THE FUTURE OF AUDIO: Steve Levine

Work of Art Design: "These Headphones Are a Work of Art"

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Producer Steve Levine and Maurice Quarré, Sennheiser's director of Business Segments Select & Audiophile, discuss their first impressions of listening to music with Sennheiser HE 1 headphones, the quest for the ultimate sound experience and why Levine always has two identical pairs of Sennheiser headphones on hand in the studio.

  • Author: Simon E. Fuchs
  • Photos: Moodmacher/Hochglanz Film
  • Video: Moodmacher/Hochglanz Film
  • Editing / Post Production Moodmacher

Reshaping audio excellence” is the motto of the listening experience that takes place at Sennheiser’s headquarters in Wedemark, Germany. Levine has flown in from London on this particular morning. He has a USB stick with him that contains his latest studio mixes – “Breathe slowly” and “Rescue me,” two songs by the English soul singer Xam Volo.

„These headphones are going to force producers to deliver even better work, because you can simply hear everything.“

Steve Levine, you just tested the Sennheiser HE 1. What was your first impression? Steve Levine: It’s an incredible piece of equipment. You can see straight away that it’s a work of art. It’s as if a phoenix has risen from the ashes. The cover to the headphones opens slowly and the tube amps rise up. You could compare it to going to a very fine restaurant. You can smell the wonderful scent wafting out of the kitchen before you take your first bite. These headphones had won me over before I even listened to them.

What kind of feeling did you have the first time you put the headphones on? Levine: Before the music started, I was fascinated by the transparency and silence. When you put other headphones on, you often hear a faint signal noise. You don’t hear a thing with these headphones. It’s incredible. I felt like I was isolated from the world in a good way, like in a vacuum. That’s very important to me when I am listening to headphones. The strength of the headphones was also surprising. They’re comfortably loud, without producing any extraneous noise.

Maurice Quarré: Steve Levine did a good job describing what we sought to achieve with the new Sennheiser HE 1. We have further developed the legacy of the old Orpheus, which still sets the standard around the world. With this model, power was particularly important to us. We wanted to make this Sennheiser HE 1 louder than the Orpheus. What emerged was a combination of technology and art. Levine: Other designers will have to measure themselves against this product in the future.

Steve Levine, could you hear details in the recordings that you hadn’t noticed before? Was it an “ultimate sound experience?” Levine: When you listen to headphones of this caliber, you definitely discover details you hadn’t noticed before. I just listened to my own songs. Everything that I knew from the studio session was in there. I felt like I had been transported back into the recording process. That’s very rare. These headphones are going to force producers to deliver even better work, because you can simply hear everything.

How was this amplitude of details achieved? Quarré: The basis of the quality is the workmanship. Each of the 6,000 individual components was manufactured with excellence. Everything was selected and manufactured by hand. The frequency range that audible with these headphones goes from 8Hz to 100kHz. By comparison, the human ear can only detect sounds in the 20Hz to 20kHz range. In other words, these headphones go far beyond that range. The reason for this is that when headphones reach their limits, the quality quickly drops. It was important to us to maintain the highest possible quality right up until the end. The listening process should not be disrupted by any distortion or loss of quality. It's like a new way of listening.

We used electrostatic transducers that are fitted with gold-vaporized ceramics. The transducers have to oscillate in a uniform direction. In order to ensure that every millimeter of the transducer oscillates uniformly, we have selected gold, one of the hardest materials in existence.

In addition, the tube amps for these headphones are manufactured and cushioned with a special glass. These individual components are already known on the market, but the way we brought them together is unique and demonstrates an innovation culture. Nobody has ever done that before.

Mauric Quarée & Steve Levine
„I’m not truly satisfied until I have the chance to finally demonstrate headphones like these and receive positive feedback from listeners.“

How important are the cables on a pair of headphones like this? Levine: Cables are very important – both for the design and the sound. Some people pay a fortune for their equipment but then skimp on the cables. That’s a shame because cables can make such a big difference. I like the retro design of these headphone cables. They remind me of the early days of the music industry. They don’t look like they will get knotted up easily.

Quarré: We spent a lot of time and energy perfecting this product. It would have been a disgrace if we had just used a totally normal, standard cable.

Technical details are one thing. What do you have to say about the way it looks? Can one speak in terms of a “work of art design” here? Levine: A product like this, of course, has to deliver a special sound quality. Otherwise I wouldn’t be interested. But it is equally important for this sound quality to be melded with art and design. As soon as I turned the system on, I knew right away it was also going to be a magnificent listening experience.

Quarré: That’s what we wanted to achieve. The first impression was very important to us. Studies show that a person decides within seven seconds whether they like something or not. Sound properties, naturally, are given priority at Sennheiser. But we also wanted to link functionality with moments of magic. The ear cups on the headphones, for example, are a mix of leather and velour. For the body, we chose Carrara marble that was cut from a single block. It’s a particularly solid material. These headphones will have a special place in living rooms and recording studios.

Levine: People will be talking about these headphones at dinner parties.

Quarré: I also think that listening with them will be an experience. People will sit down together, put them on and each will be quiet for 45 seconds, casually observing what happens.

You work as a producer and a developer. Mixing has to be ambitious. At what point are you satisfied with your work? Levine: I’m not satisfied until a mix is really good. There must be ambitious mixing. Only then do I start passing the headphones around the studio. Everyone should listen to the song. For this, I have two pairs of the same model of Sennheiser headphones. I use one pair myself and I pass the other one around. I’m always afraid that hairspray might damage the headphones.

Quarré: At the end of the development and manufacturing phase, I know the product inside out. I’m not truly satisfied until I have the chance to finally demonstrate headphones like these and receive positive feedback from listeners.

Steve Levine listening to the HE-1