PS500 Reviews

The Professional Series

 


Note: reviews may refer to earlier models


PS500

Detailed and incredible sound that can't be beaten at the price, although they're not ideal for commuting.
David Ludlow

There's no escaping from the fact that the Grado PS500 headphones are an expensive set, but then this is no ordinary set of headphones. Part of the company's professional series, they're designed to produce stunning audio quality from all sources.

They're also built using a lot of the same technology found in Grado's top-of-the-range £1,700 PS1000 headphones. In essence, then, you're getting a lot of the same audio quality for a third of the price.

Everything about the headphones is built for quality and comfort rather than looks, although there's a certain charm to the industrial studio-look of the cans. The housings use a hand-crafted mahogany inner sleeve with a non-resonant aluminium outer housing to eliminate distortion. Each custom driver is designed to give a wide frequency response and are matched to within 0.05db of each other.

For these models the impedance is just 32-Ohm, making them suitable for portable media players, although you'll need a 3.5mm to 1/4in stereo jack converter to use these headphones on an MP3 player. Another consideration is that the drivers are open for the best quality making them incredibly leaky and not well suited for use on crowded transport.

That's the specs out of the way, but what's really important about these headphones is the absolutely incredible sound that they produce. There's one word that sums it up: detail. From deep thumping bass to delicate and light treble, the PS500 has it all in spades. That's all thanks to the massive dynamic range of the drivers, which let the PS500 produce every genre with superb detail.

Although part of the professional range the 32-Ohm resistance means the PS500 headphones will work with MP3 players.

It's quite normal for a set of headphones to be better suited to one genre, but that's not the case here. From loud and raucous rock through pop and rap to classical, the PS500's produced every single track in stunning beauty. Every subtle nuance is reproduced in breath-taking clarity, even bringing out detail that you may not have heard in tracks before.

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SonicScoop

Review: Grado Labs PS 500 Headphones
by George Walker Petit

My friend and I got into it pretty quickly yesterday – usually takes us an hour or so to start the one-upsmanship, but yesterday it was like ten minutes.  Must have been the caffeine.

SSL or Neve? API pre’s or Grace or Millennia? There is so much to consider: price point, budget, task at hand and what we need for a solution. Some gear just fits a certain job perfectly, some gear can transcend. It’s a fun time usually, arguing these points – I tend to learn something most of the time.

But here’s a new one that twisted me up a tad: We recently ended up talking “headphones” and started making comparisons, and this led us to the new Grado Labs PS500.

You folks that have read a few of my articles know that I am an advocate of mixing (or partially mixing) in headphones. To be brief, it depends on the music, the headphones and headphone amplifier, but I am a fan of this technique and have had GREAT results.

To me, a great set of ear-goggles needs to obviously be accurate, with a frequency range that will more-than-adequately represent ‘truth’ in the music, not hype in any specific range. They also need to be comfortable, as I am likely to spend a significant amount of time working in such an environment. Finally, they need NOT to fatigue, and that, as I have found with the 500’s — and as with all Grado headphones I’ve used to date — is indeed possible.

My tools of choice are Grado PS1000 phones and an SPL Phonitor amplifier (more than just an amp, really). And I have been known to A/B with earbuds, high-end IEM’s and even
speakers!

The folks at Grado [which is based in Brooklyn, NYC – ed. note] recently sent a pair of their new PS500’s to me for review and testing. The dynamic, open-air PS500 is part of their “Professional Series”, featuring a vented diaphragm and hybrid air chamber, and sells for MSRP $600.

And here are my impressions.

HEAD ON

Somewhat smaller than the PS1000’s, they fit “on” the ear and not over/around the ear. Again, different, but they fit well and I was not bothered by this after the first ten minutes.

They are lighter in weight and have the quality look and finish one expects from a Grado product. In the words of Iago, “reputation, reputation
” The copper cable is heavy, the specs are outstanding and can be found on their website, with numbers of frequency range and construction.

I was immediately curious as to why Grado would release a product so close in profile to the 1000’s? Were they shooting themselves in the foot here?

Well, the sound is magnificent. Clarity, definition and focus are outstanding, the low end is tight and right, and the highs don’t fatigue or make you blink with pain. At any level they speak clearly and with authority. I was pretty impressed, pretty fast.

In a short period of time, I was just bouncing around various recordings, impressed with each landing. Classical and jazz sounded so life-like in focus and soundstage, rock rocked and the spoken word (thanks to a few audio books I own) sits right in front of your eyes. I could find nothing to turn me off these headphones.

