Sometimes looking back helps to move 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 that Yamaha decided to take six years ago to develop the forthcoming YH-5000 flagship headphones you envision. Yamaha looked back 50 years.
In the 1970s, the more ambitious hi-fi and headphone manufacturers looked beyond the dynamic driver. They experimented with electrostatic and planar technologies to match the heights of consumer audio kits with the advancing studio recording ambitions of not only stereo tracks but also multi-channel (yes, this was back then The Dark side of the moon the world changed, man).
However, Yamaha engineers turned their attention to 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? The orthodynamic driver (a design type now commonly referred to as a Planar Magnetic driver). This is a loudspeaker diaphragm that uses isodynamic magnetic fields to create a aboutthin diaphragm etched with a conductive material.
As stated in Yamaha’s literature, the company’s engineers “…created a polyester diaphragm with a thickness of 12 microns [the same dimensions as the tape inside a C90 cassette]. Then photo-etching technology was used to engrave a conductive material in a spiral pattern on the surface to act as a voice coil. The voice coil was then divided into five concentric rings, which were also divided to match the location of the magnets, which were also divided into five sections positioned with alternating north and south poles.” As the music signal passed through the pattern etch, it generated magnetic fields that would interact with each other to make the diaphragm (and integrated voice coil) move and produce sound, the magnets helping to equalize the spread across the entire diaphragm, and the full envelope of the diaphragm’s magnetic fields ensures that movement is responsive and controlled.
It wasn’t a new idea necessarily, but at that time it had not yet been successfully implemented. In 1976, enter Yamaha’s HP-1, the headphones in which the orthodynamic driver made its debut, and received critical acclaim across the board when they launched for around $200 (about $1000 in today’s money).
Fast forward five decades to 2016 and 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 over 1000 driver diaphragm designs, they had a completely redesigned orthodynamic diaphragm driver suitable for this new flagship model.
It will first appear as a Special Edition version, 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 from January, with other markets to follow.
The YH-5000 (without accessories) will go on sale later in 2023 for a confirmed AU$5999 in Australia. UK and US pricing has yet to be announced, although it should be somewhere between £3000 and $4000.
Earlier this year, Yamaha gave us time to listen with a pre-production sample of the headphones, and our first impressions of them formed this hands-on review…
For the HP-1, Yamaha enlisted Italian industrial designer Mario Bellini — who had caught the company’s attention, perhaps because of his work on Olivetti typewriters — to flesh out the look for the headphones (and subsequently another Yamaha product , the TC-800 cassette deck). While, as far as we know, Yamaha has stayed in-house for the design of the YH-5000, Bellini’s HP-1 legacy is evident in the new pair. They too use a double-layered headband, designed to distribute pressure laterally across the entire head for maximum comfort.
Commenting on the design, Yasuaki Takano of Yamaha’s Affective Evaluation team said, “We tried to achieve the ideal wearing comfort by meticulously measuring whether the headphones would evenly touch the top of the head and the side of the face and exert minimal pressure, even with irregularly shaped heads.”
These are now intriguing-looking headphones that invite you to put them on right away. In fact, we were so compelled to put them on when we saw them that we did so unknowingly while the Yamaha rep was still briefing us. Perhaps it’s the intricacy of the spider pattern on the ear cups or the distinctly expensive look of the leather ear cushions. Or maybe it’s just knowing what their costs are…
That said, we didn’t think the YH-5000 quite felt their price – at least on a first touch. Perceived value is hard to achieve for headphones after a certain price point, but the Yamahas felt so… light. That’s because they are – just 320g. For comparison: the Focal Utopia weighs 490 grams, the Audeze LCD-5 weighs 420 grams and the Beyerdynamic T1 weighs 360 grams. The Yamahas are even lighter than the Sennheiser HD 820 (but not the HD 600).
That light weight is of course a good thing! It certainly helps to relieve the headband and thus our head – the flat, wide band still felt extremely comfortable after 30 minutes of listening. And we can imagine Goldilocks also approved of the fit of the ear pads, as they had “just the right amount” of clamping force. The ‘stock’ ear cushions that come with the YH-5000 (which we’ve tried and really liked) are made from sheepskin leather. The YH-5000SE also comes with a second pair of ear cushions made from luxury manufacturer Toray’s ‘Ultrasuede’, a material that can be found for the upholstery of seats in the more expensive Lexus.
