Alex ‘Toddy’ Todd went ears-on with one of Sennheiser’s €50,000 (approx. £35,000) Orpheus HE 1060 prototypes and boy did they sound good.
I was just over a year old when Sennheiser launched the Orpheus HE 90 headphones back in 1991, so whilst I was honoured to have the opportunity to test out the spiritual successors last week, I knew that there would be those who are far more appreciative of the HE 1060’s arrival, those who were fans of the originals and who may have even listened to them – headphones that were considered ‘the world’s best’ at one time.
Even without the comparison for reference however, it’s not hard to tell how special the Orpheus HE 1060s are from the off. As you might have guessed, with something as significant as these, the experience doesn’t start from when you press ‘play’, but rather when you first sit down alongside the headphones and their companion amplifier.
The startup process is initiated by pressing in the chrome-plated brass volume knob, which sits flush against the Carrara marble housing of the amp. Seconds later a small red LED lights and all the control nobs slowly ease out followed by the eight cylindrical vacuum tubes on the right side of the top face. Lastly come the headphones, revealed resting under a translucent windowed box to the left of the vacuum tubes.
The entire process is like sitting in a theatre waiting for the curtain to lift; it helps focus your anticipation, prepare you for the listening experience ahead and that’s the whole point. These are not headphones to simply pop on whilst you concentrate on something else, the 30 second initialisation process looks to deliberately highlight the importance of making time to really listen to the music you’re about to enjoy.
Once everything is up and running however, and provided you’ve got a suitably high-fidelity audio source connected it’s time to don the HE 1060s and give them a listen.
Instead of traditional drivers, these headphones boast specialised 2.4µm thick platinum-vaporised diaphragms and gold-vaporised ceramic transducers that you can actually see through the grilles forming the open-backed design that covers each ear. Sennheiser boasts that they’re capable of reproducing frequencies (8Hz to 100kHz) far beyond the limits of the human auditory range (20Hz to 20kHz) with the idea being that they can offer an unprecedented level of audio accuracy free from distortion at any volume.
In fact the design of the whole system is tailored to reducing distortion wherever possible; from the quartz bulbs protecting the vacuum tubes on top to the 99.9 per cent silver–plated cables. Sennheiser’s Manuel Ricke explained that unsurprisingly at this level of audio fidelity, the balance is so fine and the technology used so unique that implementing an active noise-cancellation system on top would actually cause more distortion and interference than it would remove.
The time I spent with the HE 1060 headphones was tragically brief, but the audio output they offer is without question the best I’ve heard by a mile. No matter what the volume you’re presented with unprecedented levels of clarity; it gives the impression that you’re in the studio with the performers as they record – this isn’t just general praise, that’s the best possible to way to describe how it sounds – truer to the source, closer to the point of recording than anything else out there can offer and it’s incredible.
At around £35,000 I’d have been disappointed if they were anything less than the best headphones I’d ever heard and didn’t aim for anything less than the best headphones on the planet, but there are some quirks. I was surprised to see plastics as part of the headphone headband assembly, and that even in the quiet room I was listening, the ear cups that completely cover your ears still let in relatively quiet external noise.
The experience Sennheiser has managed to create with the Orpheus HE 1060s is nothing short of incomparable. I personally could never justify forking out such money if I had it, but no doubt some who do, will and to them I can at least guarantee that they will have just bought the best headphones I’ve ever heard, if not the best in the world.
The Sennheiser Orpheus HE 1060 headphones and Orpheus HEV 1060 amplifier are expected to go on sale mid-2016 for around €50,000 and expect to be able to produce one unit per day and a maximum of 250 units per year. Unlike the HE 90s, Sennheiser doesn’t currently plan to set production of the HE 1060s to a limited run.