IN COMPARISON

Except perhaps my PS1000’s. And here is where the truth of all this hit me. The PS1000’s is truly the finest I have ever heard. Ever. But these 500’s sounded so fantastic! Almost as good as the 1000’s, but not quite
so why in heaven would Grado release a unit at one-third the cost of their flagship unit? Surely they were shooting themselves in their feet.

In fact no — they were shooting their competition in THEIR feet. Because at an MSRP of $600, there is absolutely NOTHING on the market that comes even close. The 1000’s are better, no question. But the 500’s? This is the perfect headphone at any price lower than about $1200
they are astounding.

I took my pair out to a recording session in L.A. and asked the entire band and the assistant engineers to try them. They were ALL blown away, and then I took the 500’s to a jazz session in NYC and asked the acoustic bassist, Phil Palombi to give them a go. He wants a pair.

I purchased a Pelican case for the 500’s and for the 1000’s as well and take one or the other pair on the road with me when I know there will be critical listening to do
to mix or edit music that will be released. I also bring my SPL Phonitor
but that is another story!

So, Grado hits it out of the park yet again: American-made, gold wire, low impedance, un-hyped bass, truth in sound.

It is as simple as this: They are fantastic, they kill everything below $1200 out there and come in at $600. I think you’d be crazy not to audition a pair.

Off you go then

Cheers – George Petit

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Grado PS500, The PS series gets affordable, but is it any good?

Dale

I have several headphones besides the PS-500, and I've reviewed some of them, so I should find it easy to describe the PS-500, yes? Maybe not. By now I've discovered that my "other" headphones fall into the category of "polite" ear speakers. Inoffensive, smooth, and clean they are, and while the PS-500 shares their better qualities, polite and obsequious aren't one of them. I have quite a variety of music tracks in Jazz, Classics, Opera, Rock, Blues, Country and other genres, and I've been running through the list for days to see what the PS-500 isn't a good match for. So far everything sounds good. Better than good, actually – everything sounds alive.

I've read a lot of reviews and discussed different systems with enough people that I have some idea of the adjectives they might apply to the PS-500. Terms such as warm, forward, or lush come to mind. In anticipation of that, I would suggest warm as in the warmth of a cello in an intimate setting, forward as in being near enough to the cello to bask in that warmth, and lush as in the full complement of harmonics that defines the characteristic sound of the instrument.

I like a lot of headphones. I love the Grado PS-500. It makes music sound right. Before I continue with the music and sound analysis, some notes about the hardware:

The comfort is instantaneous. This is one of the few headphones where the foam cushions sit on and around the ears and have no pinching effects or adjustment difficulties. The headband is a simple leather-wrapped flat spring steel band about 1-1/4 inches wide. For people who don't like feeling pressure from a headband, I recommend pulling the earcups down slightly more and letting the earcups support most of the weight so the headband isn't carrying all of the weight or pressing on the head.

The cord is thick but flexible and about five feet long, terminated in a 1/4 inch plug. When used with most small music players, a 1/4 inch to 1/8 inch adapter is required. I use the Grado adapter, two of which I've had for ten years now since they're very well made and reliable. Many headphone cords today are single-sided, where the cord goes to one earcup and then some additional wiring carries the signal to the other earcup across the headband. The other major type is double-sided, where the left and right channels are carried in a 'Y' configuration to each earcup directly, eliminating the need for additional wiring inside one earcup and across the headband. The PS-500 is this latter type, which I prefer personally since less wiring means a purer signal path.

The PS-500 is a low-impedance headphone of average efficiency, so it can play at medium to loud volumes with most small music players. So far I haven't found a music track that doesn't play loudly enough with an iPhone, after trying about 200 tracks at random. Many headphone reviews and commentaries will describe the need for a headphone amplifier or the equivalent in computer amplification to get the best sound possible from the headphone. Some of those reviews and comments even suggest that the sound from small music players such as the iPhone is not suitable for serious music listening at all. My experience with small music players is limited to the iPhone4, iPod Touch, and iPod Nano Touch. These three music players will provide about 98 percent of the sound quality of a good headphone amp, from the deepest bass to the highest treble, although calculating that percentage is purely subjective. My experience with two different headphone amps plus several desktop and laptop computers tells me that the differences are subtle, but the better headphone amps do "open up" the sound better, providing more "air" around instruments and voices and better reproduction of the upper harmonics that give each instrument its distinctive tone color.

