The Prestige Series
Note: reviews may refer to previous model
Grado SR125i Headphones
By Phil O'Keefe
Grado headphones have a stellar reputation for exceptional audio quality; indeed, the finest sounding headphones I have ever had the pleasure to listen to were the company's then-flagship RS-1 model, but unfortunately their $695 price tag puts them out of reach of many home and project studio owners. Fortunately, Grado makes some more affordable alternatives, such as the SR125i headphones under consideration in this review (Figure 1).
WHAT TYPE OF HEADPHONES DO YOU NEED?
There's some confusion about headphones out there, so first, let's open this review with a discussion about the types of headphones, and what tasks they're best suited for.
Closed back headphones are usually the best bet when you want isolation--for example, to reduce the chance that someone nearby will be disturbed by the sound of whatever you're listening to. Their solid, sealed ear cups lack any openings or "vents"; which is very beneficial when you're tracking and you don't want the sound of the headphone mix or your click track "bleeding" into the mic. However, they are not without their drawbacks. The lack of rear openings causes the sound to reflect inside the ear cups, which can cause phase and resonance issues. They often suffer from a "boxy", over-hyped and bass heavy sound, and their isolation can give the listener a claustrophobic feeling, and the sense that they are completely sealed off from their surroundings.
Since they do not completely isolate the individual ears, open back headphones, such as the Grado SR125i's, tend to offer a more open and natural sound. Their vented design allows for a less boxy and muddy sound quality, with less funny business in the bass response. They tend to work well as a mix reference headphone, however, they are not well suited for tracking, because some of the sound from the headphone will "bleed" out and be audible to any nearby microphones--or people.
Headphones also differ in how they "fit". Circumaural headphones are usually large and heavy, and the ear cup surrounds the entire ear; they tend to seal the listener off from the outside world and can make the ears feel hot and sweaty over long listening sessions. Supra-aural headphone designs like the SR125i's actually sit on top of the pinnae (the outer, fleshy part of the ear) itself. While they are less effective at isolation, they are usually lighter, which can result in less discomfort over longer listening sessions. But "comfort" is a matter of personal taste--some people dislike having something pressing directly on the ears, while others get claustrophobic when they feel "sealed off" from the world around them.
Because of their supra-aural, open back design, isolation is not the Grado SR125i's strong suit; however, exceptionally detailed and accurate sound quality is.
The SR125i headphones are hand assembled in the USA and have a definite retro vibe to their look. The design offers simple but effective up and down adjustment of the individual ear cups to fit the user's head size. They use a lightweight, rigid plastic for the ear cups, and each cup is mounted in a pivoting yoke that allows them to conform to your head. The headband is a single metal band that is incased in an unpadded leatherette style covering, and it is flexible enough that it can be gently "bent" to widen or tighten the overall fit. The ear pads, which enclose the entire driver and have no "hole" in the middle, are made from a fairly soft foam rubber and can be removed for cleaning or replaced if needed. The overall build quality is solid and reassuring, and the SR125i's appear to be built to last; assuming the user takes reasonable care of the headphones.
Grado says the "i" in the model number stands for "improved". Compared to the earlier SR125 model, the housing of each earpiece is larger. The increased cubic volume of the larger air chamber / driver enclosure gives the "i" model a larger, fuller and more open sound than its predecessor. Additionally, Grado says the neodymium magnet equipped drivers have also been improved; they are matched to within .1dB of each other, and now use ultra-high purity, long crystal oxygen free copper wire in the voice coils. The headphone cable is also improved, and now features an 8 conductor design and the same UHPLC OFC wire. The cable terminates to a molded 1/4" plug, and the contacts are gold plated. The SR125i uses a "Y" style cable that feeds each ear cup separately, and the new 8 conductor wires are extremely thick and heavy-duty. This bodes well for their long term durability, although the stiffness and weight of the cables can be somewhat annoying when moving around while wearing the headphones.
MODIFICATIONS AND OPTIONS
Along with the headphones, Grado thoughtfully sent along one of their optional Prestige Series Mini Cable Adapters ($14.95 MSRP - Figure 4). This eight inch long 1/4" to 1/8" adapter includes a length of flexible cable which helps relieve strain on laptop and portable player (iPod, iPhone, MP3 players, etc.) connectors. As with the SR125i's 1/4" plug, the connectors for the adapter are also gold plated. Although I didn't have a chance to try it out, Grado also makes a 15' headphone extension cable for those who need longer cable "reach".
A quick look around at various forum threads will show that it's not unusual for some Grado users to customize or modify their headphones to address perceived comfort issues. and frankly, the comfort level of these headphones could be a bit better. The main criticism I had in the comfort department wasn't the ear pads, but the actual headband. While it is easy to adjust the ear cups upwards or downwards to fit the head, even when optimally positioned, I still felt the headband pressing on the top of my head enough to feel mildly annoyed by it. True, I have a shaved head and no natural "padding" from hair, so I may be more sensitive to this than most people, but I do feel the SR125i's would benefit from having some padding built into the headband. Some people add wraparound / snap on pads from other headphones (the pads from Beyerdynamic DT770's will fit, and run about $10 online) to address this issue. However, even in the stock configuration, the "feel" of the headband wasn't all that bad, and didn't annoy me enough to distract me or make me feel like not wearing the cans.
