Sennheiser HE-1 – Magnum Opus

Early ’90s were special for me; grunge and alternative rock reached new heights. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and a lot of others became the new trend of modern music.

The Prodigy had just invented a new stream of electronic music. At last, punk rock was cool and certainly not dead. Britney Spears posters was on every kids’ door.

Those ears were special also because Sennheiser has set out to create a legend, a myth, a unicorn. Thus in 1991 Sennheiser launches the HE-90 electrostatic headphones and HEV-90 tube-based headphone amp which together created the Sennheiser Orpheus system.

At that time the set was selling at the exorbitant $ 15,000, an unimaginable value at a time when the most expensive earphones cost $ 200-300.

Being a product released only for the most coveted head-philes, it was a limited edition where only 300 sets were produced.

A forgotten memory is that in the early 2000s a petition was written by Jan Meier (the man behind Meier Audio) that came directly into Sennheiser’s hands.

Sennheiser agreed to produce additional 30 sets for the most affectionate head-philes, so the total production run was 330 pieces.

For 26 years they had the status of the best headphones ever created.

Often provoked by the Japanese manufacturers such as Stax (SR-007, SR-009) and even by Sony (MDR-R10), Orpheus had the fiercest competition and yet have always been ranked at the top of the best headphones ever created.

In 2015 at the 70th anniversary of the brand, CEO Daniel Sennheiser was making a long-awaited announcement, officially confirming a successor to the legendary Orpheus, the Orpheus HE-1 system.

Ten years Sennheiser team led by Chief Engineer Axel Grell researched and developed what was to be embodied in the new HE-1, the next Magnum Opus of the German manufacturer.

The goal was simple, but almost impossible to be achieved: self-transcending your own creation and sculpting again the world’s best headphones without compromising anything, the final cost being the least concerning aspect.

Sennheiser designers have been given total freedom without being restricted by time, by the quality of materials, to these people have been given the opportunity to demonstrate their genius and creativity. Numerous patents have seen the daylight in this campaign, patents that are now embedded in HE-1.

Please meet: Sennheiser HE-1

Everything we see in front of us is actually a 3-in-1 system: a pair of electrostatic headphones, a tube-based headphone amplifier and a Hi-Resolution DAC.

In order to provide mechanical decoupling and total removal of vibrations the body of the amp was carved from Carrara marble, the same marble that was used to sculpt many masterpieces of the past such as David, Michelangelo’s Pieta, Trajan’s Column, Marcus Aurelius Column, and the examples can continue.

The amplifier is quite interesting, each tube from the total of eight is placed in a vacuum quartz cylinder to eliminate all vibrations from the outside environments and to keep the tubes at a constant temperature

The most interesting aspect is that the final amplification stage is located in the headphone cups to eliminate the capacitive resistance of the cable. MOSFET transistors inside the headphones are always in Class A and the aluminum fins around the cups are actually cooling radiators that prevent them from overheating.

These are electrostatic headphones; they do not use any magnets like the planar-magnetic or dynamic headphones.

The electrostatic driver consists of a fixed and a mobile electrode. Continuous voltage between the two creates an electric field that moves the mobile electrode. As in the case of planar-magnetic headphones, the entire surface of the mobile electrode radiates the entire audio frequency range as if a sound wall relentlessly strikes your eardrums.

The movable armature that creates the sound has a thickness of only 2.4 microns that is also platinum plated to improve stiffness of the diaphragm.

Measured frequency response is really impressive; it starts at 8 Hz up to more than 100 kHz in the same time registering the lowest total harmonic distortion of any audio diaphragm/driver ever created at just 0.01% at an acoustic pressure of 100 dB!

Internal DAC board uses an ESS 9018S Sabre DAC chip with 8 channels used in a balanced configuration; it was the highest performance commercial DAC chip of that time.

The internal DAC is capable of playing DSD and Hi-Resolution PCM files.

Honestly, I think the integrated DAC is not at the amp or headphone level, so we used a much more advanced external DAC, the QBD 76 HDSD from Chord Electronics.

As you can see, it’s a real experience turning on the system and observing how the internal motors are moving the analog pots.

Everything is superlative; manually assembling it over 6000 pieces are needed for building a single HE-1 set, the factory can assemble in the best conditions a system a day.

Carried away by music

Saturday, 11 march, 22:00 PM, I get a very short phone call.

My friend: Should we go and listen to the Orpheus 2 system?

Me: When?

My friend: NOW!

Not even 15 minutes passed by and we were already in front at the local Sennheiser dealer with a crowbar in our hands … I’m kidding, I was with keys in hand ready do open the showroom at midnight just to listen all night to the world’s best headphones.
Entering into the room I felt like a virgin before a horny night.

I didn’t care how the headphones looked, what they are made of, how cool the Sennheiser stamped vacuum tubes were or other things that were useless at the time.
I was interested in something else; I wanted to push that big gray button as fast as possible.
I just wanted to listen to music…

Being a skeptic by definition do not criticize any audio device until I listen to it.

So, I sat down nicely, having a USB stick at my fingertips with some of my favorite songs, I calmed my spirits and pressed Play with a crazy smile on my face.

The first track I listened was Radiohead – No Surprises from OK Computer.
I know this track very well, I even dream myself air-playing the guitar.
Saying that I had a magical experience would be a great injustice to the system, it was more than that.

Forget everything you know about headphones or speakers, dynamic, planar or electrostatic, it doesn’t matter, because what I’ve heard was different, a completely new experience.

I will say from the start that what I’ve heard was the best sound experience I ever felt.

