I've had a blog for a while where I post reviews of headphones ( mindtheheadphone.com ) I have the chance of owning or borrowing, but it's written in Portuguese. The reason is that there's not much out there in my language regarding headphones. I've reviewed quite a few headphones, but the one that stands out the most is, undoubtedly the Orpheus. So I thought about translating it and posting it here, and that's exactly what I've done.
It's long, as I write quite a lot, but believe me, I try to be informative and objective. Also, English is not my native language, so excuse me for any mistakes you might find. For those who manage to read this through to the end, I hope it's enjoyable!
First and foremost, I’d like to thank my good friend Hugo, an incredibly generous guy, for allowing me to spend a month with such a treasured headphone. It was amazing.
This review deals with what’s considered by most to be the greatest headphone ever made: the Sennheiser HE90, also known as the Orpheus.
It was created in order to be a statement product, so its intention is to show what Sennheiser is capable of – making it clear that it had the know-how to compete with the best Stax headphones sold at the time. As it was an electrostatic headphone, the Orpheus was actually launched as a system, containing the HE90 headphones and the HEV90 energizer, with a built-in DAC. It was launched at the beginning of the 90s, and only 300 units were made. The system cost a whopping US$15.000, with the possibility of buying extra headphones for US$7.500. However, at the beginning of the 2000s, a petition was organized by enthusiasts and sent to Jan Meier, a Sennheiser representative at the time, asking the manufacturer to build some more headphones. They agreed and around another 30 units were built. The one I have here is one of those units, precisely the number 17.
As every statement product, the HE90 is technically very impressive. The stators are built from a special glass, and the driver itself is coated with gold particles. Legend says that the manufacturing process was so complex that for each driver successfully assembled, another 9 made their way to the thrash can. Another legend says that Sennheiser never actually made any money with the Orpheus. This is in fact quite common with statement products – cars such as the Porsche 959, Bugatti Veyron and Lexus LFA come to mind. They’re not made to bring profit to the brand, but to show the world what they’re really capable of when they’ve got the time and the money.
The HEV90, however, is not that great, and is thought as a limitant to the HE90’s performance, especially considering its use with the internal DAC: don’t forget that this is a 20 year old product. This is not much if we consider drivers, but digital products, such as a DAC, can become seriously outdated. To make it worse, there have been several unannounced modifications to the HEV90, so some are considerably worse than others.
The HE90 I have here, as one of the latest units, did not come with the original energizer, and is powered by the HeadAmp Aristaeus – basically a thoroughly improved HEV90, but without a DAC section. As these headphones are usually considered somewhat coloured, the energizer is tailored to its specific characteristics, and the Aristaeus is usually regarded as the ultimate companion to the Orpheus.
With a $7.500 MSR at the time, one should expect utter perfection with this headphone. And that’s exactly what you get. It comes in a very luxurious wooden box, internally lined with blue silk. The HE90 itself is made entirely out of wood, metal, leather, velour and a tiny bit of plastic where the earpieces meet the headband.
It’s a really big circumaural, that resembles the HD600’s format, but a lot bigger. The comfort is as good as on the SR-007, if not better – which makes it easily one of the two most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn. It’s not particularly heavy, and the pressure it exerts on the sides of my head is ideal. The velour that touches the ear on the pads makes the user less prone to sweating as well.
The cable is very long, but doesn’t seem like an example of toughness to me. It’s considerably thinner than the SR-007’s cable, something that might not inspire confidence. However, that is not to say that it isn’t resistant – I don’t know, but then I’m not going to perform any tests to verify this. The connector, though, can probably be used as a weapon. It’s big, heavy and inspires a lot of confidence. The way with which it fits the jack on the Aristaeus is a lot more solid and precise than what you get with Stax headphones.
The Aristaeus is also a statement of excellence for Justin at HeadAmp in the art of building sound equipment. The fit and finish is nothing short of exceptional. The black mirror paint on the chassis is probably made with quite a few layers of paint, because it truly is a very deep black. The wood inserts are also a very nice addition to the energizer, making it assume a classier personality, that goes along nicely with the HE90.
So, where do we start when talking about a headphone like this?
I think it’s complicated to say that this is a perfect headphone. After all, that’s a subjective thing. It is, however, to me, the closest I’ve ever heard to sonic perfection – by a large margin.
To start with the bass: I’ve heard many headphones and many speakers, in truly high-end systems – such as Wilson Audio Puppy, Morel Fat Lady, Revel Ultima Salon, Jamo R907, Klipsch Palladium P39F, Dali Helicon... and I don’t hesitate for a second when I say that the bass in the Orpheus is the very best bass I’ve ever heard. Period. The texture, the details, the impact, the extension, are simply put, perfect. Each note, each slide of the bassist’s finger on the strings of his instrument, each breath of a baritone saxophone are heard with extreme clarity and with an unprecedented realism. It’s unbelieavable. For the first time, I feel that it’s not the headphone imposing the limit – it’s the recording. Whatever’s there will be shown in a completely faithful fashion by the Orpheus.
