L’Orfeo

Orpheus. You know I’m a big fan of Claudio Monteverdi‘s L’Orfeo, which is considered by most music historians as the first great operatic work, and certainly the oldest opera still part of the modern repertoire. It recounts the famous Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice. The tale briefly goes something like this: Orpheus’ wife, Euridice, is bitten by poisonous snakes while running away from a satyr. After Orpheus finds his wife dead in the fields, he plays a variation on a theme from Opeth‘s Damnation and vows to save his wife by retrieving her from the Underworld. When he finally arrives in the land of the dead however, he finds himself confronted with a very unsympathetic Hades who first refuses his request to take Euridice back. But after Orpheus gets his lute out and plays an acoustic version of Type O Negative‘s World Coming Down in its entirety, Hades softens somewhat and agrees to allow him to reclaim his wife’s soul on one condition: he must lead her out of the Underworld by always walking in front of her and can never look back until they have crossed into the land of the living. However, just when Euridice is about to cross over, Orpheus thinks the Gods are jealous of his great musical talents and are trying to trick him. After getting distracted, he wounds looking back only to see his wife’s lovely face for a few fleeting moments before she falls back into the Underworld, lost forever.

Now if you are a die-hard audiophile like I am, when someone says the word, “orpheus,” Monteverdi‘s L’Orfeo isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Sennheiser’s HE-90 is.

Some history. Back in the early ’90s, Sennheiser tasked its engineers to build the best possible system they could come up with. The end result was the HE-90 Orpheus system. It consisted of an electrostatic headphone and vacuum tube amplifier. Only 300 were actually made each costing $16k a pop. Yours truly had the opportunity to listen to one at a Head-Fi meet where I got to shoot Rust In Peace through it. And although I still feel lucky for even getting the opportunity to listen to the HE-90, I was absolutely positive that this would be the last time Sennheiser, or anyone else for that matter, would embark on such an undertaking like this. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Fast forward to 2015, Sennheiser announces a new Orpheus system, the HE-1, and touts that it is even better than the original. It is rumored to cost north of $55k and only a hundred are going to made (at least initially). I remember watching Jude’s video above and thinking, you guessed it, “I wonder what Rust In Peace sounds like through it?” So I fired off an email to Sennheiser asking for a demo. To my surprise, they told me that they were opening up a pop-up store in SoHo where folks can come in and register for a private listening session with the HE-1. I registered and waited.

 

A little birdy told me that when the HE-1 first premiered, you could only listen to a few pre-selected tracks. So before I arrived for my scheduled appointment, I contacted the manager and confirmed that I could listen to as much metal as my heart desires. He told I could but for only thirty minutes. Thirty minutes! Think about that for a moment: if the average metal track is around four to five minutes in length, that means realistically I could play around six to seven songs max in their entirety. Sure, I have my list, but this was different: I wasn’t here to formally review the HE-1, I was here to experience it. And for that, I wanted to hear some of my all-time favorite tracks – the songs I routinely wake up singing. Anyway, when I arrived, I was escorted to a private listening room where the HE-1 laid on a small table next to some fabric chairs.

The HE-1 was connected to a T+A MP 2000R DAC, which if you look closely at the picture above, has a CD drive as well as a USB input for mass storage. I’m actually not familiar with T+A (No comment. -Dave) but a little research yielded that they are a very high-end German company (shock!) and their gear has been generally well received. What’s funny is that the menu system was in German, so both the Sennheiser rep and I had a hard time navigating through it to setup my USB stick. But after about ten minutes of fondling with the remote, we got it to go. I am 99% sure that I did not get to experience the Orpheus’ internal eight channel, SABRE based DAC. The T+A was directly connected to the Orpheus through a pair of balanced cables while the Orpheus’ USB input was connected to that green cable with a USB Type-C converter on it going nowhere.

The last listener left the unit on but I decided to turn it off and on again to get the full HE-1 experience. As you can see, the amp’s eight tubes rise while the headphone’s enclosure opens. It’s pretty slick too, but I suspect I would get more annoyed with it after a while. The tubes themselves were already warm since the unit had been on for at least thirty minutes continuously before I arrived (more like two hours). This little tidbit is important because one of the things I was worried about was that I would have to listen to the HE-1 from a cold start. Thankfully, I did not. I know for the original HE-90 the recommended time for the tubes to warm up was like 10-20 minutes (don’t hold me to the fire on this, but it was something like that) and the rep told me the same is true for the HE-1.