Note that the PS-500 is also an "open-air" or "open-back" headphone, which has advantages over the "closed" variety in various aspects of sound quality. On the other hand, some of the sound can be heard by persons sitting nearby depending on the volume level and how quiet the setting is. You probably won't disturb anyone on the subway at rush hour if you play music at average volume with the PS-500, but in a quiet office someone in the next cubicle may object unless you keep the volume fairly low.

Now that I've covered the basics it's time to get to the music, i.e. how the PS-500 sounds with actual music tracks. Most of my music tracks are 320k CBR MP3's, which are the highest quality MP3's that are generally available. I have a couple hundred FLAC tracks which are uncompressed digital music, but the difference between those and 320k MP3's is very subtle, and normally only expert listeners can tell the differences. I also have a few hundred CD-quality or lower MP3's, which for most of those tracks is all that's available and I'm lucky to have them, so while I enjoy listening to those to whatever extent is possible, I don't use them for evaluating sound quality in a headphone review.

The use of equalization ("EQ") with hi-fi equipment is controversial in some circles, and many audiophiles (purists?) refuse to even consider applying EQ or tone controls, no matter if a recording sounds much better with than without. I mention it here because I've mentioned it in my other reviews, and I want to note here that I haven't used EQ for this review, but I'm not shy about applying it on a case-by-case basis when it makes the difference between enjoying a recording and rejecting it outright. My suggestion to any music lover is to think of EQ as a simple tool that may save a recording at least temporarily until it can be replaced, as long as it doesn't become the opposite of that and actually degrade the sound as many audiophiles dread.

The following are my examples of music tracks in certain genres or qualities, with my comments as to how the PS-500 sounds with each track. Note that when you see a comment like "soft highs" or "strong bass", it's more a characteristic of the music than the headphone. Reading through the list will bear this out since some tracks will note "soft highs" while others will say "strong" or even "zingy" highs. The purpose here is to give you an idea how the PS-500 will likely sound with your favorite music genres.

10000 Maniacs – Peace Train (late 80's); soft highs, fairly strong bass line, average soundstage.

Andrea True Connection – More More More (late 70's): Smooth and even from top to bottom, good soundstage.

Bauhaus – Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects – this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled well by the PS-500.

Beatles – And I Love Her, Things We Said Today, I'll Be Back, I'll Follow The Sun (~1964, in stereo): Amazing sound quality and soundstage, with excellent voice and instrument detail. These four tracks are prima facie evidence that any negative qualities you see in this list are very unlikely to be a function of the headphone.

Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound but average headphone soundstage unfortunately, even though the PS-500 is above average in presenting soundstage width and depth.

Bill Evans Trio – Nardis (early 60's): Fairly close-up recording, but highs softened a little – very pleasant sound overall.

Billy Eckstine – Imagination (date??): Sounds like a recent high-quality stereo recording. Excellent from top to bottom and a great vocal demo.

Blood Sweat & Tears – And When I Die, God Bless The Child, Spinning Wheel (late 60's): Decent sound quality, and fortunately (I think) given the strength of the brass instruments, the highs are slightly soft.

Blues Project – Caress Me Baby (1966): Rarely mentioned, but one of the greatest white blues recordings ever. The loud piercing guitar sound at 0:41 into the track is a good test for distortion or other problems. Handled well here.

Boz Scaggs – Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality – this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled well by the PS-500.

Buffalo Springfield – Kind Woman (~1968): A Richie Furay song entirely, rarely mentioned, but one of the best sounding rock ballads ever. This will sound good on most headphones, but it's a special treat with the PS-500.

Cat Stevens – Morning Has Broken (early 70's): A near-perfect test for overall sound – this track will separate the best sounding headphones from the lesser quality types. Nothing specific, except that almost any deviation from perfect reproduction will stand out with this track.

Catherine Wheel – Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones – I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the PS-500 renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

Cocteau Twins – Carolyn's Fingers (1988): Unusual ambient pop with excellent guitar details.

Commodores – Night Shift (~1985): Good spacious sound with very detailed bass guitar lines.

Cranes – Adoration (~1991): Very good piano leading into a goth-flavored song with very unusual vocals.

Creedence Clearwater Revival – The Midnight Special (1969??): Classic CCR featured in Twilight Zone, this track has great guitar sounds and a really good ambience despite a mediocre soundstage.

Dave Brubeck Quartet – Take Five (1959): Paul Desmond piece – good test of saxophone sound and cymbals, less so the other instruments.

Dead Can Dance – Ariadne (1993??): Atmospheric goth music – good ambience in spite of mediocre soundstage.

