REVIEW | TDK TH-ECBA200BBK
For those into photography, all my photos are taken with an ancient (by digital camera standards) c. 2006 Canon PowerShot S3 IS. It only has a 1/2.4” CCD sensor and has an 36-432mm (35mm equivalent) lens, so dynamic range isn’t great and high contrast edges are very prone to color fringing, but it does have a 0 cm Super Macro mode, so that’s why I shoot with it. Unfortunately, I do not have a macro lens for my 40D, nor do I have any desire to purchase one.
BACK TO BLACK
It seems like every manufacturer wants a piece of the headphone market these days. Blame the iPod perhaps, for putting a digital music player in the hands of every man, woman, and child. Then blame Dr. Dre, whose Monster (well, no longer) marketing machine altered the status of the premium headphone --- from audiophile plaything to trendy status symbol. No longer are in-ear monitors merely analytical tools for recording engineers; they’re now tuned with every type of ear in mind, and originate from more manufacturers than you can shake your DAP at. Whatever the culprit, there’s no denying that headphones and earphones these days come in every color imaginable – grapity purple, wildberry blue, orangey orange, lemony yellow, and even raspberry red. (Let me know if you got that reference)
However, I want to concentrate on only one color: BLACK. It is the most definite of all colors --- an opaque consolidation of all the others. It pulls absolutely no punches, and this is the color TDK chose to go with when introducing its newest line of high-end portable audio products. While TDK isn’t exactly new to the in-ear world, it really isn’t a big player either. Rather, it is well-known as a major manufacturer of recording media, with no real business meddling in the world of headphones. Last summer, with nary the splash of a swan dive, TDK jumped head first into the pool of high-end in-ears by launching the BA200.
Whereas previous offerings from the physical recording media company were met with ho-hum reviews, their new flagship, the BA200, would show that it was a serious contender in the business by winning a bronze medal in the 10000-20000 yen earphone category for VGP 2012. (Take these results with a grain of salt, however, as Visual Grand Prix tends to be a more consumer-oriented review board, as the Bose IE2 won the same category with the Sony XBA-2SL trailing in silver). The BA200 was also completely tuned in-house by TDK's audio research lab to achieve a flat response, artificial dummy ears and all. With these promising results, TDK believed it was poised to take on the global market with their new products. Of course, however, good sound cannot simply be certified without being passed through the gauntlet that is Head-Fi!
So let's get right to it and see how the BA200 fare...
Accessories & Packaging
The BA200 comes in a fairly spartan, but durable package. Once you get around some very small bits of over-engineered precautions, you'll find that two double flange silicone tips (of different sizes) and Ts-100 and Tx-100 Comply® foam tips are included. Replacement filters are also included, along with a cleaning tool, 6.3mm adapter, and a soft pouch. They're certainly not luxurious appointments, but fairly standard-fare for the price range and in keeping with the professional theme of the BA200.
Design, Build, Ergonomics
I will go ahead and say right off the bat that the shape of the BA200 is one of the best conceived for over-the-ear style in-ear monitors around. With respect to styling cues, the BA200 obviously takes after the Westone consumer line, but has far superior ergonomics. I always liked Westone housings and believe them to be very comfortable --- you could say the TDK BA200 has advanced to the next stage of evolution for those housings. With Ts-100 tips, I can insert the BA200 quite deeply and still feel as though I’m not wearing anything at all. Overall, with a deep fit, it is even more comfortable than my previous comfort king, the GR07, because of its well-rounded edges. With a shallower fit, it is just as comfortable as the GR07. Basically, if you don’t mind the over-ear fit, the BA200 are about as comfortable as they can possibly get.
The BA200 cord design is of the flat cable persuasion; it works fine and has less microphonics than other cords, but does feel a little thin from time to time, is prone to some warping, and has a tendency to feel rubbery. Personally, I felt that the flat cords worked well in looping around the ear without the need for ear guides, but thought they were unnecessary below the Y-split. However, the flat cable motif was extended all the way, presumably for design consistency. The Y-split is of particular interest, as it is one of the largest I've ever encountered in any audio product to date. According to the folks at Phileweb in Japan, it houses some patent-pending circuits that help stabilize impedance across different sources (more on this later in the Sound section).