I thought the earpieces were less of an issue, although some people are going to prefer circumaural headphones over supra-aural cans like the Grados (or vise versa). The ear cups themselves, as well as the headphones overall are reasonably light in weight (13.4 ounces) and don't "press" on the ears overly hard - and you can gently bend the headband to adjust the amount of "press" if they do. You can customize the ear cup foam by using the optional "donut" shaped L-Cushion type ear pads ($20; as found on the SR225i and SR325i models), or stick with the stock "pancake" style Grado S-Cushion pads that are included with the SR125i's, which felt fine to me, even over the course of listening sessions that lasted several hours. The extra large, bowl shaped (circumaural) "G-Cush" ear pads from the top of the Line Grado GS-1000 headphones will also fit, and offer a third (although at $45, a considerably more expensive) option. Sennheiser HD414 pads are popular with some Grado owners, but they use a "pancake" style that is similar to the S-Cush pads that are included with the SR125i's. Also remember that using different foam pads can have an effect on the sound of the headphones; possibly for the better or for the worse, so proceed with caution.
So why would people be willing to put extra money and effort into modifying headphones for increased comfort? Simple - because they sound awesome.
I have spent considerable time listening to the SR125i's with a wide range of program material and playback devices. I tried them with everything from the Simon Systems CB-4 headphone boxes that are connected to the high powered headphone distribution system in my studio, the headphone output on a 3rd generation Avid Mbox, the headphone outputs on my monitor controller, Kurzweil keyboard and Yamaha digital mixer. The 32 ohm impedance allowed the Grados to work well with a variety of headphone amps, and they can be driven adequately even by relatively low output devices such as the headphone outputs on my iPhone 3GS and MacBook laptop.
For music, I listened to a variety of material in different genres. Classic and hard rock, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Michael Jackson's Thriller, various Beatles albums, The Beach Boy's Pet Sounds, Miles Davis Kind of Blue and various other jazz recordings (including some of the work I have done with Jules Day), as well as tons of "shuffle mode" listening to the wide range of material in my iTunes library. I also spent quite a bit of time listening to a variety of my other recordings and mixes. The Grados did well with all the different types of source material that I threw at them, although they really seemed to love to rock, and they didn't have quite the hype in the bass that some folks may prefer for deep dance and electronica styles. Their natural sound quality also works exceedingly well with acoustic instrument recordings.
I did A/B comparisons of the same program material with a variety of other headphones in my studio (AKG, Sony, Fostex, Skullcandy) and with a variety of playback monitor speakers, including JBL 4412's, and ADAM S3A, A7 and A5's. While I normally wouldn't expect headphones to fare well in direct comparison with high-quality speakers like the ADAMs, the SR125i's impressed me with how similar their overall character and level of detail was. Attack transients are effortless and immediate, with none of the smearing that I noticed in some of my other headphones, and the stereo image was nearly as wide and expansive as the S3A's, which was nothing short of astonishing to me. The bottom end is full, yet also retains that same level of detail--it's easy to hear the all-important kick / bass relationship. The bass response is full and punchy, yet there is no trace of flab or woofiness. You can easily hear "into" a mix; you're almost guaranteed to catch things you've missed on your monitors or other headphones when listening to these headphones. This can be very helpful when monitoring individual tracks; due to the extremely detailed nature of the sound, these cans are an outstanding choice for track "housekeeping"; seeking out those sonic gremlins and anomalies that you want to eliminate from your tracks--and ultimately your mixes, is extremely easy with these headphones. However, detail is not provided at the expense of musicality. I spent many, many hours listening on these headphones just for sheer musical enjoyment. And yes, I found listening to them to be extremely pleasurable.
The overall spectral balance was also quite good, without the artificial low frequency hype that most of my tracking (closed backed) headphones exhibited. The sound is definitely open, and leans towards being slightly bright, but never harsh or brittle. The slight brightness contributes to the overall level of detail the SR125i's provide, and in actual use, never became fatiguing. Indeed, the longer I used the headphones, the less noticeable the slightly bright tendency became, so give the headphones a bit of a break-in period before making any final judgments on their overall tonal balance.
Compared to most headphones, the Grados are far better suited for mix referencing, and while I still prefer using speakers as my main mix reference, and supplementing them with headphones, I feel that I can actually recommend the SR125i's as a primary mixing reference for users who are in a situation that precludes the use of speakers; especially if the user is willing to spend a little time to acclimate to their sound and "learn" how they translate. For people with poor acoustical environments and limited budgets, they offer a far better playback experience than they are likely to achieve with speakers.
The Grado SR125i's are not perfect for everything - if you need isolation from outside sounds, or if you want a pair of tracking cans that won't bleed into the microphones, they're not for you. But for critical listening in relatively quiet environments, they're outstanding. You'd be hard pressed to find a better sounding reference at anything close to their price. To get speakers that are anywhere near to this level of performance, you're going to have to drop at least a grand on them, and that makes the $150 price tag of the Grado SR125i's seem like a bargain. While I do wish they had a padded headband, even if only as an extra-cost option, the comfort level was sufficient for even long listening sessions. You could spend much more for headphones, or get cheaper cans, but I feel the SR125i's hit that magic "sweet spot" in terms of price vs performance. If you are serious about improving the quality and accuracy of your headphone listening, then the Grado SR125i's are well worth checking out - I highly recommend them!
