REVIEW: Sennheiser HE90 "Orpheus" vs. Stax Omega 2
Jun 15, 2004 at 6:19 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 44

eric343

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[size=small]The Sennheiser HE-90 “Orpheus headphones” vs. the Stax SR-007 “Omega 2”[/size]

Associated equipment:
Kevin Gilmore Solid State electrostatic headphone amplifier with outboard high-end Condor linear +/-15V supply
Audiogeek Nitrogen cables
Arcam CD72T CD player, though during the course of the review the headphones were compared on a broad range of sources from the 47 Labs Shigaraki transport/DAC to the Rockport Sirius III turntable.

The Contenders
The Sennheiser HE90s are supremely comfortable. You barely notice that you have them on; there is a slight ring of pressure sensed around the ears and on the top of the head, but otherwise – nothing. The Sennheiser HD600s were evidently designed on a similar principle of fit, yet in comparison the HD600s feel tight, cheap, and crude. Even the cord of the HE90 is supple and flexible, which is a surprisingly nice feature since it doesn’t pull on the headphones.

The Stax SR-007 (Omega 2) are an entirely different animal. They use lambskin ear pads, which are very comfortable for about an hour before they start getting warm, at which point I either switch to the HE90s (which are good for hours) or open a window to cool the room down. The headband is supremely well designed -- I don’t feel it at all. It requires no adjustment, unlike the HE90 headband that extends and retracts much like the HD600 headband.

The Sound
The HE90 sound is one of fantastic openness, of space. Partly the result of the insane frequency response of these headphones – up to 100kHz – and partly the result of the slightly bright tonality, I have with the possible exception of the AKG K1000 never heard imaging like this from a headphone. The perspective of the HE90s’ can be one of the conductor, with the symphony stretching out before you, the choir behind it, and individual instruments in their individual places. The perspective of the HE90s’ can be inside the machine, with the band eerily blocking your way. It all depends on what the performers and recording engineers wanted – not what the headphone designers wanted. Nearly everyone – including several musicians –who has had a chance to hear my system with classical music or jazz has commented on how it sounds exactly like being in a concert hall; one particular audiophile remarked that it was an experience he’d never forget.

In contrast, the Omega2s have more channel separation than the HE90. This manifests itself as a wider soundstage that’s not nearly as recording dependent as the soundstage on the HE90s. The Omegas take the instrument placement of the HE90s and shove it out a bit further and towards the rear. Most noticeably, however, the Omega 2 soundstage is incredibly three-dimensional and detailed, in that the Omega 2 are one of the few headphones I’ve ever heard that actively distinguish between the sonic foreground and the sonic background. However, it is important to note that the Omega 2s don’t attempt to duplicate the wide-open quality of the Sennheisers. The Omega 2s give the impression that they are giving the listener the music, the whole music, and nothing but the music. There is a sense of airy space occasionally, but it is highly dependent on the recording—whereas the HE90s place every performance in a defined, physical space with its own characteristics, the Omega 2s often give the impression that the music is performed floating in a space with no boundaries. Overall, this might be considered an offshoot of the more relaxed tonality that the Omega 2s have. They don’t try to express themselves, they just let the music flow.

Like most electrostatic headphones, the HE90s have incredible detail. I have yet to hear any driver – dynamic, electrostatic, headphone, or speaker – that matches the level of detail that the HE90s are capable of. The snap and boom of the cannons in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 or the crisp snap of the drums in a Sousa march are reproduced at a level head and shoulders above anything else. The headphone’s greatest strength could, in fact be considered an offshoot of one of its greatest disadvantages. Unlike speakers, nearly all headphones have a close-in soundstage, with no instrument located more than a meter or two from the head. Yet the HE90s turn this into a great advantage both by surrounding the listener and by reproducing the recording as if through a magnifying glass. These headphones allow you to pay attention and notice every nuance, every minor detail of the recording in unmatched accuracy. Many recordings with less than stellar productions become glaringly obvious. Fortunately, the HE90s do not let their fidelity get in the way of the music. Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, for example, may sound grainy and crude on the HE90s – yet it loses not a whit of its fun toe-tapping quality! In fact much of the distortion that sounds harsh and sharp on other components is revealed as even and round, making the recording considerably more listenable without covering up or smoothing over detail.

