When Yamaha unveiled the YH-5000SE headphones – an open-back high-end pair – we were taken by surprise. Yamaha isn't typically known for its headphone portfolio, but these new range-topping headphones proved to be, in no uncertain terms, exceptional performers.
Yes, they're expensive at £4799 / $5000 / AU$7499, but the depth of their ability is astonishing and they set a new standard at this elevated premium level.
Naturally, you'll need suitably talented kit to drive these headphones, and Yamaha has taken it upon itself to also create a headphone amplifier to match its talents. And so the Yamaha HA-L7A has come to fruition. This headphone amp is still very much in its early stages and has only been seen at trade shows so far. We first spotted it at the Australian Hi-Fi Show in early May, and most recently got our second look - and listen - to the amp at High End Munich 2023, where we managed to eke out some more information about it.
But even in its prototype state, the HA-L7A is a compelling proposition. Being born from the same team that developed the YH-5000SE already has us more excited than usual about a headphone amplifier, and from our first impressions, its rather unique design and the brief listens we've had to it only cements our anticipation for the full release.
The utilitarian looks of the YH-5000SE headphones needed something to match it, and the HA-L7A certainly looks the part. It looks unlike any other headphone amplifier we've comes across. The all-black aluminium casing looks well built and engineered, offering a more 'functional' than flashy or luxurious aesthetic - just like the headphones it's designed to partner with. That's no bad thing, of course; we rather like the industrial look of the two-box arrangement.
The rather odd-looking section with the two cylinders is the power supply unit. Those protruding cylinders that stand proudly on the top panel house a pair of internal mains transformers - one feeds the preamp section and the other, the power stages.
The audio section and power supply can't be used separately, so we imagine you'll need to clear out quite a big space on your desk or hi-fi rack to accommodate it. The two are separate units so that the high currents and resultant magnetic fields of the power supply don't interfere with the sensitive audio circuit and spoil its performance.
The main unit has a small black-and-white display screen that again is more functional than flashy, showing basic information such as the volume level and input selected. There are simple buttons for input and output selection and using the menu. The two dials on the side – one for volume, one for sound mode – add a bit of design interest. They're set into the body of the unit, overhanging on the side slightly. The dials are backlit by a yellow light that gives the HA-L7A amp a rather subtle, retro-futuristic analogue look.
The volume dial is surrounded by tiny white LEDs that light up according to the volume level – it's a subtle, neat touch and works smoothly with each step of the volume change. Overall, the HA-L7A build seems to be rock solid, with a distinctive aesthetic that puts quality and functionality high on its priorities.
As mentioned earlier, the sample we saw at the show is a pre-production prototype and full technical details are sparse, as the product isn't due to launch until later in the year.
What we do know, however, is that the HA-L7A has been designed from the ground up and is to be partnered with the superb high-end YA-5000SE headphones.
The output of the headphone amplifier is reportedly "very powerful" with a claimed rating of 1,000mW + 1,000mW (at 32 ohms with 1 per cent distortion). It should drive a variety of appropriately premium headphones, not just Yamaha's own.
The headphone amp can also has a DAC module, with USB, digital coaxial and optical inputs on the back panel, alongside an RCA analogue input pair. Inside the DAC section lies a ESS 9038Pro DAC chip, which ensures compatibility with hi-res audio files up to 32-bit/384kHz PMC and DSD 11.2MHz.
There are also switchable analogue RCA and XLR pre and line outputs on the back panel. And it comes with a remote.
For headphones use, there's an XLR balanced connection, a 4.4mm balanced connection and a 6.3mm standard socket on the front panel. We listened to the YA-5000SE headphones plugged into the XLR socket.
Eagle-eyed readers will spot the "Pure Direct" button and a "Sound Field Mode Selector", which points to the ability to tweak the sound of the headphone amp. Although details of this are slim and "undecided" at this point, Yamaha suggests that the sound field correction technology used in its AV receivers may also appear on the HA-L7A. This is certainly an interesting and potentially exciting feature, and could offer "new ways of enjoying headphones" says Yamaha.
While a busy trade show isn't the best environment for any critical listening, we are familiar with the considerable talents of the YH-5000SE and it gives us a good reference point. With the headphones plugged into the HA-L7A amp, it certainly sounded like a harmonious pairing.
We listen to a few tracks through Qobuz (classical instrumental, female vocals) and we get the impression of fluid dynamics, clear detail and a wonderfully open, spacious sound field.
It all sounded rather effortless, and we find it difficult to pinpoint exactly where the headphones ended and the HA-L7A amp began, which is rather the point. We listened to a more familiar song – Snuff by Slipknot – and the depth of each guitar and bass note was impressive, as was the amount of texture and nuance coming through with Corey Taylor's heartfelt vocals.
It's a rather potent combination and even our brief time with this pairing leaves us thinking this could potentially be something truly special. Of course, we still have to wait a few months until the final production sample of the HA-L7A is ready and we're able to listen to it for a longer period to give a final verdict.
There's no word on pricing yet, either, but we are expecting the headphone amp to cost similar to the YH-5000SE headphones – which means we'd be looking at a potential combined pricing of £10,000 / $10,000 for the set. That's a lot to live up to. But we can't wait to get the full details of the Yamaha HA-L7A when it's released later in the year and to get a review sample in for a proper listen to see what it's truly capable of.
Read our review of the five-star Yamaha YH-5000SE
Want an alternative headphone amp? Check out the new iFi iCan Phantom