Speaking of YH-5000SE extras, the special edition package also includes an aluminum display stand (pictured below), as well as a 2m 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced cable in addition to the standard 2m 3.5mm cable . However, neither the YH-5000 nor the YH-5000SE come with the optional 2m XLR balanced cable.
While their relatively skeletal appearance may have something to do with the perceived value being less than the actual value in our minds, we highly doubt we would have been able to break them with our bare hands if the Yamaha reps had challenged us or bad spoken our mothers. For example, the housing frame is made of magnesium – light, strong and with high vibration-damping properties; for another, the arm of the headband is made of stainless steel. The triaxial mesh material on the earcups to protect the open-back housing is also used in aerospace applications.
Given that the YH-5000 uses “delicate materials that are difficult to handle and materials that are not commonly used in audio products,” said Chikara Kobayashi of the Mechanical and Housing Design team, it is perhaps unsurprising that they are produced and assembled in Yamaha’s Kakegawa factory, where the grand pianos and reference audio components are made.
You’re paying for fine materials and expert craftsmanship here, and it sure looks like you’re getting it.
To maintain optimum pressure in the housings, which is especially important in open-back designs, Yamaha has used what it calls a “Rolled Plain Dutch Weave” stainless steel filter, an arc-shaped protrusion that it says acts as a reflector for making smooth air movement and is key to creating the sound field it sought for the YH-5000.
This sound field and presentation doesn’t immediately make us shake hands with the Yamaha representative and enthusiastically pre-order several pairs. Don’t take this as a criticism though. The YH-5000 doesn’t showboat by grabbing you with a lusciousness that sinks you in or an amount of bass that instantly corrects your attitude. They don’t work to imprint some false sonic character on you. They just tell it like it is with a rare level of neutrality and transparency – one that reveals itself to you and becomes more and more admirable, track by track. And that’s really the most you could ever ask of an audio device.
For our demonstration, the YH-5000 was hooked up to an RME ADI-2 DAC setup (unknown to us), powered by a laptop playing Tidal Masters tracks. We kick off with Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the soles of her shoes, and the sheer detail coming through the earcups is a reminder of the heritage and caliber of headphones we’re dealing with here. This is a very well recorded song and it plays to their strengths. The hollowness of the soundstage at the beginning is excellently 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 is heard clearly on the sonic canvas and there are so many tactile textures to tune into beneath an intimately delivered Simon vocal that is equally present and detailed. Over to the stripped-down Alternate Unreleased Version (recommended if you haven’t heard it yet) and that dominant bass line pulls you in with depth and a fitting sense of rawness.
Their articulation and analytical nature is so great that you might think these are ‘work first, play later’ headphones; but when things get rhythmically snappy, the Yamahas show they have a playful nature. Indeed, just as their impartiality and insight allow them to be patient and forthright, they can also move quickly when needed – as they subsequently prove when we play Alt-Js Windblocks.
Their clarity and immediacy prevent their soundstage from feeling as boundlessly open as some other open-back cans, but there’s still plenty of room; so if we play Michael Jackson’s Billy Jeanhis background cries at 1:50 still sound like they’re a foot away from our heads.
Over to Spoons pink up and there’s more of the song in the YH-5000’s rendition than we’ve heard before. The shakers gain more depth and layering, allowing us to hear every part of the shake and become almost momentarily obsessed with it. It’s so bright and sparkling it almost sounds shrill, and you can believe it’s all in the recording and not the headphones themselves changing the story.
Last but not least, the way they bring out poignant details and emphasize the nuances in Ludovico Einaudi’s fingerwork in petricor showing why you would consider buying such an expensive set of headphones in the first place.
The ultimate audiophile headphones? It’s a big decision – and not one we’re willing to make if we haven’t listened to a non-final sample for more than 45 minutes. But the very high caliber of the YH-5000’s performance was evident at the time, and we’re confident it will carry the legacy of HP and YH forebears proudly. It’s a testament to the good first impressions they make that we look forward to putting them through 12 rounds of testing as soon as possible and taking on established high end pairs around this price point.
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