[Review] Sennheiser HE 1 – We’ve listened to Sennheiser’s opulent RM252,000 headphones and nothing will be the same again

[Review] Sennheiser HE 1 – We’ve listened to Sennheiser’s opulent RM252,000 headphones and nothing will be the same again

Way back in 1991, Sennheiser embarked on a project with the lofty goal of producing the best sound possible in the world without any compromise whatsoever, price included. The sum of their efforts was the Orpheus HE90, a set of headphones that came with a sextet of metal-sheathed tube amplifiers, a Victorian-esque valve-amp housing made of wood and steel and it came with a pair of headphones that apocryphally have been crafted with pixie dust to produce amazing sound. Less than 300 of them were ever made and the chances of finding one in the wild today is rarer than hen’s teeth.

Flash forward to 2015, a quarter of a century later and Sennheiser revisited the concept of crafting the ultimate headphones by unleashing their best audio engineers with a blank cheque, a toybox of the latest developments in audio tech along with a mandate to make the best sound possible on the planet unburdened by such mortal trivialities as portability, practicality or cost. The end result manages to top the extravagance and exquisite performance offered by the original Orpheus. Enter the HE 1, the most expensive headphones in the world even adjusting for current inflation.

Sennheiser HE 1 open
Clocking in at about 50,000 which is about RM252,853 in Malaysian Ringgit, Sennheiser’s magnum opus looks as opulent as its price tag indicates. Made of Carrara marble with a host of precious metals incorporated in its construction – platinum-vapourised diaphragms and gold-vaporised ceramics within its electrodes feature heavily in its construction  – the HE 1 has been designed to offer one thing: an unsurpassed listening experience.

Sennheiser HE 1 detail of marble

The exotic materials featured in the HE 1 aren’t there just for vanity’s sake or merely for the bling factor: they’re specifically chosen for their unique acoustic properties. To create just one HE 1 takes a team of Sennheiser’s best craftsmen a full day meaning that they are only able to make about 200 HE 1 headphones in a given year. Even if you had the cash to buy one straight off the bat, you still have to get in line and sign up for a waiting list that stretches back for months; no surprise as each one is painstakingly made from 6,000 separate components hand-assembled in Germany.

Sennheiser HE 1 top view

Such an exclusive pedigree means that the HE 1 is inaccessible to all but the most well-heeled audiophiles though a select few examples of the HE 1 have made a tour around the globe for invited guests. The Orpheus HE 1 officially made its Southeast Asia debut in Singapore last year though we were unavailable at the time it made its regional debut; the audiophile equivalent to missing the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Imagine our surprise when we got an invitation to experience it for ourselves. Needless to say, we leaped at the prospect to experience the audio equivalent of Valhalla for ourselves.

After being ushered through one of the swankiest hotels in Kuala Lumpur I sat in a lushly decorated anteroom along with several other guests waiting with bated breath for what was to come. While Sennheiser showcased several of their hottest current generation offerings for us to touch and feel in the anteroom, nothing would compare to what was to come later. The call then came as we were ushered into the HE 1’s presence with the pomp and grandeur that the situation demanded. After all, it’s not every day that you get to listen to a pair of headphones that cost more than a house.

Sennheiser HE 1

Rising to the Occasion (and why the HE 1 is made of marble)
We walked into the room with the solemnity of an audience partaking in an orchestral performance as Sennheiser’s representatives fussed over the HE 1 in preparation for its performance. While I have seen images of it from official renders and press shots from far luckier lads who’ve seen it up close, the sight of the HE 1  in the proverbial flesh immediately draws comparisons to an art deco sculpture. The whole affair is sized to the dimensions of an elongated rectangular gaming board with the approximate thickness of a late-80’s phone book. The HE 1  does not simply consist of just a pair of electrostatic headphones alone; it includes the headphones plus the whole housing that ensconces the DAC and its eight vacuum tubes, all of which are sheathed in Carrara marble. It’s the same stuff that Michelangelo used for his sculptures and each HE 1 housing is unique as each slab of marble is understandably different with the example before us appearing as a cloudy greyish white with subtle veins and striations of pale gray.
Sennheiser HE 1 off
The marble itself is critical to the HE 1’s design as it’s a superb dampening material on account of its weight, sturdiness and solidity that minimises distortion for the sensitive amps. The obsession with perfection doesn’t end there, the internal mechanism is further suspended on a bed of springs to further minimise any audio disruption from external sources. Also key to this is the obsessive approach to eliminating external acoustic noise so that you just hear the music and place you, as Sennheiser puts it, in a ‘vault of pure silence’. It’s not just marketing spiel – the HE 1 measures in at just 0.01 percent at 100 db SPL at 1kHz, making it the only and lowest headphone with lower distortion that has ever been measured in any sound reproduction equipment. The fact that it looks exceptionally posh is added icing on the cake.

Touching the main dial of the HE 1 triggers an impressive start-up sequence as the front brass-milled-and-chromed dials and the valves on the top of the assembly slowly emerge from the slab of marble even as the glass casing slowly pops open to release the electrostatic headphones. It makes for quite a spectacle indeed.

Sennheiser HE 1 opened front

The rest of the hardware on the HE 1 and the craftsmanship that went into it is equally impressive. The eight vacuum tubes are made of quartz to squelch airborne noise and music input is converted via eight internal DACs using an ESS Sabre ES9018 processor. The technological innovations don’t end there as Sennheiser has spared no expense to ensure that each component in the HE 1 is the best possible with current-day technology. The 2.4-micrometer platinum-vapourised diaphgrams, the 99.9%-pure silver-plated cables and gold-vapourised ceramics on its electrodes all enable it to offer an unprecedented frequency range from between 8 Hz to more than 100 kHz.

