LAS VEGAS — It’s not every day that you get to try out a pair of $55,000 headphones, Sennheiser’s ultra-high-end “Orpheus” HE 1. But on Friday, I got to test an even more expensive pair: Onkyo’s $100,000 diamond-studded headphones — and I (almost) got to directly compare the two.
Of course, other than the exorbitant price, there’s really no comparison: These two headphones are as different as they come. But that’s how my cards fell on Friday; a meeting with Onkyo was set up just before the meeting on Sennheiser, so I tried to make the most of it.
The Onkyo Diamond Headphones are a fashion item first, a piece of tech second. They come with 20-carat diamonds; just how much is up to the buyer, but they can cost anywhere from $80,000 to $200,000. The pair I tried out cost around a hundred thousand bucks, I was told.
The diamonds are encrusted on the earpads and even on the cable remote, and they do what diamonds do: shine and cost a lot of money. And they’re definitely the focus here; Onkyo is not sharing any of the technical specs, apart from the fact that they’re a closed-back design. “The specs are not important,” a company rep told me, but he did insist that playing MP3s or even FLAC files from my phone, which was the only option I had, is not as good as playing music from a high-res audio player.
Still, they sounded great. Onkyo is a serious audio company that makes some of the best equipment in the world, and even though the Diamond headphones aren’t made for an audiophile in mind, they have a balanced, full sound and solid passive noise cancellation.
After a few pleasant minutes with the Onkyo Diamond Headphones, I went over to Sennheiser’s booth to listen to a pair of headphones that have immediately achieved legendary status amongst audophiles after their launch in 2016: the Sennheiser HE 1.
It’s probably blasphemy to even put the Sennheisers in the same sentence with the Onkyo’s diamond-studded cans. The latter are (mostly) expensive because someone put some stones on them; the first are expensive because of the sheer insanity of the tech involved. The Sennheiser HE 1 are a pair of electrostatic headphones with a high voltage MOSFET amp built into them; they come with a dedicated tube amp that’s partly glass and partly a block of solid marble, which — I was told — helps eliminate distortion. The headphones, which are a reboot of Sennheiser’s legendary Orpheus headphones from the ’90s, have an insane frequency range of 8 Hz to “more than” 100 kHz and, Sennheiser claims, the lowest distortion “ever measured in a sound reproduction system.”
I spent around 15 minutes with them, listening to tracks from the Eagles, Queen and Dave Brubeck. Unfortunately, in the noisy environment of CES it was really hard to appreciate the sound coming from the open-back HE 1. One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s incredibly soft, open and transparent. To my ears, used to listening to closed-back headphones, the switch was quite shocking, and it took some focusing to start discovering the layers of music these headphones unveil.
Usually, I’d describe the sound as more or less bass-y, or the sound stage as wide or narrow. Here, such attributes make no sense. I truly noticed no coloration of any kind; I was listening to the sound as it was intended to be heard by the sound engineers and the musicians that had created it.
Comparing the sound of these headphones and Onkyo’s Diamond studded model is tough — if for no other reason than the vast differences between the open- and closed-back design. But the difference between the HE 1 and pretty much every other headphone I’ve heard, is staggering. With the Sennheisers, there’s no barrier between you and the music; it’s as if you’re not really wearing anything on your head.
The Sennheiser HE 1 are out of most folks’ price range, but I’ve got good news for New Yorkers: The company is offering free listening sessions at its store in NYC. Go check them out if you can; it’s truly a sublime experience.