Mention Yamaha to us and it is the brand’s enviable track record with home cinema amplifiers that comes to mind. Of course, Yamaha is far more than that and has its fingers in many more pies than Mr Kipling. The company is a dominant force in musical instruments, making everything you can think of from grand pianos and electronic keyboards to trumpets and drums. Then there are the motorcycles and pretty much anything you would need to deliver sound in a broadcast or concert environment. Given such a context, maybe it is no surprise that the company’s smallish domestic headphone range tends to get overlooked.
It seems like Yamaha is determined to change that with the introduction of the range-topping YH-5000SE. While there is a precedent for such a product in the form of the HP-1 of the mid-’70s, this is still a move that caught us by surprise. Having talked with the people behind the project, it is clear that Yamaha feels that there is a new market developing for wired headphones at this high-end level and would like to stake a claim before the sector truly takes off. We have to say that the Yamaha YH-5000SE is a fine way to do it.
There is a link between these headphones and the 1970s HP-1, and that is the use of an orthodynamic driver. A what? It is an older term for what we now call a planar magnetic. This is where the diaphragm is etched with a voice coil and sits between opposing magnets. This arrangement has advantages compared to a conventional moving coil driver in terms of the potential for lower distortion because the diaphragm is driven over more of its surface area, and greater responsiveness thanks to its lower weight.
The driver used in the YH-5000SE differs from conventional magnetic planar units by having a circular diaphragm with a spiral coil. This unit has been in development since 2016 and has carefully evolved over hundreds of iterations before arriving at this final variant.
Build & comfort
The YH-5000SE is an open-back design. It carefully manages the pressure around the drive unit with the use of Dutch weave stainless steel filters and controls directivity with special shaping inside the earcup. The earcup housing is made of lightweight magnesium, while the rest of the headphone’s structure uses a mix of steel, ABS, leather and aluminium. The result is a surprisingly light pair of headphones that weighs just 320g. Add that low weight to the combination of a wide leather headband, large softly cushioned earpads and carefully judged clamping pressure, and you have one of the most comfortable headphones we’ve worn.
There is a choice of earpads. As standard, the headphones come fitted with perforated leather ones but these can be easily swapped for alternatives covered with Toray Ultrasuede. Comfort-wise the choice comes down to personal preference, with the Toray-covered option feeling lovely right up to the point our ears start getting too hot. The Toray option also makes the headphones sound a little fuller, though just a touch less transparent. We end up leaving the default leather pads in place.
Type Open-back, wired
Driver Planar magnetic
Impedance 34 ohms
Cable length 2m
Cable type 3.5mm (with 6.3mm adaptor), 4.4mm balanced
General build quality is as good as you would expect at this premium price. These headphones feel beautifully engineered and are built with obvious care. But, unlike more luxurious alternatives such as the similarly-priced Focal Utopia (2022), they have an aura of being a functional tool rather than something to impress friends with. We’re fine with that.
That feeling of being focused on the job at hand extends to the packaging. While the Focals arrive in packaging that looks and feels beautiful and classy, these Yamahas come in something more ordinary. It does the job well enough, but it is something that you would quickly discard once you’ve got the headphones out. In the package, you get a dedicated metal stand and a choice of single-ended or 4.4mm balanced woven silver-plated OFC cables. Both leads are 2m long.
The partnering system matters. A lot.
If you are buying headphones at this level be aware that you can’t skimp on the partnering kit. Don’t just plug these Yamahas into your laptop or phone and expect a performance good enough to justify that sky-high price. You just won’t get it.
In our book, these headphones are just so capable and transparent that the sky is the limit as far as partnering kit is concerned. Most of our testing is done using Naim’s ND555/555 PS DR music streamer and the Technics SL-1000R record player as sources. Amplification is provided by our reference Burmester 088 preamp as well as Chord’s Hugo TT2 DAC/headphone amplifier. Our trusty MacBook Pro (loaded with Audirvana music-playing software and plenty of high-res music) is also pressed into service. We have the YH-5000SE’s obvious rival, the Focal Utopia (2022) to hand for comparison purposes, as well as cheaper but still determinedly premium alternatives such as Sony’s MDR-Z1, Grado’s RS1x and the Beyerdynamic T1 (3rd Generation).
We give the YH-5000SE a few days of running before listening seriously. There are no two ways about it, these Yamaha headphones are exceptional performers. They come close to equivalently-priced Stax electrostatics when it comes to outright resolution and clarity, but in our opinion deliver the sound with greater verve, which makes them a more enjoyable listen.
Beyond that, it is hard to think of an alternative that’s as insightful and balanced. The Focals certainly deliver more in the way of punch and drive when we listen to Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes set, but the Yamahas sound obviously more balanced and detailed. They reveal subtleties in texture and low-level information that the otherwise excellent Focals just don’t pick up on. More than that, we love the unforced naturalness of the Yamahas’ presentation and the precision with which they define every note.
There is still plenty of muscularity here when the music demands, with the YH-5000SE rendering bass with impeccable clarity and articulation. We get a real sense of power where required, but also class-leading finesse where it isn’t.
Springsteen’s passionate vocals come through with grit intact. These headphones allow a microscopic analysis of his voice if required, but also let the listener sit back and just enjoy the experience. Rarely have we come across a piece of hi-fi that’s so capable of putting a spotlight on the smallest of details but still encourages the full musical experience to shine through. To top it all off, these headphones have a great sense of timing and rhythm. The Focals may deliver a bigger punch but it is these Yamahas that communicate the ebb and flow of music better, delivering the hard-charging beat of The Ghost Of Tom Joad with the full dose of momentum intact.
We move to Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa and these cans sound right at home. They have a wonderfully spacious sound giving them an uncluttered and expansive feel with this recording. With the standard leather earpads fitted, these Yamahas sound wonderfully neutral and natural.
We’re mightily impressed by the YH-5000SE’s dynamic ability; the way they can track large-scale swings or low-level nuances with equal ease is breathtaking. These headphones sound organic and fluid in a way that makes most others sound pretty mechanical in comparison. You can add class-leading composure and control to the list of plus points too.
We play everything from Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions to Nirvana’s Nevermind with various works of Ólafur Arnalds in between, and these Yamahas never disappoint. Despite their exceptional transparency they never go out of their way to emphasise flaws in recordings. As a listener, you’re well aware that some aspects of the recording aren’t spot-on, but these cans have a habit of putting the focus on the music.
There are no two ways about it, these Yamahas are mighty pricey for a pair of headphones. Yet, in our view, they justify that price with a depth of ability that we haven’t come across at this level before. Provided your partnering electronics are talented enough to make the YH-5000SE sing we can’t help but recommend these headphones highly. They are exceptional performers.
- Sound 5
- Build 5
- Comfort 5
Read our review of the Focal Utopia (2022) headphones
Also consider the Beyerdynamic T1 (3rd Gen)
Read our Grado RS1x review