No one really bats an eye when heritage luxury brands like Patek Phillipe or Vacheron Constantin claim to spend almost a decade building a watch. We’ve come to understand that good craftsmanship takes a while, but stands the test of time.
But that’s not something we often see from the gadget world – where “the best” enjoy scanty year-long lifespans. In fact, the idea of a made-to-order gadget is so uncommon it might as well be a fairy tale.
In the early ’90s, German audio company Sennheiser threw all of that out the window when it released its Orpheus HE90 headphones – billed as the best headphones ever made. Limited to just 300 pieces worldwide, the HE90s ascended to legendary status among the audiophile community, and still hold that reputation to this day.
In 2015, Sennheiser announced its successor, a new Orpheus, and the gadget world went nuts. The price for the new headphones was significantly higher, around 1.9 million Baht, and each pair was made to order. Sennheiser claimed the new Orpheus was 10 years in the making, coming with a range of modernisations designed to reclaim its “best ever” title.
After making the rounds globally, Sennheiser Thailand debuted the new Orpheus during an exclusive listening session at The St. Regis, Bangkok a couple of weeks ago. We’ve listened to the legendary headphones, and here’s what you need to know.
There are a host of luxurious touches we could swoon over. The sleek marble casing the houses the headphone case and tube amplifiers is simply gorgeous. The weighty headphones include high-quality German leather and anti-static micro-fibres on the ear cups – making for an extremely comfortable listening experience. The Orpheus’s start up sequence is a nice touch, too – all of the various components slowly emerge out of their enclosures to reveal the product in its full glory. As far as headphones go, the Orpheus is certainly a thing to behold.
The whole thing looks and feels of quality, but it’s not, and shouldn’t be, the device’s selling point. It’s the technical power that commands the lion’s share of the price tag.
Frequency range (the lowest vs. the highest possible pitch a speaker can produce) is by far the most talked-about technical spec when it comes to headphones – some would say undeservedly. Orpheus’ frequency range is 8Hz – 100kHz, much wider than any human being can possibly hear. It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it, but frequency range is so hyperbolised among consumers that anything other than world-beater numbers would have hurt the Orpheus’ reputation – even if it didn’t make a difference on the performance side.
The headphones built-in tube amplifiers completely block out airborne noise from distorting the incoming signal – a pesky problem for audiophiles – resulting in a lower distortion factor than studio-grade monitors, according to Sennheiser. The DACs (digital-to-analogue-converters) inside offer an absurd 384kHz sampling rate – what you hear on CDs, Youtube and Spotify is “only” 44.1kHz – creating a vinyl-like warmth when listening to digital material. The actual headphone component of the package includes amplifiers inside the ear cups as well – squashing excess noise often created by cabling.
You can find a full list of the technical specifications here. But suffice to say the Orpheus headphones have essentially everything you would want tech-wise.
The million-Baht question is whether Orpheus is worth the price tag? In our opinion, yes – but for a very specific kind of customer.
Simply put, they are the best headphones we have ever heard. What immediately stood out during our session is the incredible clarity and balance the Orpheus provides. Most headphones lack a little power in either the lows, mids or highs depending on how they were designed. As far as we could tell, every part of the frequency range is crystal clear and balanced on the Orpheus. This is true across all genres. Bassy pop songs thump and rumble as intended and classical compositions shine in the mids and highs where they should.
They really do give you the sense that you are hearing the mix as the audio engineer intended – where lower-budget options often fall way short.
The stereo spread was another stand out. We’ve never experienced headphones with such precise and dynamic imaging. It goes beyond your basic left-right signals and enters the realm of full-on multi-speaker surround sound. It was almost shocking at first. In fact, the clarity of the Orpheus was so evident that it takes a few moments to acclimatise. The music becomes totally encapsulating, and the open-back design makes it feel like you are engulfed in a live performance. It’s a incredible listening experience.
Should You Buy the Sennheiser Orpheus?
It goes without saying that these headphones are only for the super-rich. While two million Baht isn’t outside the general spending range for many upper-class people, you need to remember that these are a pair of headphones, and you can’t easily bring them to work or on a holiday. Wherever you set up the device will likely be its home for some time.
There are products out there, like Sennheiser’s own HD 800, which we also tested at the Orpheus’ debut, that come close for a fraction of the price – around 55,000 Baht.
The Orpheus headphones are the best we’ve ever heard, and probably the best in the world. But you need riches galore and an audiophile mentality to make them a worthy purchase. The average listener likely won’t be able to tell the difference between Orpheus and a typical top-of-the-range set of headphones.
But that’s probably fine from Sennheiser’s point of view. It didn’t spend 10 years designing the Orpheus so everyone could buy one. These headphones are more so a testament to craftsmanship, something the luxury world appreciates, and what is possible when you push the limits of headphone design.