Sometimes looking back is helpful in moving forward. It’s a seemingly popular approach in hi-fi right now as manufacturers are increasingly launching new retro-modern designs based on old classics in their catalogues. And it's one Yamaha decided to take six years ago in order to develop the forthcoming YH-5000 flagship headphones you see before you. Yamaha looked back 50 years.
In the 70s, the more ambitious hi-fi and headphones manufacturers were looking beyond the dynamic driver. They were experimenting with electrostatic and planar technologies in order to push the heights of consumer audio kit in line with the advancing studio recording ambitions of not only stereo tracks but also multi-channel (yes, this was when The Dark Side of the Moon changed the world, man).
Yamaha engineers, however, focused their attention on creating a best-of-both-worlds driver; a driver capable of the performance of a more expensive electrostatic driver but with a simpler construction, closer to that of a dynamic driver. The result? Its Orthodynamic driver (a design type now commonly referred to as a Planar Magnetic driver). This is a speaker diaphragm that used isodynamic magnetic fields to drive an über-thin diaphragm etched with a conductive material.
As Yamaha literature states, the company’s engineers “...created a polyester diaphragm with a thickness of 12 micrometres [the same dimensions as the tape inside a C90 cassette]. Photo-etching technology was then used to engrave a conductive material onto the surface in a spiral pattern to act as the voice coil. The voice coil was then divided into five concentric rings, also then divided to match the location of the magnets, which were also divided into five sections positioned with alternating North and South poles.” When the music signal flowed through the patterned etching, it generated magnetic fields that would interact with one another to make the diaphragm (and integrated voice coil) move and produce sound, with the magnets helping to keep the spread across the whole diaphragm even, and the magnetic fields’ complete envelopment of the diaphragm ensuring that movement is responsive and controlled.
It wasn’t a new idea per se, but at that time it hadn’t yet been successfully implemented. Enter, in 1976, Yamaha’s HP-1, the headphones in which the Orthodynamic driver made its debut, and which gained critical acclaim across the board when they launched at around ~$200 (around $1000 in today’s money).
Fast forward five decades to 2016 and, as it goes, Yamaha engineers had a renewed desire to apply this design concept to today’s more advanced manufacturing technologies and modern materials. Six years of development later and after testing more than 1000 driver diaphragm designs, they had a completely redesigned Orthodynamic diaphragm driver fit for this new flagship model.
They will debut in a Special Edition pair, the YH-5000SE, which includes a variety of premium accessories and costs a rather lofty £4799 / $5000 / AU$7499. Stock will arrive in Japan and Europe beginning in January, with other markets to follow.
Earlier this year, Yamaha gave us ears-on time with a pre-production sample of the headphones, and our initial impressions of them form this hands-on review...
For the HP-1, Yamaha brought on board Italian industrial designer Mario Bellini – who had caught the company’s eye, perhaps for his work on Olivetti typewriters – to carve out the look for the headphones (and then another of Yamaha’s products, the TC-800 tape deck). Though Yamaha has, as far as we know, stayed in-house for the YH-5000SE’s design, Bellini’s HP-1 legacy is apparent in the new pair. They too use a double-layer headband, designed to spread the pressure laterally across the whole head for peak comfort.
Of the design, Yasuaki Takano in Yamaha’s Affective Evaluation team, said: “We sought to achieve the ideal wearing comfort by meticulously measuring whether the headphones would touch the top of the head and the side of the face evenly, and would apply minimum pressure, even with irregularly shaped heads.”
Now, these are intriguing-looking headphones that invite you to put them on immediately. In fact, we were so compelled to put them on upon seeing them that we subconsciously did so while the Yamaha representative was still briefing us. Perhaps it’s the intricacy of the spider pattern on the ear cups or the obviously expensive look of the leather ear pads. Or maybe it's just knowing their cost…
That said, we didn’t think the YH-5000SE felt their price exactly – upon a first fondle, anyway. Perceived value is difficult for headphones to achieve after a certain price point, but the Yamahas felt so… light. That’s because they are – just 320g. For comparison, the Focal Utopia tip the scales at 490g, the Audeze LCD-5 weigh 420g, and the Beyerdynamic T1 are 360g. The Yamahas are lighter even than the Sennheiser HD 820 (though not the HD 600).
That light weight is a good thing, of course! It certainly helps unburden the headband and consequently our head – the flat, wide band still felt utterly agreeable after 30 minutes of listening. And we can imagine Goldilocks approving of the earpad fit, too, as they had ‘just the right amount’ of clamp force. The ‘standard’ earpads that come with the YH-5000SE (and which we tried and very much liked) are made of sheepskin leather, though they also come with a second pair of earpads made from ‘Ultrasuede’ by luxury manufacturer Toray, a material that can be found covering seats inside higher-end Lexus.
