Table of Contents
Before I begin, the obligatory “startup experience” video:
And so may I present the Sennheiser HE-1, lovingly nicknamed “Orpheus 2” by some.
The HE-1 is the successor to the original Orpheus HE-90, a headphone designed and built some 30 years ago as a showcase of a true “no compromises” approach to headphone design. Not a single expense spared, not a single corner cut, nothing but the best materials and engineering resulting in the world’s most expensive headphone at the time, coming in at a cool $16,000.
$16,000 would still put the original Orpheus as the second most expensive headphone right after the Hifiman Shangri-La (which was released after the HE-1 anyways), but Sennheiser isn’t one to simply relive the glory days. Continuing on with his grandfather’s Orpheus project, Daniel Sennheiser now takes the HE90 into the modern age with the HE-1, at more than triple the price and with even more luxurious materials.
In total, I have had about 7 listening sessions wih the HE-1 with total playtime clocking in at about 10ish hours. But now recently, I got the opportunity to formally review the unobtainium that is this headphone, alongside the usual gamut of tests including much-awaited measurements. At $59,000, the HE-1 has a lot to prove and a lot to lose. So now it’s time to lift the veil of aura and mystique behind the world’s most expensive headphone to answer the question: how good is the HE-1 actually?
Product page: https://en-us.sennheiser.com/sennheiser-he-1
Driver type: Electrostatic
Special thanks to Zeppelin & Co for arranging communications with Sennheiser Singapore for the purposes of this review. This review was done at the Marina Bay Sands Sennheiser flagship store.
Signature & Tonality
The sound signature of the HE-1 can be described as “neutral”, “neutral with bass boost” or even “Harman neutral”. Since it actually gets closer to the Harman AE/OE target than almost every other headphone, I guess classifying it as such would be fairly accurate.
Now I hate to use the word “effortless”, I really do. It’s overused, lost its meaning over time and has basically been adopted as a catch-all term for any kind of positive attribute. A lazy descriptor that allows a writer to bestow praise upon the product without the usual justifications nor the burden of elaboration required like in many other audio-related compliments.
But in this case I hope that my persistence in avoiding this term would now bring greater weight when I say: the HE-1 is effortless.
But how so, you ask? In short, it is tuned in a way that presents everything without any sort of wrongness nor unnaturality. In terms of tonality, the HE-1 sounds like something with rounded-10s across the board; a 9.7 here, a 9.8 there, 9.9s sprinkled in… it’s not a perfect headphone and neither does it present a sound that is “beyond headphone” level (cough speakers) but it’s difficult to deny that, at least within the realm of headphone-fi, the HE-1 belongs at the top.
That’s not to say that it’s a completely uncoloured sound that’s the culmination of some form of “true neutrality”, either. The HE-1 still has some small liberties that cuts through what would’ve been a dull, sterile signature with its own unique character. The vocals are ever-so-slightly pulled back, there is a slight warmth that imparts a certain fuzzying to the notes, and of course the bass. The bass, where the HE-1 digs deep into the lowest octaves with ample rumble and punches with uncharacteristic impact, betraying the electrostatic expectation of etherealness and lightfooted notes.
But perhaps its greatest betrayal of the electrostatic expectation is simply the fact that it manages to sound like this, despite being an electrostat.
Some examples of wonky-sounding electrostatic headphones
Comparison courtesy of the Graph Comparison Tool
It’s no secret that I have a love-hate relationship with electrostats. Love the detail and resolution that seems to come almost by default with an electrostatic setup, and hate the fact that a wonky tuning also seems to similarly come by default.
I’m not sure what it is that makes an electrostatic driver so hard to tune with a half-decent tonality, but that’s mainly my biggest hangup with electrostatic headphones in general. Not the fact that one is tethered to a desk with an estat, not even the fact that its fragility makes it susceptible to things as simple as dust, but rather that so few electrostatic headphones out there can at least match their excellent resolving ability with a tuning that doesn’t sound like a dying car horn.
And yet, even one of the rare few electrostats with excellent tonality still has problems that are mostly addressed by the HE-1.