As I said, selecting five or six tracks is very hard when you are trying to balance your own personal tastes with putting a piece of unfamilar gear through its paces. Of course the first track was the easiest one as you can see above! How did it sound? Humongous. The HE-1 had one of, if not the widest soundstages I’ve ever heard. It reminded me of the original Sony R-10 and of course the previous Orpheus. The other obvious attribute of the HE-1’s sound was its gorgeous mid-range. I would be so bold to even say that though the HE-1 doesn’t sound over the top tubish, there is an added bit of warmth to the sound – but in a very good way. Yes, I thought the HE-1 was incredibly detailed too, but it was also extremely musical as well, with MegaDave and Co. sounding extremely crisp but never clinical.

Its instrumentation separation was absolutely incredible as well. So not only is the headstage wide, with you feeling like you are in the front row, but you can clearly pick out all the instruments in the mix with ease. To some extent, this is also a testament to the T+A, which clearly knew how to fondle bits properly. I was generally very impressed with this overall package on first listen.

One does not listen to tens of thousands of dollars worth of audiophile gear without Bolt Thrower. You just don’t do it. Apparently, the T+A does not have very good cue sheet support as “Unbekannter Titel” translates to “Unknown Title.” Anyway, this was a needle drop of arguably Bolt Thrower‘s greatest and unfortunately last record, Those Once Loyal, and it also sounded spectacular through the HE-1. However, if there is one criticism I have, it’s the bass. Despite the fact that the bass was clear, articulate, deep, and tight, I can’t say I ever felt it. The HE-1 just did not have the same visceral impact that my LCD-4 has or even my HE-1K had. My guess is this has to do with the fact that electrostats are notorious for being slightly bass light compared to their dynamic and especially planar magnetic counterparts, both of which can get a wider excursion pattern out of their diaphragm. Sennheiser in my opinion has still not solved this inherit design limitation of electrostatics even with the HE-1.

A celebration indeed. This track just gave me the chills on the HE-1. I also thought the treble extension was out of this world good. I know the word “shimmering” gets bounced around a lot when talking about treble, but I’m telling you the HE-1 was exactly that. The acoustic guitars in the extended introductory passage of The Mantle’s first track sounded absolutely gorgeous from top to bottom.

“Drook” is the band that made me a black metal fiend to begin with, and I’d argue that their 2003 classic, Forgotten Legends, is one of the all-time greats. They are also a band that for the most part have avoided the pitfalls of the Loudness War. “False Dawn” sounded particularly juicy on the HE-1, and the added warmth from the eight glowing tubes accentuated the buzz that is ever flowing from this track. One thing that became very apparent during the Drudkh phase of my listening session was just how effortless the HE-1 is. I could spend all day listening to the HE-1 and get lost in the music. Never once did I feel even the slightest fatigue. That was even true with more compressed tracks I tried a bit deeper in my session.

For the rest of the demo I played a number of classic tracks from a myriad array of records, ranging from Symphony X‘s V: The New Mythology Suite to Avenged Sevenfold‘s The Stage to even Opeth‘s Blackwater Park. At the end, I finished with some classical with Georg Solti‘s timeless recording of arguably Mozart’s greatest opera, Le Nozze di Figaro (I had enough time to play through the first third of it anyway).

So I am sure you are asking yourself by now, “Does the new Orpheus HE-1 warrant its lofty price tag?” Absolutely not. This is indeed a statement product that though clearly looks and sounds the part, still has a relatively low ROI. I would surmise that you could spend 10% of the HE-1’s cost to get 90% or more of its sound. And I also believe that a big bulk of its cost are in areas that the average audiophile isn’t even that concerned with: the 60 pound marble enclosure, the motorized gimmickry, and even the white glove hand delivery via limo (that’s what the manager told me). Again, all of these areas certainly add to its luxury and mystique, but not its sound.

With all that said, I have to applaud Sennheiser for even releasing a product like the Orpheus. From a purely business perspective, it makes very little sense. Sure, you can argue that Sennheiser may benefit from some kind of “halo effect” or that the technology contained in the Orpheus will eventually trickle down to other products (let’s hope so), but I think all of that talk is in the weeds. Rather, I get the sense that Sennheiser built the HE-1 to not only show off their technical prowess, but because they are genuinely passionate about great sound. I know that sounds corny, but after hearing the HE-1, you’d understand.

Here are some more pics from my demo. Enjoy.