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Yamaha YH-L700A headphones review: An immersive experience

Popular Science
Popular Science
 2021-12-06
https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=2ikhpf_0dFAKneC00 With its multiple 3D modes, the Yamaha YH-L700A can make music or movies feel like they're suspended in air. Markkus Rovito

Headphones used to be simple things that you plug in and put on. But, today, there are hundreds of headphone models to choose from to suit any and every listening preference—on-ear or over-ear, closed-back or open-back, wired or wireless, physical controls or app controls, etc. These options can be overwhelming, but if you want a headphone with a little bit of everything and some added bonus features then you should take a look at the Yamaha YH-L700A headphones ($499)—a comfortable over-ear design that goes well beyond the bog-standard wireless connectivity, touch controls, and active noise cancellation found in plenty of popular models, such as the excellent in its own right Sony WH-1000XM4 . Sure, there’s Bluetooth 5.0 with ANC (as well as ambient sound amplification), but there are also seven 3D Sound Field modes that simulate surround sound, as well as some novel extras such as head tracking, which uses a gyroscope to lock the sound’s origin in front of you.

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Compact Package, Expansive Possibilities

Full of marquee features and proprietary technologies, the Yamaha YH-L700A headphones deliver audio innovation. Markkus Rovito

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The Yamaha YH-L700A’s design

Headphone earcups come in many shapes, sizes, and feels, and can cause uncomfortable hotspots if the pads (or, god forbid, the actual housings) are pressing against the outer ear for extended periods of time. The best over-ear headphones are ones you can wear for most of the day (though you should probably rest your hearing every couple of hours or so), and the Yamaha YH-L700A fall in this category for me.

The YHL-L700A earcups are an oval shape that entirely covers my ears and fits very comfortably. The headband is length-adjustable on both sides and has fabric-covered padding to protect your head. The patterned fabric covering the headband and earcups combined with the soft leather accents give the headphones a classy look. Despite being big enough to avoid discomfort, both earcups rotate more than 90 degrees and bend inward so they can fit in the included zippered carrying case.

The earcups do far more than look and feel good, however. Two controls on the right ear cup serve to skip songs forward and backward, while a central button serves to play or pause music or accept/end calls when paired to a phone. The right cup also has the power button and 3D button for scrolling through the seven 3D sound modes, while the left cup hosts the ANC (Active Noise Cancelling) button. And, just to make sure you know whether you’re pressing the intended button, audio messages indicate different 3D sound modes, Bluetooth connection status, battery level, ANC, and so on.

Getting started with the Yamaha YH-L700A headphones

You can use the YH-L700A passively straight from the case with the included 3.5 mm (minijack) audio cable—a handy feature on particularly long journeys where a way to charge the battery might be scarce (there’s even a two-pronged audio connector included for airline in-flight entertainment system). But to take advantage of the wireless connectivity, 3D Sound modes with head-tracking, noise-cancelling, etc., you’ll need to charge up using the included USB-A to USB-C charging cable. A red indicator light turns on while the battery is charging and turns off when complete (around a 3.5-hour process if starting from empty).

You can pair the YH-L700A to any Bluetooth device, but if you’re pairing to an iOS or Android mobile device, you should also download the free Yamaha Headphones Controller app. After pairing the YH-L700A over Bluetooth, you can sync it to the app to update the headphones’ firmware; monitor the battery level; turn on/off the 3D sound field, head-tracking, noise-cancelling, auto power-off timer, Listening Optimizer, and Listening Care features; and choose from the seven 3D sound modes.

While it could use a customizable EQ, the app is quite handy and arguably essential. However, that also means that if you’re using the YH-L700A with something other than a mobile device, you’re limited to the earcup controls.

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Controls on the earcups of the Yamaha YH-L700A headphones allow you to cycle through tracks, calls, and multiple listening modes. Markkus Rovito

Key features of the Yamaha YH-L700A headphones

Once set up, the Yamaha YH-L700A headphones are a fully featured, full-spectrum listen. Let’s look at some of the unique features that allow you to enhance your experience:

Advanced ANC

If you’re wondering how noise-cancelling headphones work, generally they use embedded microphones to analyze outside noise and play inverted soundwaves to eliminate the outside distractions. Active noise-cancelling (ANC) commonly applies digital signal processing to the headphones’ music reproduction, affecting its tone and subsequently losing some low-frequency information or artificially boosting frequency elements. For this reason, ANC isn’t ideal for audiophiles to listen to music.

