The thing with luxury goods is that, in many cases, they completely dismiss any kind of value-based justification. Be it ultra-high end cars, or luxury property or watches, they speak more to the lifestyle they imply than the absolute value they deliver in real world terms.
Then there are products that justifiably push the limits of their field to literally define the state of the art: like Sennheiser’s Orpheus headphones, for example. Coming from a lineage that dates back nearly 25 years, it’s the result of the rarely-asked question, “What would you build if price was no bar?” And back then they did build what turned out to be arguably the most legendary–and high-fidelity–headphones in existence. They were priced at a princely sum of $16,000. Cut to today–they have now re-launched this set of cans, re-imagined using today’s technology and manufacturing processes. And they now cost a ransom-level $55,000.
So what could possibly go into the creation of a pair of headphones that sits at the other end of a choice between buying an Audi A3, or even a piece of property in many places in the country? Primarily, the methodology used to construct the headphone’s primary acoustic element–instead of using traditional diaphragms, magnets and voice coils, this one uses an electrostatic construction. The inherent disadvantage with the former, more traditional and less costly, approach is that each of the speaker elements have perceptible mass that introduces inefficiencies like resonance and damping issues. Basically they are not capable of completely rendering the audio signal as faithfully as possible. Now self-respecting audiophile would have any of that, of course.
With the electrostatic approach though, the elements are far more sensitive, given their virtually negligible mass. At its heart is a charged, ultra-thin film film placed between two metal plates. With the thickness of this film barely 2.4 microns (a human hair is 100 microns,) this element is barely heavier than the air it is suspended within. Upping the ante compared to its venerable predecessor, the new Orpheus now packs a new audio processing chip (an ESS SABRE ES9018 that contains eight digital to analog converters in all), with a sampling rate that ratchets up to 384KHz (note that 192KHz defines studio quality.) And the frequency response of this entire system stretches from 8Hz to ‘more than’ 100KHz, which exceeds the ability of even the most discerning human ear, by far.
Of course, even on the non-acoustic bits no expense is spared: the control knobs are all hewn from monolithic blocks of brass, and the entire assembly is built within a slab of Italian Carrara marble–the stuff that Michelangelo used. All of this form does have function: the marble serves as a solid stratum that reduces structure-induced noise to a minimum. There are even amplifiers built into each of the earcups to compensate for any noise and attenuation that may have been introduced by the cables, which are incidentally all-copper oxygen-free.
Then of course there is the pageantry that accompanies hardware as rarefied as this–powering it on sees all of the knobs and those electrostatic tubes emerge from the marble block in slow, teasing sync. Like its price isn’t sufficient to cause jaws to drop.