There’s probably no need to introduce Grado. But on the off chance that you’ve never encountered them before, here’s a very short introduction: Brooklyn-based, family company, three generations, make headphones that look like 1960s radio operator cans. Subject of multiple adoring profiles in publications like the New York Times, and holders of the kind of hipster cachet that bigger manufacturers like Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic can only dream of. Their SR325e headphones might not be the newest model – that would be the extraordinarily expensive PS2000e flagship – but the company recently shared a little bit of that cachet with us at The Master Switch, and since these headphones are still very much available, we decided we’d give them a full review.
One of the reasons why Grado are so widely recognised is because it’s easy to recognise their headphones. Although their models are all subtly different, in construction and materials, they all share the same basic DNA, and the same basic shape. And provided you’re okay with the slightly retro look (which we are) you’ll find plenty to love here.
The Grado SR325e is an open-back headphone with a dynamic driver – and when we say open-back, we mean it in every sense of the term. You could, if you were so inclined and a touch sadistic, unfold a paperclip and poke it through the wire mesh grille that adorns the back of the housing, right into the guts of the headphones. (Please do not do this. Or if you do, don’t blame us when your headphones stop working).
It’s a fun and unique aesthetic, and the homebrew vibe is further enhanced by the raised metal lettering around the outside, proudly announcing that the SR325e is part of The Prestige Series. Well, OK then.
The housings themselves are made of powder-coated aluminum, which is weighty and satisfying. Grado say that they selected this material to help smooth the transition between high and low frequencies. It looks good, but we are less enamored of the plastic ring behind each housing, which looks and feels a little cheap.
We’ll talk about the cups and their comfort level in the next section. They are connected to the band via two steel rods, both of which move up and down easily without too much hassle, and stay when you put them. The headband itself is stiff and inflexible, but is wrapped in leather, and it looks and feels good. It is worth noting that the cups actually rotate a full 360°, which is a surprisingly useful feature – especially when you want to hang the headphones around your neck.
You can’t actually remove the cable from the cups, which we found slightly annoying, but in general it was a minor problem. For the most part, the design of the SR325e headphones was solid. We’ve always been fans of the Grado aesthetic, and this does a good job of marrying it with rugged design and relatively premium materials (plastic rings notwithstanding). It’s hardly a unique design – you can see it in just about any other Grado headphones of the same series, bar the downright strange eGrado – but there’s no denying that it works
It’s not just indie cachet and 1960s looks that Grado are known for. Their cans – how shall we put this? – can be uncomfortable as hell.
Whenever we’ve used a pair, we’ve always found them to be so. Where other manufacturers might include a carefully-shaped set of pads, Grado have always been content to rely on a couple of bog-standard foam rings. Even expensive models like the PS1000e have used the same design, which might help keep costs down, but which is murder on the side of the head. We knew what kind of pads the SR325e had before we got them, but even so, our heart sank a little when we pulled these out the box and saw the familiar foam rings. Would it kill the company to change the shape?
(Update: Grado's John Chen has pointed out that the round shape helps with the sound signature, and that the stainless steel headband can be "re-torsioned" to get a finer fit.)
As it turns out, we may have been overthinking this. While there’s no denying that the SR325e was a slightly less comfortable pair of headphones than others we’ve reviewed, it didn’t give us any major problems. Even after a few hours of listening, we were only feeling a slight amount of discomfort. Part of this, we think, was down to the clamping pressure, which felt precise and even across the skull.
Again, this is something we were worried about, and something we had an issue with before. So it was a good sign to see that, if the company wasn’t going to change how it did things, at least it seemed to have paid attention to the comfort issues. More of this, please.
It would be wrong to say that once you heard one pair of Grados, you’ve heard them all – their headphones are far too good and far too well-engineered for that – but there’s no denying that they have a very distinctive house sound. It’s good, occasionally great, but it may not appeal to everyone, and it’s worth knowing about it before you commit.
The SR325e – and just about every other headphone from the company – revels in detail. They might not deliver ear-shattering bass, or the kind of warm, glowing mids associated with something like the Sennheiser HD650s, but this is deliberate. The company’s sound engineers have spent a long time perfecting their approach to sound, and in preserving as much detail and dynamics as possible.
Put simply, with these headphones, you’re able to hear absolutely staggering amount of detail. The picture they present of the music is crystal-clear, amazingly precise, managing to preserve the dynamics and depth of the material without compromising on the musicality. Vocals are just stunning, and more nuanced instruments like violins took our breath away. When it comes to presenting a clear picture, these are pretty much unbeatable. At 32 ohms, their impedance is low enough to run off a smartphone, although they definitely benefit from a good amp.
Grado don’t make a song and dance about their driver technology – we like to imagine it as being a secret family recipe, locked away in a vault like the formula for Coke – but there’s no question that they’ve pretty much perfected it. When you’ve got three generations of the same family working on the same thing pretty much 24/7, it’s hardly surprising that they get really good at it. The Grado house sound - pinpoint precise highs, sparkling detail, glorious depth and realism – is fully present here. It’s absolutely the best thing about these headphones, and if you haven’t experienced it, you owe it to yourself to try.
