Words: Jeremy White
How much should one pay for a decent pair of headphones. Fifty pounds? Well, if you can bear to, more than £250 is a good general rule, I’d say – but if you are serious about your sound, you can shell out considerably more.
Way back in 1990, audio manufacturer Sennheiser brought out a pair called the Orpheus HE 90 that was the result of an R&D mission to create ‘the finest headphones ever made’. At the time, only 300 were made, and they sold for the princely sum of £12,000 each – now, however, these iconic cans change hands on eBay for more than twice that amount.
After allowing it 25 years’ rest and recuperation, Sennheiser’s audiophile division has finally gone back to its lauded creation, tinkered away and worked its magic once more. The new Orpheus headphones will retail at £30,000, which makes them the most expensive in the world. Quite an accolade.
Available from next year, they combine a set of electrostatic headphones with a valve pre-amp and DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) – all dressed in Italian Carrara marble. The use of marble is for more than decoration, as it results in less distortion for the valves, which are extremely sensitive. ‘The properties of marble optimally protect the amplifier’s core, and its unique structure turns each Orpheus into an individual work of art,’ says Maurice Quarré, director of Select & Audiophile at Sennheiser.
In total, some 6,000 components are needed to manufacture each Orpheus, and it takes a whole day to assemble one unit. The good news is that, this time, there will be no limited run, although Sennheiser admits that, owing to the complex construction, the company is physically unable to make more than 250 a year, so availability will inevitably reflect this.
Unlike other beautiful hi-fi products launched over the years, the headphones’ performance thankfully matches their arresting looks. They produce a claimed 8–100kHz frequency response, which is phenomenal. To give you some idea of the range on offer here, this is in fact beyond what human ears are capable of hearing: elephants can register sounds around that very low 8Hz range, and only bats will be able to pick up the 100,000Hz top end.
Sennheiser also claims they have a harmonic distortion of just 0.01 per cent, which, if true, means the lowest distortion ever measured in a sound system. However, Orpheus’s real party trick is the show it puts on even before you listen to any music. When you turn it on, the controls on the front and the valves on the top of the amp rise out from the marble, and a glass lid lifts to give access to the headphones themselves. It’s pure theatre and delights every time the sequence occurs. If you have very deep pockets, the bragging rights are certainly yours.