We had the pleasure of a listening session with the US$55,000 (about S$80,000 with taxes included) HE 1, the follow-up to the original Orpheus system back in 1991.
The HE 1’s production took an entire decade, proving Sennheiser’s pursuit of perfect sound is more than just a tagline. As of now, more than 200 units of the HE 1 has been pre-ordered, and given that each unit takes 1-1.5 days to product, you’ll have to wait about a year if you want to join the exclusive HE 1-owning club.
The HE 1 is not just a pretty pair of headphones. It comes with an integrated amp that uses eight quartz-encased vacuum tubes to deliver the purest of sound to listeners. They’re suspended in a block of Carrara marble to protect them from distortion. If your heart so desires, you can customise it in jade, too.
The whole thing starts up with a flourish worthy of its price tag, the buttons and tubes sinking into the block of marble to make it solid, and the case opening to reveal the electrostatic headphones (hence the name HE).
But enough of appearances, it’s the sound that matters.
Sennheiser executives created a degustation menu of music designed to give listeners a taste of what the HE 1 can deliver. When the first track started, I was immediately startled. When did a full orchestra sneak into the room and set up right behind me? Of course, that wasn’t what happened, but that was what it sounded like and I’m not exaggerating at all.
The music quality was so balanced and natural that it was completely believable that I was witnessing a live performance. The soundstage was wide enough that I didn't feel like I was in a tiny Sennheiser sound demo room, but sat in a cavernous concert hall instead, able to tell where each instrument was positioned on the stage.
Aside from what was offered, I requested a few other tracks, crossing different genres from pop (Buzzcut Season by Lorde) to EDM (Freaks by Savage). It really is quite strange listening to the latter on the HE 1, you get a lot of detail you’d never otherwise get the chance to pay attention to, but less of the party effect.
Another track that left an impression on me was a live performance of Hotel California and it wasn’t even because of the song itself. It was the build-up to the song, when the opening strains came on and the crowd went wild. I felt like I was right in the middle of them and I could tell if the whistling was coming from behind me to the left or right, and even make out each clap. It was so incredibly atmospheric.
Ah, Luigi I’ve listened to the same video with different pairs of headphones and with the HE 1. The difference is planets apart.
While there have been moments of realism with other audio gear, the HE 1 was consistently realistic with extreme clarity like I had the supersonic hearing powers of a bat. I had to force myself to stop laughing from nervousness or pushing away my virtual barber as I was completely conscious of the three Sennheiser executives watching my reaction. Spoiler alert: when that whisper came at 4:10, I swear I felt his breath on my neck. It was that creepily real.
The last time I truly felt the transcendental effect of music was when I heard Sigur Ros live at Pukkelpop in 2008. With the HE 1, it’s safe to say that that your soul will float right out of your body in aural bliss each time you listen to it.
Of course, the HE 1 is not for everyone. Yes, they’re balanced with excellent sound separation and If you use Spotify as your main source of music, you’re better off sticking with the earphones that came with your smartphone. It’s for people who appreciate the finer details of music, while sipping their vintage Krug and admiring the view from their penthouse.
If you're not one of those, make friends with people who are and then make excuses to go over whenever possible. Trust me, it's worth it.