The sound is helped along by the open-back design, which – as would be expected – really enhances the air and openness of the audio quality. But just as the sound signature is typical Grado, so is the bleed. Virtually every pair of headphones from the company leaks sound like you wouldn’t believe, meaning that anybody in your immediate radius is going to know exactly what you’re listening to, and probably won’t appreciate it nearly as much as you will. It’s a little hard for us to consider this a negative, mostly because, again, it’s something of a standard feature with the company, and not necessarily something that can be easily fixed without messing with the gorgeous sound. All the same, it’s still a problem, and it’s worth being aware of. Our take? It’s worth it for the glorious audio quality.
However, just because something is good doesn’t mean that it’s suitable in all scenarios. A couple of bottles of beer wouldn’t feel right at a sixteen-course tasting menu, and a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape at a tailgate party just doesn’t work (although if you’ve done this, please send us photos, because that’s pretty awesome). In the same vein, the Grado House Sound just isn’t suited to certain genres. If you’re a fan of hip-hop, dubstep or any genre with lots of low end, these are going to leave you very unsatisfied. It’s not that the bass is bad; it just lacks emphasis, with far more expression higher up in the frequency range. Play some folk music, or classical, or ambient tunes through these, and you’ll get some of the best sound currently available. But if you’ve got a friend who enjoys absolutely enormous subwoofers, and who has a car that bounces off the street when he turns up the volume, you may not want to give him these to try.
Again, we need to emphasise that this isn’t necessarily a negative aspect. These don’t pretend to be anything else – they don’t claim to be a jack of all trades, able to handle anything you throw at them. They simply do exactly what they set out to do, and pull it off like just about no other headphones can. In a way, perhaps that’s the one negative thing we could say about them: they didn’t really surprise us. We knew exactly what we were going to get, and we got it.
Here’s another aspect of Grado that has become legend: their plain packaging. No matter how expensive the headphones, they all come in the same kind of simple cardboard box. Normally, we like a little bit of flash with our packaging, as we believe the headphone experience should start from the moment you pick up the box, but just this once, we’ll give these cans a pass. It’s definitely part of the aesthetic, so we’re down with it. And besides, were almost certain that it helps the company cut costs, which is something we like to see in a headphone market that is getting more and more out of control every day.
The cans themselves are held in a simple foam insert, with the cable coiled up beneath them. Although you can’t attach the cable from the headphones, it’s worth talking about a little, in that it feels thick and substantial, with a decent amount of weight and heft. In the entire time we had the SR325e’s, they never tangled on us, which is something we really appreciated. Apparently, the cable helps the sound as well, as it’s designed to have eight conductors.
Beyond that, the only other accessory is a simple, gold 6.3mm headphone adapter. Nothing too special, but it all gets the job done. While we do wish there was a carry case, it’s not a deal breaker for us.
In many ways, these are the archetypal Grado headphones.
They offer excellent, distinctive design with superb build quality and good materials. They have a shape that is somehow comforting to see – a sign that, in the world of audio at least, things are OK. While the sound doesn’t surprise, it certainly delights, with the absolutely stunning midrange and highs at their very best. There is very, very little to dislike here.
We’d argue that these could be the perfect entry-level Grado cans. You might say that that title should go to something a little less expensive, like the SR60e, but we don’t think those headphones offer nearly as much value-for-money as these do. They offer sound that can easily compete with headphones double or triple their pricetag, and as such, we think they are among the best the company has to offer. Unless you’re a basshead.
- Clear, engaging sound quality.
- Robust design.
- Surprisingly comfortable.
- Weird plastic ring on the housing.
- Ton of bleed.
These headphones have quite rightly become favorites among audiophiles. The open-back design and silky, shimmering sound signature. The 50mm drivers provide a fair amount of oomph to the proceedings, and they are immensely comfortable to wear.
You’d go for these if you wanted open-back sound at an affordable price, with a little more low end. They don’t have Grado’s detail or looks, but they are nonetheless a viable alternative.
Where you’d go if you want to step to the next level. Shure’s cans may not get the love that Grado gets, but they’re excellent headphones.
They’re not open-backs, but despite the lack of air, they have a similar sound signature to the SR325e headphones, with a smooth top end and some decent detail.
They owe this to their heritage as an audio engineer’s headphone, and it really shows with the sound quality.
While we do prefer the M50s, and these aren’t open-back, they remain some of the most luxurious cans around - and a very viable alternative to the SR325e.
Don’t expect the sound to be quite as pinpoint, but Master & Dynamic (who, like Grado, are from New York City) build a mighty fine pair of headphones, and we guarantee you’ll be happy with these.
|Philips Fidelio X2||$300||13.4oz||Over-Ear||50mm||30Ω||100dB|
|Master & Dynamic MW40||$399||12.7oz||Over-Ear||45mm||32Ω||Unknown|