As for overall design, the TDK is not exactly flashy, but classically handsome with its laquered piano black plastic finish and and gold trimmings. No one should have any real issues with its design, as it is almost intentionally made to minimize controversy, but still provides a touch of class with proprietary, non-generic housings.
Aside from the slightly weak-looking cable, the BA200 is solidly built, but not without minor concerns. First, the lightweight plastic shells don't quite have the solidity of metal housings from the offerings of competitors. The same problem is evident with some Westone products as well. The second problem, and this might just be splitting hairs, is that I was not impressed with the quality of the logo and text on the housings and the plugs. The TDK tape spool symbol and the words 'Life on Record' were clearly lacking resolution. The strain reliefs at the housings are also not as robust as those found in similar products from Westone, but seem to be sufficient for the job.
What is up with the MASSIVE Y-split? Well, an impedance stabilizer.
Sound & Frequency Response
All portable sound assessment is performed unamped, with a 2nd generation Apple iPod Touch, while all desktop sound assessment is performed with a DA&T U2 USB DAC/Amplifier (Tenor TE7022 USB receiver, Cirrus CS8416 receiver, Cirrus CS4398 D/A converter, class A-biasing, AB analog stage) (http://www.6moons.com/audioreviews/trueharmonix3/1.html)
Honestly, I wasn't all that impressed the first time put on the BA200. I was standing in the middle of a huge, raucous computer mall and only had my iPod as a DAP. Coming from IEMs that almost have a dip in the mid-bass, I noticed a much rounder presence to each note and a very smooth tuning, but other than that, I didn't think it behaved beyond that of a decent, but not world-beating dual-BA IEM. However, the BA200 is an earphone seems to shine with increased scrutiny. I can now say that the BA200 has one of the most pleasant presentations I've ever encountered in an IEM. I have others that possess more clarity and detail, but none are able to present music quite as well.
So how would I describe the overall signature of the BA200 with respect to other IEMs? Well, think of it as the UM3x's and W4's little brother from another mother (the SM3v2, perhaps?). Starting with the midrange, it is very much like the UM3x in its ability to 'isolate' voices, with an uncanny way of 'lifting' them away from the mix, thus keeping center focus very well. In this sense, the BA200 isn't really tuned to be a mid-centric IEM by design, but is tuned akin to a stage monitor that enables the listener/musician to hear vocals more clearly. Ultimately, the effect is not as exaggerated as that of the UM3x's and feels quite a bit more realistic, mitigating that artificial feel the UM3x tends to have. The SM3v2 I recently auditioned also had the same type of property. While the midrange isn't as lush as those from its triple-driver counterparts, vocals still possess the proper weight and give the perception of better clarity. The reason for this is that the crossover point from the low to the high driver is found in the midrange, and the crisper edges of the high driver help give vocals better definition. At the end of the day, the three-way, triple-driver stalwarts still possess their own, special qualities, but the BA200 holds its own, despite only having dual drivers.
At the low end, the BA200 contains plentiful bass that extends ruler flat down to the deepest of depths (I can hear stuff going on starting at ~25 Hz), but doesn’t seem to move the air well and thus lacks a bit of impact. Personally, I am okay with this type of feel, but stay away if you require that hard hitting, slammy bass that other products might offer. Even without that slam, the bass is nonetheless well-textured, and mid-bass presence is always well-controlled and never intrusive. At the same time, it is this very mid-bass that gives the BA200 the sense of dynamic fullness not found in more analytical IEMs like the DBA-02 or GR07. It enhances the feel of modern-day pop music recordings, but doesn't become a hinderance in 'audiophile' tracks either. In fact, the mid-bass contributes to the sense of soundstage (more in the Soundstage & Presentation section) and is one of the best strengths of the BA200.