Reviewed by: Jason Gillard
You may remember back to a review that I did of the iGrado headphones. That was Grado's attempt at getting really good sounding headphones into the mp3 player arena. Having reviewed those, I thought it would be a good idea to tackle some of their higher-end headphones, but not so high end that you need a brinks truck to buy them. So I contacted them and they sent me a pair of Grado Sr125i. They retail on Amazon.com right now for $150. That's a good price point for what you're getting in these headphones. I thought I would paste in the description Grado has on there web site:
"What does the i stand for in the new SR125i from Grado? Improved, that's what! Grado's ability to combine lightness with extreme rigidity and internal damping has been put to good use on the SR125i. Based on the same design as theSR80i, the SR125i also features an improved driver and cable design utilizing UHPLC (Ultra-high purity, long crystal) copper voice coil wire. With the new 8 conductor cable design you will notice improved control and stability of the upper and lower range of the frequency spectrum, with both better supporting Grado's world renowned midrange. The Diaphragms are put through a special 'de-stressing' process in order to enhance inner detail. The way the SR125i's new driver, cable and plastic housing move air and react to sound vibrations are now less affected by transient distortions. Bass, midrange and treble are all more open and you will enjoy the fine tonal spread and balance."
So let's take a look at ascetics. The Grado headphones are definitely not going to win any design awards for looks. They kind of remind me of the headphone that my grandfather used to have, or maybe that of a WWII pilot. But this retro design actually wins some points in my books. But who cares what they look like if they sound good. After wearing these headphones for quite awhile I did not notice any problems with comfort. I had read some other reviews that had complained about this, but for me it was not an issue. That's saying something because usually I have issues with my big head. The headphones are mostly plastic, but that makes them lightweight. They adjust for fit like most headphones do and that's by extending the ear pads up or down. One problem that I did have with the headphones are the length of the cable. I like to listen to my receiver by lying down in bed and the cable on these is just too short. The other issue I had was the fact that the cable splits in two and goes to each ear pad. Personally I like having the cable just go to one ear. They may have a reason for this, but I like a single cable.
Now let's move on to how they sound, because honestly what they look like won't mean anything if they sound amazing, and they do sound amazing. I broke the headphones in having them play for about 12 hours before I listened to them. The 125's have a very detailed and pure sound. They are also remarkably open and give you a wide sound stage. I also found the bass to be tight and deep. I listened to these headphones on my Yamaha receiver to a variety of source material. I listened to the lossless audio of the Transformers Blu-ray, I also listened to a Leona Lewis CD, and to NHL 09 on the PS3.
For those of you who don't know, the Transformers Blu-ray is a marvel of modern sound design. The Grado's handled this soundtrack with ease. The bass kicked in giving every blow the sonic impact that it needed and everything sounded so detailed and precise. Leona Lewis has a beautiful voice. One of the highlights is listening to her voice on these headphones. For me the Grado Sr125's produce some of the best sounding vocals I have ever heard. I felt like Leona was singing in my living room. I was also impressed how well these headphones worked for gaming. I fired up NHL 09 and every puck that clanged off the goal post and every check that a player gave sounded better than every before. I had used a pair of Sennheiser headphones in the past with this game, and it was like I was listening to a different game. Overall these headphones impressed me on almost every level.
If Grado could improve the look and maybe make the comfort a little better for those that need it, they would have an unbeatable set of headphones.
Grado SR125, AKG K-240, BeyerDynamic DT440, Bose Triport, Sennheisser HD600, Sony MDR SA1000
By: Dave Carter
Grado is a long-standing Brooklyn family-run business, specializing only in headphones and phono cartridges. The narrow product focus results in a reliably high standard of goods with a fearsome reputation for quality. The design of the SR125s is classic Grado and very much in keeping with the rest of the company¬ís range. As such it is likely to split opinion down the middle ¬Ė we really like the ¬ĎWorld War II¬í look and feel, but they certainly do have their detractors. The SR125s are lightweight and comfortable to wear up to a point. Unlike the other headphones on the test they don¬ít completely surround your ear but instead nestle up to the outside of the ear, without enveloping it. Fine for a while, but it can become a little uncomfortable after a time.But the reward for persevering with the design is the most rewarding sound of all the headphones on test, which, bearing in mind the overall quality of the group, is no mean feat. The bass is warm and bouncy but never overpowering, the separation between the channels is excellent with each instrument sounding clear and authentic, the treble sounds are razor sharp and the mids come through confidently but not overwhelming. Where some headphones sounded better with certain types of music the SR125s sounded great regardless of genre.Verdict:To pick an overall winner from this group is a tough choice, the fact is that each of the headphones on test are of an incredibly high standard and as such they all come recommended.But if push comes to shove, as it must in a group test, the one headphone that we¬íd recommend slightly more than the others would be the Grado SR125.Though not as comfortable as some of the other headphones on test the overall warmth and detail of the sound they produce sets them firmly as our favorites. They might not look as rock and roll as some of the others but give them a try and we guarantee they¬íll impress.
By John Borwick
In years gone by, pickup cartridges were bought in large numbers as the whole world seemed keen to upgrade their record players with new pickups - or at least replacement styli. Europe's indigenous cartridge brands were joined by successful American imports mainly produced by hi-fi pioneers like Sidney Shure, Walter Stanton and Joe Grado. This pickup trade has shrunk considerably as the compact disc has largely superseded the LP.
