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 Sennheiser—a privately held company—they'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 Orpheus—though it's a spectacular achievement—but 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

COMMENTS
maelob's picture

What is your take on what seem like unnecessary cosmetics? I understand they want to make the best sounding headphones in the world but was marble really necessary? I don't think the engineers came up with that. I guess they wanted to make it look.. well I would say different.

jdcolombo's picture

I've read any number of comments on various forums aghast at the price of the Orpheus 2. But put it in perspective. Wilson Audio sells speakers at over $200,000 a pair; a Soulution preamp/amp combo will run over $150,000. dCS's Vivaldi digital playback system is over $108,000. In this rarefied atmosphere, $55,000 for an entire system (headphones, custom amp, dac) is barely scratching the surface.

And here's another perspective. Every year BMW, Lexus, Audi, Mercedes and others sell hundreds of thousands of cars priced over $55,000. Buy a new BMW X5 well-equipped and it will set you back $65K. And in 10 years, it will be worthless. Honestly, the Orpheus is a better buy. If I could get a 72-month "headphone loan" as easily as a new car loan, I wouldn't rule out buying the Orpheus system, even though I don't have $55,000 in cash to plunk down on a set of headphones.

In perspective, one might even view the Orpheus system as a relative bargain.

ultrabike's picture
No.
detlev24's picture

You forgot the (IMHO, underwhelming sounding) $600,000+/pair Magico Ultimate 3! xD

In this case the "best" headphone will certainly not be the most natural sounding one, since they chose to build a good looking(?) tube amplifier. With a bargain like this I believe it is more about your eyes, than your ears...

No's picture

The point of diminishing returns for headphones is $300.

ELPCU's picture

Let's be honest. Comparing a car and a headphone system is pretty ridiculous. If you do not want to see diminishing return, just buy a super luxury watch. By the way, good old Orpheus price has been increased because they are limited edition. Not just because of price and their sound or other reasons. And there are plenty of limited edition watches in watch market. Their price will increase if you manage them in a good condition. How about purchasing Patek Philippe? Isn't that a bargain?

donunus's picture

Any quick comments on the crossfeed circuit Tyll?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
...that's going to have to wait 'til I do the review.
Hifihedgehog's picture

...point and I will give it a full review."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiMHTK15Pik

EXCITEMENT!!!

I will anxiously awaiting your measurements of this world-class achievement in headphone technology. I am especially curious to see how it compares with the Harman Target Response Curve. I have a hunch, based on your comments of "meaty" and "articulate" that the Orpheus 2 will line up quite closely.

Jazz Casual's picture

How wonderful. I'd love to experience it. Nice article Tyll.

wink's picture

I love all my Sennheiser headphones, but, why can I hear these new Orpheus' barking...?

Johan B's picture

As in every engineering object there are a only a limited number of things that make the "difference". In formula 1 it was the diffuser in combination with exhaust fumes. It was not the manufacturing but it was extensive use of the wind tunnel by excellent engineers. Where did most R&D money go in this product?

Stefraki's picture

If someone buys a super expensive car, they expect a lavish aesthetic finishes, of course they do. None of that makes it go any faster, or be more efficient, but its all part of making it feel and look like the best, not just perform the best.

The question is - why wouldn't they? The vast proportion of the money this costs is covering R&D and the headphones and amplifier technology itself...

... if you go that far, then wrap it all in cost-saving utilitarian design, rather than add another grand or two to the already huge price - what's the point? They won't go from super-expensive to affordable, they'll go from super-expensive to slightly less super-expensive.

Still unattainable, yet nowhere near as cool.

Stefraki's picture

... this was supposed to be a reply to maelob's post above.

maelob's picture

thanks make sense whats a few extra thousand anyway. LOL

Bertrand MICHELS's picture

Tyll,

Could you tell us if during your listening cession the HE1060 was using it's internal DAC or if it was feed by analog using an external DAC/Source ? (I see on the picture that there is a cable to booth the digital and the analog input). I have indeed doubts that the HE1060's internal DAC will be at the level to bring the HE1060 to it's full potential...

thanks

Matias's picture
bronson's picture

Hi Tyll,

I am CEO of hyperbole headphones review oversight and tbth, your cursory review of the new Orpheus simply does not cut the mustard.

