There aren’t many brands that have as much mystique as Grado Labs.
Unless you are a dedicated audiophile, there’s a decent chance that you haven’t even heard of the family owned headphone company - and they like it that way. Their New York manufacturing headquarters that houses some of the world’s most highly regarded headphones is located in a nondescript, graffiti covered townhouse in residential south Brooklyn. Those in the know may be lucky enough to purchase a pair directly from the location if they come on the right day. But many other audiophiles will discover Grado’s legendary line of products from friends, internet forums, and specialty stores.
Since the company was first founded in 1953, Grado Labs has eschewed traditional mainstream advertising, and built their reputation on word of mouth. Founder Joseph Grado got his start making phonograph cartridges on his kitchen table to sell a handful at a time around the neighborhood. Needless to say, the venture eventually expanded to become the successful audio mainstay that Grado Labs is to this day.
That’s not to say it was always smooth sailing. While business was booming well into the 1980s, the emerging ubiquity of compact discs at the end of the decade led to Grad having to rethink their initial business model. At the height of their success, the company manufactured about 10,000 phonograph cartridges per week. During their lowest point, they churned out just 12,000 in one year.
Enter John Grado - nephew of original founder, Joseph. John Purchased the company on the brink of collapse from his Uncle in 1990 and made the change that would ultimately shape the company’s identity and legacy for years to come: the construction of high end, dynamic open back headphones.
One of our favorite and generally most beloved models to have come out of this early Grado Renaissance period is the SR80, released all the way back in 1994. They were then, and remain now, a remarkably interesting and eccentric pair of headphones.
For one, they utilize a supra aural (on ear) fit, that is far from the most comfortable, and they don’t look to be either the most fashionable or the sturdiest. The design is utilitarian and exudes all the character you’d expected from a handmade unit out of a small company.
But the star of the show is the sound.
The SR80 features a tight and controlled quality at the upper and lower extremes of the frequency range, and Grado’s trademark smooth and natural mids are given ample room to shine. The sound signature abounds with warm harmonic colors, rich vocals, exacting dynamics and a full bodied and smooth top end. If you want an open and expansive sound, you’d be hard pressed to find much better than these at such a reasonable price point.
The latest version of this headphone is the SR80e, a third generation update from Grado’s Signature Series that makes some key improvements, all while retaining all of the magic of the original. These changes include a new driver design, and a unique polymer to dampen resonant distortion in the plastic open backed housing This virtually eliminates all transient distortion. While these may not have as much bass as modern headphone users might desire, the open, clear, and detailed sound is ideal for those who like classical and jazz.
If you’re wondering how John Grado and his crew manage to keep their sound so authentic and pristine across many years and a few generational updates, consider that every headphone is tested by Grado himself in a man-cave esque listening room above the shop. Grado listens to a small collection of (mostly jazz) records that he has kept in rotation since he first took over the company three decades ago. Having heard these records over and over for years, Grado and his small team are able to tune, refine and create headphones based on hours spent digesting and illuminating minute details in music they’ve returned to time and again.
That combination of commitment and ingenuity speaks to why the Grado SR80e is more than just a headphone, or even a beloved piece of retro gear. It is, in the truest sense of the word, a classic.