Hurt. One song. Two definitive versions. Reznor’s is painful, vivid, fresh and raw. Cash’s is tempered by looking back from the vantage of time.
My 25 words or less that ended up with sitting in a comfy chair in a clinic above an art gallery on a rainy Sydney day with a pair of $75k headphones on my head.
Humans are constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, often creating something for no other reason than “because we can”. Bugatti Veyron, the world’s fastest production car. Over $2 Million of luxury, technology and sheer horsepower. Gravity Probe B, the most perfectly spherical objects ever made, with no imperfections larger than 40 atoms high. Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world, soaring over 800 metres into the sky. Sennheiser Orpheus, the lowest distortion audio reproduction hardware ever made.
Back in 1991 the engineers at Sennheiser were given free reign to create the absolute best headphones in the world, with no compromise. Cost was not a consideration. The end result was the Orpheus HE90 – the pinnacle of audio engineering at the time. Sold for $15,000 USD (over $35,000 in 2016 Australian pesos), these headphones came with a matching amplifier built with a lovely Art-deco aesthetic. 6 valves for the pre-amp were mounted front and centre, chrome was everywhere, there was a beautiful rosewood trim and the electrostatic headphones had people raving about their sound.
Over the years, Sennheiser’s audio engineers often thought back to the technology, materials and construction in the HE90 and wondered if they could do any better, could they improve on the Orpheus in any way? It took until the mid 2000’s until they finally stood up and said “Yes, we can make it better” and thus began a 10 year journey to create the duo of the HE 1060 / HEV 1060.
A decade in the making, the team at Sennheiser were again given an open chequebook to source any materials, use any build techniques, do whatever they had to do to achieve ultimate clarity and fidelity in sound with no compromise whatsoever. If there were no off-the-shelf components that could achieve the sound quality desired, then they went out and had them made especially. Ear cups machined from a solid block of aluminium. Handmade leather and microfibre ear pads. Vacuum tubes housed their own individual clear quartz envelopes. 8 digital to analogue converts. Carrara marble plinth for the base. A platinum coated membrane so thin that you would need to stack 40 of them together to reach the thickness of a sheet of paper.
One of the areas they noticed could be improved from the previous version was in the transmission of the signals from the amplifier to the headphones. Electrostatic drivers require quite high voltages with a low current, and are subject to losses and interference when sent down a couple of metres of cable. This time around the valve preamp sends a low level signal to the headphones where active Class-A amplifiers in both of the cups step it up to the high voltages required, with the power for these amplifiers supplied via the cable.
I was pretty excited when Sennheiser told me that I won their recent Sennheiser Experience Facebook competition. The prize was return flights to Sydney, a pair of Momentum Wireless headphones and some one-on-one time to experience the new Orpheus HE 1060 / HEV 1060 first-hand.
When I arrived in Sydney, I was picked up at the airport in an Audi A8 long wheelbase limo. Suitably cocooned against the miserable Sydney weather we drove around some tiny back-streets in Darlinghurst trying to find the venue – Muse. After squeezing down Little Oxford Street, we located the ivy-covered front of the building and in I went to have my mind blown.
I met Heather and the rest of the team from Sennheiser Australia who had just three days of hands-on time to demo the Orpheus for the lucky few. There were some prominent musicians invited, product managers for some of their larger customers, prospective purchasers and the lucky trio who were chosen. Sarah, Tom and myself.
We arrived with plenty of time to spare before our allotted listening slot, and had a good time relaxing in the downstairs gallery at Muse where Sennheiser had set up an installation. There were half a dozen pairs of headphones and a couple of microphones in perspex boxes on display and some really nice product-related artwork on the walls. The special 70th birthday edition HD800 headphones, with custom blue accents by ColorWare were a particularly special pair, as it turned out they weren’t for listening to.
While we were waiting, we discussed many topics, particularly the Orpheus. Some of the more interesting facts about these headphones are at the moment there are only 3 pairs in the world. Around 200-300 people have heard them by this stage however there are possibly only 50 people or so who have have had a chance to listen to their own music selection on them. This set was in Australia for less than a week, one of the few venues on the planet that Sennheiser were offering this listening experience at. They were really excited to be able to see the expression on people’s faces after their auditions. No-one left without a smile.
Each pair of headphones and the attached amplifier are completely hand-made by a team of 10 or more people and they can only produce 250 pairs a year. Yes, there is already a waiting list if you want to buy a set. They retail in Australia for $75,000 however customisation options can take that into the hundreds of thousands. Some of the options are black or white Carrara marble. You can get silver or gold plated knobs if you want. Really, the sky is the limit – if you have the money, Sennheiser will customise them for you pretty much any way you want them.