Def Leppard – Bringin' On The Heartbreak (1981): MTV goth/pop/metal at its best – good ambience and high energy – the better headphones will separate the details and make for a good experience. Lesser quality and the details tend to mush together.

Del Reeves – Girl On The Billboard (early-mid 70's): Classic truck-drivin' country tune with a Thelma & Louise theme, this song's overall recorded quality (almost typical of Nashville in the 70's) is a superb demo if you can get past the peculiar lyrics.

Dick Hyman – Dooji Wooji (1990??): Swing-era composition played with perfect technique by all band members, with excellent recorded sound.

Enrico Caruso/Caruso 2000 – La Donna e Mobile, M Appari Tutt Amor, etc. (early 1900's and 2000): Disliked by many critics and purists, this recording was the extremely arduous task of marrying the best obtainable restoration of Caruso's voice to a modern orchestra, with all of the odd timing problems inherent in the old RCA mechanical recordings. For me, it's one step closer to hearing my first great music idol as he actually sounded then, circa 1903 to 1919. Plus the fact that my grandmother met Caruso through her longtime friend and neighbor Evan Williams, who was also a big RCA recording star at that time. For many young people who can't get past the obvious barriers of the ancient mechanical sounds and distortions, this recording and future efforts with better technology may be the best hope for them to appreciate the greatest singer of his day, and perhaps ever. The PS-500 headphone brings this voice to life to a very satisfactory degree.

Frank Sinatra – Fly Me To The Moon, I Get A Kick Out Of You, My Way, Strangers In The Night, That's Life, Theme From New York, New York (1950's to 1980): If you're thinking of buying a Grado PS-500 and haven't listened to Sinatra, or if you're low on swag, get some of Frank's stereo recordings and live it up.

J.S. Bach – E. Power Biggs Plays Bach in the Thomaskirche (~1970): Recorded on a tracker organ in East Germany, the tracks on this recording have the authentic baroque sound that Bach composed for, albeit the bellows are operated by motor today. The PS-500 plays all of the tones seamlessly from ~32 hz to the upper limits of the organ, which are near the upper limits of hearing.

Jamming With Edward – It Hurts Me Too (1969): Intended originally as a test to fill studio down time and set recording levels etc., this was released a few years later for hardcore Rolling Stones fans. Although not as good technically in every aspect as the Chess studio recordings of 1964, and in spite of the non-serious vocals by Mick Jagger, this rates very high on my list of white blues recordings, and sounds absolutely delicious with the PS-500.

Jimmy Smith – Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has some loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical on some headphones. The PS-500 does it well.

Kim Carnes – Bette Davis Eyes (Acoustic version, date??): Stripped-down ("acoustic") version of the big hit – good voice and guitar sounds.

Ladytron – Destroy Everything You Touch (~2009): Featured in The September Issue, this song has heavy overdub and will sound a bit muddy on some headphones.

Merle Haggard – Okie From Muskogee (1969): Another good-quality country recording with almost-acoustic guitar accompaniment. Lovely guitar sounds.

Milt Jackson/Wes Montgomery – Delilah (Take 3) (1962): The vibraphone is heavily dependent on harmonics to sound right, and the PS-500 plays it superbly.

Nylons – The Lion Sleeps Tonight (A Capella version, 1980's): High-energy vocals sans instrumental accompaniment – an excellent test of vocal reproduction.

Pink Floyd/Dark Side of the Moon – Speak To Me (1973): Deep bass impacts should be heard and felt here.

Rolling Stones – Stray Cat Blues (1968): Dirty, gritty blues that very few white artists could match. On some headphones the vocals and guitar lack the edge and fall more-or-less flat. If you're a really good person, playing this song will probably make you feel nervous and uneasy.

Tony Bennett – For Once In My Life, I Left My Heart In San Francisco, I Wanna Be Around To Pick Up The Pieces, The Best Is Yet To Come, The Good Life, Who Can I Turn To (1960's and later): Frank Sinatra's favorite singer. Highest recommendation. With some of the best headphones, the sibilants on these recordings are very strong, but not with the PS-500. Normally I would expect that less sibilance means less highs, but that's not the case here. The PS-500's highs are as extended as the other headphones, but seem to be smoother.

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PS 500 Headphones

Positive Feedback
By Robert H. Levi

Grado releases the little brother of their state-of-the-art PS 1000 Headphones, using trickle-down technology to cut the price by two-thirds, while retaining much of the performance! Also made in America, the new PS 500s are Grado's second offering in their Professional Series line, designed both for the audiophile and recording engineer who value neutrality and high definition over all other design goals. They are an open air design, as are all high end Grado's, and are very light and comfortable. At an MSRP of $595, they are an extraordinary value, and fully appropriate for both reference and critical listening. In the category of musical neutrality for the picky audiophile and the demanding recording engineer, the PS 500s are unsurpassed at this price point.

