Sennheiser, Passion, and the Orpheus HE1060/HEV1060
It's really all about passion for audio.
The new Orpheus (yes, that's what they're calling it) makes no sense on many levels: It's too expensive for anyone but the most wealthy. It's not going to make Sennheiser much money beyond the significant development costs. (It may be an incremental win, but considering other products that might developed with the R&D resource it's not a big money making proposition.) And I was told the headphones will not be available separately unless you own a system and want a second pair.
The only way this product makes any sense is to look at it from Sennheiser's internal perspective. This is what Axel Grell, Sennheiser's lead high-end headphone guru, told me:
Sitting in the cafeteria at Sennheiser's Wedemark headquarter's campus, Axel and a few other engineers in the headphone group began to chat about the original Orpheus and whether or not they could improve on it. Over the course of many lunchtime chats they came to the conclusion they could. They brought their conclusions to upper-management.
"So, we think we can build the world's best headphones, again. Do you think this is something we can/should do?"
Now, most publicly owned companies would throw out the idea as monetarily unprofitable. It would be tossed out the window with the engineers told to go make something the broad consuming public would desire. But not Sennheisera privately held companythey're passionate about making great products. Profit, for them, is surely found on the financial bottom line, but it's also found in the hearts and minds of others who share their passion for great audio reproduction. Brand equity, it's called.
If asked the question, "Who is the world's greatest headphone manufacturer," what would you answer? My answer would be Sennheiser...in a heart beat. Why? Not because of the Orpheusthough it's a spectacular achievementbut because on the whole they do make product that are regularly among the best of their class at a wide variety of price points. I totally appreciate the way they move forward. They don't simply focus on expensive gear, they serve a wide swath of audio needs among diverse consumers...and they do it very well.
We enthusiasts might not get particularly excited about the latest wireless home headphones for the hard of hearing (RS 195, $449), or headphones with frequency response profiles specifically for DJs (HD8 DJ, $349), but Sennheiser obviously cares. We're much more likely to bitch and moan about about wanting a shiny new HD 800 replacement...even though it continues to be considered one of the world's best headphones.
I find it interesting to observe that the revised HD 800S was announced just before the new Orpheus introduction. Methinks it was a wise back-lash prevention move on Sennheiser's part. As Axel said, the new Orpheus isn't really for headphone enthusiasts, it's for rich soccer players. The new HD 800S, it seems to me, is Sennheiser's signal that they aren't forgetting us.
The New Orpheus
One of the primary things Sennheiser engineers decided to improve over the previous Orpheus is getting rid of the cable capacitance. Electrostatic driver elements are essentially capacitors, which are troublesome to drive. Adding to the problem is that the cable from the amp to the headphones also has significant capacitance. Axel said the cable capacitance is significant percentage of the capacitance seen by most electrostatic headphones.
To rid the new Orpheus of the power and transient speed robbing cable capacitance, they put the final drive amplifier in the earphones. This MOSFET amplifier is driven by a line level (as I recall, actually a bit higher than line level; five volts max, I believe) signal that comes up the cable, which in turn modulates the 800VDC stator voltage within the headphone.
As a result, the cable connection has more connections (eight) than current electrostatic headphones, and is not compatible with any other currently manufactured electrostatic headphone amp.
Axel was careful to point out that the Orpheus has a sophisticated protection circuit so that if your dog chews the cable and interrupts the current of the high voltage supply it will immediately turn off. So, the new Orpheus is dog-proof. Very thoughtful of them.
All controls on the front panel are motorized and may be controlled by a remote, which is still in the works. Although motorized volume controls are readily available, Axel lamented not being able to find motorized switches of sufficient quality for use with the Orpheus. Their answer: They used motorized pots; built some custom spring-loaded detents for then so they had a satisfactory "click"; and then use the voltage sensed to trigger mode switching.
I apologize for not getting the exact type, but I asked Axel about the tubes used as they're Sennheiser branded. He told me a story about how Sennheiser and Telefunken used to work closely together and had a strong working relationship. At some point the Slovakian firm JJ Electronic bought the tube manufacturing equipment that had been used by Telefunken. The tubes in the Orpheus are made on that equipment, and, in part, Sennheiser's desire to use them arrises out of a sense of history and reminiscence of times past. More passion play.
How did it sound?
Well, spending 15 minutes listening to a $55,000 headphone system is rather like taking a Ferrari out for a test drive in the dealer's parking lot. I really have no idea where it stands exactly. I will say that it sounded both meaty and articulate. It had a good sense of dynamics, even into the bass, but remained articulate in all treble ranges. It's world-class, no doubt, but I'd have to spend a lot more time with it. Fortunately, I'm told I will get that opportunity at some point and I will give it a full review.
For now, I've come to realize my feelings of about the outrageous price tag, weird advertising campaign, and unorthodox looks are somewhat misplaced. It seems to me Sennheiser is not making a product offering here so much as they're making a statement about their passion for audio...no that's not quite right.
These are arguably the world's best headphone engineers who are passionate about their work. They thought they could do better than the old Orpheus. Their management is passionate about cultivating the passion of their engineers. So they let them have at it. This is their released expression of passion and expertise. It is an example of something extremely rare: a company doing something fabulous just for the sake of the fabulousness itself. We headphone enthusiasts should wallow in the satisfaction that Sennheiser is able to, and does, express headphone enthusiasm, too.
I'll never own a Picasso. I'll never own an Orpheus. But the fact that they exist makes the world seem a little more worthy in mind...and heart.