Review: KBDfans’ Topre 9009 PBT Dye-Sub Keycaps

Introduction

If you follow my blog, you would know that I’m a huge fan of Topre. Yes, this affection does come at the cost of street cred — and we all know how important that is — but I truly enjoy typing on my HHKB.

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As such, when KBDfans announced that they were running a group buy for Topre replacement keycaps, I was so excited that I wrote an article about it and bought it despite having owned 3 iterations on this colorway.

Now that I’ve gotten a chance to put this set through its paces, here’s a review!

Specifications

Material: Dye-Sublimated PBT

Thickness: ~1mm

Profile: Topre Profile

Colorway: 9009

Price: $75 for the Base Kit, $9 for Mod Pro Kit (for Realforce 87u, Leopold FC660C and Leopold FC980C)

Link: https://kbdfans.cn/products/gbelectrostatic-keyboard-9009-pbt-dye-sub-keycaps

Keycap Quality

The keycap base of Topre 9009 is decent enough, but it misses the mark on many essential quality markers.

The keycaps feel cheap compared to BSP and Gateron blanks — probably due to its measly ~1mm thickness — but are free of burrs or defects for the most part. They feel pretty similar to stock Topre keycaps, but that’s not saying much as stock Topre caps are nothing special to begin with.

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Visibly grainy texture on the keycap surface

The surface texture on the Topre 9009 keycaps is the roughest bar none that I’ve seen. The very gritty texture comes from the larger grain size on the plastic used. Think Duck anodization, but for keycap texture. I prefer smoother keycap bases, but the rough texture does let me type more accurately as I can feel the keycaps better.

Topre 9009’s keycaps are noticeably smaller in its X and Y dimensions than stock keycaps. As you can see in the picture above, this makes the gaps between keycaps extremely obvious. This bothered me a lot while using the set because I wasn’t used to the way it looked on the board. While improving on this in future iterations will require a complete change of the molds used, it has to be done as the difference in keycap size is unacceptable.

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Noticeable keycap-to-keycap size difference between stock Topre (E,R,D,F) and Topre 9009 (the rest)

Another huge problem with the set is that about 20% of the keys on my 60-key HHKB have crooked stems. The ‘Z’ key is the most obvious of the bunch:

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Crooked ‘Z’ key

Many other users have reported similar issues with their keycaps, especially with keycaps in the Mod Kit. Again, this is a huge issue that has to be fixed moving forward.

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‘Backtick/Tilde’ key that sits higher than the adjacent key because it doesn’t click in

Lastly, 7 out of the 60 keycaps on my HHKB don’t click in like stock Topre keycaps. Instead, they squeeze in similar to how MX keycaps are fitted by friction, just unsatisfyingly so. As a result, some keycaps sit higher than the other keycaps on the same row.

Legend Quality

Where this keycap set really shines is in its legend quality.

The dye sub quality on the Topre 9009 is top-notch. The legends are crisp with minimal feathering, and are competitive with some of the best MX dye sub legends that I’ve seen. Here’s a comparison of Topre 9009, Hammer BSP, and EnjoyPBT 9009:

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Topre 9009 – Stock Topre – BSP Red Cyrillic – Enjoy PBT 9009 R4. EnjoyPBT takes the cake here with BSP close behind.
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Topre 9009 – BSP – EnjoyPBT 9009 R4
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Topre 9009 – BSP Red Cyrillic – EnjoyPBT 9009 R4. Again, EnjoyPBT 9009 R4 is the sharpest.
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Topre 9009 – EnjoyPBT 9009 – Stock Topre. Color of the Topre 9009 key is slightly muted than the more vibrant EnjoyPBT 9009. Typography on the ‘s’ letter is better on Topre 9009 than on ePBT.

Both EnjoyPBT 9009 and BSP Red Cyrillic edge out Topre 9009 in quality when viewed up close, but from a regular viewing distance, I could hardly tell the difference.

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The typography on the set is excellent, too. Gok, the designer of EnjoyPBT Black on White and omnipotent ‘Fixer of Legends’, had a hand in making sure the legend files were up to scratch, and it shows. The chunky-alphas-and-icon-modifiers legend style of Gok’s EnjoyPBT sets is a welcomed addition into the world of Topre keycaps. Kerning and misalignment are also basically non-issues.

Legend quality has always been where stock Topre keycaps fall short, so this huge improvement is one that deserves credit.

Sound Profile

Going into the review, I didn’t think that I needed to write a sound profile section. Both the stock keycaps and Topre 9009 are made of Topre profile ~1mm PBT, so they should sound the same…. right?

Strangely, the bottom out sound coming out of Topre 9009 is obnoxiously higher-pitched than that of stock. Here is a typing sound comparison between the two:

This is very odd as keycaps of the same profile and thickness tend to sound pretty similarly. In the world of MX keycaps, for example, BSP and OG Cherry sound slightly different from Gateron, but barely so.

I got used to the higher-pitched sound of Topre 9009 after a while, but after switching back to the stock keycaps, it was obvious that I much preferred the latter to the former. The stock Topre keycaps bottom out with a fuller and deeper sound that complements the HHKB better.

Conclusion

I was hyped after hearing that KBDfans was producing custom colorway Topre keycap sets. I’ve always had a soft spot for my HHKB and I thought this change could revitalize Topre keyboard collecting. I would have been satisfied with a slight improvement in dye-sublimation and the fresh new colorway if everything else were kept the same.

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Unfortunately, as good as the legends and colorway are, the regression in keycap quality and sound profile make it hard for me to recommend this keycap set. Essentially, you would be paying $84 for better legends and that just isn’t worth it for most people.

At the end of the day, I’m keeping Topre 9009 on my HHKB because the legends are that much better than that of stock. I’m also confident that KBDfans will do right by this keycap set and fix the issues I’ve outlined. However, Topre keycaps still have some catching up to do.

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