“No, Sorry that is not something that we would be interested in.“
Introducing Grado Labs
That is the reply that I received after asking Grado Labs (makers of the Grado SR80e) for a review unit of their headphones. It was the fastest response I’ve ever gotten after asking for a unit to review. Most of the times it takes days or weeks to get a response, but not this time. It was a hard NO!
I won’t lie at first glance I was a bit taken back by their reply. Sure, in any business you get No’s its reality. Some have a budget for advertising that is spent before the year starts. Some don’t see value in the written word and only care about the video ( we’re working on adding video as well). What threw me off was the speed and directness of the reply. I’m talking under 5 minutes. I could have to take the no and moved onto another more eager brand but I decided to pay out of pocket for a pair of the Grado SR80e.
A History Lesson
What I found out after I made my purchase but before the Grado SR80e arrived is that Grado Labs hasn’t advertised since 1964… You read that right, they have spent no money on direct to consumer advertising. Grado Labs is successful largely due to word of mouth and people like myself that rave about their products on open forums. After learning this my feelings eased up a bit. I now understood why they weren’t interested in supplying me with a unit to review.
All said though part of me wonders if its a moral objection to people like myself. Surly the interest that we would generate would out weight the cost of the material and labor in a pair of SR80e, but I digress. Let me explain a little more about Grado before we get into the actual review. I think it’s worth mentioning.
Again before my SR80e arrived I researched the company and what I found was a ton of videos and articles. I learned Grado Labs is run by the 2nd and 3rd generation of the Grado family in Brooklyn New York. Their headphones are still hand made from the basement to the top floor in their building that’s covered in graffiti and are completely unassuming to the random passerby. Most of the employees that work at Grado Labs have been doing so for well over a decade. Its the complete opposite from Corporate America where you are known by your employee number. Honestly, that fact alone makes me glad that I didn’t just skip over them. I respect that more than Grado knows. Enough of that though let’s get into the actual review.
As always, I start with the packaging. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the unboxing wasn’t an experience. It is not the over the top luxury experience that you get unboxing something like headphones from Beats. Oh no. This is quite the opposite. Grado Labs obviously and smartly put money into the headphones and not into its packaging. The box is made of cardboard that I can only compare to a doughnut or fried chicken box. It’s thin, folded over and glued in the corner the same way. I’m pretty sure its the exact same thickness and quality of a Krispy Kreme doughnut box.
Once opened you’re greeted with a single piece of paper. A thank you from the Grado family. That is it… No literally, that’s it, other than the quality packing foam. No, spec sheet, no care sheet, no instructions. Grado assumes that you know how to use headphones and are happy with the few produces specs on the outside of the box. (You do get a 1/4 adapter connected to the Headphones) The most, how can I put this, stand out feature of the unboxing experience is the smell. Yes, the smell.
Grado uses this foam that I can only really describe as remnants from the 1980-90s. If you’ve seen Guardians Of The Galaxy its the same foam used on Star Lords Walkman. The point I’m getting to is the foam, especially when new has this STRONG smell. It is very chemically and industrial. It does go away after a day or 2 but its the part of the unboxing experience that most people will remember. If I don’t get that smell with the next pair of Grado’s it will be a letdown. The smell has been burned into my mind and associated with “The Grado Sound”.
Grado SR80e Sound Quality
What the hell is this CRAP! It was my initial thought after placing the SR80e on my head for the first time. I frowned and began to think that maybe I received a defective pair. Why are people raving about these? Then I changed the song. WOW! , now I understand.
Grado is known for the “Grado sound” and I didn’t understand this before I bought them. It’s is known for its very bright, sparkly highs and mids. Grado headphones sound can be explained as very lively. There is some excitement in the listening experience that you don’t get with so many other headphone. The reason the first song I listened to threw me off so much was the sibilant highs. Grado’s are so bright in songs that have boosted high frequency like some EDM can be a bit too harsh. Its also worth noting the SR80e are on-ear headphones like most of the Grado headphone line so the drives are really close to your ears.
Once I understood this I looked for other songs that I liked that were recorded very cleanly and the SR80e began to shine like no other headphone that we have in our collection. The bright and lively nature of the SR80e brings vocals to life, instruments sound better than they ever have. The lows on SR80e are very present but not mind-blowing. I started looking through different genres of music that were recorded cleanly. What I found was the SR80e are so good at sound reproduction that the quality of the recording makes a huge difference that you won’t get in lesser headphones.
