The Vibrant Madness of Grado Headphones

I dipped in a toe. I found a canyon.

My first two days with a pair of Grado SR60e headphones were an absolute sonic delight.

I spent time actually listening to music. I checked out all of my favorite albums and tracks, and marvelled at how weird, sparkly, and interesting the “Grado Sound” made them feel.

It was a wonderful experience, and I immediately ordered a pair of SR80e’s so I could compare them both and write a full review.

And then my second two days happened.

Something must have gone wrong with the clamping force from my giant head pressing against the pads and headband, because suddenly comfort was a big issue.

An endless nightmare cycle of bending the headband in all sorts of directions and carefully sliding the cups up and down ensued.

Now, on day six…I’m still not ready to write a full review, but I at least finally understand why people enjoy Grado products. They’re really interesting and different from the rest of the headphone market.

And kind of ridiculous.

That Grado Sound

Part of the reason I avoided Grado products for so long is the way they measure.

Headphones generally conform to one of a few scientifically-backed target audio curves which allow them to have some semblance of neutral, accurate sound.

They might be tweaked to have more enjoyable bass or more accentuated treble, but those underlying principles are still in play.

Grado headphones ignore all of this and do their own thing, throwing out the accepted standards with a brazen toss.

Imagine this. A sound signature with gently rolled-off sub bass frequencies, that’s then perfectly flat from the bass all the way up to the treble.

Oh, except for a giant peak at 2 Khz and a random assortment of knife-style treble peaks above that.

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Photo by Jamakassi on Unsplash

On paper, it looks awful, but on listen? It’s frequently amazing.

At least, if your material agrees with it. Some songs are truly beautiful, springing to live with energy and detail and just enough textured bass to still sound full and robust. It’s a true live-sound-style experience.

Others are a sibilant nightmare of swooshing noises and fatigue.

The sound is impressive to me for the price, in spite of how terribly it measures and how against the norm it is. It’s not at all suitable for a first headphone, but in a sea of Harman Target and Diffuse Field products, it’s kind of refreshing to see something so radically different that doesn’t just fall on its face.

It’s also, incidentally, a great signature for gaming, its emphasis and width really help with positional awareness and the bass is accurate enough to still make explosions fun.

There’s real merit and charisma to the Grado sound signature even though it’s also sharp and ridiculous.

If you’ve heard a DT770 or an M50X it’s a little like that, but with a more open airy sound and more mellow bass, and leaning hard into the characteristics some folks hate about those headphones’ upper ranges.

Handmade Charm

I’ve scoffed at the Grado design and build quality because that’s just what people do.

But you know what? I’d like to apologize.

In 48 hours of bending the metal headband, I realized there’s some real heart underneath the ramshackle looks of the Grado design.

That headband is one of the most robust, solid parts I’ve ever encountered on a headphone.

I put my SR60’s through some bending torture I’d never dream of inflicting on many other headphones that cost $79, and even the weird plastic headband sliders didn't budge or creak or complain.

I’ve seen the pictures of Grados with broken plastic parts, and those that seem to have just shattered into ten pieces out of nowhere. But I’m starting to think those might be outliers and not the norm.

There’s little imperfections across both of my pairs that instantly show they were built with hands and not a machine. But that’s kind of cool, honestly.

The cord is a thick gentleman that I originally thought would be kinky forever, but after a day it calms down and it’s quite pliable.

In a world where so many models are re-badges of the same OEM headphones, the Grado design and build are wholly unique. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but they can take a lot more punishment than I ever thought possible.

Tiny Differences

Cynics say that every Grado Headphone is the same, and that their more expensive models are akin to snake oil.

I can’t speak to the $1000 versions, but having tried the two lowest end SKU’s, there are tiny differences there. Is it worth the $20 price difference? That’ll have to wait for the review but…maybe?

Grado has mastered the technology industry’s favorite art of creating a stuffed lineup of products at different price points that feature tiny differences. If you just need the core Grado experience, buy the cheapest one.

But if you get sucked into the Grado fandom because you’re enamored of their weird sound, watch out, because they have a million more tiny upgrades to sell you over time.

During that first two days of listening, when I finally understood what the deal was, that tiny stupid voice in the back of my head that makes me want things was like, “You should just eventually buy all of these to see how different they are.”

Grado is more than happy to sell you tiny variations for increasing dollar amounts, moreso than any other modern headphone company.

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Official Grado SR60e Promo Artwork, www.gradolabs.com

Am I a Grado fan?

Not yet. But I might be one by the end of the week, after I’ve finished my current review process.

I commend Grado for doing something so different and for somehow surviving in spite of their headphones sometimes stabbing users with treble.

I get it now. I understand why this company has super fans. The unique sound signature, the weird combination of a robust and hokey build, and the sheer adherence to emotional appeal rather than pure technological prowess are all pretty fascinating.

Grado doesn’t make the world’s best headphones, from a performance perspective. But they do make some of the most interesting ones, and their sound quality punches well above their price point at least at the low end.

They’re a true testament to the subjective nature of audio enjoyment, and why you shouldn’t only trust measurements but also your own ears.

I’ve had a great time so far.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go bend these infinitely adjustable headbands some more just to fiddle with them.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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