TDK BA200 | Back to Black

Editor’s Note: When I first wrote about the TDK TH-ECBA200BBK over a year ago, it was an unknown quantity. Few people had access to it, so its popularity didn’t catch on until much later in the year, when it began selling in retail locations worldwide. While it’s definitely one of the best dual balanced armature universal IEMs available on the market, it is unfortunately, still a bit of a dark horse compared to the popular offerings from Shure, Westone, and Ultimate Ears. I was immensely happy with it, however, especially when I picked it up for less than $140, which was a price basically unheard of a dual BA IEM. It is now known that the BA200 actually used groundbreaking AcuPass technology from Sonion to achieve its target response. You can read CYMBACAVUM‘s analysis of AcuPass and its benefits here.

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.

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.

Black.
Black.

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, and houses some patent-pending circuits that help stabilize impedance across different sources.

What's with the massive Y-split? Well, an impedance stabilizer.
What’s with the massive Y-split? Well, an impedance stabilizer.

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.

SOUND & FREQUENCY RESPONSE

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 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.

Black.
Black.

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

PROS
  • 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
CONS
  • 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

For more information on the TDK BA200, visit the official product page.

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Redux of my original review, posted on head-fi.org, on 2012/02/01

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 TE7022L USB receiver, Cirrus CS8416 receiver, Cirrus CS4398 D/A converter, Class A-biasing, AB analog stage).

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