The highs of the BA200 are relaxed and laid back, but never lacking and never veiled; roll-off doesn’t come at the detriment of musical enjoyment like it can in other earphones. I would even argue that, in fact, the treble roll-off helps the three-dimensional presentation of the sound to a certain extent. So, by 'laid back', I mostly mean that the treble is tuned further in sound space than both the midrange and the bass, an effect most apparent when using Comply foam tips and Shure flex tips. It is most apparent when A/Bing between the treble-forward DBA-02. The Fischers make the BA200's highs sound distant and muted in comparison. The GR07’s treble is also more forward, but sounds less refined under scrutiny. The treble 'problem' can be mitigated, however, by changing out the tips to the included double flanges. To my ears, the tips help bring the BA200 to the most perceivably neutral state it can be in. Yet, I’m not inclined to dogmatically defend the treble, so if you’re a self-processed treble lover, the BA200’s highs may not be for you; they are certainly laid back and will not shove the highs in your face, unlike other treble-happy earphones.
Detail, Soundstage & Presentation
Whether it is in the highs, mids, or lows, the BA200 is wonderfully smooth. I could not detect any frequency spikes over the entire range of my hearing. Yet, the smoothness of the BA200 should not be mistaken for a lack of detail. While Comply foam tips can certainly gloss over some details, when the BA200 is paired with the accompanying biflange silicone tips, it is most certainly more resolving than an SE535, and about on par with the UM3x.
The BA200 is noticeably less hard edged than the DBA-02 and less prone to sibilance than the GR07. In fact, sibilance is virtually nonexistent, especially when the Comply foam tips are used. It’s also by far the most forgiving IEM in my collection. I never minded the unforgiving nature of my IEMs, but it certainly is pleasant to listen to a more forgiving, but still highly resolving IEM. It is also not very hiss-prone. My desktop amplifier is fairly high-powered and, with most IEMs, will produce a fair amount of hiss through its high damping factor output. Both my DBA-02 and GR07 pick up the hiss with high fidelity. The BA200 manages to reduce that hiss into a low level slushing sound that isn't bothersome at all. One of the factors that might go into lowered pickup of hiss is the 'impedance stabilizer' incorporated into that huge Y-split mentioned before. According to TDK, it is design such that the BA200 will sound similar regardless of source, be it from an iPod or a $2000 amplifier. I have reason to believe that the effects of the 'stabilizer' are still limited, however, as the sound does change when I switch the BA200 to the low damping factor output of my amplifier.
For many IEMs, soundstage depth is one of the most lacking features when it comes to soundstage representation, and the lack of depth can even cause left-to-right stereo transitions to sound unconvincing. Luckily, the BA200 has been tuned to have an incredibly deep soundstage, possessing perhaps the most three-dimensional sound I’ve ever had the pleasure to own. This marked dimensionality was what drew me to the UM3x when it first came out, and in this aspect the BA200 is every bit its equal. If we imagine the sound space a typical IEM creates to be an ellipsoid of high eccentricity, the BA200 then possesses a space approximately that of an ellipsoid of low eccentricity --- not quite completely spheroid, but very round indeed.
I tested my BA200 against the DBA-02 with a Dolby Headphone Demo track. While the DBA-02 was no slouch at recreating the binaural recording of a man shaking a box of matches around a dummy head, the BA200 was just that much more convincing, particularly in its ability to convey the difference between near and far. I could also hear top-down transitions much better. Never had I felt more spine tingling sensations listening to a binaural track. Without question, the BA200 possess top-tier level soundstage realism. It's almost as though the entire frequency response was tuned to help the BA200 impart a world-class soundstage. When comparing to other IEMs, to my ears, while an SM3v2 possesses superior instrumental separation, the BA200 matches or betters it with respect to imaging.
The BA200s also excel as a low-volume monitor. Most IEMs that I've encountered thus far tend to lose their soundstage definition once the listening volume drops below a certain extent. Even at low volumes I can still hear critical elements of the stereo mix 'curve' around my head. Spatially, it loses a little bit of the ability to throw sonic cues quite where they should go, but it's still a pleasant listen.
The BA200 poses with its current earmates.
