Sennheiser is the rare audio company that makes everything from $15 earbuds you can find at suburban gas stations to multi-thousand-dollar reference systems used to master Billboard chart-toppers. With the new Orpheus headphone system, the company may have created the best headphones ever.
Back in 1991, Sennheiser unveiled the Orpheus HE90, a combination headphone amplifier and pair of headphones meant for the most rabid audiophiles. Only 300 sets were made, and they sold for $16,000 each (with a second pair of headphones running an additional few grand). Today, if you can even find someone willing to part with one, an Orpheus HE90 could set you back close to $50,000. I once had the opportunity to listen to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon on an Orpheus, and it delivers a totally different listening experience.
The new Orpheus, announced on Tuesday, Nov. 3, is meant to be the successor. It embodies the same spirit, packing as much technology as possible into a single box-and-cans unit. There are over 6,000 individual components, including everything from the tiniest transistors to the all-natural white Carrera marble housing. (You've read that correctly.) Materials such as gold and platinum-plated ceramic are used throughout for maximum conductivity and performance, not (just) because they sound good on a spec sheet.
When you toggle the power on the Orpheus, the chromium- plated brass knobs automatically come out from behind the marble, the glass headphone case opens up, and the tubes emerge from their containers. Listening to this isn't so much an action as an experience.
The amplification process comes in two parts. First, the eight vacuum tubes. Tubes give that natural, warm sound that makes audiophiles go crazy, but they can hiss and let noise enter from the surroundings. Sennheiser puts forth that the marble enclosure is meant to be more than just pretty: It isolates the tubes and dampens noise, letting the Orpheus get the tone of the tubes without intruding fuzz. The skeptic in me wonders if something less ostentatious, such as cork, couldn't have been equally effective. (Would it look as striking?)
Digital amplification then kicks in, not in the table-top box but in the headphones. This is where the new Orpheus differs from any other headphone-amp combo: Given that the signal is amplified closer to the final output location, you don't get noise, power loss, or interference along the long cable. This is only possible with an all-in-one system.
The only thing not included is your music.
For that, you can use the array of inputs on the back to connect nearly any audio source imaginable. The tubes and enclosure are the eye-catching bits, but it's the digital-to- analog converters (DACs) and signal processors inside that are key to making the Orpheus work. There are eight DACs in total, two sets of four (one for the left channel and one for the right), meaning that audio sources go through four passes of processing before being passed to the amplifier. This, again, cuts noise and makes sure every little detail in the source is teased out.
A caveat: Do not try to plug your iPhone into the back of the Orpheus. Just don't. You want a high-resolution audio player, a quality turntable, or even a good CD player as your source. You wouldn't try to run a Ferrari on low-grade octane, would you? The Orpheus is meant for getting every little drop of goodness out of music; overly compressed files have already had that stuff removed. The frequency response range of 8 Hz to more than 100 kHz is wider than what the human ear can recognize, but the easy-to-stream tracks that sound great on your favorite earbuds don't even come close to that range.
The new Orpheus will not be available until sometime in mid-2016, when it will probably retail somewhere in the $50,000 to $60,000 range. It will not be a limited edition, as the first Orpheus was, but no more than 250 will be produced each year.