The Prestige Series
Note: reviews may refer to previous models
Stereophile - Grado SR60i headphones
By Jim Austin - May, 2010
Here's a question for a Stereophile.com poll: What's the best hi-fi value of the last 15 years? I'd bet that, 16 years after its introduction, Grado Laboratories' SR60 headphones would get more than a few votes.
When introduced, in 1993 or '94, the Grado SR60 was cheap by hi-fi standardsjust $69. The early '90s were a great era for personal soundie, headphones. It was a time when, for the first time in my memory, it became possible to buy really good headphones for under $1000, let alone for less than $100.
Corey Greenberg, in his June 1994 review of the Grado SR60s (Vol.17 No.6), noted that, after auditioning many of the affordable headphones then available, "I just wanted to lower myself into a tub of Noxzema and be left alone for a couple of months." I'm not exactly sure what he meant by the Noxzema bitI've never been afflicted with that particular temptationbut I figure it can't be good. Fortunately for Corey, the SR60s appeared in time to save him from drowning in skin cream.
The SR60s' subsequent success is easy to understand. It sounded goodhonest, musical, warmand it was cheap. Regular people who hadn't grown accustomed to the absurd prices of high-end gear could buy a pair with no loss of self-respect.
Those virtues of value and musical honesty were the ones that attracted me a few years later, when I bought my own pair of SR60s. Like Corey, I sought affordable 'phones that would sound good when driven by the feeble output stage of whatever portable device I was using at the time. No other 'phones I auditioned anywhere near the Grados' price seriously challenged them. The sound of the day was fuzzy and electronic, with boomy bass; either the designers weren't listening to the headphones they designed, or they were aiming for the big, wide middle of the sonic bell curve. The SR60s lacked the combination of negative sound qualities I was hearing from their locally available competitors, and which always reminded me of a hip-hopplaying low-rider pulling up next to me at a stoplight.
Fifteen years later, I still own those SR60s, and use them almost daily (mostly with my TV, the sound channeled through my Benchmark DAC1 D/A converter). They've given me just two tiny problems: The original earpads were uncomfortable, and I lost the tiny rubber endcaps that secure the earpieces to the headband. A new puppy solved the first problem by eating one earpad, which prompted me to order the far comfier Large Grado Pads, called the S-cushion and widely available online for $15$20. The second problem never really was one; every six months or so, I spend 10 seconds threading the earpad back on. (When they read this review, the folks at Grado will send me a replacement endcapor maybe I'll steal one from the review sample.)
Here's the most remarkable thing about the SR60s: The 2009 Stereophile Buyer's Guide listed their price at $69no increase in 15 or 16 years. If the SR60s were a great deal for $69 in 1994, they were an astonishing deal at that price in 2009.
Updating a Budget Classic
But what about this year? The 2010 Buyer's Guide lists a new model, the SR60ithe subject of this review. The price is higher, but only a little: $79. Is the new version worth the extra $10? Well, even the old version was worth the extra $10, and a good bit more: an increase of $10 in 15 years covers less than half the inflation of the dollar in that period. Grado's John Chen tells me that your extra $10 gets you "an improved driver" and a new cable with "a higher conductor count." I speculate that the SR60is are also cheaper to manufacture: How else to explain such a small price increase? But, whateverso long as they haven't messed up the sound.
The outstanding qualities of the SR60s were the warmth and honesty of their sound. These have been retained in the SR60is, though there may be a shade less warmth. The SR60s were free of obvious colorations and unfortunate resonances; so were the SR60is. The new edition seems to go a bit deeper in the bass, though I didn't find this subjectively important. The one difference that I did find important enough to affect my experience of the music was that the midrange sounded a touch more vivid. I found most music a little more involving through the SR60is; I recall especially "MDM," track 1 of Charles Mingus's Mingus The Candid Recordings (LP, Barnaby, KZ 31034); the tones of Eric Dolphy's alto saxophone and bass clarinet seemed a bit richer through the SR60is. Keep in mind, though, that I'm comparing the new Grados with a pair at least 15 years old. The older 'phones may just be tired.
Grado says that the SR60is are fine to use with portable players. I agreebut only in a quiet place. Their sensitivity was a bit low for my iPhone (used without a headphone amp). In a reasonably quiet home setting, the volume levels achievable were perfectly adequate, but if you plan to listen on airplanes or in other noisy places, you'll want more volumeor, better, more isolation. Try in-ear 'phones, many of which have been reviewed in Stereophile's pages. They're a better solution than electronic noise reduction.
John Grado took over from his uncle Joe Grado, the company's famous founder, some 20 years ago. He's revised one of high-end audio's great bargains, and without messing it up by raising its price too much or by compromising its performance. In fact, in my opinion, the SR60i is better than the original, and remains one of audio's great bargains.
The ultimate high-end headphones for those without deep pockets. You may never let them out of your sight.
Very few products survive the test of time. They are replaced with the next new thing even before the consumer can sit and open the box. The thrill is gone before you get the product to work. We live in the era of "pump and dump"seduced by the dark forces of not-to-clever advertising sound bites, which are only effective because we are bombarded with them and we acquiesce just to make it go away.
A real exception to the rule are the Grado SR60 headphones. Truly.
For the better part of ten years, they have been consistently great. For the money, there is nothing better under $100. Combined with a decent portable headphone amplifier such as the Headroom Total Bithead, and the iPod (lossless only please), orgasmic audio is possible.
Grado Labs has been building headphones a very specific way for many years, and just like Di Fara Pizza (another Brooklyn institution), it is all about getting the basics right. The SR60s do not use the most expensive parts available, something Grado chooses to implement in its more expensive RS1, RS2, and GS 1000 headphones, but there is something unique about the SR60s that has always made it one of the most satisfying purchases in audio la-la-land. My first pair lasted almost eight years before the ex-wife used it as a doorstop. I should preface that with "angrily" as I was still wearing them at the time.
And I thought nothing could break the headband...
All of the Grado models have a vented diaphragm that uses a large air chamber. As a result, the diaphragm is not plagued by an excessive level of distortion, leaving the listener with a clean and detailed presentation. Another benefit of the design is that Grado headphones reproduce punchy bass that is clean sounding, taut, and resolute considering the size of the driver. The influence of Grado's fine line of moving coil and moving magnet phono cartridges can be heard in the midrange, where vocals are incredibly coherent and full of body. There is some excess warmth, but I would rather have that than a totally neutral and analytical sounding presentation. Soul over razor sharp accuracy any day of the week.
