Sennheiser Orpheus Headphones, an Ears-on Listening Test
A little over a week ago, we told you about Sennheiser’s new Orpheus, the electrostatic reference headphones that are designed to reproduce music with stunning clarity. They are the sequel to the original Orpheus headphones, which were widely regarded to be the best in the world at the time, and which cost a whopping $18,000 when they launched. The 2015 model costs $55,000. That’s not a typo. It’s also not as crazy as it sounds. I got to listen to the original Opheus three years ago at CES, and it sounded magnificent. The audio was impeccably clean and rich. Today I listened to the 2015 model.
They don’t just sound better. They sound a lot better.
Last week Sennheiser asked me to give them three songs I know well so they could download lossless versions of them and have them ready for my demo. I picked the “Intro” track off of Speakerboxxx by Outkast, “Nude” by Radiohead, and the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Seemed like I’d have a good range in there. Unfortunately they couldn’t find a lossless version of “Nude,” so I went for “2+2=5,” also by Radiohead. These are all tracks I’ve listened to hundreds of times, and in each instance I heard things I’ve never heard before.
On the “Intro” track for Speakerboxxx, what struck me was the sense of space. There were swoops that started in my right ear, passed back behind my head and ended up to the left of me. But what’s even more incredible is the speed of the headphones. Yes, speed. Dynamic headphones have diaphragms that move, which is how the audio is created. In electrostatic headphones (like the Orpheus) the diaphragm can move much, much faster. You wouldn’t think the difference would be noticeable, but you would be wrong. Despite this track having ultra-quick snares, each hit has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and on the Orpheus they don’t blend together at all. I’ve never heard anything so crisp.
The bass line on the “Intro” track is big and low, with quick pulses that can bog down lower-end subwoofers. The Orpheus doesn’t have a big, fat bottom—and by that I mean that the bass isn’t over exaggerated like it is with most modern systems (we like the boom)—but every note is there, as clear as day. In fact, the Orpheus is capable of producing sound all the way down to 6Hz, which is lower than humans can hear. When I’m listening on a big stereo system I like to feel the bass in my chest, but what the Orpheus offers is balance. No one frequency overwhelmed any of the others.
The best test, though, was “2+2=5.” It’s just such a wonderfully complex piece of music and it really let the Orpheus show off. Again, those quick light drum hits come across so clearly, and there’s a great sense of space, but then the vocals kicked in and I couldn’t get the grin off my face. You could hear every bit of air that comes out of Thom Yorke’s mouth—every puff, every sibilant. I heard nuances in the quiet harmonies that I’d never noticed before. The sound of the plastic pick clacking against the guitar strings came through sharp and clear. It had an amazing feeling of being in the room of a live recording. It really was beautiful, and if I closed my eyes it was hard to not feel transported.
It was the same story with Mozart’s “Lacrimosa.” I felt as if I were standing in front of a full choir that wrapped around me. I could hear breath in a way that I’d never heard it on that track. It just felt like I was there, and that everything was perfectly balanced.
Meet the Maker
After the demo, I spoke with Axel Grell, Sennheiser’s head acoustic engineer who spent the last 10 years perfecting the new Orpheus, and he confirmed what I had suspected. The goal of the Orpheus was to create headphones that had no profile of their own. The aim was to get to a perfectly linear response, so you’re not hearing what the headphones’ interpretation of the music is, you’re hearing the music as it was recorded and mixed. I know that sounds like marketing hype, but after listening to it, I think that Sennheiser has come closer to achieving this platonic ideal of audio than anything else I’ve heard.
Grell says the Orpheus really unveils the true quality of a recording. He found that some of the best recordings were done in the 1950s. The musicians were good, it was recorded on high-grade, analog, tube equipment, and the engineers were passionate about how it sounded, and it all comes through clear as day. He acknowledges that the stratospheric price tag of the Orpheus will keep it out of the hands of everyone but well-heeled aficionados, but he imagined coming home from a hard day, putting these headphones on, and letting himself get totally lost in the music. He hopes to have a couple on display, perhaps in a Sennheiser store in New York or Tokyo, so more people can hear what their favorite songs were meant to sound like.
That isn’t to say the Orpheus couldn’t ever be better. In 1991, the original model was the best anyone had heard, but as technology progressed with the ensuing years, Sennheiser found places where it could improve the design. Adding 2.4-micron platinum diaphragms instead of the 0.9 micron gold diaphragms on the original produced better sound. The team found more resilient tube amps that produced less distortion and got even better when set in marble (yep, the case around the amp is marble). Amps were added to the headphones themselves, which improved response time and clarity. It also allowed for a thinner headphone wire, further improving speed and quality and lowering the amount of power required.
So while this the best you can hear right now, it’s only natural to assume that 25 years from now, the Orpheus Mark III will be even better. I just hope I haven’t gone completely deaf by then.
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