It’s a statement, a love letter to people that care about music.”
DMS says this was the toughest review he’d ever done. He found the Sennheiser HE-1 to be a tour-de-force from a technical, aesthetic, and emotional perspective.
But what is it? The HE-1 is actually the successor to an earlier system. In the early '90s, Sennheiser gave its engineers a mission: forget about price and make the best headphones ever. The result was the Orpheus HE 90 electrostatic headphones and amplifier combination, introduced in 1991.
Today they’re still considered ground-breaking headphones, among the best in the world. The design was unusual: the drivers were platinum diaphragms that oscillated between gold-vaporized glass electrodes and the 500-volt tube amplifier took about 20 minutes to warm up. Priced at US $16,000 (equivalent to almost $36,000 in 2023 dollars) and limited to just 300 units, today they’re a collector’s item.
Headphones were still relatively new in the early 90s, and a lot has changed since then. So Sennheiser decided to take the Orpheus into the modern age with the HE-1, at an even higher price, with more luxurious materials, striving for an even better experience. Today, if you want Sennheiser’s magnum opus, they will build one just for you, with a final price of $60,000.
Just because a pair of headphones (or even a whole system) expensive doesn’t mean that it sounds better. You could spend more than $100,000 on a pair of diamond-encrusted Focal Utopia headphones and they would sound amazing…but no more amazing than the more reasonable (but still expensive) normal $6,000 Focal Utopia 2022s. Apparently you could even spend $750,000 on a pair of headphones and they only sound as good as a pair of Dr Dre Beats. Meaning: “Absolutely mediocre.”
But unlike those other examples, the HE-1 is expensive for reasons related to how it sounds. It’s a transcendental work of engineering, meticulously crafted to command perfect audio reproduction through electrostatic diaphragms, harmoniously fed pure power by ultra-low distortion quartz tube and transistor amplifiers resting atop a throne of majestic Carrara marble.
The majority of this cost seems to stem from the design and the fact that it’s a matched amplifier and headphone system. The increased complexity of a marble-encased amp with motorized tubes and dials, and a unique headset design that integrate high-voltage amplifiers into the earcups adds to the jaw-dropping price.
“I didn’t cry. I didn’t fall to my knees. Nor did I see the heavens split open in an angelic choir. The Sennheiser HE-1 is still a headphone. And with all that said, the HE-1 is the best headphone I’ve ever heard.”
Fc-Construct also had a chance to spend time with the HE-1 to give his impression. He said that, lofty expectations and price tag aside, the Sennheiser HE-1 is the best headphone he had heard. While he didn't find it a "perfect" headphone, it is either on par or outperforms everything else he's heard on every metric, save for soundstage. While another headphone might have one or two qualities that sets it apart, the HE-1 as a whole is unparalleled in its total performance.
If you still would like a hand-built integrated electrostatic headphones and amplifier system, but at at a lower price, there are indeed options.
The Hifiman Shangri-La systems can cost nearly as much with performance to match. Resolve tried them at CanJam NYC and said: "This is the most open-sounding and detailed headphone experience I've yet had. While not exactly a 'speaker-like' presentation, this could be as good as it gets for headphones. Not only is it technically impressive, it's tonality is exceptionally well-balanced throughout the whole frequency range. To give a sense of that, I'd consider it slightly brighter than a Harman tuning, without the bass shelf, but still smooth and non-fatiguing. It had a certain ease to it that I wasn't expecting, especially when you consider the immediate sense of detail and textural nuance provided."
We've more recently reviews electrostatic headphones from Warwick Acoustics, who make the fantastic Bravura and Aperio systems. At Munich High End, Resolve had a chance to try them: "Both headphones had a general tonality that was balanced to some degree of 'neutral', which involves well-extended bass, a decent amount of 'ear gain' upper midrange presence as well as smooth, extended treble. So they're more on the normal rather than esoteric side of things for the tuning. The Aperio was extremely well-suited to my favorite jazz and acoustic recordings, and that's what I kept listening to in their room. I think it's maybe just a tad much ear gain for a wider range of music, but I also found that I didn't care. This thing was so detailed, so separated and controlled, so well defined for the images coming through that I got that "wow" feeling I remember from first trying high end headphones - just... now that I'm normalized to high-end headphones, apply the same idea to the crazy high end. It was the system that I kept telling everyone they had to listen to."
For many, the Sennheiser house sound is the audio purist’s choice for reference playback. The company’s headphones are known for its excellent performance, build quality and comfort. If you want a taste of what the HE-1 has to offer, there are some good alternatives.
Sennheiser HD 800S
Released at the end of 2015 as a follow-up to the legendary HD800, the HD800S remains Sennheiser’s modern consumer flagship headphone. Reviewers have compared it to the HE-1’s detail, mids, and highs. It lacks the perfect balance of the HE-1, of course, as well as its bass performance. The HD 800S even offers a more open soundstage, which make it a favorite for many people.
Sennheiser HD 600
If you’re drawn to the almost perfect tuning and more intimate soundstage of the HE-1, as well as the sweet 90s vibe, you should also check out the HD 600 at a tiny fraction of the price. Read Chronos Review | Resolve's Wall of Fame
If your heart is still set on the Sennheiser HE-1, you can get the process started with a $10,000 deposit over here.