In a soundproofed room attached to the Sennheiser stand at the High End Show in Munich this year was what is being called a new milestone. Only after booking an appointment were you able to go inside and consequently get your hands on their new bank shattering statement headphone the HE-1. At £35,000 or $55,000 this is priced in a stratosphere detached from pretty much any other headphone but the main difference here is that the money gets you the whole system minus a transport, you get both the headphone and a DAC/amp unit. Putting that into perspective and the price is not actually to far off what some peoples systems will cost already, my very own HD800 system all in costs circa £20,000, I think that is key, it is not just a 35 grand headphone! It is not a concept but a product that is purchasable, in limited quantities nonetheless. If I recall correctly they will be making 60 this year and then ramping up to 250 in the year to follow.
The HE-1 is the true successor to the legendary Orpheus and a return to Sennheiser using electrostatic drivers, a departure to the dynamic variations they use in every single other model they produce, of which there are hundreds. Being electrostatic they of course need a specific energiser, which is why they have included an amp and why you can’t just buy the headphones on their own, I like the idea of a whole system, but we do have a few niggles with it. While the tube based amplifier I am sure is designed for all the needs of the headphones, like with the original system, they have opted to include a DAC as well, allowing it to accept digital and analogue signals (great versatility) However they opted for a standard and overused DAC chip in the ESS Sabre 9018, which is plagued with problems such as them not handling almost-full power square waves and the chip having too much gain in an internal digital filter that overshoots in a nasty way. Hopefully they could access some special data sheets which helps resolve some of these problems but even so it seems like a lazy choice. Considering this is a cheap chip I have heard many time in portable devices, it seems as if there was a lack of effort actually designing a more advanced DAC system. Fortunately it does have both XLR and RCA analogue inputs (and outputs) so you can hook your own DAC up, I would love to hear it with my totaldac!
My feelings of disappointment and negativity don’t stop there either. There is a lot I don’t like or even hate. I don’t get the name, I know the original Orpheus was the HE-90 but with HiFiMAN having just put out the HE-1000, which is often referred to as the HE-1k, I don’t think it does enough to set itself apart and many times it confused people when talking about them. “Have you heard the HE-1?”, “oh what the new HifiMAN?”! You then have its beyond exquisite and perhaps silly design. Ok it is marble and if you want to appreciate that then great, it is special, but why on earth have the headphone case attached to the top. It juts out and its different choice in material doesn’t coordinate with the amp, why is the case not also marble, that is if you even want a case which I am not a fan of. Then you have the mechanism, with the tubes raising when the system is switched on, and the case opening. Combined with the fact that the case homes the output for the headphones whenever you listen you have to have the lid open, which just looks absurd if I am honest. Am I done? Not yet! The knob feel was also awful, it was all flimsy, seemingly hinting that they put priorities all over the place, who cares what changing the volume feels like but lets have a motor to allow the tubes to ascend from the chassis?!
You want to know the brunt of it all though, seriously who cares, none of these flaws matter. The tubes could jump out and punch me in the face and I would still be absolutely enthralled by this system. Sorry no, in love with this system. Mesmerised in fact. The CD player it was hooked up to digitally was loaded with a compilation of tracks I am familiar with and the sound of the HE-1 was as close to perfection as I am yet to hear. I have heard the original on many occasions, I know the sound of the top Stax and my amazing HD800 system very well, I had even just come off hearing HiFiMANs new also exotically priced Shangri-La electrostatic and not one has captured me like this. It has it all, tonal balance, soundstage, detail, dynamics. It was stupidly revealing on some lesser tracks, showing sharpness and touch of sibilance in the upper mids but I can guarantee that it was no flaw of the headphone. While I scared myself in doing so, I realised I had already started to justify the price, yes it is still nearly double the cost of my HD800 system without a transport/server, but yes it was so much better and did so much more, seemingly offering more musicality but still that unbelievable detailing I am used to.
I know they have been doing this for a while but it damn right shows in the sound and when it is this good, what else freaking matters. On a serious note I would like to see some tweaks, especially on the volume pot!