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Review: Two Darker Blades

17 February 2020  | Posted in: Table Tennis Reviews


On this occasion, I was given the opportunity to evaluate two blades from the Japanese brand Darker, i.e., the oddly named Darker 7P-2A.7t and the Darker Esteem. Going into this test, I had only minimal knowledge of this brand. Darker specializes in premium quality Kiso Hinoki blades. Century-old Kiso Hinoki wood is renowned for providing a unique embracing feeling upon ball contact that facilitates spin production. 

Darker 7P-2A.7t – A looping blade for hinoki connoisseurs. 

Darker describes the 7P-2A.7t as a powerful blade with a strong repulsive force and a deep sweet spot, that offers carbon-like feeling on shots. The blade comes in a simple, large, dark-blue glossy box, which offers excellent protection. A straw-colored sticker on the front lip of the box identifies the blade. Upon opening the box open, an amazing cypress aroma unfolds, like stepping into an old-fashioned cigar shop. This is easily the best-smelling blade that I have encountered. The 7P-2A.7t is a gorgeous blade with a straw-colored playing surface with beautiful light pinkish/brown straight grain. The FH playing surface has descriptive text, whereas the BH side is devoid of text. The handle is light-brown with vertical grain, featuring a dark blue plastic lens on the FH side with descriptive text that is kept in light blue and golden color tones, as well as a black and golden rectangular tag and an engraved JTTAA symbol on the bottom of the handle. The quality of the workmanship is exceptionally high. The edges, wings, and bottom of the handle are sanded rendering it exceptionally smooth to hold. 

The 7P-2A.7t a 7-ply all-hinoki construction is as follows: a medium-thick core with horizontally aligned wood grain is surrounded by a set of slightly thinner veneers (vertical grain), a set of yet slightly thinner penultimate plies (horizontal grain) and thin outer plies (vertical plies). The blade has an average-sized playing surface (height x width: 157 mm x 150 mm), a thickness of ~7.2 mm and is lightweight at 83 g. A naked blade ball bounce test produced a pitch of ~1335 Hz). The near-SQST handle has the following dimensions: length: 100 mm; width: 28 mm; thickness: 24 mm.

Testing Procedure: I tested both Darker blades using a well-used sheet of Hurricane 3 (40-degrees, orange sponge, provincial, black, 2.2 mm) on my FH side and a worn sheet of Spinlord Waran 2 short pips (red, 2.0 mm) in my BH. As usual, I attached the rubbers to the blade using a layer of Revolution 3 normal viscosity glue. I tested the set-ups over several sessions, playing drills and matches against my usual practice partners using Nittaku J-Top training balls.

Playing Impressions

Feeling: The set-up was comfortable to hold and felt light and well-balanced. The ST grip is pleasant but almost too smooth. However, I did not experience any slippage during play. The feeling upon contacting the ball is very soft and - true to Darker’s description - the blade feels as if it embraces the ball, while at the same time being quite springy. The soft ball contact conceals the fact that the blade is quite fast (mid OFF range). Few vibrations travel into the hand, rendering it challenging to feel the ball. At the same time, the blade produced a deep, hollow, and reverberating sensation upon hitting the ball, especially on the BH side where I used the softer-sponged Waran 2 short pips. 

Drives: My FH drives were fast and had excellent consistency, especially when using a slightly more closed bat angle to compensate for the higher-than-average throw angle and catapult. In contrast, I had an above-average error rate on BH drives played with the Waran 2 short pips as the higher throw angle and catapult effect increased the probability of the ball going off the end of the table.

Looping: FH looping was quite delightful from all distances, but especially from mid- and long-distance as the blade offered plenty of speed and catapult to land the shots. The blade has an above-average dwell time, which results in a higher throw angle. This coupled with a noticeable catapult effect resulted in long trajectories with lots of safety over the net. Spin generation against long pushes seemed to be above average. I enjoyed excellent control on these shots. The throw angle reduces considerably on power loops, as an above-average proportion seemed to clip the net. The blade performs excellently in loop-to-loop rallies as the throw angle, catapult and speed work well together to enable consistent shots from afar. While the H3/7P-2A.7t set-up was very enjoyable for FH looping, I struggled mightily with my BH short pip openings against backspin. I am used to linear, stiffer, and harder blades and at no point did I manage to get truly comfortable with the blade’s springiness when executing 3rd ball BH attacks against long backspin pushes close to the table – the shots either went too long or became too high and easy to counter. The blade characteristics worked much better for BH “loops” and BH fishing shots from mid- and long-distance, as the higher throw and catapult worked well to bring the shots on the table, albeit without the necessary power to make them truly dangerous. 