Everything about the listening experience is absolutely first-class. Even before you have a chance to put them on your head, the way the whole system powers on is a show on it’s own. While the system is turned off, the storage case on top is closed, the valves are retracted flush with the top surface, the volume dial is turned down and the knobs are retracted into the marble plinth. When you power it up, the knobs slide out, the valves rise up (all 8 of them), the volume dial returns to the last level you had set and the piano black lacquer and smoked glass storage case opens up, you don’t even have to get any fingerprints on the high gloss finish. The opening sequence is choreographed so that by the time you can remove the headphones from their case, the valves have had time to come up to operating temperature and the system is ready to go.
The frequency response of the headphones is flat from 8Hz all the way up to 100kHz. Although humans can only hear from 20 to 20k Hz, Sennheiser wanted to ensure that if there were any flaws in the response that they would be pushed out to either end where only elephants or bats would be able to hear it.
Enough about the technology, all of this is secondary to how they actually sound.
The detail and depth in the music was amazing. Turning up the volume just made more sound, not noise, not distortion, just sound and lots of it. They could play loud, but were never noisy. Even on heavily textured and complex passages like the last parts of Hurt, every track, every layer, every instrument had it’s own space and it’s own definition.
The reproduction of sound was unlike anything else I’ve heard. The bass was a physical presence – warm, smooth and without limit. The treble was clear and distinct, without being harsh or sharp. The mids were all where they were supposed to be – everything was presented as-is without any colouration, exactly as the music was mastered.
Nothing seemed to worry the headphones, everything sounded so clear and effortless like they were just striding along and not even breaking a sweat. Even turning up the volume to uncomfortably loud levels just resulted in more sound with no loss of clarity, no distortion, it was purely louder.
The sound was clear and tangible. Instruments were all given their own place in the soundstage. Nothing sounded hurried or strained everything was clearly composed.
In Hurt, you could clearly hear the raw emotion in Trent Reznor’s voice, the pain was right there. The guitar sounded like it was right in front of you and when that first kick drum comes in, it was like a physical impact. Even through the distortion and digital noise, the other sounds were not masked out or blurred, they were still there.
On Johnny Cash’s rendition, you could hear every detail in his fingers on the guitar strings, and his voice was front and centre, every intonation, every inflection was there for the taking. You could even hear that as the song progresses his mouth gets dry and the sound of him opening his mouth to take a breath is like he’s in the room with you.
The two Daft Punk tracks were selected for their use of real instruments, high dynamic range and quality mastering. Oh, and the bass. O.M.G. It was like I’d never heard bass quite like this before. It was deep, warm, inviting and full, all at the same time. There was absolutely no distortion, no breakup, no clipping, just an ocean of clean, pure bass. Of course everything else was there with absolute clarity as well, the bass didn’t overwhelm the vocals or the other instruments, rather it provided a soft velvet cushion for it to all rest on.
All up, it was the most pure listening experience I’ve had. Everything that happened that day all came together to ensure this. It’s the plane and limo ride, the happy and welcoming staff from Sennheiser, the venue, the headphones, the technology, the music. It’s the vibe and, no, that’s it. It’s the vibe. I could have easily spent hours sitting there in my own world, having the music wash over me but unfortunately time was limited.
While I’m not sure that I heard things in the music that simply weren’t there when listening on lesser equipment, what I did notice was that subtle details were clearly presented for you with with no effort, you didn’t have to dig around and concentrate as much to hear them. Nothing was blurred or smeared together, it was all there for you on a silver platter. Without even trying you could easily pick out any individual element from the composition and feel it sitting there
Worth the money? Hard to say. I suppose if you had the kind of disposable income where a $75k pair of cans was even a consideration, and if you really enjoyed music, then they’d probably be worth every cent. I would likely get more enjoyment out of these than, say, a $75k Jaeger-LeCoultre or Rolex. Are they 10x better than a pair of HD800’s with the matching amp? Hard to say, possibly not. Are they the best headphones I’ve ever listened to? Absolutely.
Source equipment: Bryston BDP-2 Digital Player. Music was delivered as FLAC on USB.
NIN – Hurt (High-res)
Johnny Cash – Hurt (CD Quality)
Daft Punk – Lose Yourself to Dance (High-res)
Daft Punk – Get Lucky (High-res)
Johnny Cash – Personal Jesus (CD quality)
More information and technical specs: