Listen carefully … and you’ll hear the popcorn popping throughout Headphonedom.
“Tyll’s going to talk about Grado headphones in his blog!!! And he’s doing it in the “World’s Best Headphones” section!? Oh, this is going to be good.”
You see, I’m not a Grado fan, it’s not a secret, and I’m not alone. There’s a big bunch of headphone enthusiasts that can only shake their head and wonder what all the Grado fuss is about. On the other hand, there are just as many headphone enthusiasts that love Grado headphones and are rabid fans of the Brooklyn headphone maker. Simply put, there is no other brand of headphones that divides the headphone world so clearly and strongly as does Grado.
Fundamentally, I see this schism arising from the Grado design philosophy of designing by ear, rather than through an engineering process. Me, I’m the technical type; I like to see charts and graphs; I believe the job of a headphone is to be a straight pipe. For me, there’s no need for the gear to editorialize; creating the sound is a job for the artist and producers in my view.
This objective way of thinking has some strict limitations however. What happens, for example, if you listen to a lot of old and poor recordings? Is it really best to focus on fidelity when this is the case? Is Muddy Waters on a boom-box any less art for the poor reproduction? And is there anything wrong with audio gear that tries to make the sound better? No, there is plenty of room to argue that audio gear that colors the sound has an appropriate place in audio … even high end audio.
John Grado, and his uncle Joe before him, have made high art of developing gear by ear. Since the GS1000 and PS1000 are not so much the result of an engineering effort as they are the current culmination of an organic process of development over the years, a brief trip through time will help us get richer picture of these cans.
Sometime in the mid-80s, as the CD became the dominant medium for music storage and playback, and the demand for LPs, turntables, and the moving magnet cartridges that sustained Grado began to fall, Joe Grado (John’s uncle and CEO at the time) decided that the he might expand the companies product line to include headphones. Mostly in an effort to bring better headphones to the professional audio world the HP1000 line of cans was conceived. Three models were built: the HP1, HP2, and HP3; the most famous being the HP1 with it’s polarity reversal switch on each earpiece. Some people remain convinced that these were the best sounding headphones that Grado has ever produced.
John took the helm around 1990, and decided to expand the headphone line and focus attention on audiophile consumers. A number of new cans were produced including: SR60, SR80, SR125, and SR225. It was this initial line-up of cans that earned Grado a fan-base of folks who reveled in an intense listening experience that had you out of the audience and up on stage with the players. Rock fans were particularly enamored of this intensity, and Grados became well known as a great rock and roll headphone.
Over time the line expanded bringing in the aluminum body and crisp sound of the SR325; the mellower and very lush sounds of the RS1 and RS2; a completely separate line is available in the pro-audio world with the Alessandro versions of the Grado cans; a number of limited edition cans have been available through Head-Fi and Todd the Vinyl Junkie, and in 2009 the entire line was tweaked again with the introduction of the “i”-series.
Virtually all the changes over time have been evolutionary, with greater and lesser modifications to housing materials, cables, drivers, and design happening gradually. While all Grados are strongly similar with foam earpads, circular housings, gimbals mounted on posts, and covered metal straps for headbands, there is also a lot of variation in the earpads, cables, and materials which has produced dozens of strongly related variants. This has lead to a rich legacy of fans who debate in minute detail the various merits of the broad array of models, and brings us to the latest variants, Grado’s offering of two statement, high-end models: the GS1000 and PS1000. With these two headphones, Grado introduced us to a new and very much larger earpad, a larger housing, and a new driver.
