Sennheiser’s HE 1 headphones, which it touts as the “new world’s best headphones” after its predecessor, the Orpheus, is now officially available for pre-orders in Southeast Asia. After its launch event, members of the media (myself included) were given what is very likely a once in a lifetime chance to try out the German-made headphones that cost about the same as a German-made mid-range sedan.
How could I say no?
The HE 1 is a statement product. It’s what happens when a company decides to make the best product ever, regardless of cost, estimated launch date, and basically anything a profit-making company would consider before developing a product. It is aimed at symbolising what the company is capable of, both in its pursuit of “the perfect sound” and as a premium audio brand.
As such, the HE 1 was another idea that had to wait for technology to catch up before it was even possible to make. The company had to create new manufacturing processes and use the most exotic of materials in building the HE 1. The original Orpheus was legendary, and now Sennheiser wants to top that with the HE 1.
A Sensorial Experience
Owning the HE 1 isn’t just a feast for the ears. It is a complete sensorial experience that begins when you turn it on: the chrome control knobs begin protruding forwards, the tube amps slowly rise from the marble housing, before the glass enclosure opens to reveal the headphones underneath, beckoning you that it is ready to be worn.
For members of the media, Sennheiser wanted to replicate this feeling of luxuriousness. Men in dapper black suits walk you from the launch event to a posh suite, with windows overlooking lush greenery. Beyond, ships sail serenely in the sunkissed sea.
Another man offers to make a drink of your choice. Meanwhile, beautiful women in long black dresses gently brief you on what’s going to happen next: I will have six minutes with the HE 1, and a Sennheiser representative will show me a three-course menu of tracks that I will listen to. In the meantime, I could head over to a separate room to enjoy the appetiser: Sennheiser’s other range of audiophile headphones.
When my table was ready, I was escorted to my seat, and I was asked if I was excited about what I’m about to experience next. The Sennheiser rep switched on the HE 1, and the machine, with all its thick “audiophile-grade” cables, began to silently prepare my meal.
I examined the headphones, which was lighter than how it looks. The thick intertwining braided cables, then the metal earcups and its soft leather earpads. Like fine wine, this was something I needed to savour; I was very aware of the fact that this will be the only time I ever get to hold them.
I put the headphones on. The earpads were built similar to the HD600, with a slightly narrow fit, but they were okay after a bit of adjusting. “Are you ready for the first track?” I closed my eyes, and nodded.
Suddenly, Amber Rubarth’s “Strive” washed over and around my head. Individual musical instruments can clearly be heard coming from a very wide sound stage; it’s an almost “tickling” sensation only audiophile-level headphones can achieve, tricking the brain that I’m right in the middle of where the musicians are. The strings felt like they were being plucked centimeters away; it gave me goosebumps.
There was great energy in the track, and the HE 1’s warm output enhances them without being overpowering. But this was a track that’s only 77 seconds long, and before I know it, the next track began playing.
Owning a pair of audiophile headphones have always been an intimate affair; you often hear the details you’ve never before heard previously on the same track. More importantly, the emotions of the singer as they sing can not only be heard, but it can be felt, and it isn’t uncommon to hear first-time owners drawn to tears listening to certain tracks.
As Jennifer Warnes began to sing “Somewhere, Somebody”, there was a similar feeling arising within me. Her voice, soft, mellow, and rich all at the same time, was intimately reproduced as if she was singing right in front of me, before Max Carl jumps in with his own smooth tones.
Finally, the dessert, and what a strong dessert it was. Straight out of the 80s, “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits was certainly challenging for the HE 1, but it balances the high snares and deep vocals almost without a sweat. I crank up the volume, and the headphones took it in its stride – no distortion, and the output just got louder and not noisier. Though at somewhere close to the 60% volume mark, the snares proved too sharp for me.
And that was that. My time was up. I stayed on to take photos, but also I was keen to see how the other members of the media responded to listening to the headphones. The women gasped, the men opened their eyes wide in wonder; it was almost intrusive of myself and the dozen or so others to be witnessing these moments.
I made my way out, and suddenly I felt not so special anymore.
After the Euphoria
In the hours after the session, I took some time to digest how best to describe the experience. The headphones were great, without a doubt, but why did I feel somewhat underwhelmed by the whole thing?
Let me start by saying I’m no audiophile. I love listening to music as much as any other person, but my ears are not trained to pick up nuances only few do.
I should also mention that several months ago, Sennheiser invited me to listen to a wide range of headphones, including its latest flagship monitoring headset, the HD 800S. As someone who hasn’t listened to audiophile headphones before, that was a life changing moment; listening to Adele almost brought tears to my eyes.
Perhaps that is why I didn’t feel completely overwhelmed while listening to the HE 1. I am in that weird middle ground where I have listened to and appreciated the existence of audiophile headphones, but do not have the trained ears of an enthusiast to pick up the tiny details that separate the HD 800S to the HE 1.
Moving on to another subjective matter, I found the HE 1 to be not as comfortable as the HD 800S. The narrower earcups has a closer fit compared to the generously roomy one on the HD 800S, which I completely forgot I had on after a few minutes; they were that comfortable. Of course, everyone’s head sizes are different, so this is perhaps the most subjective part of this write up.
I was recently at a global event where I attended a briefing which talked about the technological innovations a certain company made to create its 2016 flagship product; how its engineers fashioned new designs and even new material compositions to make it thinner and lighter than previous models.
But after a certain point, the speaker said, it won’t make sound business sense to pursue ever thinner and lighter machines. It’s easy to make a laptop that’s 50% thinner if the previous model was 4cm thick, for example, but to shave off milimeters from a laptop that’s less than 2cm would cost a lot more in R&D. It was a classic example of the law of diminishing returns.
And that’s where I see myself concluding my impression of the HE 1. The HD 800S, which costs almost 50 times less than the HE 1, is something like 96-97% as great as the HE 1. For that few extra percentage points, would you pay an additional RM200,000?
At the same time, I’m perfectly aware of how practical my whole argument is. Sennheiser did not build the HE 1 to be a practical product. It’s the supercar of the audio world, with a single aim of being the best headphones ever made. It’s built on passion, not dollars and cents. And just like the Bugattis and Koenigseggs of the world, they tingle with every single one of your senses, and evoke emotions you never knew was possible from a machine.