Music, gaming, movie enthusiasts today demand the best possible audio performance from their gear, and the gear they often turn to are headphones. The growing enthusiasm and the number of brands entering the market to fill this void is clear. All the major headphone manufacturers that cater to professional as well as the audiophile audience are already present here, in India. The ones who aren’t, are gradually making their way.
An overambitious product by TDK, but a very good starting point
TDK isn’t among the first brands that come to mind when you think high-performance headphones. They’re better known in the 80s and 90s for their cassettes and tapes. The only other recent news from TDK was that a part of their business was bought over by Imation, which becomes obvious when you notice that these headphones come with a pair of Imation batteries. And what seems like a completely random move, TDK has chosen to sell one of the more expensive headphones in their lineup, the ST-800, in India.
One would expect TDK to launch by introducing some entry-level models in a market like ours, since audio equipment isn't really their foray. The ST800 is in fact their top-of-the-line headphones that falls under their high-fidelity range. The ST800 uses 50mm drivers to generate sound and TDK claims that they have a frequency range of 20 to 20,000Hz.
An element of style
The ST-800 has an EQ control on the audio cable that allows you to adjust bass and treble for the headphones. There’s a display that makes setting up the bass and treble easier. It’s not very common to find an equaliser on a pair of headphone and it’s something that shouldn’t be present, especially on a high-end set such as this. Equalisers are only used to correct any shortcomings of a headphone, so an equaliser on the ST-800 is a strange feature to us. There is a slider that lets you switch the equaliser on and off, a button to set the EQ mode to select the bass or the treble value and at last two-way switch to increase and decrease the boost in these frequency ranges. Usage is simple and effective.
A remote but it can be a hindrance at times
Another (less odd) feature is that the volume control isn’t placed on this equaliser module but on the headphone itself. Rotate the dial on the right can and you can change the volume while you’re listening. This is pretty neat and convenient as opposed to using the volume control on your media player or PC. There are two AAA batteries required to power the equaliser function as well as the volume control. The batteries fit into the left speaker’s enclosure. The AAA batteries help amplify the headphones. TDK rates these headphones as 200 Ohm headphones which means by themselves, they should be difficult to drive by most PMPs and even integrated sound solutions on motherboards.
Build Quality and Design
Not only do the ST-800 headphones look very classy, but they are also very sturdy. Sure, the dial for the volume control is made of plastic but the main frame of the band that goes over the top of your head is made of solid metal and that’s very well padded by a thick foam padding. The exteriors of the headphones have a thick leather strip stitched on top of the solid plastic frame that encloses the drivers. These are a durable set of headphones for sure.
Quality everywhere you go, even the extension cable and connector
The cable is sheathed with a fabric and TDK has even bundled an extension. We’re not terribly fond of the EQ control module that dangles from the headphone and is a hindrance most of the time. There’s a clip at the back of the module that can be clipped onto a shirt pocket if required, but the cables are pretty rigid and the fact that the ST-800 has a pair of them running from the two speaker cans does make it a tiny bit annoying.
The comfort level of the headphones is arguable. The ST800 didn’t cover my ears completely, but just. After extended use, you do feel a slight pain in the ear. Those with smaller ears shouldn’t face this problem, at all.
Having ventured into the high-performance territory, that’s typically prowled by brands such as Audio Technica, AKG, Sennheisser and the likes, the TDK ST-800 has a lot to prove when it comes to performance.
Starting off with the performance, without the equaliser and amplilfier turned on, the headphones sound alright. They are fairly loud but nowhere close to the intensity when amped. The bass lacks a bit of definition. They sound flatter and at the same time, they manage to sound better than most cheap sub-Rs. 4,000 headphones.
AAA batteries to amplify the signal
Power on the EQ unit also kicks in the amplification and you notice first, a giant boost in volume. Set the volume on your source at high and you’re very likely to be on the receiving end of a very distorted sound from the headphones. It takes a while before you get used to the settings. Even then, thanks to the volume variations in albums and track recordings, you’ll have to tweak the volume on the source every now and then to get a decent hearing experience. We noticed that the headphone would cut out the module to save power from time to time. We would have to manually adjust the volume dial for the EQ and amplifier to kick it. This was an annoyance all throughout.
The ST-800 are a mid and bass-heavy headphones with a clear lack of pristine highs. Even after some decent burn-in period, things didn’t improve a lot. For the vocals, guitars and bass heavy tracks, this works in its favour. So the ST-800 aren’t very neutral sounding but they are a fun sounding set if you like a very heavy mid-heavy sound signature. Grado users will relate better to the sound signature of ST-800. The ST-800 does lack detail as compared to Grados in this price range. Don’t be mistaken though, better drivers and the emphasis on mids does bring out nuances that you won’t normally notice on a cheaper set of headphones. Sound separation is good but staging is narrow. There is definitely going to be some fatigue after a listening session of an hour or longer.
Comfy, if only they were slightly larger
The headphones might not be the most comfortable ones to wear, but they have a very closed design and that means they do a pretty decent job at isolating noise. Wear them without any music and you’ll notice a drop in surround noise. Play some music at 20-30 per cent of the volume and you’ll be disconnected from your surroundings.
Overall, we think these are decent performers. Set up the amplification right and you can easily skip the distortion from over-amping it. These aren’t a very neutral sounding set and that’s our biggest complaint.
The ST-800 doesn’t succeed at knocking any reputed headphones models off their thrones. However, it is a very good attempt by TDK. When it comes to build quality, some of the high-end headphones manufacturers could learn a thing or two from TDK. When it comes to performance, it looks like TDK was trying too hard to produce a masterpiece and maybe trying a little too much to think out of the box. And that’s worked, to some extent. For one, the volume control on the headphones seems gimmicky at first, but does come handy when you use it everyday. A built-in amplifier (that can be turned off, if required) does a fair job and is great for use with other less powerful audio sources (read PMPs, phones and tablets). You no longer need to carry a portable headphone amplifier with your PMP or phone.
Taking on the might of established high-end headphone manufacturer
A price tag of Rs. 9,000 is asking a lot for a headphone that doesn’t perform like a Rs. 9,000 headphone. If you’re particular about pristine quality and accurate detailing, then you won’t really love the ST-800. They do a fair job, but they’re not the best you can find. For a first attempt however, TDK should have gone a little conservative, perhaps used lower impedance drivers, skipped the amplifier and EQ feature altogether and produced a more balanced sounding headphone that was closer to Rs. 6,000 with all of the good qualities of the ST-800. Now, that’s a model I would buy. And highly recommend!
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