While we are on the subject of YH-5000SE extras, the special edition package also gets you an aluminium display stand (pictured below), as well as a 2m 4.4 mm Pentaconn balanced cable in addition to the standard 2m 3.5mm cable. The price does not include the optional 2m XLR balanced cable, however.
While their relatively skeletal look might have something to do with the perceived value being lower than the actual value in our minds, we very much doubt we could have broken them with our bare hands if the Yamaha representatives had challenged us to, or spoken ill of our mums. For one, the housing frame is made out of magnesium – light, strong and with high vibration-damping qualities; for another, the arm of the headband is constructed from stainless steel. The triaxial mesh material on the ear cups to protect the open-backed housing is one used in aerospace applications, too.
As the YH-5000SE use “delicate materials that are difficult to handle and materials that are not often used in audio products,” according to Chikara Kobayashi in the Mechanical and Housing Design team, it is perhaps not surprising that they are produced and assembled at Yamaha’s Kakegawa factory, where its grand pianos and reference audio components are made.
You are paying for fine materials and skilled craftsmanship here, and it certainly seems as though you are getting it.
In order to maintain optimum pressure inside the housings, which is particularly important for open-back designs, Yamaha has used what is called a ‘Rolled Plain Dutch Weave’ stainless steel filter, an arc-shaped protrusion that it says acts as a reflector to enable smooth air movement and is key to creating the soundfield it aspired to for the YH-5000SE.
This soundfield and presentation aren’t ones that instantly have us shaking the Yamaha representative’s hand and enthusiastically pre-ordering multiple pairs. Don’t take this as a criticism, though. The YH-5000SE don’t showboat by grabbing you with a lusciousness you sink into or a quantity of bass that immediately corrects your posture. They don’t work to imprint any kind of spurious sonic character on you. They just tell it as it is with a rare level of neutrality and transparency – one that reveals itself to you, and can be admired more and more, track by track. And that’s really the most you can ever ask of a piece of audio equipment.
For our demonstration, the YH-5000SE were hooked up to an RME ADI-2 DAC set-up (which we were unfamiliar with), fed by a laptop playing Tidal Masters tracks. We kick things off with Paul Simon's Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, and the sheer detail that comes through the ear cups is a reminder of the legacy and calibre of headphones we are dealing with here. This is a very well-recorded track and that plays to their strengths. The hollowness of the soundstage at the beginning is superbly communicated by the YH-5000, as is the interplay within the South African choral group that fills it. When the dense instrumentals come in, everything can be plainly heard on the sonic canvas and there are so many tangible textures to tune into beneath an intimately delivered Simon vocal that is equally present and detailed. Over to the stripped-back Alternate Unreleased Version (recommended if you haven’t heard it) and that domineering bass line tugs at you with depth and a fitting sense of rawness.
Such is their articulacy and analytical nature that you would think these were ‘work first, play later’ headphones; but when things get spicy rhythmically, the Yamahas show that they have a playful nature. Indeed, just as their even-handedness and insight allow them to be patient and candid, they can also snap into gear when necessary – as they then prove as we play Alt-J’s Breezeblocks.
Their clarity and directness prevent their soundstage from feeling as limitlessly open as some other open-back cans’, but there is still plenty of space; so when we play Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, his background cries at 1:50 still sound as though they are half a metre away from our heads.
Over to Spoon's Pink Up and there’s more of the track in the YH-5000SE’s rendition than we have heard before. The shakers take on more depth and layering, allowing us to hear every part of the shake and almost be temporarily obsessed with it. It’s so clear and sparkling that it almost sounds shrill, and you can believe that is all in the recording rather than the headphones themselves altering the narrative.
Last but not least, the way they bring poignant details to the surface and highlight the nuances in Ludovico Einaudi’s fingerwork in Petricor demonstrate just why you might consider buying a pair of headphones this expensive in the first place.
The ultimate audiophile headphones? It’s a big call – and not one we are prepared to make having listened to a non-final sample for no longer than 45 minutes. But the very high calibre of the YH-5000SE’s performance was abundantly clear in that time, and we are confident it will do the HP and YH forefathers’ legacy proud. It is a testament to the good first impressions they make that we look forward to putting them through 12 rounds of testing and up against established high-pedigree pairs around this price as soon as we can.
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