However Goldring, while still manufacturing their own designs, took over the UK distribution of Grado cartridges in February this year and in addition handle the company's Prestige range of five headphones as well. The relatively inexpensive SR60 model reviewed by Geoffrey horn in our June issue, has had significant commercial success both here and in the USA in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, its being the cheapest in the range. The SR125 model reviewed here is the middle-priced version and possesses a number of refinements.
Between you and me, my first thought when I examined these Grado headphones was how old-fashioned they looked. There has been no attempt to mould the plastic earpiece into tasteful shapes for cosmetic or comfortable wear reasons, but their ability to combine lightness with extreme rigidity and internal damping where needed has been put to good use. What we have are plain circular earpieces measuring only 55mm across on to which are fitted removable black spongy earpads 78mm in diameter. The design is therefore supra-aural as the pads rest against the outer ear. The stirrup which holds the earpiece is again unadorned and allows a fair amount of tilting in the vertical plane. A straight push through rod connects each stirrup to the headband so that the earpiece assemblies can rotate to any angle and be pushed away from the headband to accommodate and size head. The headband itself consists of a springy metal strip covered with black leathery material. This again harks back to very early headphone designs as does the quite thick and stiff two-meter long connecting cable. This uses standard copper conductors, divides at a V-junction to feed the separate earpieces and is terminated in a gold-plated 6.3mm stereo jack plug.
There is nothing old-fashioned about the dynamic (moving-coil) transducer design. The 38mm diaphragm is made of low mass, transparent polymer, de-stressed to improve linearity of response. It has been formed in such a way, with a domed center and corrugations at the outer rim, to reduce undesirable resonance modes. Mass and suspension compliance have been chosen for accurate placement of the main resonance to provide the target 20Hz-20KHz bandwidth free of low-frequency break-up. Bass response is enhanced by the provision of a relatively large vented chamber, though the system is effectively open back. The voice-coil uses high conductivity UHPLC (ultra-high purity, long crystal) copper wire and is suspended in the field of a compact circular neodymium magnet giving high efficiency and control. After assembly the earpieces are pair matched to ensure optimum stereo imaging.
It so happened that I began my listening with a recently arrived CD of Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Bruckner's Eighth Symphony. This is a live recording made in the orchestra's own Philharmonic Hall last year and I was delighted to hear an uncommonly natural spread of orchestral sound, courtesy of the SR125's "open air" design, so much more pleasing than the close in-head effect that headphone listening too often presents.
Of course switching between headphones and properly spaced loudspeakers (Quad ESL-63s) revealed the superiority of the later from this soundstage point of view. Another plus point for these Grado headphones, however, was the fine tonal spread and balance not too far removed from that of the Quads themselves. Treble was lively without being chromium plated or tizzy, and bass seemed sufficiently extended to supply a solid foundation and realistic feeling of depth.
I could also hear occasionally something which I suspect was inaudible to the Philharmonic audience: Barenboim humming along with the music. I suppose this is a price we have to pay when the microphones unfortunately pick up an unwanted sound - perhaps a chair creaking or pages turning - and the special intimacy of headphone listening makes it more prominent. I did find that these headphones, though not at all designed to be particularly clever at excluding outside sounds, drew me into the music-making. Analytical listening was helped by the well-defined locations of individual instruments and voices. Center soloists did tend to be somewhat in-head and not set back as in the loudspeaker situation, but only to a degree that I found perfectly acceptable.
One of my favorite CDs for checking this question of front-to-back perspectives features Emma Kirkby beautifully recorded at a natural concert distance singing Mozart with the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher hogwood. What was intended to be a quick listen' turned into playing through the whole disc. I also found solo piano or guitar recordings very hard to switch off.
If headphones can be as musically satisfying as this, they must be pretty good. Though they weigh only about 150 gms, the SR125 'phones are not the most comfortable for protracted sessions, but their sound quality fully justifies that moderately high price. Take one of your favorite CDs along to your local dealer and see if you agree.
HiFi News & Record Review
England, headroom - Ken Kessler
Aren't we all aware of the benefits of headphones, like the total absence of room-related sonic problems and the promotion of domestic and/or public harmony? Just keep away from the sort of levels which issue the snakelike hiss so detected by rail commuters and airline passengers cursed with seats next to headbangers with open-backed cans. And don't we already know about the lone negative aspect: the sounds are inside your skull instead of in front, where the music would be in real life? This pro-headphone bleating is simply here to nag/inspire you to audition Grado's latest triumph, a sequel to the stupendous sub 90 pound SR60 headphone. Enter the SR125, which is as remarkable in its price class as the less-expensive SR60 is for the price category below.
Since the specifications are limited and I don't want to dismantle the sample to hand, I'm almost at a loss to describe what you get for your extra 60 pounds. The 150 pounds SR125 differs from the SR60 in ways which I barely noticed. For example, that the cushions on the SR125 are 75mm in diameter, compared to the SR60's smaller 60mm. Then there's the notion of intent: the SR60 is fitted with a 3.5mm stereo plug ideal for personal hi-fis, with a 3.5mm-to-1/4in adaptor supplied. The SR125 has a 1/4in plug, suggesting more serious, audiophile applications.
So I waded through the similarities. Both headphones are fitted with 'standard copper' cords six feet in length. The open air, vented-diaphragm, non-resonant air chamber capsules and the drivers seem identical. Both sets of cans enjoy drivers matched to 0.1dB, and the SPLs (for 1mV input) are 94dB for both models. The headbands are nearly identical.
