Last year I heard a pre-production sample of Sennheiser's ultimate headphone, the HE 1 (then called the Orpheus), and loved the sound. A couple of weeks ago when I had a chance to spend more time with a production HE 1 at Sennheiser's pop up New York City store I was eager to take another listen. This beautifully designed store has lots of listening stations outfitted with a tasty assortment of Sennheiser 'phones, but the HE 1 is tucked all the way in the back of the store.
The headphone and its matching vacuum tube/solid-state headphone amplifier is a sight to behold. The amp's tubes are hidden within the amp when it's off, but upon being turned on, eight tubes ever so slowly rise up and begin to glow a deep orange. The amp's Italian marble cabinet and gold knobs have a luxurious feel beyond anything I've experienced in high-end audio. The sound was even better than I remembered it, but the best stuff is always expensive, and the HE 1 system is very expensive, it's $55,000 (approximately £30,000, AU$75,000)!
A team of Sennheiser technicians in Germany build just one HE 1 system per day, and 250 systems each year. The first year's production is already sold out!
What does a $55,000 headphone sound like?
The first thing you notice is the uber clarity, no other headphone in my experience comes even close. The music's impulses and emotional power feel stronger. To fully appreciate the HE 1, you must listen in a dead quiet room so you can hear deep into the music. You will be practically there with the musicians, so with the best recordings you'll hear the acoustic "space" of the studio or concert venue, but any background noise like the whoosh of your room's air conditioning or outside traffic roar will mask some of the HE 1's resolution of fine detail.
I was gobsmacked by the sound of a few high resolution files of Wilco's "Schmilco" album. I've heard this album on lots of headphones and speakers, and wasn't all that impressed by the sound. That was then, here with the HE 1 "Schmilco" still isn't on par with an audiophile album from Reference Recordings or MA Recordings, but Jeff Tweedy's voice was believably real, alive and present. A lot of Nels Cline's, his guitarist, subtle licks that were previously buried in the background were now revealed in all their glory. The band's rhythm section was doing all sorts of cool stuff that never connected with me before. It was always there, but I never heard it, and that's what elevates the HE 1 to the top of the heap.
I heard similar revelations with Norah Jones' latest, "Day Breaks," which can sound too close up and emotionally cool on other headphones. The HE 1 livened up the music, and Jones' vocals, her piano and the other instruments sounded precisely located in space as if I was in that space.
I've played Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" countless times before, but the HE 1 let me hear it differently, the bass drum "heartbeat" that opens the album, the ticking clocks, and the screaming lunatic vocals sprawled across a massive soundstage.
Andy Hull and Robert McDowell's a cappella vocal score for the film, "Swiss Army Man" was awe inspiring. The surreal film stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, stranded on a small island, and the score's heavenly vocals surrounded my head. The vocals even seemed to come from above me.
As for the tech, the HE 1's electrostatic headphone drivers sport vaporized gold ceramic electrodes along with superthin 2.4 micrometer, platinum-vaporized diaphragms that Sennheiser claims produce the lowest distortion that has ever been measured in sound reproduction equipment, just 0.01 percent at 100 dB SPL at 1 kHz. The HE 1 is a closed system, meaning the headphone cannot be used with other headphone amplifiers, and the HE 1 amp won't work with other headphones.
The HE 1's sound is far ahead of anything else, so I'm duty bound to warn headphone loving audiophiles to steer clear of auditioning the HE 1. It'll mess you up, and might make you consider taking out a second mortgage, or worse. From my days working as a high-end salesman, I know for the most affluent buyers price won't be an issue (they live really well) and I assure you $55,000 won't make even a tiny dent in their piggy banks.
The rest of us can take some small comfort in this: the same Sennheiser engineers that developed the HE 1 also design the company's more affordable 'phones. No doubt, the HE 1's level of sound quality will drop in price over the coming decades, so hold tight and enjoy the headphones you have now. But if you're super-rich and crazy enough to get the very best headphone on the planet, the Sennheiser HE 1 has your name on it.
If you're not rich, but live in the New York City area, you can hear the HE 1 for yourself by contacting Sennheiser's pop up store to make an appointment to hear this incredible headphone. Don't dilly-dally too long, as the store is set to close in early 2017.