Both the Yamaha 500 series and the Pearl Elegante (also might look at Dolce, essentially same flute as the Elegante but plated body/mechanism and silver head so a little cheaper) are very good flutes Can you try them first? Then you could figure out which is better for you. In terms of quality, they are both very good.
When I was looking for a flute it was between a Yamaha 574 and a Pearl Dolce CODA.. the only reason I didn't hands down buy the yamaha because it did not have a C# trill key though i sounded significantly better with the EC headjoint compared to Pearl's Forza. (Yamaha's now now come with the C# trill, though) so I compromised and bought the Pearl Dolce and use a Yamaha EC headjoint. This combination works VERY well for me Try them and see which you sound best on!
I, too, am an older player (been playing for 40+ years) and recently purchaed a new flute. I gave up my Gemeinhardt M3S and purchased an Azumi 3000. I spent an entire afternoon testing several more expensive Yamahas and the Azumi and for me the Azumi blew away the Yamahas. I would advise you to go and try out some different models and see what works for you. Also, when I purchaed I told the man at the store that would be paying cash and asked if he could do a bit better on the price and he knocked about $300.00 off the price of the flute. It never hurts to ask.
Maybe your situation is similar to mine. I played in primary school almost 30 years ago, but not in college. My private lessons at the time centered mostly on Baroque style. I had hardly played at all between then and now, so I was "rusty" too, and my primary flute, and open-hole silver DeFord, was also quite "rusty". I got the bug and wanted to upgrade.
I played a few step-up flutes at a local music shop. I'm not really even sure what they were, but there were a dozen on the rack and the shop owner selected a few for me to try. I was not really familiar with the current manufacturers. I was not too impressed with any of them.
I continued to browse the internet, looking for pre-professional models. Eventually, I lucked into finding a local shop which had a couple flutes in stock, and in fact were on clearance. I happened to play a couple Amadeus AF700BOF's and a Jupiter DeMedici. I was attracted to the Amadeus based on the name (made by Haynes) and in this case the clearance price. It seemed to play well, and the headjoint was much more responsive than my DeFord, so it followed me home.
I haven't regretted my purchase, mostly because I seemed to get a really good price, but the flute has disappointed me (or I have disappointed it) in a couple areas. I have not been at all happy with the low register, and between me and the flute I have had intonation difficulties from low to high registers. Also, I find the keys rather noisy.
So what is my point? First, if the flute you have is not playing up to par and needs some work, have it brought back into good playing condition. This will take a chunk of your budget, but the money you spend will add to the flute's value should you sell it. You won't get everything you spend back, but some of it. As an alternative, select a replacement student model, probably new but definitely in good shape and with a good reputation (Yamaha always comes to mind, but there are lots of others that are good).
Then spend a few months practicing daily - longtones, scales, compositions - until you are also brought back into good playing condition. Get yourself an electronic tuner to check your intonation from register to register. I don't recommend concentrating on the tuner while playing compositions - it's counter productive, just let you're ears guide you to the melody.
At that point, you will be in a position to appreciate the differences between flutes. There are places which will ship flutes on trial - search this forum for links - one or two at a time. Spend a few days playing each. You will probably end up paying for shipping, but the opportunity to play the flutes in comparison for a few days will be worth it.
If you check under my user id, you will see that I have posted a number of Telemann Fantasias. I recorded them in order, and it's interesting to listen to the progression as my skills have come back and I have gotten familiar with the new flute. It has taken months, so patience is the key. Enjoy the journey!
rifmon, it is purely in the design of the flute, not the metal that makes the tonal differences. I agree that the Azumi flutes are very nice and that is what I would recommend in your price range. This topic of solid silver vrs silver plated has come up several times on this forum and you can find out a lot more information on the topic if you would like by using the search button. For example: a silver plated body Muramatsu EX would be worlds ahead of an all solid silver Gemeinhardt because the design of the flute is so much better, especially the cut of the headjoint. The headjoint is where you are going to get most of your sound. So, match a good headjoint to a body that is well built and you will have yourself a nice flute.
Congratulations! I love buying flutes! Of course, lately I have bought several flea-bag flutes on eBay for the purposes of stripping them down and repadding them, but still it's exciting to get each one to play and see how it does. None of these were supposed to be anything other than old student models.
I am very curious to know how you like your new one and how long it takes you to get adjusted to it. I have found that if I put my Amadeus down for a few days my tone really goes south. I don't know if that's typical with higher-end flutes or not.
You have much more formal training than I do. I'm not exactly sure what this magic "resistance" is. Gemeinhardts get rather varied press on the net. I've read things like they used to have better headjoint cuts and now dont, to they are now made with metal so soft they won't stay in adjustment. FWIW, I bought a used Gemeinhardt on eBay that my daughter is currently playing. It happened to need no adjustments when I got it. The pads are a little tired, but sealing reasonably well. The headjoint is curiously a joy to play. Maybe it's not right, but I get a wide dynamic range and reasonable intonation out of it. Much better than the couple Armstrongs I've got here, including a silver open-hole model. It is a rather old one.