The SR60s also use a copper voice coil wire and copper connecting cord terminated for use with a 3.5mm stereo jack. Grado supplies a mini plug with a 1/4" adaptor for listeners who want to plug their headphones into the larger sockets found on receivers, integrated amplifiers, and dedicated headphone amplifiers.
The black retro look has not deviated from its inception, including the thin steel spring strap covered with quasi-leather (it is plastic) that makes up the headband. The headphones slide up and down and swivel on a very simple post, which makes them easy to position on your head. The SR60s are also easy to fold and place inside a notebook bag or duffel.
The foam pads that sit on top of the outer ear will eventually require replacement, but they work. The most recent pair that I tried seemed to be more comfortable than the older model that I owned, which is a step in the right direction. Prolonged listening sessions with the SR60s are far more enjoyable than they used to be.
One of the obvious benefits of the iPod revolution is that people are buying headphones in tremendous quantities. A recent walk through the Rutgers campus, which surrounds our corporate offices here in New Brunswick, was very educational to say the least. Three out of every 10 students we observed were wearing some style of headphones connected to a portable music player. Not surprisingly, a majority were wearing the Apple ear buds. Needless to say, we did not see too many people walking around with a pair of full-sized open headphones like the SR60s. We let a few people try the SR60s and the overall reaction was very positive. Everyone preferred them to the ear buds, especially when we mentioned that they were only $69.00. One comedian asked if he could "borrow" it for the night.
Portishead's "Glory Box" from their Dummy release is a personal favorite of onheadphones.com staffer, J. Kastner, and after one listen through the SR60s, we figured out why.
Shivers all around. Yes, we are repressed. Well, perhaps not all of us. The SR60s reproduce a very spacious soundstage inside your head, but it is not their main selling point. The fundamental reason to buy these is the superb job they do reproducing the human voice.
For $69, the midrange quality of the SR60s is really quite extraordinary. There is an openness to the sound that you just do not hear on headphones at this price point, or frankly, under one hundred and fifty dollars. The SR60s main competitor, the Sennheiser PX 100 sounds far more colored in my opinion in the midrange. It lacks the detail or clarity that makes the Grado so good.
Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's The Pizza Tapes is a wonderful example of how important, chemistry is between two musicians. The guitar playing just flows effortlessly throughout the recording and it is a very rewarding listen. The resolution of the recording pushes most high-end systems and exposes any of their warts. The SR60s faired very well. The Grados are not the last word in headphones if you are looking for something with a velvety smooth treble. They have some bite. It is not the kind of excessive treble that makes the overall presentation too forward sounding, but make no mistake the Grados are not laid back sounding when pushed.
What originally sold me on the SR60s when I first bought them was their bass response. Most inexpensive headphones have mediocre to terrible bass. Manufacturers think in terms of "quantity" versus "quality". That unfortunately often means a bloated mess that is incredibly fatiguing to listen to and at the expense of the rest of the sound. The SR60s are very well balanced; the bass compliments rather than drowns out the rest of the sound. For the lack of a better word, the Grado SR60s are focused.
Focus is a good thing.
Especially, if you are still listening to MP3s.
The SR60s are much better with lossless. With vinyl and a good headphone amp? Crazy good.
Sort of like pizza with more than one piece of fresh mozzarella and real sausage.
The real deal. Do not walk. Run and buy them.
By: Wayne Brooker
Despite a life almost entirely dominated by technology I find it odd that the things I admire the most tend to be very traditional. I suppose there's no reason to assume that a predilection for technology should make me any less appreciative of olde worlde values like quality, craftsmanship and value, in fact it's probably the nature of today's throw-away society that's fuelling my fondness for such things.
One of the companies that has made it onto my "most admired" list is Grado, a company that has not only managed to remain family owned and run, but which has done so despite the abundance of cheap foreign imports claiming to offer more for less. Of course survival stories like this are rarely down to luck, there needs to be at least one solid product driving the refusal to be beaten, or as in Grado's case a whole catalogue of them.
Joseph Grado started out making phono cartridges on his kitchen table back in 1953 but when the decline of the record player in the 80s started hitting profits and Joseph decided the time was right to bow out gracefully, it was his nephew John, who'd been part of the business since the age of 12, who stepped in to buy the brand name. Spotting a gap in the market John Grado worked with one of the few remaining employees left, engineer John Chaipis, to develop a prototype headphone design then, after producing their own machine tooling, they introduced their first three models of headphone in 1991. In response to requests from their dealers Grado developed a lower priced line which began to fly off the shelves. The rest, as they say, is history.
Perhaps one of the best known and most praised models in Grado's lineup is their budget SR60s. With the brave claim that they offer genuine, high-end audio capable of satisfying even the most anal of listeners yet at a price that doesn't even make it into triple figures, Grado have amassed a legion of die-hard fans based solely on the merits of the SR60s, not that there's a shortage of listeners happy to sing the praises of models sitting higher up the product range.
You may recall I published a 10-way earphone roundup a couple of weeks ago, and knowing this was a perfect opportunity to see just how well the SR60s stacked up to their smaller, in-ear counterparts I contacted Grado and asked if they'd send over a set of SR60's to test, and I'm thrilled to say they did just that.
Admire them or not I should make one thing clear, to me there are certain aspects of audio that I don't buy into. It's a bit like modern art where some ponce is explaining how an unholy mess of colors thrown on a canvas represents the loneliness of his childhood, you may find ten other idiots staring at the picture nodding in appreciation and smiling politely but I'll be the one suggesting he's talking from his fuel dump. And some people are the same with audio. You may just about be able to hear a difference between two makes of speaker cable over long runs but anyone who wants me to believe they can tell the difference between different kinds of connectors by listening to the specific tone of the Saxophone player's stomach rumbling in the last chorus isn't likely to find me nodding and smiling politely.
Grado may have earned my respect, but a little devil on my shoulder wants the SR60s to sound very ordinary so I can play the hero and finally lay an unwarranted myth to rest in the name of all that's good and true. I'm such a sensation seeker!
Before we actually listen to them let's take a look at what your money buys you.