In terms of quantity, they seem absolutely passive to me, depending entirely on the source. If it’s there, it will show. If not, it’s not going to put it there. That’s it.
About the mids, I can just copy what I wrote above: utter perfection. The progression from the bass to the mids is spot-on – the mids present the same weight, warmness and neutrality of the low frequencies. The HE90 undoubtedly has one of the most convincing vocal performances I’ve ever heard on a headphone. Instruments don’t fall behind, and the organic manner with which it conveys anything that passes by it is staggering. This organicity is a characteristic that demands recordings of an extremely high standard in order to be appreciated – but when you do hear one of those recordings, the result is incredible.
By the way, another characteristic in the Orpheus that boggles the mind, and adds a great deal of realism to its performance, is the soundstage. What happens is that normal headphones project sound inside your head, or, at best, immediately in front of your ears. The AKG K1000 is completely different from other headphones in which it presents a small stage in front of the listener’s eyes. The HE90 is also different because it seems to put you in the middle of the room where the music’s happening. It literally feels like a window to the performance – sounds don’t seem to come from the headphone, but from outside. It’s really amazing.
However, this soundstage is not the last word in precision and pin-pointing of instruments. This is something that I really enjoy though, because it feels like a more immersive experience. However, some might prefer a more precise soundstage.
Also, like every electrostatic headphone I’ve heard – although better, but then I’ve never heard a 009 –, resolution seems infinite. There are no complex musical passages to the Orpheus.
The treble, however, is not that simple. The first impression I got was that they were slighly more present than what I’d like, a characteristic that compromises its performance for heavier genres. That problem is that, when you have forward treble, the general sound seems colder, and the amount of apparent detail extracts weight and warmness from the bass and mids – the impression is that you have a lot of information, and they draw your attention away from the necessary aggressiveness in the lower frequencies.
The problem is that, in this case, with acoustic pieces, the highs are again perfect – especially with classical music. The detail retrieaval is incredible, but they’re not thrown at the listener’s face. The extension is just ridicule, and the highs’ presence, as a final touch on the perfect rest of the spectrum, makes for a spot-on tonality in less frenetic genres. They also possess good weight, something to which I’m sensitive – I don’t like thin highs.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that it doesn’t do rock well; it does, very well, but I think that in those genres, something like a JH13Pro has more energy and authority. It sounds, with those particular pieces of music, more neutral. But what’s neutral after all?
The sheer quantity of steps and processes in order for the original performance to get to the listener’s ears is immense, and neutrality ends up being nothing more than an audiophile’s utopia, especially when we’re talking about amplified instruments. In this case, we can say that neutrality doesn’t even exist. There are countless variables.
I recently wrote a text about the subject, and I ended up at a conclusion: the original event gets recorded onto the media, and this process has a lot more variables than the reproduction of what’s on that media. As audiophiles, we’re well aware of how much different reproductions can be, even with reference systems, and the recording process is even more subject to alterations. So the point is that what’s on the media is usually a lot different from the original event, and consequently, just because something is true to the media, doesn’t mean it’s true to the original performance.
I find that comparing the HE90 to the HD800s illustrates my point very well. The HD800s are probably the best measuring headphones ever made, which means that, in theory, they’re extremely faithful to the media. However, to my ears, they sound cold, sterile and lifeless. The Orpheus, although much less neutral to the media, with its organicity and warmness, actually ends up being a lot more real, and portrays a much more convincing image of an actual musical performance.
Nevertheless, the result is that highly enhanced recordings, with heavy compression, do not sound very good with the HE90. This is not the headphones’ fault, as listening to older, less compressed music, such as Jimi Hendrix, makes clear.
The HE90 is, without a doubt, the best headphone I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening. It’s just so much better than everything else I’ve ever heard, so much more convincing. The only problem I have with it – the treble – seems to be a problem with the nature of some recordings, and not the headphone’s fault. And you can be sure that, apart from my slight reservation with the highs (and bear in mind it’s only present in heavy genres, such as heavy rock and metal, and even then, not all of them), there’s simply nothing I’d change about those headphones.
Many people accuse the HE90 of being overly euphonic and ultimately colored, but I have to vehemently disagree. What I hear from it is just miles in front of everything else I’ve ever heard from a headphone – well, apart from the HP1000, which to me is pretty much just as neutral, but in a completely different way. Its colorations might distance it from the media, but in my opinion, they bring it a lot closer to reality.
Besides the more common aspects observed in sound equipment, there are many other smaller ones, but ones that are necessary in order for a reproduction to be convincing. The instruments’ body, their size, how they behave in a recording space... obviously those aspects depend on the system as a whole, but what gives the last word is the end of the chain – in this case, the Orpheus.
And this is where it gives its ultimatum. That word I used at the beginning – organicity, a word which I borrowed from the set’s owner – represents exactly what the Orpheus does. It sounds organic, precisely because of its slight colorations. In the end, what I hear from it is alive, happening around me. The size of the instruments, the body, the stage, the weight, the reverberations, the breaths, the fingers passing through the strings...
It’s a portrait of what happened. It’s real.