But what's this? The SR125's voice-coil wire is ultra-high-purity copper instead of the standard fare used in the SR60 and it has a lower impedance (32ohms versus the SR60's 40ohms). So there are some internal differences, and the extra millimeters of earpad foam aren't the only changes. Listening, though, removes any doubt that the extra 60 pounds is well-spent. However much I adore the SR60, however much I feel that it will more than satisfy the vast majority of domestic hi-fi listeners and nearly all personal hi-fi users with a modicum of discernment, the SR125 is worth the extra money, and for four specific reasons.
With apologies to Herr Brocksieper, the EarMax's creator, I used the SR125 successfully with the EarMax tube headphone amplifier despite a possible impedance mismatch. It also worked a treat with the L'il Headcase/Rega headphone adaptor powered by Classe Dr-10 power amps and with a selection of popular personal hi-fis via a plug adaptor. Among these were the Sony WM-D6C Walkman Pro and MZ-R2 MiniDisc Walkman, and Onkyo's DX-F71 and Technics' SL-XP150 CD players. Call ma a heretic, but at no time did the SR125 sound starved for level. Even with the EarMax, fed with the output of the Marantz CD-12/Audio Alchemy Dac-In-The-Box and the line-outputs of the various personal players, I never had to turn the volume control past the halfway mark. But, whatever my confidence in the SR125, I trust that not one of you is stupid enough to buy any pair of cans without trying them first through the headphone output you'll be using at home...
Your sixty-quid quartet of gains over the SR60 include - regardless of the power/signal source and in ascending order of worth - slightly firmer bass, a smoother top end, marginally faster transient recovery and greater transparency. None, you will note, suggest a move to a larger or more closely-coupled headphone; I didn't cite an increase in bass extension or quantity, merely in the control. This seems to be a by-product of the fine-turning/upgrading which also results in the faster transient recovery. On the other hand, sweeter treble and greater transparency sound suspiciously like gains from wire improvements, for instance better copper in the voice coil. And there are those who'd argue that a 1/4in plug always betters a 3.5mm plug. But I don't A/B plugs; I've got a life.
Whatever the means with which John Grado --torchbearer of the Grado legacy -- wrought this magic, there's no doubt that the four improvements combine to deliver one overall benefit: that of refinement. These are not power increases, nor imaging tighteners, nor even gains in dynamics or detail. Rather, they exemplify the differences indicated by one tiny clue: the aforementioned plug size: They're all the sort of differences noted between listening to personal hi-fi systems and proper, full-blown separates.
They're what we pay for to enhance our listening pleasure beyond minimum or medium standards. In this case, they force upon the SR60 and the SR125 two different roles: the SR60 is for portable hi-fi users or those conserving their finances, while the SR125 quite clearly provides the calibre of sound best called 'entry-level high-end'.
It's worth noting that I'm not alone in my current passion for things Grado; nearly every headphone-using colleague I spoke to in the USA keeps either SR60s, SR80s or SR125s handy for reviewing portables as well as headphone amps. Apparently, they work wonderfully with the absurdly popular and decidedly cute Headroom units in battery, mains and hybrid forms. And, as if to prove that the press hasn't completely lost its ability to judge products with some consistency, Grado Laboratories just recieved AAHEA's 1995 Golden Note award for Peropheral Design for the SR80.
Not having used the prize-winning 80s, I can't really comment on its position in the hierarchy. But I have tried the models above and below it - the 60 and 125 - and I believe that they rank with Genexxa LX PRO5 speakers and Theta's TLC jitter buster and most Audio Alchemy products for sheer value-for-money.
So for me, it's two in a row for Grado. Naturally, I can't wait to hear the hat-trick.
Audio Magazine EQUIPMENT PROFILE
By Edward M. Long
My first encounter with Grado Labs was at a New York Hi-Fi show in the late 1950s. Joe Grado, the founder of the company, was using the "Buck Dance" track on Dick Shory's stereo album, Bang, Baroom and Harp, to demonstrate his latest moving-coil cartridge and tonearm, the sound was so spectacular I have never forgotten the impact it had on me. Grado had assembled a pair of custom loudspeaker systems that included an Ionophone ionic tweeter for the ultra-high frequencies, a Janszen electrostatic for the midrange and high frequencies, and an AR-1 for the low frequencies. (This combination soon became widely copied by audiophiles.) Two things impressed me then: The fabulous sound and the fact that Grado took the time and trouble to assemble a special system. It made me realize that he was willing to make the extra effort to achieve the highest possible sound quality. Because of his quest for the best sound, the Grado moving-coil cartridge was considered by most audiophiles to be the top of the class. Grado even designed and manufactured a tonearm (I have one in my "classics" collection) to achieve the best performance from his cartridges. I didn't realize that he was the inventor of the moving-coiling cartridge until the 70s, when various companies started making them for the audiophile market. By that time, Grado was making inexpensive moving-magnet cartridges of very high performance.
In recent years, Grado Labs has begun producing high-quality earphones. The initial offerings, the Signature series, were moderately priced, by today's standards, for the level of performance they achieved; the thrust of the newer Prestige series of earphones is to bring high performance at even lower prices. The SR125 earphones are in the middle of the five-model Prestige line, which ranges in price from $69 to $295. From what I have seen over the years, the goal of Grado Labs -- from founder, Joe Grado, to Joe's nephew, John Grado -- is to design for the best sound possible and then make it affordable. Not a bad idea at all.