The SR60s feature a head strap cut from the skin of the rare one-eyed Scottish Alligator. The cans are machined from a solid lump of asteroid and the foam ear pads are actually cut from specially selected reef sponges. Actually none of that's true, the head band is really just plastic over a thin steel spring strap. The chambers are plastic too, and the foam is just plain old foam. I even looked inside the chambers expecting to find some magical array of mysteriously glowing gubbins but found nothing more than wires and solder. Undoubtedly they look like something straight from a grainy black and white war movie but it would appear you're not paying for looks here, you're paying for sound.
By default the SR60s come fitted with a 3.5mm stereo jack and an adaptor is supplied for use with standard 1/4" sockets:
If you've taken any interest in headphones whatsoever you've probably seen a variety of hinges, swivels, ball joints and doohickeys used to connect the ear can to the headband, nor so here, a simple sliding and swiveling post is used which, although fairly low tech, does everything the more complex joints do but with less to go wrong.
The SR60s are supra-aural in nature, that is they have foam pads which sit on top of the outer ear. This isn't the most effective way to generate bass, and indeed most bass-junkies are likely to note that the SR60s are a little on the light side in this respect, but give yourself time to get accustomed to them and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at how well and how accurately the bass is actually handled.
The entire chamber is made in plastic, though I've no idea if it has any special acoustic properties or not. It could actually be some high-grade low resonance super polymer for all I know, but to be honest it looks like just plain ole' textured black plastic to me. That's not a criticism, at least not unless it impacts on the sound quality of the design strength, and all the signs are that it does neither. If you want to pay more there are models higher up the range like the SR325i's which feature aluminum chambers or the RS1s or RS2s which both come with Mahogany chambers. Did I mention that all Grado headphones are assembled by hand? No? Well I have now.
And so to the listening. Did my dream of dire mediocrity come true? Can I save you all from wasting your money on a myth that doesn't hold up to scrutiny? Well...no, I can't. I can't because the SR60s sound as sweet candy floss dipped in syrup and sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. They have a kicking, percussive bass that's right where it should be (to my ears that is). They have a tight but smooth midrange with excellent attack and decay characteristics, a credible timbre and low stridency even at high volumes. The highs too are excellent with a light, airy nature, low sibilance, and a very nice ability to scale well at all volume levels without fading or becoming overpowering.
If you didn't understand a word of that then don't worry, it's just a rather geeky way of saying they perform well across the entire frequency range without any maggoty flaws in any given area, and that the sound stays very nicely balanced at a range of volumes. In fact I can't think of a set of headphones I've listened too that have performed better, though it's always difficult to do a mental comparison without having the contenders in front of you so you can quickly switch from one to the other.
Trying to explain in words why the SR60s sound so good is neigh on impossible, it's a bit like trying to explain why home baked apple pie tasted better than the frozen shop-bought stuff, or why your own bed is always an order of magnitude more comfortable than the one you sleep in on holiday. Wearing the SR60s was no less pleasant an experience. Despite their decidedly low-tech construction I found just enough pressure to be comfortable yet secure, and if you need to make adjustments it's as simple as flexing the headband strap, which the instructions claim will adjust to the shape of your head in time anyway. The foam ear pads don't stop a great deal of external sound but they do let air circulate around the ear and thus tend to reduce ear fatigue during prolonged use.
From your MP3 player to your top-of-the-range Hi-Fi separates, the SR60's don't just punch above their weight, they wear knuckle-dusters too, and at their price it's perhaps the best money your ears will ever spend!
Positive Feedback Online
By Ed Kobesky
My first pair of "real" headphones were Grado SR60s. Then as now, they were priced very reasonable. Sure, they looked funny, and the foam ear pads made my ears itch, but they were easily driven by the headphone jack on my undistinguished Pioneer Elite Pro logic receiver. They also opened my ears to the sonic possibilities of headphone listening at a time when, let's face it, many of us were buying either ruthlessly revealing studio monitors or chain-store garbage.
Now, eight or nine years later, I've tried many other headphones. Some were good (Sennheiser HD535s, Sony MDR-7506s). One was bad (Sony's MDR-V300s). I traded the SR60s for two things: the promise of better, more detailed sound and improved comfort. The question is, did I get either? Or could I have saved myself nearly $2000 by simply sticking with the SR60s?
For the price, I didn't bother to request a review sample from Grado. While on vacation, I poked my head into a hi-fi shop and grabbed a pair to enjoy in my hotel room with a Sony CD Walkman. Guess what? The SR60s are more comfortable than I remembered. The foam ear pads seem softer than the unyielding cushions on the older model. The SR60s are convenient, too. I'd forgotten how they fold flat for storage at the bottom of a suitcase or gym bag. I'd also forgotten how musically satisfying this deceptively simple pair of headphones could be.
"Deceptively simple" are the key words with the SR60s. Their design is well thought out and quite sophisticated. The cables and connectors are of very high quality. However, judging strictly by their odd appearance and otherwise tactile feel, $69 is an appropriate price point. This is probably why, years after their introduction, they still retail for the same price. However, if you want to talk sound per dollar, the SR60s are actually worth quite a bit more. The fact that Grado sells a ton of them probably helps to keep them affordable.
The SR60s are affordable in another way I did not need a headphone amp to enjoy 95% of their potential. With other high-quality phones, you may get 75% without an amp. That should be more than sufficient for musical satisfaction, but you'll always know that much more is possible. You won't have to worry with the SR60s. I tried them with the Headroom Little amp, and the improvements were minor. They had a slightly tighter but not fuller bass, more detailed highs and the backgrounds were a teeny tiny bit blacker. In fact, they equaled my Sennheiser HD580s in terms of openness. My advice? Buy the SR60s, plug them into whatever headphone socket you have, and enjoy.
Does their unfussy nature mean that the SR60s are low-resolution? Far from it. High-sensitivity drivers see to that. On America's Sweetheart, from perennial bad girl Courtney Love, you'll clearly hear all of the studio patchwork, including some instant-on tape hiss as Love's vocal track is dubbed over digital-quiet instrumental tracks. On Paul Westerberg's Come Feel Me Tremble, the same haphazard recording and mixing work is purposely left uncorrected and unconcealed, yet rather than being distracting, it's easily ignored. If you want to hear the nastiness with the Grados, you will. If you'd rather concentrate on the music, they'll let you do that too. They're neither dull nor excruciatingly detailed; they show a lot of finesse.