On the other hand, the Omega 2s don’t flaunt their detail. In fact, I once remarked that it sounded more like a dynamic headphone than an electrostatic one! For one, they have a much slower decay than the Sennheiser HE90. When playing a sharp, instantaneous sound – such as the claps on Strauss’ Banditen Galop (Telarc/ Kunzel) – the sudden spike is accompanied by a greater degree of reverberation on the Omega 2s. [1] Indeed, the Omega 2s seem dark and dominated by their lower end when one first hears them. The detail and treble that one normally associates with an electrostatic design are eclipsed by a feature that isn’t normally associated with electrostats. The bass is, in short, mindblowingly, insanely, unbelievably good. Like a truly fine piece of chocolate, it is rich and addictive, yet it is not boomy or restricted to a single note. At times subtle, at times powerful and overt, it is by far the most amazing feature of the Stax Omega 2. Drum hits are clean, deep, and dry while cello and double-bass notes are vivid and alive, their harmonics reaching into the depths of the frequency range and revealing an entirely new dimension to the music. Many headphones require a bass-boost function to reproduce certain low notes, and as a result, normally audible parts of the bass-region are accentuated unnaturally. The Omega 2s, on the other hand, handle these notes natively and without any exaggeration, revealing the great and majestic elements of the music in a fashion that is nothing short of utterly breathtaking.

All this assumes that you’re listening to music where fidelity and sound quality was a serious concern throughout the recording and mastering chain. With discs like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “What Hits?!”, all bets are off. The Red Hot Chili Peppers aren’t known for their well-recorded albums, which cause the HE90s’ brightness to be accentuated out of all proportion while they shows a an incredible aversion to bass notes of any flavor. The Stax Omega 2, however, gets its groove on. The soundstage is rich and three dimensional with depth and breadth and incredible spatial separation. There is a sense that the performance is more than simply a recording, that it is actually there. To compare the CD with the Red Hot Chili Peppers live concert the reviewer attended would be absolutely laughable, of course – there’s no way a rock concert could approach this level of fidelity. The treble issues that I identified earlier with well-recorded music do not seem to be present at all with, uh, less-well recorded rock music. While the HE90 still take home the prize in the detail category, you just can’t beat the Omega 2 in naturality and fun factor. Radiohead’s “Planet Telex” sounds liquid and clear with a slightly warm tonality and absolutely no headache factor. Don’t even get me started on the bass. Deep, powerful, and incredibly addictive, it is probably the single biggest feature of the Omega 2s and definitely one of the reasons that badly recorded music sounds so damn good. To make matters ‘worse’, the Kevin Gilmore solid state amp easily puts out, so that at several points I found myself reaching for the volume control when I realized I had been listening at unwise levels.

This is not to say, however, that the Omega 2 are only good for badly-recorded music. The midrange of the Omega 2 is warm and liquid in the sense of the best vacuum-tube amplifiers. The music flows like water, while retaining a warm quality akin to a down sleeping bag on a cold winter night. The trumpets in Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien (Dorati / Mercury Living Presence ) are clean and creamy, accompanied perfectly by the pizzicato bass and wonderfully pure, textured clarinets. Though the HE90s do have better detail, snare drums on the Omega 2 most definitely don’t lack texture and in fact the whole treble region has the high resolution that is a noted characteristic of electrostatic drivers. The soundstage is amazingly three-dimensional and precise down to the nanometer: the cymbals in Glieré’s Russian Sailor’s Dance (Telarc / Slatkin) stand on an island in the middle of an ocean of symphony washing around but not over them.

Similarly, the incredible detail, transparency, midrange (and did I say detail?) of the HE90s takes the meaning of the word “fidelity” to a whole new level. In my system, the HE90s present the recording as it is, in perfect detail with almost nothing left out and nothing thrown in. They are the single most transparent headphones that I have ever heard and, as such, are truly the reference standard by which all components can be judged. When I audition cable prototypes, it is the Sennheiser HE90s that reveal flaws and nuances that are almost inaudible on lesser systems. At the same time, the HE90s’ transparency makes for an immediate and gripping quality that makes it almost impossible to get work done while listening to certain recordings. (The DG/Gardiner/Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique recording of Beethoven’s symphonies (all of them!) springs immediately to mind as an excellent example.) When it comes to sheer attack, the HE90s have it. Drum hits rise up out of nowhere with thunderous results; listening to a Beethoven symphony becomes akin to riding a canoe through a picturesque South American river with an occasional drop off Niagara Falls. The HE90s simply sound more real than any other headphone I’ve ever heard.

