custom amplifier that combine for what is still renowned as one of the best personal listening devices ever made.
The headphones boast the kind of specs you’d expect from a clandestine secret weapon in a spy film.
Cut to about 10 years ago, when Sennheiser hired passionate engineer Axel Grell. Grell, and the Sennheiser brothers, Dr. Andreas and Daniel (the company is still family owned), set out to try and create something that would represent yet another seminal breakthrough for the company — a new Orpheus created from the latest technologies, worthy enough to succeed its predecessor. The company spent countless hours over the next decade building the new headphones from scratch, and, along the way, breaking new ground in the world of engineering to make it so.
In the buildup to Sennheiser’s 70th anniversary in September, the company flew out a handful of journalists (myself included) for a top-secret project. We were given very little information — in fact, it wasn’t until we landed in the U.K. that we were told what this product would be: a headphone designed to blow everything before it out of the water. Even then, we weren’t given a name, and the headphones were only drawn from their aluminum clamshell case for mere seconds before being tucked away for another two months, unheard by anyone outside of the Sennheiser elite. Talk about a buildup!
The result of Sennheiser’s tireless engineering efforts is the $55,000 monstrosity known as Orpheus. An electrostatic headphone steeped in decadence and handcrafted from over 6,000 components, the system is decked out with motorized vacuum tubes and custom control knobs, a brand new hybrid amplification system, and, to top it off, a chassis cut from a block of Italian Carrara marble.
Underneath, the headphones boast the kind of specs you’d expect from a clandestine secret weapon in a spy film: the cans trade traditional dynamic speakers for 2.4 micrometer platinum-vaporized diaphragms excited by magnets, and the claimed frequency response stretches from the subsonic to the 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 right into the headphones themselves.
After the let down in London, a handful of journalists were flown out to LA to finally bring the experience full circle. Lead to a posh suite in the rapidly-gentrifying Westlake district, we were directed to choose three songs to audition in hi-res format; three tries to diagnose the most expensive headphones in the world.
My experience began with Peter Gabriel’s Sky Blue, from his 2001 album Up. Things started out commonly enough, as the song ramped up slowly, feeling almost like the suspenseful click of a skyscraping roller coaster as you make your way towards the summit. Then the song began to build and, quite suddenly, I felt the hair stand up on my arms. I was experiencing something near a body high, almost looking for something to hang on to as the Orpheus and I barreled steeply into the heart of the song at full speed.
What really shocked my well-worn ears was the Orpheus’ near-supernatural transient response.
Every breath from Gabriel’s voice, every sandy click of percussion, and the crux of every string and key stroke was vividly exposed among the cacophony of sounds. But that part of the experience wasn’t what struck me –- as an audio engineer I’ve spent countless hours in studio control rooms, listening to live recordings through $250,000 sound boards,and $60,000 ATC monitors, and as reviewer, I’ve also had my fair share of epic headphone experiences, including Sennheiser’s original Orpheus. No, what really shocked my well-worn ears was the Orpheus’ near-supernatural transient response as each note was flung forth with instantaneous force. Turning the silver control knob brought about distortion-free velocity like boiling-hot water from a flash heater — the seemingly limitless power from the Orpheus amplifiers outlined a dynamic tour de force in the song, flinging every drop and swell in volume at my ears with brilliant precision and tactile clarity.
Interestingly, the next song on my list, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, brought things back down to earth a bit. Make no mistake, the intricacies of Quincy Jones’ rich mélange of percussion and synthesizers were dashing, but I was left feeling something like a junkie craving that same fix I’d just experienced through a mix of the Orpheus and the meticulous work of Mr. Gabriel’s ridiculous recording acumen. (The man owns pro audio company SSL, after all.)
As such, I called an audible for my third song, trading my original selection of an acoustic track for the frenetic whims of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android – and I was not disappointed. While the entire experience was nothing less than riveting — literally inducing a jaw drop from yours truly — the money shot of the track came (unsurprisingly to those familiar with the tune) from Jonny Greenwood’s second solo tirade on guitar, which put the Orpheus’ astronomical frequency response to the test in rich, glistening waves of electric bliss.
Those questioning whether the sound the Orpheus reproduces is worthy of shelling out $55,000 are asking the wrong question. Would I love to have the Orpheus waiting for me each night, sitting next to a crushed leather chair and a glass of bourbon, ready to take me to the land of sonic reverence? You’re goddamned right I would. But even for those who do have that kind of cash to throw around, the sound alone probably doesn’t make Orpheus worth the money.
Those questioning whether Orpheus are worth $55,000 are asking the wrong question.
But like a McLaren supercar, the Orpheus isn’t about putting a dollar value on performance. We build things like the Orpheus to see if it can be done, to see where our technology can take us, and to crush the barriers presented by those that came before it. And perhaps more practically, creations like the Orpheus are built to inspire new technologies – technologies that could one day benefit regular, everyday listeners.
As Axel Grell put it, in the same way that disc brakes were handed down to your Toyota Corolla from professional racing in the 50s, the innovations of the Orpheus may one day make their way into headphones, speakers, and amplifiers we all can afford. And, in so doing, the headphones could make the musical experience better for all of us.
Until then, I have an idea for how Sennheiser can monetize its new creation: Set up the Orpheus right outside of Disneyland (or some other theme park), get a red velvet rope, and sell tickets for a 20 minute ride on the Orpheus express at 20 bucks a pop. I know I’d buy one.