It’s hard to go past these ‘phones with both style and substance in spades, writes Witchdoctor’s resident ‘cans’ expert Ashley Kramer.
YAMAHA ISN’T A brand name that’s generally associated with the headphone market, especially not when it comes to fashion ‘phones of the breed popularised by the good Doctor Dre and his epically successful Beats line. However, as has been stated on Witchdoctor more than once, these days, portable audio is popular audio, and even the big brands such as Yamaha aren’t immune to the temptation of grabbing market share in such a growth category, especially at the higher prices, hence the Pro 500 model.
The Pro 500’s sit at the top of a sizable range of in-ear and over-ear models and they’re unashamedly aimed at fashion conscious premium punters. In fact they look eerily similar to Doc Dre’s Studio model; and from the smooth flowing shape of the headband to the styling of the earcups, not to mention the huge integrated logo on each side, the Pro 500’s definitely tick certain aesthetic boxes. They’re available in Piano Black and Racing Blue and in both cases, they’re nothing short of lovely. They’re also best described as bold – these things make a statement wherever they go thanks to the size and the silver accents.
As befits ‘phones at the six hundred dollar mark, they’re supplied in top-quality heavy duty packaging and are shipped with a hard carry case, two detachable cables and a 3.5mm to 6.35mm adapter, plus stickers and a cleaning cloth. Build quality and overall finish are excellent and the Pro 500’s are seriously rugged – there just don’t seem to be any weak spots to the construction, and the hinges look ready for a long life. My “enhanced” testing revealed no durability issues at all.
These ‘phones fold down but they still make for a pretty sizable piece of kit, especially in the carry case. You’re not going to squeeze it or the bare ‘phones into a laptop bag but there is a carabineer to hook the case onto a backpack or daypack.
The cables are heavy gauge, flat designs that are genuinely tangle-resistant and go so far as to internally isolate the left and right channels. The connectors are solidly built, which adds to the expected longevity. There’s a 1.2m cable with an Apple in-line remote/mic for portable use, and a 3m option for in-home use. Interestingly there are 3.5mm jacks on both earcups so users can run the cables in either left or right orientations, or strangely enough – run two devices simultaneously, or in an even more bizarre twist, the unused input functions as an output, so the user can daisy chain another set of ‘phones. Useful perhaps if one plans to recreate the sex scene that’s set early on in the original Terminator movie…
The Pro 500’s are comfortable in use barring one specific issue that’ll only affect certain users. The headband is well padded and the padding on the earcups is just the right grade to be soft and unobtrusive, yet not so yielding that the driver covers get squashed into the ears. The only glitch is that the round shape of the cups meant that the edge of the padding made contact with my ears instead of sitting well clear all the way round like a big set of studio ‘phones. This was an annoyance and caused me to adjust the fit often and aggressively but I do admittedly have large ears. So your ears may well be unaffected and if not, you might not notice the pads at all.
They boast 50mm drivers of an undisclosed material built into rigid aluminium housings. Designed to be efficient and easy to drive, they work well with smartphones. Powered by an iPhone, the Pro 500’s went way too loud for comfort, but this just means that the feeble amplification in the source devices doesn’t have to run too close to its limits, even at higher volume levels.
Sonically the Pro 500’s offer a big and energetic sound. In some ways, they remind me of the tuning of recent Skullcandy models that have been in for review – just more refined. They’re effortlessly dynamic, punch hard and they carry loads of weight low down – too much to be classified as entirely neutral but they’re by no means in the “Extra Super Mega Bass” category. As always, it’s nice to have some additional bass heft in a set of portable ‘phones, and in any event, the bass is always tight and articulate – these are no one-note wonders. Run 10cc’s ‘Art For Art’s Sake’ from Greatest Hits … And More and run it hard, and the bass is wonderfully deep and musical but move on to ‘I’m Mandy Fly Me’ and there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of bass emanating from the drivers. Not enough to affect enjoyment, but you’ll be aware of its generosity.
The detail levels and attack is first-rate, with a wide-open midrange and top end that give the clean-window insight into recordings that’s critical at this price point. The treble is not at all reticent yet isn’t too penetrating or glaring to tolerate intense and brightly balanced recordings. For example, AWOLNATION’s Megalithic Symphony and Rage Against The Machine’s The Battle Of Los Angeles are always spun when ‘phones are being reviewed and the Pro 500’s never had me once turning down the volume.
Another plus is that the Pro 500’s throw a commendably wide soundstage – at no point does it feel like you’re listening to drivers located 0.0004mm from your ears as is the case with some ‘phones. This width contributes to the openness and depth of the sonic experience – it’s an inviting place to be. On the minus side, while isolation from external noise is about average, a fair amount of music escapes to bug colleagues and others in your immediate area.
Listening sessions with a Marantz SA8260 SACD player feeding a Perreaux SXH2 headphone amp connected with Slinkylinks silver interconnects showed that the Pro 500’s categorically aren’t merely the fashion ‘phones that some will assume they are. There’s enough audio ability engineered into this product to make even demanding ear-fi enthusiasts happy as long as they’re not looking for strict neutrality or a perfectly linear bass balance. Power, resolution and refinement are to be had in abundance and these ‘phones are as adept on the streets as they are at home – not all the competitors can say that.
There’s definitely some strong competition at this level. While the Pro 500’s will show a clean pair of sonic heels to the Doctor’s ‘phones, Focal’s Spirit One’s (reviewed here) are better built and arguably more stylish for two hundred dollars less, although the Yamaha ‘phones have the sonic advantage. Sony’s MDR-1R model (reviewed here) looks stunning and sounds amazing albeit in a slightly cold way. The Sony’s aren’t as well built but again, they’re somewhat less expensive. Of the three, I’d probably stump up the extra coin and run the Yammies.
Lugging full size ‘phones like these around every day takes commitment, especially with as many in-ear or compact on-ear models available in my collection, but I persisted for weeks, taking them to work and back and using them on the weekends. The fashion statement aspect doesn’t mean all that much to me, although there’s an undeniable pleasure to be had from wearing such distinctive and rare ‘phones.
The real reason that they got so much use was the sound, which is every bit as premium as the price tag, the styling and the build quality. If I had a slightly smaller set of ears, or if the earcups were a fraction bigger, the Pro 500’s may well have found a permanent home at my place. Evan at that lofty price, they’re five star ‘phones but are held back from a perfect rating by a comfort issue that may actually be a non-issue. Don’t let that quibble stop you from trying a set. ASHLEY KRAMER