Purchasing
Originally available as part of the $15,000 Sennheiser Orpheus system, a few pairs of HE90 headphones may be still available from various retailers at a price of $6000 and up.

The Stax Omega 2 can be purchased from numerous American dealers and at a considerable discount from EIFL in Japan.

[1] It is possible that this difference is the result of the much higher frequency response of the HE90s – up to 100kHz on the HE90s vs. 41kHz with the Omega2s. As a result, the snap (which can be visualized as a sudden impulse) is passed through a low-pass filter with a lower cutoff frequency. Applying the ideas behind the Fourier transform to this situation, the reduction of the cutoff frequency of the low-pass filter would result in a greater degree of “ringing” around the pulse – which would be audible as reverberation or a slower decay.
 
Jun 15, 2004 at 6:36 AM Post #2 of 44

NotoriousBIG_PJ

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Nice review! I found myself paying attention through the whole review (uncommon for more hehe). Its obvious you spent a lot of time getting your descriptions down pat.

Biggie.
 
Jun 15, 2004 at 6:57 AM Post #3 of 44

xtreme4099

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i concur with your opinions eric ...mad propz .... fo-shizzle ...
 
Jun 15, 2004 at 6:59 AM Post #4 of 44

Shang-Ti Chen

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Time to put this in the featured review section?
biggrin.gif
 
Jun 15, 2004 at 7:05 AM Post #5 of 44

Nik

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As you know tha only one hi-end headphones I never had and listened is the Sennheiser Orpheus... now, thanks to Eric, I can say that I know them very well and is exactly as I was thinking about them.

All you considerations about the Omega II are very correct and precise, I agree with all your single words.

I was just writing something about the Omega II as the most "dynamic electrostatic" can ... but you have said this mutch better than my intention... (and especially than my english!).

And (even not considering the insane price different between the two cans) i PREFER all those "dynamic" caracteristic of the Omega II than a so typical electrostatic sound as the Orpheus has.

Thanks a lot Eric! This is the most credible sytentic rew of the Omega II.

Best!
Nicola

PS:
Now, you only need to try some Egmont amps with these two outstanding headphones ... (!?).
 
Jun 15, 2004 at 7:08 AM Post #6 of 44

eric343

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Quote:

Originally Posted by Nik
PS:
Now, you only need to try some Egmont amps with these two outstanding headphones ... (!?).



I'll gladly try some if someone will send me theirs!
smily_headphones1.gif
 
Jun 15, 2004 at 7:10 AM Post #7 of 44

Nik

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Quote:

Originally Posted by eric343
I'll gladly try some if someone will send me theirs!
smily_headphones1.gif



...the only problem is that my unit (the only one exemplar) is 230 volt version. May be Wayne ... ???

Best!
Nicola
 
Jun 15, 2004 at 7:20 AM Post #8 of 44

Wmcmanus

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Incredible review, Eric. You've been careful in wording your review to focus on the characteristics you've observed about each of these world class cans, and you are correct in your conclusion that the reader should draw his or her own conculsions! Don't anwser the inevitable "So which do you like better?" question that is bound to follow in this discussion; that would spoil the fun for those who still want to go on the journey themselves.

Based on what I've heard at the past two NY meets, my impressions are in line with yours concerning the incredible detail, and slightly forward nature of the HE90's. This makes it very hard to quickly A/B them against the O2's (under meet conditions and with limited time) because the tonal balance of each is so strikingly different. What happens, I believe, is that people at meets get divided based on their gut reactions to these very different sonic signatures, and never have a chance to get past that to the point that they can fully appreciate and evaluate the strengths of each.

You wouldn't be coming to Cayman (with your HE90's) any day soon, would you?
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Jun 15, 2004 at 7:24 AM Post #9 of 44

Nik

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Go Eric... vacation time arrived... and Cayman are so nice place ... (Wayne has the Egmont Signature... you will can to try it with both the headphones...).