Simply put, the TDK BA200 is an absolutely excellent earphone that performs on par with products from some of the best regarded brands in the market. Considering that it is the first effort from TDK in the high-fidelity segment, the BA200 is a remarkably mature product that caters well to both professionals and audiophiles alike, while not completely ignoring the average consumer. It possesses monitor-like qualities with its superb dimensionality of soundstage and forward but gentle vocals, and still manages to present things enjoyably. It is both comfortable and attractive, with a well-selected set of eartips to choose from. Ultimately, I believe the UM3x --- its closest counterpart --- will still last longer in the ears of a stage musician or sound engineer without strain, as it is softer and even more rounded in its edges. However, to a music listener, the BA200 is arguably the better choice.
Before ending, I want to make sure that the BA200 does not get labeled as 'the poor man's UM3x/SM3'. Giving it such a label would be selling it short in so many ways. Yes, it shares many of the same sonic properties as the two aforementioned IEMs, but it is so much more than a mere facsimile of them. It's slightly thinner presentation gives it a better feel of midrange clarity, and gives it an edgier response that is ultimately just as enjoyable to listen to in its own right.
Unfortunately, TDK seems to be unable to distribute this product effectively outside of Asia. The only places that I can see with readily available supplies of the BA200 are in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. TDK's inability to mobilize its distribution chain will undoubtedly hurt the success of the BA200, and perhaps discourage the company from venturing further upmarket into the world of in-ears. It is my hope that the BA200 reaches American and European shores in the near future. However, if you do live in one of the aforementioned countries (or one that does retail the BA200) please do NOT ignore this IEM. It is simply too good to be overlooked.
- Monitor-esque sound, but with enough dynamism to get you off your feet
- Deep, enveloping, and three-dimensional soundstage
- Smooth, relaxing presentation
- Very comfortable in the ears
- Slightly laid back treble may not be suitable for some
- YMMV with flat cables and cord extension
- The best sounding ear tips (biflange) are also the most uncomfortable
- Availability (or lack thereof)
Official Information from TDK (Click to show)
Technical Information and Specifications
- Driver Type: Dual Balanced Armature
- Frequency Response: 20 – 20,000 Hz
- Sensitivity at 1 kHz: 121 dB SPL/V
- Noise Isolation: 26 dB
- Input Impedance: 35 ohms@1kHz
- Cord Length: 52 cm (+75 cm extension cord)
- Plug Type: 3.5mm gold plated stereo
- Weight: 12 gm (0.02 lbs)
- In the Box: Headphones, 75cm extension cord, 4 ear tips sets (S, L double flange silicon and M, L Comply™ foam), shirt clip, cleaning tool, 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter plug, storage pouch, replacement filters
Elevate the personal listening experience
The TDK Life on Record Dual Balanced Armature In-Ear Headphones elevate the personal listening experience for professionals and aficionados, providing sound, comfort and craftsmanship like no other. Integrating technology developed for on-stage performances, the TDK BA200 Dual Balanced Armature In-Ear Headphones were designed for those demanding the ultimate in high fidelity sound. While other balanced armature headphones will sound different based on the amplifier quality and strength, the BA200 headphones deliver an optimized uniform sound across all devices, peripherals, and amplifiers through a proprietary stabilizing technology. The BA200’s lightweight over the ear cable design provides a comfortable experience and firm in-ear seal, perfect for long sessions. Variable cable lengths and multiple ear tip options allow for customization and convenience. The TDK BA200 headphones are visually stunning, boasting a sleek, stylish look, without compromising either sound quality or comfort.
- Developed and fine-tuned by our Audio Research Lab
- Pristine vocals and rich bass for a superb listening experience for all types of music
- Includes 1 set of Comply™ foam ear tips plus 3 sizes of silicon ear tips to ensure a perfect match to your ear
- Cable can be worn straight down or up and over your ear to ensure a comfortable fit
- A storage case is included for added security and protection while on the go
With one driver dedicated to bass and the other to mid/high frequencies, the BA200s produce optimally mastered bass, mid-range and treble for any genre at any volume.
With comfortable ergonomic over the ear cable routing, plus noise/sound isolation the BA200s are perfect for relaxed listening or on the go.
Unboxed Impressions (Click to show)
Full review to come when the hospital isn't killing me with work...