Another advantage of the Grados is that they handle nearly all musical genres with aplomb. I find my Sennheiser HD580s best suited to jazz and classical, and my Sony MDR-7506s seem cut out only for bass-heavy pop and dance tracks, but the SR60s groove to anything. They're killer with rock, spacious and timbrally accurate with acoustic folk and jazz, and-though a bit bass-shythey'll probably satisfy even the most bass-addicted hip-hop or trance fan. It's not that the bass isn't there. It is. It just doesn't have the same impact it does with more expensive cans.
Musically speaking, the SR60s were plenty comfortable right out of the box. Some of the prettiest strings I've ever heard emanated from their little drivers, from the acoustic guitar on Ryan Adams' aptly-titled Heartbreaker to the masterfully played mandolin on Nickel Creek's self-titled debut. I've complained in the past about the midrange bias on some Grado phono cartridges, and the SR60s exhibit a similar midrange sweetness that's slightly out of proportion with the rest of the frequency range. On the other hand, it's hard to argue with a product the produces results like these.
The SR60s don't just make magic on small music. Big orchestral pieces were rendered with convincing scale, hampered by just a bit of anticlimax at the frequency extremes. Small-scale music performed in big venues exhibited the electricity of a living, breathing audience hanging collectively on every note. I still prefer the velvet sound of the HD580s and the lightning-quick response of the DT880s, but for a fraction of the price of either, it's hard to fault the SR60s. vocals sometimes sounded a bit hoarse, as on Jackie Allen's silky Love Is Blue, and the treble bursts tended to flash in, then sizzle out unnaturally. Neither fault was particularly glaring, and both were excusable given the SR60s modest price and ambitious performance in nearly every other respect. In fact, I can't name another product anywhere near the price that exhibits so few failings.
With the Grados, buy them and your done. There'll be no $150 Cardas replacement cable, no $500 amp to offer a disappointing 10 percent improvement, no $200 interconnect to connect said amp, and no need for an expensive extension cable so you can actually make it back to your listening chair. Plus, when you're traveling, you'll have less equipment in your luggage and more room for CDs, or better still, clean underwear. If, unlike me, you can withstand the urge to upgrade, the Grado SR60s may be the best audiophile value in the world. I'm glad I gave them a second listen.
by Joacim Lund
Out of the box a sharp smell of quality and you immediately realize that Grado Labs SR60 is something outstanding. Everything about these headphones signalizes that we are dealing with a product for quality conscious people. The industrial, almost military look of the design, the thick cables, large earpieces, all of it...
Our modestly speaking enormous expectations are being completely fulfilled when these headphones find their place on the head. The soundstage is balanced and honest, and no single part of the frequency spectrum is given special emphasis. There are, simply speaking, no flaws at all in the soundscape; flaws that could take one's attention away from the music. The attention stays where it ought to be at music itself.
Elvis Costello is a bit hoarse today. He is sitting right in front of me, singing about how nothing adheres to him like Ivy does, and it's so beautiful, so beautiful, so...
There is an enormous wealth of detail in the reproduction; space is convincingly spanned out; you can easily point at where in your imaginary room the musicians are seated. These are the headphones you can use with your super stereo setup without any embarrassment at all. I dare put forward the assertion that you will search in vain, on the Norwegian hifi market, for headphones carrying the same high qualities if you do not double your headphone budget.
These qualities also encompass an extraordinary degree of carrying comfort. Large, soft cushions lightly searching contact with your ears for a perfect joining staying there until batteries (MP3 player's!) are flat; the thought of a listening pause is unlikely to occur.
Should you be inclined to keeping it a secret what you are listening to these headphones are not the right thing for you. This open construction is hiding very little for the eavesdroppers around you; but, on the other hand, they're letting sound signals that can be useful and important to you, e.g. when out in the traffic.
What is there to say? Definitely, these 'phones seem to be perfect match for a decent MP3-player. Both sound reproduction and carrying comfort is in a class by itself. The Grado Labs' SR60 has to be considered a bargain, and a product everyone should give a listen, before they decide which headphones to buy for their MP3-player.
Apple iPod with Headphones from Grado Labs, Etymotic Research, Bose and Sennheiser
By: Tom Martin
One of the most notable and widely discussed aspects of this year's Consumer Electronics Show wasn't a new product or a new technology, but a demonstration by Dave Wilson. Dave is CEO of Wilson Audio, erstwhile manufacturer of very high-end speakers (Wilson's top model retails for over $100,000). He demonstrated a new pair of speakers, the Sophia, retailing for $11,700/pr., using an Apple iPod (!) as the source. His intention wasn't to comment on the quality of the iPod, but rather to encourage his dealers to be aware that the iPod, and other similar innovations, is a valid source for many consumers and that a great pair of speakers makes it sound even better.
This got me to wondering; "How good is the iPod and how do you get the most out of it?"
For starters, let's be clear that the iPod is a portable music player. While there is no reason not to use the iPod in a home music system, its' fundamental advantage is portability. So, Dave's interesting demo notwithstanding, it makes sense to evaluate the iPod first as a portable player. For this review, I primarily compared the iPod with a portable CD player and another hard disk player capable of storing compressed audio files.
The sound of the iPod is quite different from straight CD. My biggest concern, and one I think you would share, is that the iPod just doesn't sound very dynamic in comparison with CDs. Music sounds "fine" or "OK" or "pretty good," but always with some of the life wrung out of it. To take just one example, midway through "Drive", from R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People [Warner Bros.], an electric guitar takes the song to a new level of intensity. On the iPod this is softened in a way that diminishes the effect. And you don't have to listen to power rock to notice. Simple guitar/vocal arrangements, like those on David Wilcox' How Did You Find Me Here? [A and M], lose some of their emotion too. Since CDs already fall short of live music on dynamics, the iPod gets dangerously close to a precipice here.
The iPod also can't match the sense of air and resonance from individual instruments that you find on CDs. The proper decay of notes is crucial to a sense of realitythis is where you hear the wood on acoustic instruments, the grit or cleanliness of players' styles, and the distinctive sound of different amps. The iPod simply doesn't reveal these nuances the way CDs can and the way live music does. For example, on "Who Knows Where the Time Goes", from Fairport Convention's Unhalfbricking [Hannibal], Richard Thompson plays a complex but soft guitar line behind Sandy Denny's voice. On the iPod, the sound of the guitar, the string resonance, and the sense of the recording space isn't as clear as on the CD. To be fair, this same guitar line, using the Dell DJ-20 player, was pressed back in the mix and it was harder to recognize the instrument as a guitar.