Blocking: Passive FH blocking with the hard-sponged H3 was reasonably controllable, but more active FH blocks were challenging due to the catapult effect. I had to use soft hands to prevent the ball from going over the end of the table on these shots. I struggled with my passive BH blocks due to the blade’s springiness. Active BH blocks right off the bounce seemed to work a little better, but I still had some difficulty assessing when and how strongly the blade’s catapult effect would kick in.

Flat hits: The blade performs admirably on flat hits, in part thanks to the catapult effect. Flat hits are fast and deadly.  

Service Returns and Touch Play: I was able to produce a ton of backspin on FH/BH long pushes against backspin serves, rendering it challenging for my practice partners to attack. Somewhat surprisingly, given the blade’s catapult on more active shots, I found it to work quite well on short pushes and touch shots. It is certainly necessary to account for the springiness, but once done (by using extra soft hands), I was able to place the ball short and low, with minimal opportunities for my opponents to attack. In contrast, my confidence in aggressive service returns was not high given the soft feeling and catapult, which rendered it difficult to judge the power needed, resulting in half-hearted shots. 

Service: The H3/7P-2A.7t worked well on service, with lots of spin being generated on short backspin serves and lots of power being generated on long topspin/sidespin serve. However, occasionally the blade’s catapult caused me to serve backspin serves into the net.   

Conclusion: The Darker 7P-2A.7t offers outstanding craftsmanship and looping capabilities for hinoki connoisseurs, who enjoy playing from mid-distance. This catapult effect means that this blade isn’t for everyone, and it certainly didn’t work particularly well for my BH short pip style, as I prefer a much more linear feeling. However, I could easily see two-winged loopers and even modern defenders take advantage of this springy blade, which worked rather well for short pip chopping from long-distance. It could work particularly well for players who don’t have a sufficiently strong physique to generate power by themselves and need a blade with an extra kick to generate sufficient speed.         

Darker Esteem – A looping blade for hinoki converts. 

Darker describes the Esteem as an offensive and well-balanced blade, which is most suitable for attacks utilizing a sharp drive. Just like the 7P-2A.7t, the Darker Esteem comes in a simple, large, dark-blue glossy box, which offers excellent protection. A purple sticker on the front lip of the box identifies the blade. Upon opening the box, one is treated to a wonderful cypress aroma. The Esteem is a beautiful blade with a straw-colored playing surface with light pink/brown straight vertical grain. Descriptive text is featured on the FH playing surface, whereas the BH side is devoid of text. The RST handle is brown with darker vertical grain. An oval plastic lens on the FH features gold-colored text against a dark green background. The bottom of the handle features a black and golden rectangular tag and a wood-burned JTTAA symbol. The build quality seems to be exceptionally high. The edges, wings, and bottom of the handle are all sanded making it a pleasure to hold the blade. 

According to unofficial sources, the Darker Esteem has the following – very unique – 5+2 ply construction: hinoki-carbon-willow-kiri-willow-carbon-hinoki. The medium-thick kiri core is surrounded by a set of willow plies of similar thickness, which is followed by a set of carbon plies and a relatively thick surface ply of hinoki with vertical grain. The blade has a smaller-than-usual playing surface (height x width: 156 mm x 148 mm) with a thickness of 5.9 mm and is extremely lightweight at 72 g. A simple bounce test produced a very high-pitched sound with a main frequency of ~1570 Hz, which only is surpassed by the Donic Ovtcharov Carbospeed (~1765 Hz) and Tibhar Fortino Pro (1700 Hz) among the blades that I have previously evaluated. The comfortable RST handle has the following measurements: length: 102 mm; width: 27 mm; thickness: 22 mm.


