Sennheiser says its new HE1060 headphones, priced at "around $75,000", are the best in the world, to which an obvious response is 'so they bloody should be for $75,000.' How can a pair of headphones be worth $75,000? The short answer is that by any normal measure they aren't. Ah, but this is hi-fi, and normal measures do not apply.
Think of everything else you could do with $75,000. You could get a nicely equipped BMW. You could take someone you love on a five-star, business class trip around the world. You could buy 37,878 Mars bars.
Even compared to other headphones they're silly. The Sennheisers are the best I've ever listened to, but the second-best cost $3,498, meaning I could have those and a BMW for the same outlay just by dropping the sunroof option. How can the Sennheisers justify a price that's 21 times higher than number two when the sound improvement, while discernible, is only just?
Let me explain. The rarefied heights of hi-fi are populated by people who spend half a million dollars on amplifiers because nothing less should be seen to drive their similarly priced speakers. They worry about cables, they study the oscilloscope readouts in Australian Hi-Fi magazine and, even scarier, understand them. For them the tiniest fraction of improvement is worth whatever it takes. Even if it means their children go without shoes.
To these people, you and I and the billions of folk like us possess all the subtlety of bagpipes. Goodness, we can't even pick the difference between the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Furtwangler and the Berlin Phil conducted by Von Karajan. Could we point to the flautist who's thinking harder about the beer in the green room than the score? Hey, people like them can hear it when a contra-bassoonist clears the spit valve during a lull in Beethoven's seventh.
And so can these Sennheisers, and that's the point. They're made for people who hear a soprano hit C above high-C and have to lie down for the rest of the day. They're for the purists, the perfectionists, the folk who, when it comes to hi-fi, are just possibly a little loony tunes. For them Nirvana has just arrived and its name is HE1060. Forget the BMW; this is something they must have just as surely as they need air to breathe.
They're a rare breed, which is probably why Sennheiser will be making just 200 to 250 of these every year — of which two or three, maybe even four, will be sold in Australia. So far the factory has turned out just three, all classed as prototypes. Production starts mid-year and even the folk at head office haven't settled on a price yet — the closest I could get was 50,000 to 55,000 euros, and goodness knows where the dollar will be then. If you'd like to put some money down anyway you'll be pleased to know you can customise the finish. Someone in the Emirates wants solid gold knobs. Just add a zero.
Prototype or not, the HE1060 experience is truly exquisite, even for those of us who just pretend. Start with the ritual. Press the power switch and the control knobs glide from the Carrara marble cabinet. Then eight valves tiptoe upwards and finally the glass lid opens and the headphones rise slightly for your delectation, a half-minute process that ensures the valves have time to reach operating temperature.
And so one plugs in one's computer and dials up HD Tracks, places one's boots comfortably on the coffee table and taps 'play'. And the shivers start running up and down one's spine. This is heroin for the ears. That first hit goes straight to the centre of your brain and turns it to jelly. And all you want is more. Now you know why Brian Wilson badgered the two cellists so relentlessly when recording Good Vibrations. You're sitting at a table so close to Diana Krall's piano you can hear her breathing. You get the nonchalant arrogance of Hilary Hahn belting out Bach, the hopeless resignation Dawn Upshaw gets so right with Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
Rebecca Pigeon's Spanish Harlem is, simply, perfect. Close your eyes and she's standing in front of you. You can see her lips move.