The iPod also rounds off high frequencies a bit. Vocals, cymbals, and violins all sound slightly polite, but also quite smooth. The problem is that they always sound this way, whether that's what is on the recording or not. Real music has edges, and sometimes artists work very hard to put them there. If you want to hear them, you'll have to stick with CD.
These results aren't all that surprising. To get 10,000 or so songs on a 20GB hard disk requires compression. There are various compression schemes used by the Apple iPod, Dell DJ-20, and other players, but in rough terms you can figure that each song is reduced to about 1/10th the data that it has on CD. Something has to go, and sometimes what goes is musical content. Even though today's sophisticated compression schemes can find duplicate data (so nothing is lost), you can't get the kind of compression needed without going beyond the duplicate data. The trick, then, is to throw away musical content in the least noticeable way.
I have to say that the iPod makes some careful and actually impressive choices in how it messes with the sound, though the iPod's alterations of the signal don't fit with the goal of ultimate musical accuracy and emotional expressiveness. On the iPod, music tends to sound "good" or "nice." That's because most of the iPod's distortions are subtractive, and in some cases what gets subtracted (high frequency grit for example) is something that many folks didn't want to be there in the first place. In this sense, I would liken the iPod to a classic tube amp: a bit compressed, a bit rounded, but very listenable.
In the end, especially for portable applications, you'll probably choose the iPod because it is small. Really small. At about 1/3 the size of a portable CD player, it easily fits in a pocket or a small purse. Also, consider that the software (potentially 5,000 songs worth) is on board, whereas with CD you'll have to carry a book of CDs on the side.
So, this being the case, the other interesting question is how to get the most out of the iPod? The obvious place to look is toward a great pair of headphones. Given my remarks above about the character of iPod's sound, could a complementary pair of headphones make a difference?
In short, YesireeBob! I don't think the differences between the iPod's sound and CD are exactly subtle, but by comparison the sound differences between headphones are enormous. I tried a mix of headphone prices and technologies, which may explain why the sound was so varied. Still, I wouldn't have come close to guessing my findings in advance.
Sennheiser HD 650: $499
Sennheiser has a long and distinguished reputation for making superb headphones. They are viewed by many audiophiles as the preeminent headphone manufacturer, at least if you rule out electrostatic designs which by definition are not portable (because in nearly all cases electrostatic models involve separate power supply units that need AC power from a wall outlet). I chose the HD650 for review because it is Sennheiser's new top-of-the-line model (the previous top line models were the HD600 and, before it, the well-loved HD580). I figured, "Why not see how much we can wring out of the iPod?"
What I found was rather disappointing. Bass on the HD 650s was boomy, with drums sounding like indistinct thuds rather than like sticks striking a drumhead. Vocals were distantly placed, which gave a better than typical sense of space to the music. But vocals were hooded and very dark sounding. Percussion, particularly with snares and rim shots, was over damped and "dead" sounding. The Sennheisers had smooth and delicate highs, which were never harshnot even on music that is meant to sound harsh. Overall, I found the HD650 an amusical design, and one particularly unsuited to the iPod, which has some of the same faults (though on the iPod they are much smaller in magnitude).
On a practical note, these are large headphones, which isn't ideal for portable use. In addition, they tax the tiny amplifier in the iPod pretty heavily, so you'll almost certainly want a separate headphone amplifier.
Bose Quiet Comfort 2: $299
In contrast with Sennheiser, Bose does not have a reputation for high quality among audiophiles. But their products are exceedingly popular, and the QC-2 is heavily promoted, so I thought they should be included. The QC-2 also makes sense in this test because it has noise cancellation technology borrowed from Bose' professional aviation headsets. Noise cancellation systems measure the ambient noise on a bus or in an airplane and apply an equal and opposite signal to remove this distracting sound from the headphones. If your portable listening involves noisy environments, this technology really works and is very helpful in terms of letting you hear just the music while blocking out the noise.
Sadly, the sound of music with the QC-2s isn't particularly good. Bass, as befits the Bose house sound, is bloated and indistinct. Electric bass harmonics, for example, sound like the amp is playing under a thick blanket. Vocals are smooth and reasonably open, but a little dark. String plucks through the QC-2s are clear but a bit over damped. Violin tone is lovely, though violins sound more like violas. I preferred the Bose headphones to the Sennheisers, but, again, this is not the headphone for the iPod. Actually, I'm not sure what this would be the headphone for.
Etymotic Research ER-4S: $330
Etymotic is a little-known company in consumer electronics, their primary business being the development of professional audiometry products and high accuracy hearing aid amplifiers. These guys are serious about in-ear sound and measurement, holding 89 patents in these fields. The ER-4S is their top-of the-line earphone, designed to take their technology into the music playback field. Yes, I said earphone. The ER-4S looks like an alien-designed version of the cheapo earbuds that ship with lots of portable players. It is different in that it seals against the ear canal to extend bass and to isolate outside sounds (a different way of doing what the Bose 'phones do). The Etymotics have the earbud advantage of being tiny (the case is a bit larger that a matchbook).
The Etymotic sound is tilted in an entirely different direction than the Bose or Sennheiser sound. These earphones are about clarity and low distortion. Electric bass string definition is very good, but lacks body. It is important to note that bass with the ER-4Ss depends heavily on the seal between the earphone and the ear canal. Custom made earpieces are available to optimize this, though I tested the standard version. At the other end of the spectrum, cymbals are clear and extended but a bit dry. Again, vocals are a bit thin, but clear and open. Plucked string tones are crisp and clean. Drum head definition is excellent. Dynamics are handled superbly, though, like the Sennheisers, these require almost everything the little built-in amp of the iPod has to give, even to get vaguely loud (Etymotics offers an easier to drive version of this earphone, called the ER-4P).
Grado SR-60: $69
Grado is a small, established player in high-end audio, but with a twist. They only make phono cartridges, headphones and related products. Over the past 50 years, they have earned a phenomenal reputation for musical products that are great values. I selected the SR-60 headphone, which has a good reputation, and at $69 fits with Grado's value orientation (though Grado makes much more expensive 'phones, too).