With the YH-L700A, however, Yamaha applies its own algorithms for Advanced ANC. This technology isolates outside noise and the headphones’ audio separately so that it can filter away outside noise while leaving the internal audio signal unprocessed. In my testing of the YH-L700A’s ANC, that seemed to result in a compromise between noise cancellation and an unaltered audio signal.

I used the ANC in a variety of scenarios to block out the noise from other people’s Zoom meetings, the urban cacophony of a city, and the (very loud) noise of a band practicing next door. In every situation, the YH-L700A’s ANC worked to reduce but not eliminate the outside noise. For example, the din from the band playing next door went from a roar to a dull roar—certainly an improvement. Whether it was real or a perceived effect, the music in the headphones seemed to get louder when I turned on the ANC, but it also retained its original audio character as advertised. Unlike some wireless noise-cancelling headphones that use aggressive DSP and leave the headphones’ audio sounding muffled or artificial, the YH-L700A’s ANC preserves the listening experience while offering an appreciable level of noise reduction.

The other setting available from the ANC button (or the app) is Ambient Sound, which offers the reverse of ANC: It uses the microphones to pass through outside sounds into the headphones so you hear what’s going on around you when you need to tune into your surroundings.

Listening Optimizer, Listening Care

Two additional technologies are available to toggle within the mobile app. Listening Optimizer uses the in-ear microphones every 20 seconds to make calculations for how sound reaches your ears and makes subtle adjustments to the audio signal to preserve the ideal sound. This feature compensates for the differences in how the headphones fit individual users. Listening Care, on the other hand, adjusts the playback signal so you hear the full-range sound even at low volumes. Because some frequencies are harder to hear at low volumes, Listening Care is supposed to help you avoid hearing damage from prolonged loud volumes by giving you the full frequency experience at healthy levels.

For the most part, I kept Listening Optimizer and Listening Care on throughout my two-week testing period. These adaptive EQ effects are meant to be subtle and I can’t determine how much difference they made. That said, listening to the YH-L700A at low volumes did result in a satisfying full-range sound field, where all the soundtrack details remained intact.

Advanced ANC, Ambient Sound, Listening Optimizer, and Listening Care require the YH-L700A to be powered on, so they affect battery life the more they are used. Yamaha lists the YH-L700A’s top battery life to be 34 hours with ANC turned on, and that goes down the more you use the 3D Sound effect and Bluetooth. I typically got 13 hours of usage with Bluetooth connected, 3D Sound turned on, and ANC turned off. At that point, the battery life indicator in the app was 9- to 10-percent remaining. Unfortunately, you cannot charge the YH-L700A headphones while they’re powered on, but you can power them off and use them with the audio cable while charging.

3D Sound

With so much attention around Dolby Atmos-driven spatial audio (pushed primarily by Apple at the moment), immersive sound is all the rage. The Yamaha YH-L700A’s 3D Sound Field effect goes beyond offering select tracks and processes incoming stereo audio from almost any source to create an immersive three-dimensionality.

This effect comes with an optional head-tracking function utilizing a built-in gyroscope. With head tracking on, any swivel of the head reorients the perceived origin of the sound to be locked to the narrow space in front of you. Yamaha claims that the head tracking enhances the realism of what you’re listening to. To me, it’s quite the opposite. It was distracting for the sound field to be so confined to a particular location with every movement of the head. And it doesn’t mimic the way people hear things in the real world. If you turn your head 90 degrees to the left, the YH-L700A’s head tracking severely limits the sound in the left ear and that’s not how you would hear, say, a live band. Furthermore, the more the head-tracking feature is activated, the more it takes away from the immersive effect of the 3D Sound Field modes and the overall quality of the headphones’ sound reproduction, which are the real attractions to the YH-L700A in the first place. Fortunately, you can turn off head tracking in the app. After giving the head-tracking function many chances with an open mind, I turned it off for good and had a great experience with the YH-L700A.

