In 1991, Sennheiser told its engineers to make the best headphones in the world and the Sennheiser Orpheus HE90 were born. Only 300 were ever made. Brand new, each Orpheus HE90 cost around US$16,000. Today, if you were lucky enough to find one for sale, they would set you back around US$30,000.
Fortunately, if you are looking for an end-game headphone system, Sennheiser has another option for you - albeit a more expensive one. At the end of 2015, Sennheiser announced the HE 1 - the successor to the Orpheus HE90. Very simply, the Sennheiser HE 1 a radical, over-the-top, no-expenses-spared, headphone system that has been engineered to be the world’s best sounding. The price? A very cool €50,000 - that's about S$75,380 excluding GST.
And at CanJam 2017 Singapore, I got the chance to spend some time with this super high-end headphone setup.
The Sennheiser HE 1 is not just a pair of headphones. It is more accurately described as a headphone system as it comes with a specially designed headphone amplifier and DAC.
First things first, unlike Sennheiser’s flagship consumer headphone - the HD 800 S - the HE 1 is electrostatic. It doesn’t use regular dynamic drivers like the majority of headphones and speakers. Without getting into too much details, electrostatic headphones typically use a thin electrically charged diaphragm suspended between two electrodes. The diaphragm moves whenever an electrical signal is applied to the electrodes, this moves air and creates sound. One key advantage of electrostatic headphones is very fast response and very low distortion. This explains why most electrostatic headphones sound very snappy, clean and punchy.
Electrostatic headphones require special amplifiers and the Sennheiser HE 1 was designed with this in mind. The HE 1’s special tube amplifier is machined out of a single block of aluminum and it sits on the amplifier, which is housed in a single solid block of Carrara marble - the same kind that Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo used for his sculptures. Carrara marble was chosen for its solidity, which helps reduce structure-borne noise. Inside the HE 1 are also eight high-end ESS Sabre ES9018 DACs, again four for each channel, which handle digital-to-analog conversion duties.
Turning the HE 1 on is also a special experience. The HE 1 is activated by a gentle push on the volume control knob. This causes the volume knob and the other various control knobs to retract out of the marble housing. As you would expect, the knobs are machined out of a solid block of brass and they feel extremely hefty and solid to turn. Next, the HE 1’s eight specially matched tubes will emerge out of its aluminum housing. Finally, the enclosure containing the headphones rises.
Within each of the machined aluminum ear cup is a dedicated integrated Class A MOS-FET high voltage amplifier. This is to make up for their signal degradation that might arise from the cable. Speaking of the cable, they are 99.9% silver-plated oxygen-free copper cables - I’m almost surprised they are not dipped in 18K gold. The diaphragm within is just 2.4 micrometers thick - seven times finer than a human hair - and are coated with platinum because Sennheiser’s research showed this configuration to deliver the best sound reproduction. The ear cups are made of leather and are lined with an allergen-free combination of microfiber and velour.
I only had about 20 minutes with the HE 1, but from my short experience with it, I was deeply impressed. Electrostatic headphones already sound pretty awesome, but the HE 1 takes things to another level.
The HE 1 feels heavy on the head, but thanks to the generous amount of padding and the super plush ear cups, they don’t feel uncomfortable. The amount of clamping force is also just right.
Sennheiser’s flagship dynamic driver headphones are renowned for their spaciousness and imaging, and the HE 1 follows in this tradition. The HE 1 sounds extremely spacious, as if the sounds are coming from a source much, much farther away from your ears.
Playing around with the high-resolution audio tracks that Sennheiser prepared, the other lasting impression I have of the HE 1 is just how clean and distortion-free it sounds. There’s no perceptible distortion and no weird imperfections in the sound. It also sounds amazingly life-like and realistic. Some enthusiasts complain that electrostatic headphones are weak in the bass department, but this is certainly not the case for the HE 1. Bass is impactful, sharp, and sounds true to life.
But don’t think the HE 1 is just for high-resolution audio, I also asked to play regular MP3 music and even YouTube, and the HE 1 still sounded great.
Obviously, a system like this is a double-edged sword. It sounds best with good recording and you are more acutely aware if the recording is bad. But then again this is the same for any pair of high-end headphones, not just the HE 1.
If your bank account ends with more zeroes than you care to count and money is no concern, then the answer is a resounding yes. From my time spent with them, the Sennheiser HE 1 sound pretty faultless to me. The craftsmanship is unrivaled and sound quality certainly isn’t lacking. If you are pockets are bulging with cash and you don’t have the time to go around auditioning headphones, the HE 1 is a safe choice. It will not disappoint.
Think of this way, if the Sennheiser HD 800 S is a Ferrari, then the HE 1 is a Bugatti - all the performance of the Ferrari, but with a healthy serving of opulence and fine artisanship.
However, if you like to think of yourself as a more astute shopper then there are no shortage of headphones in the rarefied spectrum of high-end headphones. Japanese headphones makers STAX are perhaps the first company most headphone enthusiasts will think of when it comes to electrostatic headphones and even their more affordable SR-L700 headphones sound pretty awesome.
There are also a couple of high-end planar magnetic headphones you can consider. MrSpeakers’ Ether Flow and Ether C Flow are highly regarded, as are the Abyss AB-1266 and the Audeze LCD-4, LCD-3 and LCD-X. If you prefer dynamic drivers, there’s Sennheiser’s own HD 800 S and Focal’s recently released Utopia. Even though you’ll need to source your own amplifier and DAC, these headphones will still only cost a fraction of the HE 1.
There’s a new contender in the space of ultra high-end headphones and it comes from HiFiMAN. Like Sennheiser, HiFiMAN has recently developed its own electrostatic headphone system called the Shangri-La, which comes with a pair of electrostatic headphone and its own custom-designed tube amplifier. At US$50,000 (~S$70,750), it is slightly less expensive than the Sennheiser HE-1. So if you can’t quite stretch your budget to get the HE 1, you know where to look.