Playing Impressions

Feeling: The Darker Esteem is distinctly more head-heavy than the 7P-2A.7t. As a result, the blade felt significantly heavier than its 72 g, and more like a blade in the 85 g category. The handle and wings are very slim and smooth, which might constitute a challenge to players with large hands. Grip tape may rectify this. However, I hardly paid any attention to this after a little while. The feeling upon hitting the ball is soft, albeit not quite as soft as with the 7P-2A.7t, presumably because carbon and other wood types than hinoki are used in the construction of the blade. The Esteem has a distinct carbon stiffness to it, which differs from the stiffness experienced with the 7P-2A.7t, which felt “thick and rigid”, rather than “thin and stiff”. The blade is almost devoid of vibrations, which renders it challenging to feel the ball. The deep, hollow, and reverberating sensation of the 7P-2A.7t is absent and replaced by a sharper, carbon-like feeling and kick. The soft feeling upon ball impact masks the fact that this is a relatively fast blade, especially when the kick is activated, though I would rate it a hair slower than the 7P-2A.7t.        

Drives: FH drives felt firm, relatively fast and controlled. As with the 7P-2A.7t, I found it advantageous to close the bat angle a little bit. BH drives were firmer, less bouncy and more predictable than with the 7P-2A.7t. All in all, I enjoyed excellent control and a positive feeling on these shots.   

Looping: The Darker Esteem offers a rather enjoyable feeling on FH loops. The above-average dwell time (though slightly shorter than with the 7P-2A.7t), allows for high levels of spin generation and medium-high ball arcs when looping against backspin balls in their descending phase. When contacting the ball a little closer to the table with greater forward momentum, the noticeable hinoki/carbon kick flattens and lengthens the ball arc, but less so than with the 7P-2A.7t, which renders loop drives more controllable. The blade was sufficiently fast to enable FH-to-FH looping from mid- and long-distance. The hinoki/carbon kick, coupled with adequate physical effort, ensures that dangerous FH loops can be played from all distances. Just like with the 7P-2A.7t, I struggled with BH opening loops against backspin using my Waran 2 short pips, never managing to get a grasp when the extra catapult would kick in. Consequently, the consistency of my BH opening shots had a significantly below-average consistency – albeit better than with the 7P-2A.7t, with many shots going too long, despite efforts to play the shots more softly. My short pimpled BH looping consistency improved noticeably when I operated from mid-distance, as the required physical effort from this distance ensured engagement of the catapult. BH loops from long-distance were challenging since the blade did not offer sufficient speed for the ball to travel over the net.

Blocking: The attenuated kick and medium-stiff nature of the Darker Esteem work well in passive FH blocking. The blade absorbs and redirects the incoming energy in a well-behaved manner, resulting in excellent consistency. It is very easy to convert a passive FH block into an ultra-aggressive slap-block by simply increasing the back-swing of the stroke. I found myself to use this technique against one of the hardest hitters at my club to great benefit. More conventional aggressive FH blocking and counter-looping was occasionally challenging due to the hinoki/carbon kick, but less so than with the 7P-2A.7t. Passive BH blocking with the Waran 2 short pips worked better than with the 7P-2A.7t, feeling less glassy, having less knuckleball effect, and being easier to control.         

Flat Hits: While not overly fast (low OFF range), the Esteem’s stiffness and kick, worked well for flat hits close to the table and from mid-distance, resulting in very fast shots. The blade was not fast enough to support slapshots from afar, though.   

Service Returns and Touch Play: Long pushes against backspin serves with both FH and BH were easy to execute, and appeared to be quite spinny. Occasionally, FH pushes floated long if mistimed due to the hinoki kick. Short pushes tended to go a little too long and my drop shots had a below-average quality. A little to my surprise, the Esteem worked pretty well in aggressive service returns, despite the very soft feeling on ball impact.   

Service: I was able to play my entire repertoire of serves without any major concerns. Short backspin serves were low and spinny, whereas long top/side-spin serves had excellent penetrating power. The kick is less pronounced 7P-2A.7t, and thus I enjoyed better consistency. 

Conclusion: The Darker Esteem feels like a toned-down version of the 7P-2A.7t, having a less prominent hinoki kick and supporting a more balanced playing style. For players who are not used to hinoki blades, this blade provides an easy entry point to the hinoki universe. The Darker Esteem is well-suited for advanced two-winged who already possess good technique and feeling in their hands, and who want to take advantage of the additional hinoki power and kick. 


About the Reviewer

     Patrick Hrdlicka is a table tennis enthusiast with a Ph.D. in chemistry who combines his analytical and experimental skills with his love of table tennis in order to test and review a wide range of table tennis equipment.