As for the sound, let me just say "Whoa!" These are the best-sounding headphones in this group. Vocals on the SR-60 are open, but with realistic body. Electric bass is solid, warm, and with good definition on decay, though not terribly deep. Bass isn't perfect, with some lumpiness in the mid-bass, but on the whole deviations from accuracy are small by comparison with the bass problems observed with some of the other 'phones. With the Grados, plucked string sounds are clear, with excellent resonance. Percussion sounds are solid and quick. The woodiness of acoustic instruments is well represented. Cymbals are smooth, though occasionally a little splashy. The SR-60s have excellent macro dynamics. Violin string tone is smooth, and reproduced with a realistic sense of "edge". This is a transparent and musical headphone that nicely complements the deficiencies of the iPod, and I preferred it for listening to CDs as well.
My heart was gladdened that the lowest-priced headphone in this august group not only fared well, but also was the hands-down winner. Whether the Grado is the best headphone for the iPod, I can't say. In a noisy environment, its open ear design is not ideal. Beyond that, you would think that spending more than $69 could buy some added performance. Unfortunately, getting better performance at higher prices is far from automatic.
The Absolute Sound Vol.19. No.12
by Dan Schwartz
So Frank Doris calls me and sez, "I got these hundred dollar headphones from John Grado and they sound awfully good!" So I say to Frank; "Can I hear 'em?" So the next thing I know, I don't get the hundred dollar ones, the SR80s, I gets the sixty-nine dollar ones, the SR 60's! And I realize I'm in trouble because I like them better than the six-hundred dollar HP-1's. And if I'm gonna say that in print I better be right. They're more comfortable, less of a vise-grip on the scull, and their top-to-bottom extension is better than my personal HP-1s, this determined using a demo CD-R that John Grado included with the new set. The top end is probably cruder, but who can tell since the HP-1s have none and for $69 it's still ridiculously good.
So I beat my breast and wail to the heavens, and finally I call John, the Next Generation, and I tell him of my conclusions. Like it would be to any reasonable manufacturer, hearing that his bottom-of-the-line is better than his top-of-the-line is disturbing to him. Instead of calling me a subjectibist wacko, he offers to update my cans to current spec, ie., the new wire. I accept. Overnight air to Brooklyn (with a check in the box to pay for the SR60's, just in case). Overnight air back. I listen. I still think the cheapos kill the HP-1's. I hear no improvement. He says this cannot be. Turns out he installed new wire up to the phase switches. But from the switch to the diaphragm it's still the old wire. So it can be. Overnight air to Brooklyn. Overnight back, Aha!
Yes, now something happened. I hate admitting it was just a wire that made the difference, but I like my HP-1's again. I understand why Gary Galo had no complaints about the top end of the HP-2's. My bass on Sheryl Crow's record sounds like my bass again. And on "No One Said It Would Be Easy", right after my awkward little unamplified miked-electric guitar break the sound you hear finally sounds like what it is; Sheryl lighting a match at the vocal mike during an instrumental break.
John must have made an adjustment to the headband too, because the HP-1's don't hurt anymore. The SR60's are still more comfortable. But it's a pleasure having a reference I can enjoy and rely on again. While the HP-1s were in transit I did a mix with the SR60s and the 580s and, probably due to inexperience with them, I got terrible mixes. You will still hear more top with the SR60's than the HP-1s, but I'm hard put to determine which is correct. Is more recording hiss accurate or an exaggeration? Using my own tapes, my sense is that neither is exactly right. The SR60s elevate the top slightly, but in a remarkably uncrude way. The "tizzy" quality I usually hear with bright headphones is absent. Just alot of top. For $69, they're stupid good. If you don't feel like jumping into this way of listening with a big expenditure, buy these with no doubts and plug'em into your headphone output.
STEREOPHILE Vol.17 No.6 -
What the hell is going on with headphones these days?!
By: Corey Greenberg
I mean, the past couple years have seen the whole headphone trip suddenly break on through to the other side after decades of numbingly bad sound. Yeah, the high-dollar Stax electrostatics had always been there if you really wanted some quality headphones, but even they had their problems with coloration and treble steeliness. Other than that, though, it was a real teenage wasteland, with Koss, AKG, Sony and Sennheiser all battling it out to see who could produce a less mediocre pair of headphones than the rest of the pack. If you wanted comfort, you choose Sennheiser. Bass, Koss. "Studio sound," AKG. Me, I was a headphone slut--I played around with all these brands, trying to find a pair I could live with, But nothing I heard was cool enough to warrant a long-term commitment.
Then suddenly, a couple of years ago, Joe Grado came out of left field with headphones that totally rewrote the book. I'd sworn off 'phones by that point, but all it took was a quick listen to those neww Grados and I had to have 'em. They were so clean, so clear, so detailed--so right. I bought the $495 HP 2s without even thinking twice, they freaked me out so bad. Now I use them all the time as my Ultimate Rez Rig--if I can't hear it with the Grados, it ain't be.
OK, so that's the High-End. But what about the low end, where me and my friends eat our government cheese and wait for the high tech to trickle down to our demograph? Sure, now you can buy $300 dynamic headphones that kill yesterday's $2000 electrostats, but the under-$100 market is still Dungville with a capital D. There's around 14,000 different models ranging from el cheapo earpuds that buzz like bees to Walkman-style squawkers to big puffy-cushioned "Digital Ready U-Bet" jobs at the top of the lines. All of these suck, and suck hard--I recently spent several days going around to various Dung Huts that sell these headphones alongside Bose speakers, microwave ovens, and Dirt devils, and when it was over I just wanted to lower myself into a tub of Noxzema and be left alone for a couple of months. Forget radiation testing on humans--I'll happily mainline any glowing syringe Uncle Sam cares to try out on me so long as he doesn't clap a pair of Satanic cheap-ass dungphones on my head while he's cooking my wooks.
