Talking tech since 2003

There are a lot of reasons why living in NYC is awesome, one of those reasons is because many cool companies open popup stores during the holiday season to show off their latest products. This year, famed audio company Sennheiser, decided to open a popup store in SoHo where their main attraction is a pair of $55,000 headphones. Yep, you read that right, Sennheiser created a pair of headphones that cost $55,000 and you can make an appointment to listen to them at the store. So of course, I had to give them a whirl.

The headphones, which Sennheiser dubbed the HE 1 are 20 years in the making and Sennheiser spared no expense with these bad boys. If you were to purchase the HE 1 headphones, you wouldn’t just be buying a pair of headphones, you would actually be purchasing headphones with a huge integrated amplifier attached to it. The amp uses eight vacuum tubes, chosen for their superior impulse processing compared to a solid-state system. The trouble is that tubes are susceptible to airborne noise that solid state systems aren’t, so to compensate, Sennheiser freely suspended the tubes in a block of Carrara marble. Additionally, the HE 1 headphones are electrostatic headphones, which are very different from traditional dynamic headphones most people have sitting in their desk.

Sennheiser HE 1 headphones.

Here’s a crash course on the difference: Dynamic headphones work by transferring audio voltage to a coil that’s attached to a magnet, which in turn is attached to a diaphragm. The magnet moves, causing the diaphragm to vibrate, creating the sound you hear.

Electrostatic headphones are much more sophisticated. These create sound via a very thin film that’s placed between two big metal plates in the headphones. In the HE 1 headphones this film is just 2.4 microns thick, and in fact, it’s actually lighter than the air around it. When the audio voltage is transferred to the plates, the film vibrates without ever being touched directly. Plus, the film is so light that it has almost no resonance of its own. This results–theoretically, anyway–in tonal clarity you just can’t get from a dynamic system (read this detailed explainer if you want to know more about electrostatic headphones).

So what did I listen to? Steely Dan, The Beatles, and The Doobie Brothers.

The way it is setup in the store is there is a computer connected to the headphones via a USB connection on the amplifier. On the computer you can select from a catalog of pre-ripped FLAC files, if you’re not familiar with the FLAC file format, it’s a lossless audio format which means it is an almost bit-for-bit copy of the song. This is unlike, say an MP3 file, which is a lossy audio file format, meaning it’s missing bits (or “information”) about the song to make the file size smaller. Anyway, the catalog they have is fairly large and encompasses many different genres and artists with lots of song choices for each artist.

Me sitting here, attempting to describe the sound over text is going to be impossible, but suffice it to say it was a completely different sound experience than I’ve ever had. It was incredible.

If you’re in NYC, I highly recommend you stop by, check out the store, and make an appointment to try out the HE 1 headphones. You won’t regret it.

By the way, I asked, no one has bought them yet from the store, however, the company has sold 250 pairs so far. And if you’re interested in great headphones for a bit less money, the store also sells many other great audio products within price ranges for non-millionaires.

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