Emerging from the Audio Underworld: Sennheiser's Orpheus Rises Again

Looking for a gift for that hard-to-please person? Want to give a present that says, “I know you care about excellent audio?” Is spending $55,000 no big deal to you? Then, pull out your black card, and give the gift of the newest Sennheiser Orpheus. Preferably, to me. (What? It can’t hurt to ask.)

Yup, Orpheus is back, and better than ever. After ten-years-plus in development, and countless rumors, Sennheiser finally has polished all the details from the prototypes and is ready to release their final version early next year. I got to hear a pair while sipping some tea in a concrete loft overlooking Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park Lake. Get your favorite beverage and I’ll fill you in.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: no, Orpheus isn't expected to be sold to the masses, or even sold in triple digit numbers. As of this writing, two iterations have been made; one that I heard, and the other ready to be purchased by a lucky lottery winner/heiress/tycoon. Orpheus is hand made, and should you be the second person to order one, it would take about 3-4 weeks for one to be crafted just for you.

But that’s okay. Orpheus is the concept car of the headphones world, pushing the boundaries of what headphones can be in the hopes that the technology developed while designing them will eventually trickle down to an affordable level for audio-enthusiast folks like the rest of us. So, what’s so special about the Orpheus?

First of all, Orpheus is more than just a set of headphones. It’s a full system, complete with an eight vacuum-tube-amplifier with Italian marble housing, silver-plated, oxygen-free copper cable, and imbedded glass-paned headphone storage box. Turning it on is an experience in itself. The chromium-plated brass buttons are recessed into the face of the Orpheus, and upon pressing the power switch, you’re treated to a little opening-ceremony of sorts. The buttons slowly emerge from the face of the device, the tube amplifiers rise from within the marble housing, and the glass lid of the storage box that holds the headphones themselves slowly rises open. Really, all that’s missing is a fanfare and some dry-ice fog.

It sounds as though it’s a little over-the-top, but according to Sennheiser designer Axel Grell, (his official title is Portfolio Manager Audiophile) everything on the Orpheus, even the seemingly-showy has a reason. Recessing the tubes, for example, not only protects them when not in use, but also disconnects them from the current to preserve them. The marble housing helps to eliminate vibration. The ceramic electrodes are positioned at the headphones themselves rather than at the end of the cable, which means Orpheus can use less power. And the team chose ceramic, rather than glass or metal as the medium for those electrodes to keep resonance to a minimum.

With over 6,000 components in Orpheus, there are specs aplenty, which you can pore over in detail on Sennheiser's site. So if you want to nerd out about the low distortion claim of 0.01 percent at 100 dB SPL at 1 kHz, or the D/A converter’s SS SABRE ES9018 chip, go have a read. One fun for example: Orpheus has an “ultra-wide frequency range from 8 Hz to more than 100 kHz [which] exceeds the human auditory range—and would be only perceivable by the combined hearing abilities of bats and elephants.” (Guys, I know what to get Bruce Wayne for Hanukkah! Finally!)

Back? Great. Here’s the bottom line, that I know you want from me: yes, the Orpheus headphone system sounds spectacular. Of course it does. The headphones are very balanced, and they completely avoid that artificially-boosted treble range that so many “audiophile” branded headphones are saddled with. There’s a spaciousness that is more three dimensional than I’ve ever heard. Often what is passed off as clarity in consumer headphones is a jagged peaky frequency response range that compensates for the deficits in the headphones themselves.

The Orpheus has none of that, and in my conversation with Axel, we settled upon a metaphor to describe the sound: it’s as though you live somewhere cold, and have been eating canned tomatoes. Maybe one day, you get a decent one from the supermarket produce section. It’s so much better, right? But what you don’t know is that it’s been shipped, and refrigerated, and sitting out for days. So even though it seems so much fresher than the canned tomatoes, it’s still not as good as it could be. However, since you don’t have access to anything else, you think that’s the best you can get...and then one day you get a taste of a tomato fresh off the vine. Still warm from the sun, with that little biting scent that comes from the place where the vine was snapped off. That vine-fresh-real taste is what Sennheiser strove for in the Orpheus sound.

Descriptors aside, I think the real testament to the quality of the Orpheus is this: somewhere in my second test track I stopped analyzing the sound. And let me tell you, that nearly never happens to me. I can’t help myself. After years of reviewing headphones, I automatically start picking them apart as I listen, making mental notes of sibilance here, odd resonance there, too much Q or a strange hole in the frequency range. It’s an occupational hazard. But somewhere between “Killer Queen” and Tori Amos’ “Jacqui’s Strength”—two tracks I have listened to more times than I can count—my mind was wandering. I was experiencing the music again. And really, isn’t that all an audio-fan can ask for? I mean, aside from someone to buy these for you.

Check out more on the Orpheus at Sennheiser's site.