And it's not just us Mud People who want ggod cheap cans, either. Even the well-healed audiophile doesn't wanna take his muy expensivo headphones along when he travels, even if they do annihilate the cheap-ass set that came with his portable CD player or Walkman. Besides which, the cool-mam Grados seem to be a pretty tough load for the portable gear I've tried them with--The Grados need quite a bit more in the way of speaker-driving juice before they sing than those little open-air giveaway 'phones, and the typical anemic output stages in portable CD and cassette players just just can't drive them to decent levels with any kind of quality. The $20 cheapest-possible Sony Walkman I bought at Target for po'-boy travel tunes burped like a fat baby when I tried driving the HP-2s with it, so I just stuck with the dungphones that came with the player when traveling and left the Grados at home. And every time I'd fly somewhere, I'd sit there with these awful 'phones quacking in my ears thinking, "OK, we lift off, I yell my demands and wave the gun. No--First I wave the gun, then I tell the pilot to fly to Cypress. Man I wish Joe Grado would do a great cheap headphone I could drive with this Walkman! I'd pay, oh, $69 clams for something like that if it was out there. Wave, then yell. Wave, yell. Soon I shall be with my brothers in the struggle again."
Joe Grado's got legendary ears--did he hear my plea?
GRADO SR60 - The new $69 SR60 is the cheapest model in Grado's new Prestige series of affordable headphones based on the same technology featured in the $595 HP-1 and the $495 HP-2 Signature series. Joes's nephew Johm explained to me that the Grado Mojo can basically be boiled down to one essential goal: the elimination of resonance. In devoloping the He-Man Grados, every part was specially designed and treated to reduce resonances so the dynamic speaker driver could operate from a perfectly rigid structure--Grado claims this is why they have such great resolution and freedom from coloration. You get a bit more resonance as you go down the Grado line, John says, and you lose a bit more detail and transparency, but the family resemblance between the top-of-the-line HP-1 and the el cheapo SR60 remains strong. With the SR60, Grado specifically targeted the Walkman-style headphones that come with portable CD and cassette players-- the littlest Grado has been given a higher sensitivity and an easier load than the Signature Series models to allow for better performance from the current-limited headphone circuits in most portable gear.
The SR60 looks like an HP-2 made of black plastic, with a vinyl headband instead of the HP-2's leather one. The dynamic speaker driver appears similar to the one used in the Signature Series 'phones. As with the expensive Grado's, the SR60s are adjustable to fit even the most peanut-shaped head. I found them fairly comfortable--not the most forget-U-have-them-on cans I've ever worn, but certainly not as tiresome as the He-Man Grados can be after an extended session. The foam earpads are made of the same material as the Signature Series pads, so they don't do the "Seal-A-Meal" sweat number on your ears like the closed 'phones do. The SR60's driver voice-ciol and headphone cable are made from "standard" copper wire, as opposed to the "Ultra High Purity Long Crystal" copper used in the more expensive models. As a nice touch, the SR60s come terminated with a gold 1/8" miniplug to fit portable CD and cassette players--no more having to use those Radio Shack adaptors to mate audiophile headphones with portable gear. A standard 1/4" gold phone-plug adaptor is included that snaps firmly onm and stays there for use with landlubber hi-fi.
I plugged the Grados into a HeadRoom Supreme headphone amplifier, which itself was plugged into the Tape Out jacks of either an Audible Illusions Modulus 3 preamp or my own buffered passive preamp. LPs were played on a Well-Tempered Turntable fitted with a Naim ARO tonearm and Sumiko Blue Point Special or Transfiguration MC cartridges, while CDs were played on a Theta Data II transport Linque'd to Theta's Gen.III processor. Eight-tracks were heard via this bitchin' Wollensak 8050A 8T deck I found in great shape at Goodwill for 13 bucks. All these pokies was strung together with Kimber KCAG and PBJ interconnects, and everything with a tail was plugged into a Power Wedge 116 AC line conditioner.
Man oh man do I wish these cheap Grados were around when I bought the HP 2s! I'm not saying that the SR60s are as good as the He-Man Grado cans, but they get you about 85% of the way there, and for a fraction of the price. These things kill the dungphones, even the high-dollar ones that come in the lavish plastic boxes at your local Sound Whorehouse. And if you're still using those cheap-ass throwaway headphones that came with your portable CD or cassette player, you won't believe how much better your music will sound when you first plug these $69 Grados in. Even though on an obsolute scale that $20 Walkman I got is a truly lousy product, it was capable of much better sound quality than the crappy headphones that came with it. If the SR60s could make a $20 Walkman listenable, think what they could do for your $200 portable CD player.
The SR60 definitely sounds like a Grado--smooth, clear midrange, gobs of detail, killer bass, and silky-smooth highs that let you listen to music for hours without the fatigue of many far more expensive 'phones. Compared to the HP 2, the SR60 is more forward in the midrange, with a brighter overall balance that lacks the extreme smoothness of the $495 Grado. This made for a livelier, more upfront sound than the more refined and neutral HP 2: These two headphones were clearly from the same family, but the cheaper SR60 definitely had a slightly less hearthrough quality through the range than the almost characterless HP 2. Vocals were a bit rougher and less precisely defined than through the HP 2s, and mixes that tended toward brightness--like Kim Wilson's Tigerman CD--were just a little more raucous with the cheap Grados.
I need to put this into perspective. Compared to anything I've heard out there under $200 or so, these $69 Grados sound like the Voice O'God. They may give up some ground to their big brothers, but they handily plunder anything even remotely near their price. In fact, I'd choose these $69 Grados over any of the Stax electrostats I've heard--to my earas, they sound more natural and less colored through the midrange. If I was monitoring a recording, I'd feel perfectly comfortable using the Sr60s; while I haven't heard a Stax yet, I wouldn't second-guess in terms of what I was hearing vs what I thought was actually making it to tape.
And wait till you hear these cheap Grados on some music that's got real bass! This may actually be their strong suit. Although direct comparison with the more evenly balanced HP 2s gave a the SR60s the impression that they were a little lean in the low end, the SR60s have an amazing bass range--tight and articulate.
The clarity and power of these budget Grados is just totally unheard of in this price range--HeadRoom's Tyll Hertsens came up behind me at the Stereophile party this past WCES and plopped a pair of haeadphones on my head that were cranking Primus's Pork Soda; I stood there grooving to Les Claypool's bizarro bass lines wondering what new super headphone Tyll was hipping me to. They were SR60s, driven by a HeadRoom and a portable CD player.
"Can you %#*$ BELIEVE these cheap Grados?!?!"
Tyll screamed at me.
So what don't you get from the cheap Grados that you do from the HP 2s and other He-Man cans? The SR60s lack the ultimate HF smoothness and freedom from midrange coloration of the expensive headphones. With the HP 2s driven by the HeadRoom Supreme, it was easy to hear way the hell back into the farthest reaches of the recording, all the way below the noise floor--even the slightest bit of mike preamp hiss or studio background noise was laid bare to hear without even so much as a squint. The SR60s have excellent resolution, but they were clearly bettered by the HP 2s--the difference in low-level detail retrieval between the HeadRoom's Process circuit and bypass listening were much more apparent with the HP 2s, for example.