I felt how I was starting to disappear, headphones didn’t disappear from my head – how usually a good set of headphones will do, No, I disappeared.

I really felt like I was the microphone and that I am not hearing a digital conversion or that an amplification stage follows and then there’s a playback. The music had become pure, floating around slowly towards me.

I swear that I was at a Radiohead concert, but lived experience was much more intense than that to see them live on stage.

I was listening with my eyes closed and my imagination started going crazy: bright colors, lights, childhood memories, all passing through my mind, I did not understand what is happening to me.

At the end of the song I understood that more real than that, better than that could not be possible.

Dear readers, today I will not write about bass response, about midrange, or treble, because none of that matters when listening to Orpheus HE-1.

Music heard was so pure and real, that general notions about sound are no longer valid, they simply disappear.

I open my eyes, I check my watch, and I realize I’ve been going for an hour, I turned my head and checked if my friend did not fell asleep. He confirmed that everything is ok and that we can continue.
Of course I listened to the whole album, I had to.

I like a song played by the boys at Zdob si Zdub called Ciobanasul vrea sa se desparta de oi. I do not understand why I like it, it’s not a complicated piece, it does not have dozens of instruments thrown in the background, it has nothing really special, yet it always energizes me.

I had entered a trance state, and I was seeing myself in green fields and far away hills.
The sounds were born (yes, this is the correct verb) of nothing, they were appearing so clear and fast in front of me. I have never heard a faster transient response, an instantaneous rise in dynamics, just lightning fast.

In my Audeze LCD-4 review I was saying the sound depth is really good, I do not know what to say about HE-1.

It was very deep, I noticed it especially on Pixies – Where is My Mind?

At some point in the song there is a secondary voice that sighs a “Uooouuoo”, well that voice on LCD-4 felt like it was 10 meters away from me, on HE-1 it was like about 50 meters away from me. A very, very deep performance, and I’m generally more impressed about the depth of sound than its width (soundstage size).

I do not know how but I opened my eyes again and 4 hours already passed.
I come back and see my friend in a semi-sleepy state.
At 2:30 AM we were back to our homes and I remember clearly how I did not say a word on my way back because I wanted to have my mind as clear as possible. I could now wait to get home and put on my Audeze LCD-4 to confirm that they were pretty close to the HE-1 performance.

Great was my disappointment when I started playing Pink Martini – Simpatique – exactly the last track I listened on HE-1 about 15 minutes ago.

I’ve heard a muddy, dull, heavy-oriented sound with no texture or shape, the voices we were unfocused, I’ve heard a very Big difference…

I got sad in that moment because I was hopping to hear at home at least 75% of what HE-1 are capable of, but it was not meant to be.

I could not take my thoughts out of my head, so today, March 14th, I told my colleagues that I have a stomach pain and that I am going to do medical check-up, so…I took a day off. But at 10:00 AM in the morning I was back with HE-1 on my ears. This time around I was armed with even more music. I know that was not fair, but having HE-1 for one day playing only for you it’s not an opportunity you want to miss.

I pressed the big gray button again and played a record that I really love, Gothart – Cabaret.
Above all, I was interested in the performance of the song Pana cand nu te iubeam. This Balkan music is not only greatly recorded and mixed but it also sounds very sweet and pleasant to my ears.

Closing my eyes, I felt how the musicians appeared in the listening room, all instruments sounded so real, a warm voice was touching my soul, I could not believe that in fact I was listening to a digital recording made in the past.

It seemed to me that people were singing right now in front of me, just for me. At the end of the song I wanted to pour them a glass of wine and thank them personally.

In fact, no jokes, at one point I started applauding at the end of a song, I was lucky to be alone in the listening room.

En extraordinary performance, magnificent, so true to life it was just unreal.

I continued with some rock and electronic music. I listened to Infected Mushroom and to some Vita de Vie.

Why Infected Mushroom? Because they have the best recorded and mastered electronic music I have ever listened to.

I heard lightning fast transients again, sounds that are born out of thin air were also present, every note hit me so hard in the eardrums that at the end of the song I felt like I participating at a bar fight. The impact and kick into eardrums was mind-boggling.

After I put them down, I could hear my ears ringing from the high volume I listened to, but I did not understand why, because in my mind I was not listening at a very high volume. I hardly realized that a virtually complete lack of distortions always creates a desire to rise the volume higher and higher.

These are exceptional headphones, everything sounded so clean, like putting my music under the magnifying glass, sound was so real and so alive, it was crystal-clear, smooth and very pleasing to my ears.
I noticed a new side-effect: on all the songs I listened to on HE-1, I heard new micro-details and small subtleties that I had not heard before, however they always seemed easy going, liquid somehow, smooth and calming.

Today, although I had listened to HE-1 for about 5 hours, I came home with a bright face, I felt so accomplished, as if something extraordinary happened.

HE-1 calmed me immediately after hitting the play button, there are very few headphones on the face of the earth that could do that.

They simply beam you into your world and you can stay there as much as you want, until your playlist ends, an extraordinary feeling!

As I said above, although I have tested the hell out of this thing, I could not find any cons, nothing.
To me these are the embodiment of perfection.

I swear that if tomorrow I win 55,000 Euros at the lottery, I’m not going to put off my mortgage loan, I would calm down my spirits daily at my home with an Orpheus HE-1 set. This way I would have 30 years to listen to music and pay my mortgage rates.

Bravo Sennheiser, I stand up, pull my hat off and applaud you with respect!
Bravo Sennheiser!

10 out of 10!

Associated Equipment:

Chord QBD76 HDSD, Sennheiser Orpheus HE-1, a pair of ears

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