UNBOXED IMPRESSIONS, 12/20/2011
When I first heard the BA200 a week ago, I wasn't all that impressed. Nevertheless, it intrigued me enough to buy it and try it out for real. Now that I have it in my hands, the more I listen to the BA200, the more I enjoy it. I've been listening to it on my desktop rig, and a more powerful amp helps highlight the BA200's dynamic capabilities. It sounds considerably more bland directly off an iPod. So far, I've found the smaller dual flange tips work well for me, as well as the included Comply Ts-100. I tried using Sony hybrids with Monster spacers, but they seemed to muddy up the sound.
I don't have a lot of time to write up a full review for now, so I've itemized the things I like/dislike most about the BA200:
Design, Build, Ergonomics
- Extremely comfortable, especially with the supplied Comply tips (x2 pair), and easily accomodates very deep fits
- Flat cables take microphonics down to basically nothing, are
- Housings are very light
- Strain reliefs feel solid
- Massive Y-Split seems unnecessarily bulky and over-engineered
- Housings, although light, can feel a little hollow at times (Westones have the same problem)
- Build quality, although very clean and sleek, isn't truly top-tier in terms of solidity
- Short Cable w/Extension combination is hit-or-miss with users
- Modest accessory package
- Very smooth, non-fatiguing and sweet sound with solid presence end-to-end, and enough microdetail to go around
- Well extended treble, but isn't as up front as more analytical IEMs
- Good mid-bass presence, not too thin but not overbearing at all; very well controlled with zero bass bleed
- Non-sibilant, a little more forgiving on source material than other IEMs, not prone to hiss for a BA-type IEM
- Use of a crossover circuit is noticeable in many tracks when transitioning from the warmish, gentle low driver to the more neutral, more etched high driver (effect more noticeable with silicone tips, goes away when Comply tips are used)
- Body and presence still lags (slightly) behind triple driver competitors
- Doesn't have the fastest transients
- Although there is considerable bass presence, it is actually gentle on the ears and impact and slam isn't particularly strong (actually a plus in my book, but bassheads may want to look elsewhere)
Overall, I think the BA200 is excellent if you can find a good price for it. I'm still not sure if $250 is reasonable as an MSRP, but anything under $200 probably makes it a very, very good value product, and an MSRP in the low $200s would make it a very attractive option for people wanting something very high quality right off the shelves of a mainstream electronics store.
Right before buying, I A/B'ed it against the UM3x extensively, and although I believe the UM3x is ultimately a superior product in terms of it being a more focused, deliberate product, the BA200 feels to be very protean in its capabilities. Even though triple driver IEMs still reign supreme in their ability to convey a body and presence not found with dual driver setups, the BA200 comes close, and delivers quality sound from the bottom to the top. I've always had IEMs that were relatively thin in the mid-bass and lower mids, so it took me a while to come around to the sound of the BA200. Even then, I was very impressed by the BA200's vocal clarity. It doesn't have the same vocal lushness as triple driver IEMs, and in that sense it sounds like the dual driver IEM that it is, but everything else pretty much acquits it.
Pre-Buy Impressions, 12-07-2011 (Click to show)
PRE-BUY IMPRESSIONS, 12/07/2011
I thought I'd get the ball rolling for discussion on these IEMs, as several other members have expressed interest in them in another thread, and I suspect the BA200 will be vigorously discussed in the future, especially after the reviews come rolling out.
I was able to gain a brief session with the BA200 tonight, and my characterization of them is that they are very smooth, and very, very polite --- almost to a fault.
Like ClieOS, I also drew parallels with the UM3x when listening to the BA200. I very much appreciated the gentle smoothness of its sound signature, as most of my IEMs have not been smoothest around. However, like the UM3x, it doesn't seem to be very dynamic. The BA200 wins out over the UM3x in this aspect, but is overall still a subdued IEM. Bass impact was less than what I was expecting (the FR graph Sonove made gave the BA200 pretty significant bass levels), but ideal for my tastes and quite well controlled. The UM3x could get 'fluffy' with the bass at times, but it wasn't the case with the BA200. I didn't listen to any fast tracks, since I assumed it'd wouldn't have any trouble keeping up. I detected a bit of midrange forwardness, but I don't think I would characterize it as a mid-centric IEM. Treble seemed well extended, but was never in the forefront for any track. Soundstage felt average to me, but whenever I listen to IEMs with Comply tips on, I can never gain a good feel for the size of its soundstage. I don't think I had enough time with it to get a good feel for the more subtle aspects of its SQ, but for the most part, the BA200 sounded very accurate.