The physical design of the SR125 earphones combines simplicity and elegance. The simplicity can be found in the design of the headband and bails, while the elegance is seen in the raised silver lettering on the black molded earcups. The flat, spring-steel headband is covered with leatherette. Although there is no padding in the headband cover, the comfort level was, surprisingly, more than acceptable.
The ends of the headband are anchored in plastic pieces marked by large, raised silver letters that distinguish the left and right channels. The metal bails, which connect to the plastic yokes, also pass through the plastic anchors. The bails can slide up and down and also rotate in the anchors. The yokes have pins that hold the earcups and allow them to adjust to your ears; they also allow the earcups to lie flat, so they're easy to pack with a CD player, for instance. At the rear of the earcups is a perforated screen to allow the SR125s to be acoustically open. The front of each earcup has a perforated plate covered by a transparent scrim cloth to protect the transducer from dust or damage. The foam earpads, which fit around the periphery of the earcups, can be removed easily for cleaning or replacement. the cord is about 6 feet long, from the gold-plated stereo phone plug to a "Y"- shaped plastic part; from this point, two foot-long cords connect to the earcups. The total 7 feet of cord is reasonably long; if you want it longer, you can buy an extension cord at Radio Shack or a similar electronics store.
The SR125s foam pads rest directly on your ears. Although I prefer circumaural earphones, which have earcushions completely encircling the pinnae (outer ear), I found I could use these phones for up to two hours without experiencing any real discomfort. The sliding bails and the swinging yokes allowed me to adjust the SR125s very easily. The side-to-side clamping pressure was just right for my head, and the earphones stayed in place even when I tried to dislodge them by vigorously shaking my head.
Before I had members of my listening panel audition the SR125s, I made a series of technical measurements. By doing so, I could make certain the earphones were performing properly, with no defects that would affect performance and invalidate the results.
The positive portion of the output pulse is always identical to the input pulse, indicating that the high-frequency response easily extends to 20 kHz. The recovery, back to normal, of the negative portion of the signal is amazingly fast, which indicates that the bottom-end response extends to a very low frequency. I measured the amplitude versus frequency response; these measurements confirmed the fact that the SR125s are, indeed, very wideband. However, the response was not perfectly flat. The SR125s were very flat up to 2 kHz, where the output rose to about +3 dB at 3 kHz, reaching a maximum of +5 dB at 5 kHz. The output remained at this level up to 10 kHz, where it rolled gently down (5 dB) to the reference level at 20 kHz. I didn't measure above 20 kHz, but the pulse response of the SR125s indicated that they go well beyond this point.
I measured the left and right earphones; both of these tracked well except between 3 and 6 kHz. This could affect the presentation of sound images, so I looked for comments from the members of the listening panel; there were none. The Grado SR125s have a rated impedance of 32 ohms, which is lower than most earphones; I measured 33 ohms for both the left and right, which is very close to the specification. I also checked the SR125s with variety of sources -- receivers, cassette decks, and CD machines (including portable CD players) -- and found that they were all capable of driving these phones to loud levels.
As a reference during the listening tests, I used the very high-quality electrostatic Stax Omega earspeakers with the Stax SRM-Tis driver amplifier (which has a vacuum-tube output stage). I utilized Headroom's Supreme amplifier to drive the Grado SR125s directly and also to feed the signal to the Stax amplifier. Hence, I could use the Headroom Supreme's crossfeed circuit to achieve better results with multimiked recordings that were optimized for listening through loudspeakers.
When I set up the earphones for the tests, I started by listening to the Stax Omegas. I played a new Sheffield CD (10050-2-F), Sonic Detour, featuring the Freeway Philharmonic, a group of four very talented...
GRADO LABS DESIGNS
FOR THE BEST SOUND,
THEN MAKES IT AFFORDABLE.
NOT A BAD IDEA
...own material. When I switched to the Grado SR125 earphones, I found myself enthralled by both these phone and the Freeway Philharmonic. This sort of thing doesn't happen to me very often, and I listened all the way into track 11 before I was interrupted by the telephone. (No, I didn't want to switch phone companies! At that point, I just wanted to disconnect the one I have!) I not only enjoyed my experience with the SR125s and the Freeway Philharmonic but was pleased to know that I hadn't become completely jaded and that listening could still be really fun! I then proceeded with the tests with my listening panel, all the while knowing I didn't really care what they thought; I loved the experience the SR125s had given me.
I asked each panel member to listen to a variety of CDs while comparing the sound of the Grado SR125 earphones to the Stax Omega earspeakers. After listening to the Freeway Philharmonic's performance of Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" (from Rodeo) on Sonic Detour, the panel members were unanimous in their praise of the SR125s. In comparison with the Stax earspeakers, panel members commented: "Bass seems to have more impact," "Bass is tight and strong," and Bright but not harsh." For the "Bullfrog Rag" track on the same Sheffield CD, the comments were similar, with two additional ones: "Like a live performance in...
IN THE RANGE OF
$300 AND UNDER
THESE GRADO PHONES
HAVE NO PEER.