Best!
Nicola
 
Jun 15, 2004 at 7:31 AM Post #10 of 44

bangraman

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Fascinating review by someone who can stack these side by side and give them a fair hearing. Thanks eric. I'd also like to see the other-side review, a comparison of the SR-007 and HE90 on the Orpheus amp. Perhaps if I get a converter cable made up for the SR-007, jatinder can be persuaded...??
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Jun 15, 2004 at 7:35 AM Post #11 of 44

Wmcmanus

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Quote:

Originally Posted by bangraman
Perhaps if I get a converter cable made up for the SR-007, jatinder can be persuaded...??
biggrin.gif



Tom (bozebuttons) has a converter cable that he might be willing to lend out, but you would have to check with him. IIRC, the one he has cost about $90 to make.
 
Jun 15, 2004 at 7:36 AM Post #12 of 44

eric343

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Quote:

Originally Posted by Wmcmanus
You wouldn't be coming to Cayman (with your HE90's) any day soon, would you?
biggrin.gif



I'd like to. At this point my parents seem to be leaning towards the South Pacific (Tahiti and Bora Bora) as a vacation destination due to fear of being stuck inside while it rains, though
frown.gif


Wayne, you may have to attend the next Seattle Meet... (my HE90s and KGSS attend every Seattle Meet and minimeet -- it's a tradition.)

Bangraman, I'm able to make up Stax <--> Orpheus connectors. Due to minimum order requirements, they're available in a complete set (Stax headphones to Orpheus amp and Orpheus headphones to Stax amp) only, and cost $250 or so for the set. (That's the parts and shipping cost -- $99 for the Stax Signature extension cord [which I use for connectors and cable], and $140 minimum order for the Orpheus connectors, plus shipping! I do it as a service to fellow owners of ultra-high-end headphones.)
 
Jun 15, 2004 at 7:39 AM Post #13 of 44

zcx

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First, I should say:" Well done, Eric!"
You gave a really good review on these two Headphones.

BUT~~~
Second, I do not agree with you for some part or some opinion of the review.

I used to compare these four systems:
Orpheus(HE90/HEV90) VS (SR007/KGSS) VS (R10/HR2) VS Baby Orpheus(HE60/HEV70).
What I got from these system was:
the most detail and musical system is Orpheus(HE90/HEV90).
Maybe you should try to find a HEV90 to drive the HE90s,
BECAUSE "ORPHEUS" MEANS HE90 and HEV90 together. Not one part of the whole System! The HE90 and HEV90 is called Orpheus, and of course, this is the most Musical system I have ever heard!!
A single HE90 with other amp, can be called a Great Combo, but I do not think it can be called as "orpheus"!
I am not meaning that the KGSS or whatever you use to compare is not good, but I think the HEV90 is the BEST amp for HE90, Sennheiser used to spent more than 2 Years time on the research of HEV90, and what I really agree from my listening experience is, YES, HEV90 is the best for the HE90.
HE90/HEV90 combo can show the BEST MUSICAl sound.
On other amps, maybe HE90 can be also good, but it surely lost some MUSICAL! It becomes more detail or bright or whatever, but just not as musical as the HEV90. That why Sennheiser gave this combo (HE90/HEV90) a name which called ORPHEUS!

In my ownership of these four systems, I DO think 007/KGSS is a GREAT combo, everything is just PERFECT, but not as musical as Orpheus does!

Further more, for the R10, the only amp I use on it was HR2, so I do not have enough different listening experience to say about how R10 is.


Anyway, I agree most of your opinions except the point I showed above.
It is nice to see such a review on these TOP headphones.
icon10.gif


Regards.


Felix
 
Jun 15, 2004 at 9:06 AM Post #15 of 44

Sugano-san

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Has anybody ever done a comparison between the HE 90 and the HE 60 hooked up to the same amplifier? (Sorry, no search function...) If yes, with which result, and where can I find the review? If not, would you be in a position to arrange that?

I cannot say why, but somehow I have the feeling that these two headphones have an awful lot in common techically, and that the main differences are of a cosmetic nature. I have no hard information to back up this feeling...
 

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