I Listened to $55,000 Headphones, and They Kinda Ruined All Other Headphones for Me

By
Photo: Cheryl Fleming

Last night, Sennheiser opened up its pop-up shop at 134 Prince Street in Soho, showing off its line of extremely luxe headphones, mics, and speakers. The space itself is cool — there’s an interesting effect when you first walk in where a tunnel slowly dampens the noise of the store around you, until you come out the other side and are suddenly hit with a wave of sound. But the highlight of the night for me was when I was ushered into a back room and got to spend nine minutes listening to Miles Davis on a set of $55,000 Orpheus HE-1 headphones.

When it comes to audio, I’m kind of an agnostic. I regularly use $9 Panasonic earbuds even though they sound, at best, okay-ish, because I don’t have to worry about losing them. I keep a decent set of headphones at home and a decent set at work, but I’m also a believer in diminishing returns when it comes to audio. The difference between a set of $10 headphones and $100 headphones is tremendous and can be noticed by anyone. The difference between $100 headphones and $1,000 headphones is still there, but you need a fine ear and to be listening to high-quality tracks to really detect it. And the difference between $1,000 and $10,000 headphones is undetectable to anyone who isn’t a trained musician or audio engineer.

Or at least that’s what I thought until last night, when I sat down and tried the Orpheus headphones. Everything about them screams the kind of ostentatious luxury that normally makes my skin crawl. The base is made out of the same marble used by Michelangelo to carve the statue of David — not because it’s a selling point, but because the marble has the unique acoustic qualities Sennheiser was searching for. When the unit is powered on, the knobs and tube amplifiers slowly and stately rise out of the unit, like something a James Bond villain would unveil in front of a horrified U.N. Security Council. It all was, to be frank, a little much. Then I put the headphones on.

I’ve listened to “So What” off Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue hundreds of times — it was one of my go-to study-music songs in college and still a track I listen to on a regular basis during my commute. With the Orpheus, the opening bars alone were impressive — Bill Evans’s delicate piano work was suddenly present enough that I could hear the struck piano chords vibrating, while Paul Chambers’s bass softly sounded from across the room, the scrape of his fretting ever so slightly audible for the first time I’d ever listened to the track.

It’s hard to write about audio — you can use words like imaging or snap or attack, but they rarely convey much information to anyone except headphone dorks. So what I’ll say is this: When Miles Davis’s trumpet kicked in with that distinctive behind-the-beat casualness, I actually burst out laughing. It just sounded so goddamn good. John Coltrane’s tenor sax was clear as ever, but I could actually hear the slight buzz of the reed as he played. Cannonball Adderley’s stupendous solo was something else; this sounds like hyperbole, but it physically felt like the notes were reaching up into my head. What’s more, each of the players seemed to be in a distinct place around me — as if I stepped into Columbia’s recording studio in 1959 and got to stand in the middle of everything.

If you want a pair of these headphones, good luck. Beyond costing $55,000, they’re on a yearlong back order. But I just listened to “So What” again on the best headphones I have in my house, some Audio-Technica ATH-M40xes. I tried to listen for Paul Chambers’s fretting, for the buzz of Coltrane’s reed, Adderley’s lifting solo, or that amazing confidence of Davis’s trumpet. It was there, but diminished, thinner and less present somehow just 12 hours after I tried out the Orpheus. I had, without meaning to, suddenly become one of those audiophile snobs that I’ve loathed for so long.

Sennheiser’s Soho pop-up will be open through February, with a chance to listen to the Orpheus by appointment only. I highly recommend you take the time to test them out. But be warned: Nothing else you’re going to be able to buy is going to sound as good as this.