...more distant perspective. Panel members then listened to "Miyake," by the Heartbeat Drummers of Japan on Kodo (Sheffield Lab 12222-2). The panel's comments indicated that the Stax earspeakers allowed more inner detail to be heard, while the Grado earphones had a stronger bass impact. "Bass deep but not boomy" was one of the comments given. The harpsichord is always a difficult instrument to record and reproduce, but I used the excellent recording of the Sonate in d-Moll fur Cembalo, by Benedetto Marcello, performed by Hans Ludwig Hirsch on Sonatas for Harpsichord, Op. 1 (Jecklin-Disco JD 5001-2). This recording prompted the following comments: "The Grado SR125s put you at the keyboard; the Stax Omegas place you in the audience" and "Harpsichord is bright but not harsh on SR125s."
It was obvious to me that the panel members were very impressed by the Grado SR125 earphones. When I told them that they cost a very affordable $150, they were truly amazed. If you have less than $300 to spend on phones, the Grado Labs SR125s have no peer.
Reprinted with permission from Audio Magazines, Inc Hachette Filipacchi
Grado SR125 Headphones
Julian Hirsch Hirsch Hock Laboratories
Grado Laboratories of Brooklyn, New York, is one of the handful of audio manufacturers that have retained their original family ownership and quality standards for over forty years. Founder Joseph Grado, inventor of the moving-coil stereo phono cartridge, later turned his talents to designing other audio products, including tonearms, turntables, and stereo headphones. Many Grado products, most notably the headphones and phono cartridges, have achieved wide recognition among serious audiophiles.
The current president and owner of Grado Laboratories, Joe's nephew John Grado, led the development of the company's recently introduced Prestige Series of affordable, high-quality headphones, consisting of five models priced between $69 and $295. They share the same basic design and performance characteristics, differing slightly in their driver level matching and the specific materials that are used in their construction.
The Grado SR125's price places it in the middle of the Prestige Series. Its earpieces contain dynamic transducers whose voice coils are wound with ultra-high-purity long-crystal (UHPLC) oxygen-free copper wire. Grado says the use of UHPLC copper minimizes coloration and produces the finest sound quality. The transducers are of the open-air type, with light foam earcushions that rest comfortably on the wearer's ears but provide little isolation from ambient sound.
The low-mass polymer transducr diaphragm is formed to broaden its resonant modes and minimize their amplitude. The diaphragm is vented into a relatively large air chamber to reduce its resonance frequency and extend its bass response. The back of the chamber opens to the outside through a perforated plate. Grado rates the SR125's response as 20 Hz to 20 kHz (no tolerance specified). The levels of the two drivers are said to be matched to within 0.1 db. Powerful neodymium magnets are used for maximum efficiency.
The headphones' foam-plastic earcushions are removable for cleaning. The comfortable spring-type headband is easy to adjust for size and is clearly marked to identify the left and right earpieces. The 6-foot connecting cable is fitted with a gold-plated standard quarter-inch stereo plug.
We measured the performance of the SR125 phones mounted on a standard headphone coupler whose internal volume approximates that of the external human ear, with a Bruel & Kjaer 4133 microphone about 3/8 inch from the plane of the earcushion. The input signal was supplied by our Audio Precision System One, which also analyzed the microphone output.
The headphone's acoustic output, measured with a sweeping one-third-octave band of random noise, was greatest at the lowest frequencies, very flat through the midrange, and fell off above 20 kHz. The overall variation was only +4,-5 dB from 20 Hz to 10 kHz, falling to -10 dB at 16 kHz. Referred to the 1-kHz level, the output was about +4 dB from 30 to 150 hz, and between 350 Hz and 3 kHz the variation was less than 0.5 dB.
We measured the distortion in the SR125's acoustic output across its frequency range with a constant input level of 1 volt. Between 100 Hz and 20 kHz the total harmonic distortion plus noise (THD+N) was typically 0.8 percent, reaching its maximum of 1.5 percent at 100 Hz. A spectrum analysis of the distortion from a 1-volt, 1-kHz input showed only a single component at 3 kHz, 60 dB down (0.1 percent). Grado's impedance rating of 32 ohms was confirmed by our measurement, which showed only minor variation, between 31 and 36 ohms, from 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
The sound character of the Grado SR125 phones was closer to that of a good speaker system than to that of most headphones I have used in the past. The SR125 had a smoothness and balance across the audible range that I have rarely (if ever) experienced from headphones. Its reproduction of low-bass frequencies was strikingly good, far surpassing in clarity and dynamic range almost all speakers I have tested or heard (even test tones at 20 or 30 Hz sounded cleaner and better than I have heard from any but the best subwoofers).
Unfortunately, good as it is, neither the Grado SR125 nor any other headphone provides the infrasonic body massage that can come from a good bass loudspeaker in a good listening room. Headphone and loudspeaker listening are two very different experiences, each with its advantages and disadvantages. That is particularly true in deep bass (below about 40 Hz), which we experience as much by the overall √¨feel√ģ as by the sound.
Still, in its own realm the Grado SR125 is a real winner and an excellent value. I cannot imagine a better sounding headphone at anywhere near its price. I do not, however, accept the premise that the use of UHPLC copper for the voice coil has the slightest bearing on the SR125's superb sound. My hunch is that Grado simply knows how to design and build a first-rate headphone -- good enough that, in comparison with most other high-end phones, its performance might almost be interpreted as magical.
That conclusion was reinforced by my memory of my first meeting with Joe Grado some forty-odd years ago, when he demonstrated, to my amazement, his unique talent for creating some of the best-sounding phono cartridges of the time (or future times, for that matter). Apparently John Grado shares his uncle's talent.
