Grado makes some of the best sounding headphones & has stuck to its designs for decades. The SR80e is a $99 entry point into the company’s excellent offerings,
Grado Labs has been around since 1953 and has kept its focus on two product categories: phono cartridges and headphones. What’s truly remarkable about Grado is it’s a Brooklyn-based, family run company that “got it right” so long ago, decades cannot diminish the status of its signature products when it comes to sound quality. And among the company’s products, the Grado SR80e ($99) headphones perhaps best embody why the brand remains a wise choice for those seeking great sound on a tight budget.
This is not a review of the SR80e, which is the entry point to the company’s Prestige Series headphones, although I can tell you that my familiarity with the SR80 model began in 1990, the year after I graduated from high school. At the time, I had taken to modifying AIWA portable players (which had better amp sections than Sony Walkman models) by wiring a D-cell battery pack to it.
One thing I knew for sure, the headphones supplied with portable players would not suffice. However, I was struggling on the headphones front, trying out various Koss and Sony models, and even a pair of Bang & Olufsen cans. On a trip to Paris, I spend $400 ($1000 in today’s dollars) on diamond-driver Sony Fontopia earbuds that actually were great. I starved for the rest of the trip but at least I had good tunes. If only I had brought Grados instead!
Fortunately, I made a habit of visiting a high end shop (Ocean State Audio in Providence RI) because I got to hang out and hear esoteric systems (Krell/Apogee, for example) all day long.
The gentleman who ran the store, his name was Bruce, took pity on my portable audio predicament and suggested I pick up a pair of SR80, which he’d order of me—and if memory serves the cost was right around the same price they sell for today: $99. I agreed.
And he was right. That was a true turning point for my listening because the Grados not only sounded better than the other headphones, they were also better built and ultimately were the first cans I owned that did not fall apart within a year.
The only catch… comfort. To this day, Grados SR80 are NOT the most comfortable headphones you can buy. And the reason is simple enough: The replaceable foam pads are “cheap.” Mind you, it’s possible to modify Grado headphones by replacing the earpads, but they will never win a contest against a pair of Bose QuietComfort 35 ($349) when it comes to cushion quality. But, make it a sound quality contest and there is no contest: Grado wins.
Now, the SR80e Grado sells today is not exactly the same SR80 headphone that I purchased almost 30 years ago. The driver and the earcups have been redesigned to lower distortion by controlling residences, thanks the use of a new polymer in the plastic housing. But aesthetically and functionally, these are practically the exact same product as the model I purchased. That makes a classic.
Grado does not offer bullshit specifications, unlike some other headphones. Frequency response is listed as 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, which happens to be plenty for headphones—you’re not going to “feel” 16 Hz unless you have a sub. One of the best specifications is driver matching, Grado makes sure that the left and right channels are within 0.1 dB tolerance. Sensitivity is a somewhat modest 99.8 dB, so you will want a bit of extra power to get the most out of these headphones. With a 32-ohm impedance, finding an amp or player that supplies that juice should not be too tough, and they will still play plenty loud connected directly to a phone.
So if you are into headphones and have not had your Grado experience yet, the reason for this article is to recommend that you give a pair a shot. Maybe you’ll decide Grado is not for you. Or, maybe you’ll decide that keeping a pair of SR80e around is a good way to keep perspective on all the claims of improved performance you see in marketing literature. If it was all true, Grado would have been left in the dust long ago. But instead, the company’s headphones continue to be shorthand for “great sound, great price.”
With 762 reviews on Amazon and 69% being 5-star, it seems that Grado’s SR80e are continuing the tradition and keeping Grados reputation intact.