Let me expand on this:

Unlike yourself, Jude over at Head-Cri was positively gushing like a girl over these cans amp combo to the extent of nearly crying on camera - that's right, a grown man nigh moved to bubbling over cans, yet you rock up with your deadpan yet descriptive offerings?

Ok, I think you understand what is expected of you when you do your full review here, hype, hype, hype, tears and I think, the spelling of some of your own blood and a pagan sacrifice of an animal is in order too.

We shall be monitoring all your transmissions,

All the best,

Chief Hypa

Mr.TAD91's picture

Whaaat?

Bronson...

The fact of the matter is this: Tyll has reviewed many headphones; including high-end/expensive headphones. The number of headphones he's heard is not at all comparable to the average audiophile. Heck, I have a very high-end rig and I haven't even heard a Sony R10.

Overtime, people get used to their job. This does not mean that Tyll isn't excited about the new Orpheus. He probably is very excited to write a full review. As I see it, Tyll is cool and calculated in how he presents material; but also makes the read fun with good vocab. This makes purchasing decisions for headphones and other gear very easy...because you and I both know Tyll knows his stuff.

The difference(you should probably think about)is that innerfidelity.com is like database of knowledge; while head-fi is more like an enthusiast site. What I'm telling you is that the articles Tyll has written and continues to write can not be so easily replicated by other reviewers (head-fi included). This is why many audiophiles find this site to be a great resource and continue posting comments; and thanking Tyll for his work.

I'm not really sure if you were joking...or not.

Mr.TAD91

Beagle's picture

....would buy a much better sounding set of loudspeakers and a fine amp.

Case closed.

Stefraki's picture

The highest end speakers and amplifiers all cost many orders of magnitude more than these - each. What makes you so certain that a set of speakers and an amp that would fit in this budget would be better than these, when you've obviously heard neither?

CarterB's picture

I missed the news on the HD 800 S and my search engine was no help. Can you share a link or give a brief description?

Stefraki's picture

http://www.head-fi.org/t/785577/sennheiser-hd800s-unveiled

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2eLgayhLGY

It's an HD800 with a new acoustic damping arrangement and a slightly different grill in front of the transducer.

Apparently helps extend the bass and evens out some treble spikiness.

julian's picture

Hidh-End Audio is not chips.
My FB and tweeter accounts are flooded with "news" about this orpheus.
Please, Sennheiser, STOP it! It's totally wrong.

Magick Man's picture

Just what I thought, sour grapes from people (not you, Tyll) who aren't able to afford them. I imagine you rail against Koenigsegg and Bugatti too, right? *smh*

Mr.TAD91's picture

These new Orpheus headphones look incredible...As does the amplifier. What some audiophiles I know don't yet understand is the money, knowledge, time, and risk manufacturers are taking when they produce ultra-high-end electronics. Engineers and designers can only go as far as they're allowed given their field of expertise. That is, until statement products or flagship products are to be invisioned and eventually created.

This is not the same thing as the $2000 "designer" sweater that bears very few if any differences of that from one made of the same material. These headphones represent the highest possible potential and abilities and talents of Sennheisers best engineers and designers. And I don't think I'd cut it short there.

I can't wait for your impressions Tyll. It made my day to see these posted up on the best audio enthusiast site on the internet.

Jgonzalez's picture

The use of marble in the "world's best sounding headphones", reminds me of Doc's response to Marty when asking why using a DeLorean for a time machine:

"The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?"

Duende's picture

Amazing! Wish I can abandon family, sell car, house, dog and maybe children too, hahaha, and live in a cave just with that baby, hahahaha!

But the HD800S looks like my children and dog and wife will survive, hahaha! What is this "acoustic absorber" Axell Grell talk about in video from Japan?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2eLgayhLGY

How you think will measure comparable to HD800?

No's picture

Too bad they decided to pair it with a low-fi tube amplifier. It can't be that good.

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