The seven 3D Sound Field modes take advantage of the immersive audio spatialization effect, with varying levels of reverb, echo, and other processing. “Concert Hall” adds a lot of reverb to simulate a large space, as does “Outdoor Live” to a lesser degree. I eventually settled on “Cinema” for watching videos and “Audio Room” or “Background Music” for music, which I found to be the most effective for enhancing the material without adding noticeable processing (“Drama” and “Music Video” didn’t see much use). However, turning on the 3D Sound Field lowers the overall volume output, so you’re always going to notice that.

I preferred using the 3D Sound Field feature when watching movies and TV, whereas this feature didn’t produce a significantly improved experience with music. To sample how the 3D Sound responded to a variety of movies, I watched older films encoded for stereo, such as Escape from New York (1981) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984); newer flicks encoded for 5.1 surround like Black Death (2010) and Birth of the Dragon (2017); and, just to see what would happen when feeding it Atmos material, the Matrix trilogy upgraded for Atmos compatibility on HBO Max. (Keep in mind that if your source material offers high-resolution audio formats, you need to use the wired audio cable, not the Bluetooth 5.0 connection, to get the full bandwidth audio.)

I ultimately preferred the YH-L700A 3D Sound in “Cinema” mode for watching TV and movies over the unaffected stereo sound because it created a heightened sense of multidimensional spaciousness that had more depth. That was true regardless of the age or the relative “big-budget sound” of the movie. Without the 3D Sound mode on, audio elements sound more hard-panned left and right; with 3D Sound on (particularly in “Cinema” mode) things seem to be more above-right or above-left and moved in a crescent-shaped space from ear to ear. Occasionally, elements seem to occupy more of a space in front or in back of you but, for the most part, the 3D Sound Field is an immersive improvement to viewing stereo material that does not—and should not be expected to—recreate the effect of multispeaker systems like the Sennheiser AMBEO soundbar or Enclave CineHome PRO I’ve reviewed. Then again, headphones don’t take up the same amount of space or threaten to disturb the neighbors.

Stereo performance and sound quality

In the end, the Yamaha YH-L700A 3D Sound Field technology is a net gain for the headphones, but it shouldn’t take away from their performance as normal stereo headphones, in which case they rank among some of my favorite headphones for listening to music. When the YH-L700A is out of battery life and/or recharging, you will have to use them as wired stereo headphones, and luckily that’s not at all disappointing.

I played all kinds of music with the YH-L700A, both in 3D Sound mode and in regular stereo: Top 40, rap, soul, folk, electronic, rock, and alternative styles from the 1970s all the way up to 2021. The frequency response is a rock-bottom 8Hz to a dog-disturbing 40kHz. The great, and the unusual, thing about the YH-L700A’s bass response is that it sounds appropriately powerful in the low end when the music is mixed that way and not low-end heavy when it isn’t. These headphones won’t make Phoebe Bridgers’ latest soliloquy sound muddy in the low end, but they will treat Martin Garrix’s new club bangers with all the brain-tickling bass that they deserve.

The YH-L700A also handles other frequencies remarkably, reproducing them as accurately as it does energetically, and the different modes give you the means to ensure each song distinguishes itself from the last. I frequently listened to music in stereo with 3D Sound turned off, however, to get evenly balanced frequencies and great bass response. The way the YH-L700A reproduces stereo music is so clearly defined that you don’t lose anything when 3D Sound is turned off. Less is more, so to speak.

When listening to Anthony Hamilton’s latest neo-soul album “ Love Is the New Black ,” the YH-L700A exhibited a tight response to the panning and tremolo effects and excellent representation of the spaciousness of the minimalist production and detail of the background vocals.

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The Yamaha YH-L700A headphones appear unassuming, but pack in an impressive amount of proprietary tech. Markkus Rovito

So, who should buy the Yamaha YH-L700A headphones?

Whether you’re seeking the best wireless headphones, the best over-ear noise-cancelling headphones, or the best immersive audio headphones, the Yamaha YH-L700A checks all the boxes.

The high-tech bells and whistles—like Advanced Noise Cancelling, seven 3D Sound Field modes, and the Listening Optimizer and Listening Care—improve the quality of these headphones and make them stand out among competitors. In short, the Yamaha YH-L700A headphones have the looks, sound, comfort, and technology to rank among the best Bluetooth headphones at this price. If you have the money and desire for some high-class over-ear noise-cancelling, wireless connectivity, and 3D processing—plus you want to be equally satisfied during passive, plugged-in playback—take a serious look at these headphones.

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