What does $50,000 sound like? Well, much like the Matrix, no one can be told what $50,000 of aural experience sounds like. Recently I had the opportunity to check out something most of us would never have the chance to listen to. There wasn't too much hype surrounding this experience, just an invite and a request that I RSVP with a list of my top three songs. The invite stated that this event, the "Reshaping Excellence" was being hosted by Sennheiser and that I'd be speaking with Axel Grell, Product Manager and Audiophile. Knowing Sennheiser's pedigree, I RSVP'd and was eager to find out what the brouhaha was all about.
The day of the event, I drove out to Downtown Los Angeles, to the Concrete Loft building and headed up to the 7th floor. In an artist loft, Sennheiser had set up a lounge, complete with bar and modern Euro feel to the art and furniture. Sennheiser after all, is a German company that is still family-owned and celebrating 70 years in the business. It would seem appropriate then that they would be marking that occasion with a successor to one of their most lauded reference headphone systems, the Orpheus. In 1991 Sennheiser released an electrostatic headphone system with a 500V tube amplifier which received, and continues to receive, rave reviews from many in the audio industry. Now, in 2015, they've released a new version of the Orpheus, components set in Carrara marble, with a new pair of electrostatic headphones which have the amplifiers built directly into them and another amplifier with 8 vacuum tubes enclosed in quartz-glass bulbs. It really is quite a feat of engineering and their product manager/audiophile Axel Grell wasn't shy about stating that. He sat down with us and talked about much of what went into improving upon and bringing to market the new Orpheus, which you can watch in the video below.
For my part, it had been a long day and I was ready to get in there, get the info, get the interview and get home but the guys at Sennheiser had other ideas. I was invited to take my time and choose a glass of Scotch or red wine. I was asked to essentially, relax and take a listen, before we got started with the interview and shoot. So, that's what I did, minus the booze. The chap in charge of the music selection loaded up my playlist of three song requests and we were off. I chose three songs which were very different sonically: Skrillex - Bangarang, Down By The River to Pray from the O' Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack and the musical main course, Paul Simon's Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes. Bangarang is a very bass heavy track with a fair amount high end synth hits and warbles but on lesser sound systems, the bass and mids have a tendency to melt into each other. The Orpheus presented bass and mids which had a fair amount of separation, while the sounds on the high end were punchy and crisp. The track sounded great and the bass reproduced was rich without sounding overdriven or heavily EQ'd like it does in many of today's urban-centric headphones. With that out of the way, it was time to listen to Down By the River To Pray. This is an ethereal song with a good bit of top end. It's essentially a vocal with a choral backing that can sound a bit thin on headphones with a very confined soundstage but not the Orpheus. What I heard was an expansive soundstage with a spatial image that clearly reproduced the location of the lead singer and the choral voices backing her. It was a satisfying listen. One where you could hear every pop, lip smack and nuance in the vocalists' performance.
Known for his meticulous studio recordings, Paul Simon's Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes was the main course in my three course auditory feast and it was sublime. The track begins with the impressive sounds of the South African Choir Ladysmith Black Mombaza. The sound reproduced was so pure and effortless that it almost brought a tear to my eye (that is not hyperbole). The headroom on their opening harmony was so spacious and open that it felt like they were singing down to me from the heavens. When Paul Simon comes in with his vocal and guitar, it grounds their other-worldly vocals in a way that beautifully blends those alto, soprano and baritones into something that snaps you out of space, bringing you back into your head and making you want to tap your feet. It gets into you. Then the song actually begins. That was just the prelude. The African rhythms, the folk style, the drums, horns and guitars are all so well balanced, that stereo spatial image so well defined, I'd be challenged to tell you whether I prefer it live or on Memorex. Each has its merits but by the time the song was done, I had to ask the DJ for the evening to go back to the top of the song again. It was so completely mesmerizing that I wanted to hear just that intro again. It was one of the most beautiful things I've heard in a very long time! On the technical side, the sonics the Orpheus reproduced were nothing short of impressive. Paul Simon's attention to detail in the mastering, along with the Sennheiser's attention to detail in the manufacturing is a perfect storm of sonic synergy. Mids, highs and lows are all so clearly separated and the positioning of the instruments, the vocal clarity and mix, it was the auditory equivalent of having perfect vision and seeing every detail, every brush stroke, every nuance in a master's oil on canvas. Pick your artist, it was that good!
If you want technical details about how the Orpheus is able to reproduce sound like it does, Axel Grell touches on that in the video above. From the ceramic electrodes to the MOSFET amp built directly into the headphones to the cooling elements which help keep things comfortable with all that wattage being pumped directly into the electrostatic headphones themselves, Sennheiser's Product Manager and audiophile explains it a bit. At the end of the end of the video, Axel says something that I think sums up the Orpheus experience all around. "Don't listen to the headphones, listen to the music." I think that sums it all up rather nicely. What does $50,000 sound like? If you can afford to seriously consider this purchase, you're not looking at the cost of the headphones, you're looking for the purest expression of the music. Sitting down with your beverage of choice, looking out over the city lights sparkling like diamonds, the perfect lossless album queued, you may just encounter that. Fin.