Sennheiser's readily-available headphone range is topped-off by the Sennheiser HD 800, widely considered to be some of the best headphones ever made. We love them, even though they cost a grand. However, the Sennheiser Orpheus HE 90 make them look like a small fry effort. These eye-wateringly expensive headphones cost more than £10,000. If they're not the best things we've ever heard, we'll be bitterly disappointed.
This is the first time we've had a chance to go ears-on with the Sennheiser Orpheus headphones, but they're not actually brand-new. Originally released in 1991, they have returned, like the phoenix – or Take That – to recapture out hearts during CES 2013. And they're not about often - only 300 pairs were made.
Before you switch off at the idea of a pair of headphones that costs the same as a decent car, consider that the price also includes a powerful and downright majestic tube headphone amplifier, the Sennheiser HEV 90. A bargain? Perhaps not, but this is a headphone set that functions as a status symbol, a lounge centrepoint and a sublime way to show off.
One of the reasons why Sennheiser supplies the Opheus HE 90 with the HEV 90 amplifier is because these are electrostatic headphones. This type of headphone is notoriously power-hungry, not able to sing without the right partner.
Electrostatic headphones do not use a standard driver, but a large film of material, producing less distortion than the dynamic kind. Headphones of this kind are renowned for their accuracy and speed – many truly high-end headphones are electrostatic.
The Sennheiser Orpheus HE 90 headphones are beautiful things, far more traditional-looking than the sci-fi style Sennheiser HD 800. The earcups are lined with wood, the "grain" of which has been carefully selected to match the curves of the headphones themselves, and their backs covered by an understated black grille. Headphones don't get more open-backed than these.
Unlike the Grado PS1000, the most expensive headphones we've reviewed in the last few years, they're comfortable too. They don't weigh a great deal, and the velour/leather earpads are just as comfortable as Sennheiser's most comfy pairs. Aside from the price, and the size of the gargantuan HEV 90 amp, these headphones are easy to live with. They don't look embarassing like the classic STAX electrostats, and don't weigh a ton like the Grados.
Sennheiser plugged the set into a seriously high-end vinyl player armed with Chris Jones's No Sanctuary Here. It's not on the usual Trusted Reviews playlist, but made for perfect reference material. Talking about the Sennheiser Oprheus HE 90 headphones in isolation is a bit pointless because, as you'd expect, it's utterly fantastic. Jaw-dropping clarity, headroom and resolution are here in spades.
Sennheiser also equipped its listening room with the Sennheiser HD 800, a perfect comparison for the virtually peerless Orpheus HE 90.
The Sennheiser Oprheus HE 90 made the HD 800 sound thin and anaemic in comparison – the HD 800 are accused by some of being a little clinical, but their performance across the spectrum is superb. In this regard, the tonal balance might be compared to the Sennheiser HD 650. But, of course, the Oprheus headphones are in another class.
Where the Sennheiser HD 800 provide intense, macro-like detail in the top registers, marking them out as world-class headphones, the Sennheiser Orpheus HE 90 offer this sort of detailing, but in the mid-range as well as the treble. The lifelike imaging of the human voice in particular is staggering.
The separation of instruments and the coherence of soundstage is the best we've ever heard. And yet all this technical brilliance is delivered with a tonality that's still flat-out enjoyable. They're smooth-sounding and rich, in a manner that usually results in a dumbing-down of clarity – the mids are just too quick in their attack for that though. The one sonic element we've heard better elsewhere is bass depth, but without proper A/B testing and a more extensive listen, we can't be too sure anyway.
The Sennheiser Oprheus HE 90 are headphones few – if any – of us will ever own. Not only are they incredibly pricey, they're hard to get hold of too. But if you get the chance, we seriously recommend wrapping a pair around your head.