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Headphone heaven

by Simon New September 18, 2018
Headphone heaven

$75,000 makes you think about your audio setup

It’s a Sunday evening, you’re scrolling through Instagram and you find out your favourite artist just dropped a surprise album. It’s go time. You text your friends to make sure they know you heard of it first and you post on your story to let your people know of the drop. It’s time to listen. What do you turn to? Do you turn off all the lights and crank your system? Do you grab your favourite set of headphones? Do your headphones come encased in carrera marble and cost $70,000? The Sennheiser HE 1 does. It’s known to be the greatest headphone system ever created, and on Monday, September 10th I got to try it.

Sennheiser opens up a new office in Dollard-des-Ormeaux as a hub for their Canadian operations. There’s an inaugural celebration with sound demos, a live band, and ostentatious seafood. Co-CEO Andreas Sennheiser flies out from Germany to cut the ceremonial red ribbon. It’s a party celebrating sound. Me and my co-editor are then ushered into a small, ambient room filled with nine zealous journalists, all waiting to have their minds blown by this marble slab. At the back of the room, I see it. The HE 1. In between a blissed-out tech writer and a guide from Sennheiser, was a refined block of marble that has made people on the internet cry with joy. It is finally my turn and with my glass of single malt scotch in hand, I sit down to listen. The guide explains that there are four songs that Sennheiser wants to demo for me, and I can then pick one of my own. I put the headphones on and they feel imperceptible. $75,000 CAD gets you comfort, that is unquestionable.

I’m handed a sleek, hefty aluminum slab of a remote to adjust the volume, and the guide takes me from Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” to a heavy Elvis deep-cut, to a sprawling orchestral piece from the soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed. Each song highlights a different aspect of the headphones: Presley’s deep, resonant voice, Simon’s panning, shifting backing vocals.

I hadn’t heard any of the tracks beforehand, save for Simon’s. What struck me initially was the sound separation. Every instrument, sound effect, and vocal track felt perfectly distinct and clear as air. This is as much a testament to the headphones as it is to the engineers of the songs themselves. I close my eyes and forget where I am. I am engulfed by the sound. Thoroughly impressed by what is the best audio reproduction I’ve ever heard, but the urge to cry is absent. I feel like I am taking part in a tech demo.

These headphones look comically large on my already comically large head. Photo by Immanuel Matthews

This is when the fourth song comes to a close and I am given my choice among Tidal’s entire library. I choose Kamasi Washington’s rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” from Washington’s stunning 2015 album, The Epic. The track starts and I stop breathing. I’ve come back to this song over and over since it came out, to the point where it is almost the musical backbone to those years of my life. Despite being purely instrumental, I revere this track for how lyrical it is. This time, the song speaks to me. As trite as that sounds, the technology we listen to music with changes our experience. If grabbing your Apple earbuds is like stuffing a dry sandwich into your mouth while sprinting into class, this is like sharing a perfect home-cooked meal and a bottle of champagne with your sweetheart. Whether that feeling is worth the ludicrous price tag depends simply on how much you are willing to spend. As tech reporter Séamus Bellamy said, “Listening to them feels like a treat, owning a set of them would feel like hedonism, it’s just so much. It’s too much.”

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