Copyright. Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, Inc.
STEREO REVIEW MAGAZINE
STEREOPHILE Equipment Report
By Robert J. Reina
For many years I have used three sets of headphones, all from Grado: the Reference RS1, the Prestige SR125, and SR60. I've always favored Grado headphones because the minimal-resonance design philosophy that I feel is responsible for the uncolored midrange of their moving-iron cartridges extends throughout their headphone range as well. Recently, however, I've achieved a new perspective regarding the SR125' phones that I felt would be of interest to Sterophile readers.
I've recently constructed a system, based on my Dell Windows PC, for recording, notating, and playing back musical composition. It consists of the Coda Technologies Finale 2002 music-notation software, the Lynx Studio One soundcard, the Roland SC-8850 Sound Canvas MIDI synthesizer, a Fatar Studiologic SL-161 MIDI keyboard controller, a Creek 4240SE integrated amplifier, the Polk RT25i loudspeaker that I reviewed in September 2001, MITerminator 5 interconnects, and MITerminator 2 speaker cables. My goal was to maximize my computers capability, flexibility, ease of use, and sound quality. My first project was a three-movement classical piece for acoustic fretless bass guitar and piano, which I'm writing for John Atkinson and me to perform at Home Entertainment 2002 in New York City.
The 2002 version of Coda's Finale software is incredibly powerful and user-friendly. Just set up a blank score for any number of instruments, start tapping away at the MIDI keyboard and the notes appear on the screen, where they can be easily edited played back as any orchestral instrument in the General MIDI format, and printed in manuscript-quality fonts. Unlike more mundane composition software, which quantizes one's MIDI input to the nearest eighth or 16th note (like a cheap drum machine), then prints something on the screen in a hard-to-read format, Finale quantizes each quarter note into 1024 parts, records exactly what you played, including all the subtle dynamic inflections, and play it right back to you.
The Lynx Studio One soundcard has an audiophile-quality analog section and a detailed and musical D/A converter, but I bought it primarily for its MIDI input/output capabilities. I run Finale through Lynx into Roland SC8850 Sound Canvas, and the Roland into the Creek. Roland's Sound Canvas MIDI synthesizers are known for their natural-sounding acoustic samples, recorded stereotypically with realistic ambience. The SC-8850, in particular, is designed for computer-music applications and can play back up to 16 MIDI instrument patches simultaneously. According to Roland, the patches are designed to sound natural when layered atop one another orchestrally. I was particularly taken with the naturalness of the grand piano, acoustic guitar, woodwind, bras, and percussion patches, the electronic synthesizer patches are as good as anything I've heard, and the sound effects (chirping bird, gunshot, seashore, helicopter) are quite fun. In a pinch, you can tuck the little Roland box under one arm, the MIDI controller under the other, and pick up some extra bucks playing a bar mitzvah on the weekend.
What does all of this bumpf have to do with Grado headphones? Well, most of my composing was done in the evenings and weekends, when either the baby was sleeping or my mother-in-law was watching TV in the computer room, and I did not want to submit my family to the process of musical composition (it's kind of like watching sausage being made). For most of this process I used the Grado SR125 headphones as a playback monitors, and only now do I realize how special these headphones are.
I've always known that the '125 is a neutral, detailed, and warm sounding headphone overall, with extended frequency extremes, wide dynamic range, and the ability to sound natural at a wide range of volume levels. Based on my experience with the budget and top-of-the-line Grado models, I remained convinced that the SR125 represents the greatest sound quality per dollar in the Grado range.
However, it was during the composition of this piece that, for the first time, I wore the SR125s for several hours at a stretch, and not for one instant were they aurally or physically fatiguing. They were simultaneously musical and revealing of every nuance I recorded, but were amazingly comfortable on my head - more so than any headphone I've ever used. Even after four hours of continuous use, my ears and head never hurt or became itchy, and there's just enough of an external acoustic seal to filter out outside noises (such as my mother-in-law watching Wheel of Fortune in the same room). I can't think of a better headphone for studio monitoring.
As for how the SR125s compared with the RS1s and SR60s: the RS1s are far more detailed and neutral, with more extended bass and greater clarity and dynamic range. They also retrieved ambience cues like the Dickens and would be my headphone of choice for an hour or less of hardcore audiophile listening. However, in order to achieve bass extension, resolution, and clarity, Grado houses and drivers in wooden "salad bowl" cans which, I believe are made from the same material as their Reference series cartridges. The wooden cans are much heavier and tighter fit on the head, and can become a bit tiring after an hour or so, and the ears begin to sweat.
I preferred the cheaper SR60s reviewed in Stereophile - for portable use. Compared with the SR125s, the SR60s are less revealing and more euphonically colored (particularly in the midbass), and so will hide and sweeten any fatiguing shortcomings inherent an inexpensive portable CD player. (I use the RadioShack Optimus 3400 with a HeadRoom D battery supply.) Moreover, although the specs don't indicate it, the SR60 seemed to be easier to drive than the low-impedance SR125, and are therefore less likely to cause strain and distortion on the part of the CD player.
Here are three headphones at three different prices for three different purposes. If you're a hardcore audiophile who also happens to do studio recording and monitoring and/or computer-music applications, and who occasionally uses a portable CD player, buy them all. I did.