I tend to feel the idea is false that many manufacturers have a “house sound,” but I do think it’s true in the case of Grado, and not surprising since the headphones are voiced by ear. To me, the most defining characteristic of the Grado sound is a sense of immediacy; a sense of being within the ensemble of players on stage, as opposed to being in the audience. While most Grado models are not to my taste, there is no doubt the Grado SR60 was the best sounding headphone under $100 when it was introduced in the early 90′s, and remained so until just recently, in my view, with the introduction of the Sennheiser PX 100-II. The SR225 was also a terrifically dynamic headphone with eye-blinking impact and astonishing immediacy; the SR225i remains a staple and is thought by many to be the best bang-for-your-buck headphone in the Grado line.Unfortunately, I also find the Grado cans accentuated in the 2kHz to 5kHz region, which for Grado detractors delivers a sound that is too strident or sometimes harsh. For me, especially with older electronic music, this peakiness in the low treble becomes tiresome quite quickly. I’ve included some measurements of some low and mid priced Grado models here. You can see that the SR60 is lower in amplitude in the 2-5kHz region than the rest of the line which is why I believe it is so universally well regarded. The bass in Grado headphones is slightly accentuated above 100Hz, but falls of rapidly below that, so the bass is relatively punchy, but not well extended. Moving up to the new GS1000 and PS1000 we can see that the peak at 2kHz is gone, and while the treble rises sharply to a peak at about 7kHz, it does so much more smoothly than in the other models. The bass in the two new cans is also stronger, but not really better extended. Make no mistake, these are not neutral headphones.
However — and I’m never going to live this down — it is colorful in a way you can fall in love with. Yes, (I can hardly say it), over the course of this review I’ve fallen in love with the GS1000. Let me explain:
Very early on, when we first had a chance to measure the GS1000, I noticed the strongly curved frequency response of the GS1000 with an accentuated bass and treble, and it reminded me of the Fletcher-Munsen Equal Loudness Contour curves. What these curves show is that as you lower the average volume of music, you have to change the EQ to accentuate the bass and treble because your hearing system isn’t as sensitive in the bass and treble at the volume lowers. That’s what the “Loudness” button does on some of the older stereos out there, it raises the bass and treble so that it sounds more normal when you listen at low volume. Since the bass and treble of the GS1000 and PS1000 are accentuated, I surmised they’d be a good headphone for listening at low volumes. It turns out this is true, and many people have commented how great these cans are at low volume.
I play background music at low volumes all day long as I write. I tend to listen on speakers, because headphones aren’t usually very satisfying at low volumes and because I listen to a lot of overseas internet radio which has wretched sound quality. (I just love the amazing variety of tunes you get exposed to and the sense of another culture you feel when immersed in foreign sounds. A few samples: FIP France, ABC Jazz Australia, and Radio Silver Rain Moskow.) I’m a big fan of old school jazz, so I’ve gotten over obsessing about sound quality a long time ago, but 96kbs internet streams can be a physically miserable experience on headphones. Oddly, this is almost never the case with the Grado GS1000. As I worked on this review, I just kept wearing and listening to the GS1000 even when I didn’t need to for evaluation purposes.
Why take them off when the music is so fun? I’ve never experienced completely involving listening sessions of crappy internet radio at low listening levels like this before. I’ve never experienced of getting sucked this hard into the music and away from work. It’s not that the music is better on this day, but that it just sounds so damn good.
The GS1000 is smooth and lush; inviting and warm; it bounces along merrily tickling at your eardrum for attention; and all day long I just smiled and bobbed my head as the music played. The PS1000 is a quite similar listening experience, but brings a bit more detail and resolution into the picture. Both are just lovely to hear, and both made everything I listened to a complete joy.
The GS1000 is also very comfortable to wear. Many complain that Grado cans are uncomfortable. I’ve found that by simply bending the metal headband to conform to my head and to create just the right clamping pressure Grado headphones can feel fine. But the GS1000 with its large bowl pads are supremely comfortable and light. The aluminum PS1000 is significantly heavier, and while the music was a bit cleared and more articulate, the increased weight was a bit bother some compares to the GS1000.
The PS stands for professional series and the GS for Grado Statement. I have to say that because they are a colored headphone whose strong point is to make everything sound good, I don’t believe the PS1000 is a good headphone for professional use. In those cases I recommend the Sennheiser HD800 or Beyer T1 for open cans, and the Denon D5000 for sealed cans. And the added weight of the PS1000 did get in the way of long listening sessions for me.
But the GS1000 is certainly a strong statement from John Grado that he has a vision and an ear for lovely sounding headphones, and that he’s not afraid to make it. My statement in return is, “Well John, I think you may have won me over on this one.”
Oy vey, I think I’m going to have to go buy a Grado t-shirt.