Sennheiser Orpheus HE90 First Listen: So This Is What £10,000 Headphones Sound Like

By Brent Rose on at

In the early '90s, Sennheiser gave its engineers a mission: make the best headphones ever, irrespective of price. They came up with the Orpheus HE90. Only 300 were made, and they were initially sold for £10,000. Today, they sell for upwards of £18,500 on eBay.

The Orpheus is more proof-of-concept than anything else, with each set coming bundled with a dedicated tube amplifier (the HEV 90). There are six tubes in all, each protected by a metal casing. In the headphones themselves, there is a tonne of high-strength glass and gold, with the setup supposedly having a range of 7 to 100,000 hertz, which goes far beyond what human ears are capable of hearing. The amp has an LED that flashes as it's warming up (yes, these headphones need to warm up before you use them), and a dedicated volume control. Sennheiser claims it will support up to two headphones, but if you want a second pair, you're looking at £4,000 -- if you can even find 'em, that is.

Components aside, the package looks absolutely gorgeous. It's something you would want to prominently display in your living room, simply because it's a work of art. Looking more like it's something from the '60s, with its shining metal and its soft brown leather, the cups are very large, and unless you have very large ears they'll definitely fit inside. Sorry, Mr. Marr. They are nicely padded, and they feel like something you'd never want to take off.

So, how do they sound? The clarity is absolutely unbelievable. There was so much detail, especially in the highs and mids, that it was almost like having your ear up against an acoustic guitar. It was so sharp that it was almost distracting, though I suspect you'd get used to it (and then get spoiled by it) over time. Vocals sounded incredibly natural and realistic. When I had my hands-on session, it was hooked up to a JR 800 Trans Rotor record player, which was playing Stockfisch Records' Vinyl Collection 180g "Audiophile Vinyl Pressing." It was basically Cat Stevensesque folky stuff, so I couldn't evaluate the bass, but I've been told it's not as deep as more modern headphones. There is an excellent balance though.

So, was it really enough to make me shed a tear? Not really. It was amazing and beautiful, but newer reference headphones (like Sennheiser's £1,000 HD 800, which I was able to listen to right next to the Orpheus) sound almost as good, and have fuller bass. At the same time, they do sound more... digital. The Orpheus is pretty much the ultimate in analogue. If you ever get a chance to listen to them, please take it.