In the long run, I suspect I'll come around to the less-than-dynamic nature of the BA200, but for now, I couldn't say I was very moved by the music it reproduced. If the BA200 is a calm and collected Labrador, then the Triple.Fi is a Mastiff, and the DBA-02 is a yappy Pomeranian.
FR measurement by Sonove (sonove.angry.jp) taken from his Twitter account, courtesy of Inks.
Even though I only tried them out with the included Comply tips, the BA200 doesn't seem nearly as fit dependent with the sound as is the DBA-02. Even with foam tips, I had trouble appreciating the capabilities of the DBA-02, and have only recently discovered a good combination (Sony Hybrids on Monster spacers, pushed to the hilt). However, with the BA200, it's basically just plug and play. The housings fit very comfortably in my ears with zero play whatsoever; it feels like the love child between the Westone and new Shure SEXX5 housings, a definite plus in my book! With regard to build, the housings also feel more solid than those from Westone (they can feel fairly flimsy at times) but are only marginally heavier. The BA200's Beats-like flat cables felt very good to the touch and worked as advertised --- no tangles and lower microphonics (not that it really matters much, as the BA200 is exclusively an over-the-ear design). The Y-split was extremely robust but a bit large (although I think TDK stuck a resistor in there for some reason). The one thing I could live without was the short cable. For most portable purposes, you'll need to use the supplied extension.
My original plan was to sell off the DBA-02 and have these replace them as my dual driver IEMs in my collection, but I've since decided against it. The BA200 has superior build, accessories, fit, and is gentler, but the DBA-02 is a pretty unique entity in the current landscape of IEMs; it possesses the razor sharp clarity of the most analytical of IEMs, and has gained wide acceptance on Head-Fi despite its shortcomings (thinner body, compressed dynamics). Of these items, the BA200 can only claim superiority with respect to the compressed sound space.
So is it worth the MSRP of $250? With the amount of experience I was able to have with it, I'm not sure --- perhaps $200 is reasonable.
Its ergonomics are top notch, and build is close to top quality. The sound is likewise just about top-tier, but as with the case of most monitor-like IEMs, will alienate those looking for more emotionally involving earphones. In the same price category, the GR07 has a similar sound signature (though not the same) and expresses more dynamism.
Granted, these are very elementary impressions from a session of <20 minutes in duration, so my opinions may very well change significantly after extended ownership of them. With the price that I'm able to get them for, it'd almost be silly for me not to buy them, but I'll have to take my time to accrue extra money. Even so, I don't envision them flying off the shelves just yet, so I have some time to save up.
I got to try them with silicone tips tonight, and the sound is, in my opinion, much improved. The excellent treble extension is more pronounced with more sparkle, and overall, the balance reminded me of the EX1000 at low volume, with a little bit less detail and slightly more forward mids. Bass is great; just the right amount of impact and control for my tastes, although it isn't as well textured as I'd hope it to be. Then again, I was listening to it unamped, straight out of an iPod Touch, which doesn't do music quite the same justice as a proper portable or desktop system.
I have to emphasize that the ergonomics are truly excellent. They sit, without a doubt, better in my ears than any Westone or Shure ever have. The slight outward cant of the cable outlet on the housing allows the flat cables to curve perfectly around my ears. I tried them right next to a SE535 Special Edition and while the SE535 also fit very nicely, it didn't feel nearly as comfortable as the BA200 did.
However, and this is a pretty significant 'however', the BA200 still lacks dynamism. I'd like to reiterate that it is only marginally more dynamic sounding that the UM3x, as it is nevertheless tuned more as a professional monitor than as a personal listening device. The SE535 LTD-J I tried on right afterward felt so much more dynamic and involving. I don't want to fault the BA200 for being this way, but stay away if the flat affect of the monitor sound turns you off.
The price of these is just so tempting. Blast my broken ATM card!
Edited by tomscy2000 - 4/4/12 at 11:26pm