Sennheiser HE 1 quartz bulbs

This incredible frequency range is way beyond what the human ear can perceive and what most mainstream headphones are able to tackle. Only elephants can perceive something as low as 8 Hz and mayhaps bats would be able to listen to something as high pitched as 100,000Hz. Humanity is only able to listen to a narrow band of the audio spectrum but this fullness and breadth ensures that any music is given due justice the way it was meant to be heard.

Sennheiser HE 1 headphones

This obsession with perfect sound doesn’t just end in the amp housing. The HE 1’s electrostatic headphones are a masterpiece of Teutonic craftsmanship, incorporating a Cool Class A MOSFET high-voltage amplifier directly into the ear cups of the headphones to deliver an unprecedented ultra-high impulse fidelity on account of being 200 percent more efficient than anything else in the market. The HE 1’s electrostatic headphones place an ultra fine 2.4-micrometer layer of film between two metal plates in the headphones which vibrate after receiving audio voltage to create sound; the nature of its design ensuring exceptional clarity over more mainstream methods. In plain English – they sound amazing.
Sennheiser HE 1 opened with headphones
And to answer the question that you lot out there will likely have in your heads – no. The headphones do not and will not work with any other setup except the HE 1 alone. While it’s not possible, even contemplating the prospect of doing so is tantamount to slathering Beluga caviar on a Twinkie with a steel spoon: a bad idea. You can, however, optionally purchase another headphone for a shared listening experience. The headphones themselves are as comfortable as they are ostentatious – hewn from precision-machined aluminium and then lavished with hand-stitched genuine Italian leather earpads to ensure hours of comfortable listening. Donning it was truly an experience with nary a burr on the smooth lustrous cushions or metal to mar the experience with a feel akin to sliding into a suede leather helmet.

The sound of perfection (or how RM250K headphones sound like)
Once the HE 1 was properly warmed up after a minute or two, we were treated to a preselected play list of lossless tunes to experience what the headphones were capable of. The first tune on the list that we had the privilege of listening to was Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’, a  96bpm piece of recent vintage that has a Jamaican dancehall influence and a frugal usage of instruments. While I’ve heard it plenty of times on daytime radio and on the office playlist, I was utterly unprepared for how the HE 1 rendered the track.

Sennheiser HE 1

The familiar song begins sparsely, with Sheeran’s vocals guiding the listener through the narrative even as the track gradually begins layering on instruments throughout the song until everything is in full flow near the end. On the HE 1, the song’s signature marimbas sounded vivid and distinct with a phenomenal realism and with the distinctive rasp of wood on wood of the marimba sounding  as if someone was playing the instrument right in front of my face. This soundstage was gradually layered on as additional percussion and a snare joined the festivities. Sheeran’s voice sounded as if I was listening to him perform live in a personal private performance less than a dozen paces away from me on the HE 1.
Sennheiser Orpheus HE 1 rear
Next up, we listened to a cover of Fever from the late Ray Charles’ posthumous album Genius Loves Company, sung as a duet with Charles together with Natalie Cole. The familiar circa-1950s blues track was given a zinged up vibe with Charles’ dulcet tones and Coles’ smooth vocals complementing each other interspersed by an array of sharp finger snaps and other instruments that the HE 1 tackled with deft aplomb. Each finger snap sounded vividly realistic while both their voices sounded truly exquisite together while complementing each other, almost as if I was in a front row seat with both of them performing live onstage. On a mainstream consumer audio setup and with a clean lossless source, both these tracks would have sounded pretty darned good but on the HE 1 they both sounded phenomenal.

Sheeran’s voice sounded as if I was listening to him perform live in a personal private performance less than a dozen paces away from me on the HE 1.

The sonic trifecta was completed with Amber Rubarth’s Strive from her album Sessions from the 17th Ward as the final track on the playlist. The track itself is both subtle and sonically challenging, demanding the sort of performance that only the best cans in the market can deliver but the HE 1 handled without a hitch and even took it to entirely to another level, delivering a soundstage that was breathtakingly beautiful. Every instrument in the track was an exquisite experience with all of them melding together into an aural feast for the senses.

Sennheiser HE 1

Sennheiser set out to provide the best listening experience possible with current technology. The HE 1 handily knocks that modest aspiration out of the ball park. It delivered a truly phenomenal listening experience with outstanding realism, a truly vivid soundstage and exquisite handling of vocals and instruments alike.  Not everyone can afford something at this level but this is an experience that every audiophile should add to their bucket list.

Sennheiser HE 1

WHAT WE LIKED  Superb build and design, exquisite audio quality
WHAT WE DIDN’T Not cheap
WE SAY The Sennheiser Orpheus HE 1 is one of the most exquisite, moving listening experiences that money can buy though you’ll need a hefty bank roll to enjoy it.

Specifications
Price 50,000 (about RM252,853)

HE 1 headphones
Frequency response 8Hz – 100,000 Hz
Diaphgram 2.4 micrometer, platinum-vapourised
THD (1kHz, 100dB SPL) 0.01%
Transducers Gold-vapourised ceramics

HE 1 Tube Amplifier
Housing Carrara marble
Tubes Vacuum tubes SE 8035

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