The Koss Porta Pro on-ear headphones (review here) trace their lineage back to the 1980s. Their sound quality belies the still-bargain price. Clearly Koss found a recipe for success and stuck with it.
Much the same is true of Grado’s SR80x on-ear headphones. The original version – the first ever Grado headphones – appeared in 1991 and has been refined over the years. The latest version has better drivers (now in their 4th iteration) as well as a new cable and headband. The SR80x is still competitively priced though at £130 / US$125 / €149, Grado having resisted the temptation to price creep. And street prices may be lower.
Those with headphone-centric systems may want to spend more than £130 (if that’s you, have a look further up Grado’s Prestige range). The HiFi Starter wanting a set of ‘phones for his/her main system would do well to consider the SR80x though. Particularly those – spoiler alert – valuing a detailed sound, one of the two things non-audiophiles seem to want (the other being more bass; with headphones that doesn’t come cheap). So where better to start in the first of our ‘proper’ headphone reviews?
The SR80x is positioned one up from the entry level SR60x (£110) in Grado’s Prestige Range. In ascending price there’s also the SR125x (£190), SR225x (£250) and SR325x (£330). Again, those are list prices. Above the Prestige models sit the Reference and Statement ranges topping out at a heady £2,195 for the GS3000x (street price £2,195!)
The Grado SR80x sit on your ear rather than surrounding it, and they’re open in design. The latter means they don’t block out external noise (forget any semblance of noise cancelling), and people nearby will be able to hear what you’re playing. All of which means the Grados aren’t ideal for portable use (they don’t fold either) but then that wasn’t the design brief. The SR80x are intended for home use, when speakers aren’t really an option.
The new drivers are described by Grado as: –
Specifically tuned for the SR80x, this new speaker design features a more powerful magnetic circuit, a voice coil with decreased effective mass, and a reconfigured diaphragm. Re-engineering these components for our 44mm drivers improves efficiency, reduces distortion, and preserves the harmonic integrity of your music.
On looks all Grado headphones are quirky, the lower Prestige models in particular (including these) making you look like a radio operator from days gone by. I personally love the vibe, I know others who don’t. You will of course make your own mind up.
Build quality / comfort
Build quality is fine. Not luxurious but more than adequate, and it’s commensurate with the price. File under ‘meets expectations’.
The 1.7m cable (with 3.5mm connector and 6.3mm adapter) is fixed so banish any thoughts of upgrading it later. It’s more durable than before though, the downside being a little inflexibility. No great shakes, it just encroaches on comfort a little.
Speaking of which, my head is clearly the wrong shape for Grados. I remember having to bend the headband of my SR60s (that I owned a long time ago) to ensure the drivers were parallel to my ears. Plus ca change with the SR80x, which fitted better after a bit of judicious ‘adjustment’.
Headphone comfort is a personal thing though, and I’m fussy. I also have a very big head. So don’t read much into my exertions, just try a pair on before buying if you can. Once in situ I soon forgot about the physicality of the headphones and focused on the music anyway. Speaking of which………….
Most listening was done via the headphone output of an iFi ZEN DAC V2. At £159 it’s price appropriate to the Grados, and more to the point the two made a good pairing. Music was sourced from Qobuz / Tidal, played through Audirvana running on a laptop.
First up, the Grados highlighted the benefits of a better power supply for the ZEN DAC V2. iFi’s own iPower added a level of refinement that was lovely. Going up to an Allo Shanti was a revelation, with extra insight and even greater refinement delivered. Kudos to the SR80x.
Headband adjustment – simply slide up and down
Numerous other headphone amplifiers were tried – Audioquest Dragonfly Red & Cobalt, Mytek Liberty II DAC, Schiit Jotunheim (V1). Even the headphone output of my Prima Luna EVO 300H amplifier – the best I have. None changed the fundamental nature of the Grados, all sounded good with them. The Jotunheim is worthy of special mention. At £399/US$399/€549 (without DAC) it’s just about within reach of the SR80x, and they sounded lovely together. Get saving.
If you like the SR80x, that is. I did, some might not. Theirs is a distinctive sound that majors on clarity and detail at the expense of bass depth, richness and refinement. The latter only to a degree, the Grado’s treble isn’t delicately burnished, it isn’t sweet. Rather it’s incisive, dissecting the music and the recording mix to tell you exactly what’s there. Whether that makes you uncomfortable or not. Importantly, the Grados never crossed the red line into clinical or cold though, characteristics that plunder the soul from music.
But, the overall sound quality flummoxed me at first; based on that previous Grado experience I was expecting an enthusiastic sound, sometimes overtly so. One where allowances would need to be made for an occasionally rough treble. Well £99 doesn’t get you far up the headphone ladder does it?
What I heard was distinctive, but not flawed. Take “All Seems Beautiful To Me” by Voces8, music that brought tears when I reviewed the Koss Porta Pros. Done well the music speaks on a higher plane. In the wrong hands the purity of the sopranos becomes piercing as they soar ever upwards. The SR80x not only tracked the highs confidently, they resolved all eight singers really well. Allowing me to hear into the complexity of the mix and to appreciate the beauty of the harmonies (hear for yourself on YouTube).
In truth I did this track to death during the review, listening on numerous headphones and headphone amplifiers. Teasing out the ability of each to differentiate the singers, to tell me what was going on. The music remains fresh, a testament to its power. That the Grados came top of the pile for resolving power is impressive as they were up against some heavyweights (Meze 99 Classic, Drop Sennheiser 6XX, Audioquest Nighthawk Carbon).
I still wasn’t sure though, how would the SR80x fare with louder music? Cue an evening listening at higher levels, pushing the Grados (and my ears) to their limit. And yes, the sound did lose composure, sounding raw at times. But only with poor recordings, the SR80x were telling it as it was. Revealing, for example, differences between mixes of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”. The remastered version from his So album sounded distinctly harsh.
Yet when I steered towards known bright recordings – “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, “Olympic Fanfare” by Eric Kunzel, “Tchaikovsky 6” by Currentzis – the Grados acknowledged the tonal balance but stayed in control. Despite some heavy forces in play – the Currentzis is really in your face for example.
Truth is that evening was the definitive session with the SR80x. I came away exhausted but exhilarated. The sound is not a comfy one. Sunday mornings would have me reaching for the Meze 99 Classics for a more relaxed listen. For a shot of adrenalin, for a rollercoaster ride, at this price level the SR80x would be my go to though.
Much like Klipsch’ Heritage speakers, the Grados speak directly. They may not reach as low as many headphones and they lack richness. Their midrange is good but not exceptional, their refinement can be bettered. None of which matters, the SR80x tread their own path, telling an unvarnished version of the truth that can be very compelling.
Headphonistas tend to have more than one set of ‘phones in their stable. If that’s you, make one of them a Grado, and the SR80x are a really good starting point. As noted, they’re also ideal for the HiFi Starter who values clarity. To say the SR80x deliver a forensic level of detail is misleading as that usually implies emotional detachment. You get the gist though.
Being straight, my personal preferences on headphones swing towards a richer sound. Hence me loving my Meze 99 Classics, Koss Porta Pros and Audioquest Nighthawk Carbons. And yet I really warmed to the Grados over the course of the review. Yes they’re more of an analytical tool, but I found that really useful. There are times when you just need to delve deeper into a mix. That the Grados did just that without sacrificing emotion endeared them to me.
Which is why the SR80x are joining my roster of headphones; I suspect they’ll get a lot of play. I think that makes me a fan of the Grado sound. Maybe I’d better check out a model further up the Prestige range. Just to be sure you understand.