Anyway, the point is that low-level stuff like this is what you don't get so much of with the SR60s when compared to the He-Man 'phones. The budget Grados have higher resolution than almost any high-end loudspeaker on the market, but if you want the ultimate in detail, you need to pony up the dough for the Signatures.
As far as driving requirements go, the SR60 was much more tolerant of what it was plugged into than the HP 2. In addition to being more sensitive, the budget Grado 'phones must present an easier load--I could drive them to really loud levels with even the $20 Walkman, and the same unit couldn't deal with the HP 2s at all without really fuzzing out of course, driving them with something like the HeadRoom amplifier gave much cleaner sound with bass that the Walkman's headphone outputs don't even hint at, but I got more than acceptable results with the SR60s plugged straight into the headphone outouts of CD and tape players.
I've really been on a roll lately with giant-killin' Real World hi-fi. After a pretty disappointing year spent wading through the mid-fi morass trying to find some really musical gear that me and my friends could afford, I'm finally starting to field some outstanding budget products. Now I can add the $69 Grado SR60 headphones to the list. Way better than that honky crap supplied with portable CD and cassette players, the budget Grados stand comparison with audiophile headphones costing many times their price.
I really wish the SR60 had been around when I impulse-bought the $495 HP 2--it may not be quite as refined, but the niethwer am I. For what I want out of a pair of headphones, the SR60 at $69 would've been what I took home. Way recommended!
STEREOPHILE Vol.17 No.6
Testing Ground: Grado SR 60 Headphones - Stunning sound and supreme value should put these cans on your short list. Awesome stuff.
IGN.COM / Mike Wiley
Product: Grado SR60
Availability: Wide as the Nile
Comments: Before I started this review I surfed around and read every review that I could find of these cans. Grado has a reputation, an excellent one, that far precedes them, but I was looking for something more specific. I was looking for bad reviews or at least some kind of fault finding. I had been using the SR 60s without stop since last week and couldn't think of a bad word for the review. But I wasn't alone; evidently, no one can think of a bad word for them. The praise for these cans is both universal and well deserved. I have listened to a good variety of headphones and few really rival the SR 60s. Even more significant, through, is the simple fact that no headphones in this price range even remotely approach the sound quality of these Grados. I hate to chase readers away from IGN, but I honestly suggest that everyone reading this article stop now and go buy a pair of these phenomenal headphones.
I typically have a section of basic stats and specs, but not today. Anyone looking for numbers and measurements would do well to check out the Grado website: gradolabs.com.
For those of you unfamiliar with Grado, the company has been around since 1953, when they started making phono cartridges in Brooklyn, NY. They have been making headphones since the 80's, and it's been aces since then. But enough history.
The SR 60s shares the utilitarian design that runs throughout the entire Grado line. They are made to sound good and be comfortable and that's all. I actually prefer this aesthetic to most contemporary cans, but those of you searching for space age looking headphones might be a bit disappointed. Hell, the high end Grados are made of wood and leather. More practical materials substitute these luxuries for the 60s: plastic and vinyl.
Simple as they are in design, the SR 60s are extremely comfortable, which is almost as important as sound quality when it comes to headphones. They are not the most comfortable models I used, but it's not hard to forget that you are wearing headphones with the SR 60. I have used them for a couple eight-hour stretches without having to shift them around at all.
Much of this comfort comes from the padding. Grado began using softer foam a couple of years ago and the change is easily appreciable. The current foam is smooth yet firm and never feels the least bit scratchy. The material is also very breathable. Headphones that make your ears sweat are a real pain in the ass, not to mention just plain gross. The SR 60 never got hot.
So how did they sound? In a word, brilliant. My favorite affordable cans have been the Panasonic RP-HT1000s since I first heard them, and I still think they are an excellent value, but the SR 60's really kicked the snot out of them. I really have never heard sound this sweet from headphones anywhere near this price range. I have a pair of Beyers at home that I laid a few hundred bucks for and I think I really prefer the SR 60s.
The whole spectrum sounds good, but the real strength of SR 60s is the high end. The highs are incredibly clear, without any harshness or sizzle. Nuances like cymbal decay and vocal reverb really come out as distinct sound, not just high-pitched debris. The highs are also very well balanced: no one section of the highs dominates the upper frequencies. This is one of the characteristics that makes the SR60s so listenable. The high-end clarity and smoothness practically eliminates ear fatigue. They tread lightly but make quite an impression.
The midrange was equally impressive. I think the best thing about the mids was the coherency. There were no peaks or valleys and everything simply stayed together. I listened to a lot of jazz with the 60s and the mid-range was really evenhanded during even the most complex and chaotic passages.
I love reading the manufacturer claims about frequency response, mostly because I like to see people being creative. Grado claims 20, which is fairly common. As you can tell, I used no benchmarks, but 20 seems pretty honest. The low-end extension took me by surprise. Bass lines and low, low harmonics that will stump even some speakers were very clearly articulated by the SR 60s. You could actually hear the depth of the sound in an upright bass. It sounds cheesy, but it really was like being there.
I played all types of music through the SR60s, and it was happy to oblige on every occasion. The sound was always warm, smooth, and together. They really get across the musicality of the material. I hate to sound like a reviewer with that last sentence, but it is simply the case.
What didn't I like about the SR 60s? Nothing. I have heard better headphones, but not for under five or six hundred bucks. And, even then, the sound is just better overall, not because the SR60s have a specific weakness. They don't.
As for value, I would venture to say that there will not be a better set of headphones for $70.00 until Grado figures out a tweak for these. If you are on a budget, you simply must buy the SR60s. And there is no way in hell you will be disappointed.
Recommend without reservation.
Performance Stunning sound from top to bottom with a high end that is rarely matched in general and never matched in this price range. 10
Build Quality Very simple and very solid. Nice, thick cable. 10
Features Very high quality cable and a nice little 1/4-inch adapter. 10
Ease of Use Uh... N/A
Value It is difficult to express how good a value these headphones are. 10
OVERALL SCORE (not an average): 10
IGN.COM / April 16th, 2001