Even with DSP built into its DAC, Warwick Acoustic’s Sonoma M1 barely manages to rein in the characteristic 1kHz “honk” of its electrostatic driver. It’s still an excellently-tuned headphone, mind you, but just doesn’t hold a candle to the HE-1’s impeccable tonality. And yet, as far as I know, the HE-1 manages to do all this without the DSP “crutch” of the M1, avoiding the distortion problems that plague the latter and retaining some of its electrostatic character.
Tone grade: S+
If you’re expecting anything less than high marks, perish the thought. The HE-1 is a top performer, and so expectedly to the point where I might as well dedicate this section to explaining why I believe it doesn’t deserve best-of-the-best status.
First up, imaging performance. In comparison to Stax headphones (SR-L700, SR-009 and SR-009S specifically) or even Sennheiser’s own HD800/S, the HE-1 isn’t quite as large in soundstage width nor are the instrument positions as well-defined as I’d like it to be. Take note that the HE-1 isn’t as bad as the HD650 or even the HD600 in this regard, perhaps most closely matching the HD560S. Instruments are placed a bit more intimately, which is fine for studio-mastered tracks but not the most optimal for live-recorded tracks.
Second, resolving ability and detailing, which is a bit of a give-and-take situation with timbral quality. As mentioned, the notes on the HE-1 isn’t as quick nor ethereal (literally overusing this term out of spite here) as established “mainstream” electrostatics, which means that it doesn’t feel as well-defined or pinpoint as something like the SR-009S on an SRM-700S.
That’s the “give”, but the “take” is that the HE-1 has a bit more body and weight to its notes, similar to when a Stax headphone is paired with something like a Blue Hawaii. Hits feel strangely “dynamic” in decay (in reference to the dynamic transducer) yet retaining the sharp, pinpoint attack of an electrostatic. One could say the HE-1 has the best of both worlds, though others may prefer a more purist approach in either direction rather than this middle ground.
Regardless, while this reviewer may dock some points here and there for what may possibly be the most pedantic of reasons… at the end of the day, as mentioned, the HE-1 remains a top performer.
Technical grade: S
Now I am no stranger to criticising the ultra-expensive, especially if they don’t perform.
The $2,900 Noble Sultan, which I have called “aggressively average“.
The $3,500 Empire Ears Wraith, which I had referred to as a “bandwagon“.
The $3,800 64 Audio tia Fourte Noir, an IEM I felt didn’t deserve to exist.
The $7,000 Effect Audio King Arthur, which I had panned as a “garbled mess“.
The $10,000 oBravo Ra-C Cu that I dubbed “a joke“.
Just a top five of the most expensive products I had criticised over the years. And yet, combining the total cost of all of them together doesn’t even come up to half the cost of a brand new HE-1.
So here’s where I’m out of my league with a headphone that’s in its own league. How exactly does one value a product that costs ten times more than the next most expensive one? This would be easy if the HE-1 were some average or even “merely good” headphone, in which case I’d just say it’s not worth the price and call it a day… but it’s not. It’s the best headphone that I have ever heard, but at a price point far exceeding the average TOTL. And that’s an understatement.
Traditionally I would give leeway to headphones and IEMs that, despite being more expensive that the average TOTL, have demonstrated themselves to be some of the best you can get. The Focal Utopia for instance; a hefty four thousand bones, but one of the best headphones around and so deserving of the coveted star. The $2,700 Vision Ears VE8; while you could theoretically get an IEM that is (in my opinion) just as good for nearly half the price, is still one of the best IEMs out there and so receives the star.
But the leeway isn’t infinite, and $59,000 is far too high a price for me to, in good conscience, say that the HE-1 is “worth the price” under IEF metrics. Obviously if you’re one with a ton of disposable income and willing to spend a ton on a showpiece item just so you have the bragging rights to say that you own “the world’s best headphone”, perhaps then it’s worth it to you. But who am I kidding, it’s 59 grand. For the average person, the HE-1 is less “obtainable material” and more “window shopping halo product”.
Try it out, fantasise about owning one, and then probably never do.
Value Rating: N/A
The HE-1 is a well-tuned electrostatic headphone with virtually none of the timbral quirks of the usual electrostats. The $59,000 price tag is (justifiably) hard to swallow, but at least for one good reason: it is the best headphone that I have ever heard.
Whether or not you should purchase one though, that’s another issue. But hey, trying is free.