Sennheiser Orpheus HE 90 headphones Page 2

My experience of the Orpheus was very much of the "boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" variety. I actually auditioned it first, prior to the Stax SR-Lambda Pro Classic, and was very impressed with its performance, particularly its shimmering, sweet, clear top and superior overall definition. It was supremely comfortable to use over long periods (one characteristic about which my opinion never changed). But it also sounded a bit shy on the bottom—it lacked sufficient body and weight, seemed rather lean through the midbass, and was without a fully natural warmth, particularly on solo vocals. Nevertheless, aside from any considerations of price, that sparkling mid and top pulled it through, and I found it a delight during the initial listening sessions.

I returned to the Orpheus only after I'd completed my evaluation of the Stax SR-Lambda Pro Classic, along the way spending considerable time with both the Koss ESP/950 and Sennheiser's own HD-580 driven by the HeadRoom Supreme dedicated headphone amplifier. I was now more bothered than before by the Orpheus's rather uptilted frequency balance. The lean bass continued to be bothersome, and while the top end was very smooth and sweet, there was just too much of it.

Boy loses girl, boy gets girl. When I replaced the 1.5m AudioQuest Lapis Hyperlitz interconnect I'd been using with a TARA Labs RSC Master of the same length, things began to fall back into place. Objectively, the change was fairly subtle, but subjectively, the top end was improved just enough to restore my confidence in the Orpheus.

While the change affected primarily the treble, it also influenced (as such balance changes tend to do) my subjective feeling about the Orpheus's bass. While it didn't suddenly become particularly profound or subterranean, the bass's inherent quality was more evident. And though it softened somewhat as it reached the bottom of its effective range, it remained clean and detailed, particularly through the midbass.

As I ran through my favorite bass tests—the drum on Tropic Affair (Reference RR-21CD), the falling drumset on Däfos (Reference RR-12CD), Jean Guillou's organ transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition (Dorian DOR-90117), almost anything by Telarc, and selected soundtrack music—notably The Abyss on Var;gese Sarabande VSD 5235 and Jurassic Park on MCA MCAD-10859—nothing really tripped up the Orpheus. Unmuddled and clear? Definitely. Musically effective and reasonably well-balanced? Yes. WOW? No.

As I noted in my review of the Stax SR-Lambda Pro Classic, part of the reason for this is the natural tendency of even the best headphone bass to have less "feel" than that from loudspeakers, even while it remains free from the room problems that plague the latter. While this affected all the headphones discussed here, the Orpheus fell short of the others' best low-frequency efforts.

I have to rate the Stax, Koss, and Sennheiser's own 580 ahead of the Orpheus in their senses of low-end reach and drama. The Orpheus and the Stax were the best of the group with respect to overall bass clarity; I rate them comparable in this respect. Overall, however, the bottom end of the Stax Pro Classic beat out the Orpheus—by virtue of extension. Using the warble tones on Stereophile's Test CD 1 (footnote 1), the subjective response of the Stax held up better at the extreme bottom: both 'phones had some output at 31.5Hz, but the Stax's output was closer to 40Hz. The difference was also evident on music with extended bass.

The real strength of the Sennheiser Orpheus, however, was through the midrange and treble—it's truly "quick," open, transparent, and any other adjective you can name relating to definition and detail. While I still had the sensation, even with the TARA interconnects, that the Orpheus had a slightly uptilted response, everything was so crystalline that it was hard to take exception to the sound. Percussion rang true. While the word "sizzle" has negative connotations, it does describe the sound of many percussion instruments. The Orpheus didn't shortchange them. Subtleties of playing style, from the subtle to the overt, were revealed in rare fashion. The reproduction of piano reflected the taste of the producer, from the rich but clear perspective on Earl Wild Plays Rachmaninoff (Chesky CD58) to the crisp, lively sound on the Bruce Katz Band's Crescent Crawl (AudioQuest AQ-CD1012). Guitar shimmered when called for, but was also rich and lustrous where required.

Vocals were something of a mixed bag over the Orpheus. That reticence through the upper bass and lower midrange, which reduced the immediacy that's such an important part of vocal reproduction, continued to detract from its overall performance. It shared this quality with the Stax Pro Classic. Like the Stax, the Orpheus is both rather lean and laid-back compared to either the Koss ESP/950 or the Sennheiser 580/HeadRoom Supreme, and neither the Orpheus nor the Stax was quite able to match either of those other 'phones in conveying a convincing rightness through this region. Both were more of an analytical than a generously (and naturally) full-bodied nature.

Footnote 1: The warble rate on Test CD 2 is actually better for evaluating loudspeakers in rooms, but with headphones, the buildup of standing waves isn't a factor.
Sennheiser Electronic
US distributor: Sennheiser USA
1 Enterprise Drive
Old Lyme, CT 06371
(860) 434-9190