TDK ST800 review

TDK returns with some excellent on-ear headphones

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If you can remember when Duran Duran owned Top Of The Pops and every other tape sold was a TDK, then you’ll feel a pang of nostalgia at TDK’s return with a line of outrageous Boomboxes and these slick headphones.

TDK is as much an icon of the eighties as Culture Club or Gordon Gecko, but this comeback from the king of cassettes is a welcome one. Instead of cheap tapes and fluro legwarmers, we have high-end headphones, with just a nod to the glory days in the form of a graphic equalizer. And like TDK’s awesome Boombox, this classy retro design is brought up to date with some useful innovation.

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Like the other ‘Life On Record’ products the headphones aren’t just re-branded junk but show real innovation. In this case it’s the in-line graphic equalizer and a very tactile on-ear volume wheel.

The heavy construction of metal, chunky plastic and real leather is a good way to begin justifying the price tag. The fabric-shielded headphone cord also looks hardwaring and although only four feet long, an eight-foot extension cord is included in the box. There’s also a gold-plated 3.5mm plug adapter and cloth for carrying the headphones. Given the weight (416g with batteries) and the fact that they don’t fold, they’re probably best used at home. That said, the steel headband ensures these cans clamp tightly to your head, so there’s nothing to stop you using them in the field.

Despite the weight, these are very comfortable headphones. Just like the Dr Dre Beats Pro headset, they spread the weight evenly around the ear through generously padded ear cups. It’s a closed design, so your ears might get warm over time, but the benefit is the exclusion of external noise without the compromise of a noise reduction circuit. Think of it as two listening rooms for your ears.

These phones are sensitive and dynamic, so you can enjoy loud volume, thumping bass and crisp treble. TDK aren’t targeting DJs specifically, so the cups are fixed and it’s a less attacking sound. There’s a spacious feel to the mid-band that opens up the soundstage to better arrange the instruments that make up the music. The tone is emphasizes the top end detail more than the very low end, but the bass extension is pretty good and the sound will not tire when you increase the volume.

Classical music will show off the scale and openness of these headphones, but rock and dance music is even more rewarding. The bass from the 50mm drivers has a bouncy extension that’s particularly rhythmic, while snare drums are snappy and nor splashy. With a sensitivity of 104dB these headphones can go very loud and at full volume you might want to ease off on the treble to avoid sibilance.

And that brings us to the showpiece feature of these headphones – the in-line equalizer that allows you to adjust the tone. These were all the rage in the eighties until people realized that in most case they only made the sound worse. This time around, you still have the flashy graphics that has become the signature of TDK’s latest products, but without degrading the audio signal. Purists can switch it off completely, but you can also tweak the treble and bass up and down by up to ten increments. In most cases you’ll be better off using the tone controls on your iPod, but it’s not a bad gimmick.

A more useful piece of design is the big rotary volume dial located on the right ear cup. The big mystery is why more headphone designers haven’t thought of this. It’s the final flourish on an excellent pair of headphones. It’s also a impressive bounce back for TDK and even if mixtapes mean nothing to you, these luxurious headphones will impress.

TDK ST800 launch date: Feb/March 2011, link TDK

TDK ST800 price: £199