Welcome to the World of Head-fi

Ethan McAulay joined a hopelessly short list of people to experience the audio holy grail that is the Sennheiser HE 1: the greatest headphone system in the world.

March 22, 2017
The headphone system… restores something which is typically lost in the recording process: the consciousness.

I went to a 5-star hotel in Bangkok to listen to an Ed Sheeran track on a pair of 1.9million baht headphones.

Yeah. But, hear me out on this one.

Sennheiser grasped the esteemed position as manufacturers of the greatest headphones in the world at the 1990 launch of the Orpheus—a piece of equipment so ludicrously-engineered that audiophiles around the world are willing to pay up to of $200,000 for a used pair of the ultimate cans online. Limited to 300 pairs at the time of production, the original Sennheiser Orpheus set the high water mark for not only what a pair of headphones is capable of doing, but for what a real audio enthusiast can expect in the money-no-object category of audio equipment.

The title was never taken from Sennheiser. Audio equipment progressed in a digital era, before being pushed further into the niche by an emphasis on portability, wireless connectivity, and functionality. Think of headphones today and an endless parade of plastic, brand-focussed products will come to mind. In a world dominated by bluetooth and low-quality digital song files, equipment stopped mattering. The manufacturers of the highest-end equipment focussed their attention on drastically improving their products for a diminishing market, or sacrificing quality for mainstream appeal. Sennheiser themselves are among that number of companies chasing the Spotify user.

And then, in 2016, they announced the HE 1. Sennheiser called it the new Orpheus. A bold claim for a company that hasn’t publicly attempted to match the esteem of the original head gear in 25 years. In a whirlwind of superlative, luxury, and adjectives, Sennheiser had announced something far more significant than the finished product: they were still determined to make the best headphones in the world.

This is no mean feat, and the finished product doesn’t pretend that it is. Sennheiser set its engineers the hyperbolic task and the organisation’s best spent a decade testing, developing, and refining at the very limit of technological possibility. The HE 1’s 6000 components were all hand-selected for the challenge, after every option of creating a superior alternative had been exhausted. The platinum-vaporised electrostatic diaphragms are 2.4micrometers thin. Each cup is supplied by four parallel stereo channels, which are fed through four individual ESSE DAC units. Two amplifiers are located right next to the drivers, enabling the enormous power load to be efficiently transferred, without loss, to the greedy diaphragms. The integrated amp is made from carrara marble and seamless, machined alloys—materials chosen for their superior damping qualities. The tubes are suspended in grounded, quartz-glass bulbs, offering protection from atmospheric sound and electromagnetic interference. The dials are milled from a single piece of bronze and plated in chrome. The transducers are gold-vaporized ceramic. The cabling is oxygen-free copper, housed in silver and specially-developed casings. The headphone system reproduces sound at frequencies above and below the audible range for humans, with an impossibly-low 0.01% distortion factor.

The stats, the materials, the process, and the jargon; this the reality of hi-fi, and the detailed snobbery that comes with it. You may get lost. It’s OK to admit that.

Broken into its simplest terms, the HE 1 is a luxury piece of audio equipment created without a budget, which will give you an unmatched listening experience from any high-quality audio source.

Including Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You”, one of the tracks offered by the Sennheiser representatives during an exclusive listening session at Bangkok’s St. Regis Hotel. This is a song played so often, in so many ways, that you are able to quickly forget how it is supposed to sound. It’s background noise for even the most die-hard Ed Sheeran fan. Run it at lossless quality through the HE 1 and you are made intimately aware of every recorded detail of this punchy pop song. The instrumentation is separate, the vocals are true, and the clarity gives an experience akin to standing in the studio at the time of recording. There is so much equipment and technology involved in converting the song into the ludicrous dynamic range in your ears that you start to wonder how much more could be achieved by recording the song on better equipment in the first place. To challenge the notion, I listened to “Worry, Worry” from the legendary B.B. King album Live at The Regal, an album recorded in the strictly analog era of ‘pure’ reproduction. The effect was transformative. Involuntary toe-tapping, grinning, and squealing was induced. The HE 1 gave every detail in the venue its proper place and purpose, with dizzying clarity. With these colossal cans on your head, you lose yourself in the sounds presented, catching out musicians’ faults which would be otherwise indiscernible. The headphone system therefore restores something from live music which is typically lost in the recording process: the consciousness.

I want to agree that that’s taking it too far, but I can’t. Sit in front of the world’s greatest headphones, watch the knobs and tubes rise automatically from a solid block of the material used to sculpt Michelangelo’s David, see the suspended tubes glow, and place the leather and alloy head gear over your head and try to describe the experience for anyone. It’s unlike any hi-fi experience ever before offered on this, or any, planet.

And with production runs unlimited, there’s a chance that you’ll actually have the chance to do so. Although the time taken to craft each pair by hand means the Sennheiser facility can’t produce more than 250 sets per year, if you get in the queue you can experience the HE 1 for yourself in the not-too-distant future. But, bring a cheque book.

The Sennheiser HE 1 is available exclusively through the Sennheiser Concierge service online. Prices start at 50,000EUR for the model tested. 

See the impressive range of Sennheiser headphones at every price point here.