When I say the quality of the recording, I mean it. I’ve played some songs and heard static/ white noise only to find out the recording was made outside or live and the noise I heard was in the recording. Some other headphones can’t reproduce that airy sound of a microphone in the open air as cleanly as the SR80e.
But Wait There Is More
After a few hours of listening I don’t know if my ears became more adjusted to the sound or the material on the headphone started to break in a bit but the sound was even better. The foam of the ear pads begins to break in a little bit and better form to your ear. (I leaned the headband should be bent to increase the comfort) Again, Grado doesn’t include instructions, and the headband has NO padding at all, but Grado headphones are known for being extremely light. What you do is bend the metal headband so the headphone has a light but firm press on your ears. If this is done right you’ll get even better sound and won’t feel the headband at all.
So, headphones adjusted for fit. Foam of the ear pads feeling better, the sound is fantastic as long its not a song with a really boosted treble. However, that can be fixed.
The $99 Grado SR80e is one of the cleanest headphones that I’ve heard under the $300 price point. The low sub-bass is boosted slightly in the SR80e compared to the $79 SR60e. However, if you’re strapped for cash you would likely be happy with the SR60e. In my opinion, if you want to get the best out of most speakers I suggest you use an equalizer.
Pictured above are the adjustments to the equalizer that I used. It’s important that you understand that a really bad speaker is going to sound really bad when adjusted. Some speakers don’t take well to being adjusted. When it comes to the SR80e they already sound fantastic so they only needed minimal adjustments to get to a sound that I’d consider perfect to me. I brought the treble gain down just a little bit in and brought up the sub-bass gain. The end result is… Well, probably the best sound you’ll get for under $300.
Understanding Open Back Headphones
If you are new to audiophile-level headphones you need to understand the difference in open and closed-back headphones. I only bring this up because I don’t want you our reader to buy the SR80e and be frustrated because of the lack of bass along with other characteristics of open backs.
Open-back headphones by design provide a larger sound stage when compared to the open-back headphones. Listening to open-back headphones gives the feeling of being surrounded by sound. Think sitting in the audience a few rows back center stage, you can hear the instruments coming from the left, right and center. Close backs remove a lot of the sound stage, you sound much closer, think sitting in front of the speaker with it blaring into your face.
Bass works the same way. Sitting a few rows back (open back headphones) you’ll hear the bass and might get a little rumble in your chest. Close back headphones like the Beats EP that I reviewed here as stated above are compared to standing in front of that huge speaker on the stage. You get pounding bass but you lose the sound quality do the lack of sound separation. So if you want tons of bass to give the Beats EP a try. They can be equalized to sound great, but by design, they won’t sound clean and complete as the Grado SR80e.
The last point that I want to touch on is the ability to block outside noise, or lack thereof. Open Back headphones, again by design are open. This allows sound to flow from the rear of the driver, basically filling the room around you. Anyone in the room with you will likely be able to sing along to your music.
Again going back to my concert example. When you’re a few rows back it much easier to talk to the person next to you. Open-back headphones easily let outside sounds in as well. Close back are just too the opposite by the nature of their design. They try to keep the sound in which compresses to make more bass. Again to the concert example, standing in front of a huge speaker it’s much harder to talk to a person going deft next to you. So, the close back won’t let much outside noise in, especially at a decent volume.
I hope I’ve given our readers enough information to make an educated purchase. I personally love the SR80e the open back design provides a good sound staging. The highs can be a bit harsh on some songs but can be equalized to be near perfection while keeping the “Grado Sound” lively nature. The mids, in all honesty, are pretty much technically perfect, on a sound graph the upper bass thru entire mid-range is practically flat. What that means is you’ll hear most vocals and instruments exactly as it was recorded ( giving you have a good clean audio source). The bass output was stronger than the bass we got from the Audio Technica ATH-AD700X that retailed for $200 and reviewed here. Once we bumped the gain up in the lower frequencies the bass had just a little more presence and remand tight as fast.
If you gave me $100 to buy headphones today, I’d buy another set of Grado SR80e, no questions or doubt. Now if only I could get my hands on a pair of the limited edition Grado whites.
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