Grado achieved this minor miracle by applying the lessons learned in constructing the wondrous PS 1000s. While still using mahogany to cover the motors, they added aluminum shells to double dampen the housing and kill vibrations. This sandwich design creates the most neutral performance under $600. The large diaphragms contain rare earth metals, including gold wire for maximum definition. The connecting cable is Grado's newest formula, with some fifteen wires enclosed in a proprietary shell. By being American made, they save big bucks from having to import phones from China and can, instead, bulk up on the technology. The PS 500s are available now as you read this review.

Compared to the Grado PS 1000

For one-third the price you will get two-thirds of the performance. This is my kind of math! Sure, the PS 1000s are the most detailed cans I know of, and are every bit as nuanced as the Stax Omega Electrostats. Plugged into my E.A.R. HP4 Tube Headphone Amplifier, the 1000s are all about detail, nuance, air, and realism to the max. Replace them with the PS 500s, and you hear a majority of all the goodness of the 1000s, without added spurious coloration or noise typical of other designs that are compromised to a price point.

Listening to Dialoghi (a new pressing from Germany) from Yarlung Records of Los Angeles, CD 78876, you will detect nary a lump or bump in the frequency fabric with the 500s, while the textures of the Steinway and cello ring most true. This CD is so good and the 500s so neutral that you will think you are hearing a master tape of the actual performance. Yes, you will hear the artists breathing and humming, the floor creaking, and the box of the cello vibrating all in concert with the music. I love the pop and jump of their big dynamic range. It's all there. You won't know there's better unless you have a pair of 1000s handy for a quick comparison.

The sense of neutrality and lack of any unnecessary coloration or artificial warmth with the 500s is every bit as convincing as the 1000s. You will not be disappointed when monitoring that you are missing something acoustic that may hurt the final production of the master. Audiophiles will love the truthfulness and tunefulness of these cans and feel, finally, that they have a truly 21st Century design that communicates the real thing, similar to current audiophile loudspeakers in the over $20,000 price range.

Compared to the Vintage Grado RS1

I have owned and loved the RS1s for 20 years, and still love them now. They are available in an improved model called the RS1i. They are less detailed, warmer, and more forgiving than the PS series and the PS 500. The 1s bass is a bit less detailed and fatter. They sound a bit lumpy and colorful in very nice ways, though neutral is not their forte. The 500s fix the shortcomings of the RS1s quite well. The metal/wood sandwich and advanced wiring take the 500s to a level the slightly more expensive RS1s just cannot match. The cord on the 500s is twice as thick as the 1s. The 500s would be $1000 headphones if imported from anywhere other than Brooklyn!

Compared to the Ultrasone Edition 8

The Ultrasone Edition 8s are closed-in headphones compared to the open-style Grado cans. The 8s are the best closed-in phones I have ever heard, period. I can now state that the bargain-priced professional series Grado PS 500s are not very far removed from the overall performance of the expensive 8s. Yes, the 8s are more detailed
 say 25% more. I'd put the PS 500s at about 75% of the total performance of the 8s. There is a slight thickness to the 8s, which may not be 100% neutral, while I do not hear that bit of coloration with the 500s. I must give the 500s a sonic edge for overall clarity, too. That aside, the two pair of cans are right there at giving you the truth and nothing but the truth at very different price points.

If I had to choose, I could easily live with the PS 500s for their added comfort and overall performance [and save $1000, too!]

With the Grado Headphone Amp

Unplugging the PS 500s from the Paravacini HP4, at $6000, and plugging it into the Grado Amp, at $350, was not a problem. I heard a warmer, thicker, less detailed performance with the Grado amp that was relaxing and beautiful. The Grado amp has tons of power and gorgeous tonality. It is super quiet, too. That said, it is not the HP4, and you will not hear all that the PS 500s offer through the Grado amp. The important thing is that you will hear every little flaw of any amp you may use with the PS 500s. They cover up nothing at all. They reveal everything.

Quibbles

I prefer cans that are circumnaural, surrounding the ears, not laying on them directly. The 1000s go over the ears, but not the 500s. If that would really bother you, then you'll need to think twice. These headphones require at least 100 hours run in before critical use
 not a problem, but I thought I put that note here. It's genuinely hard to find anything wrong with these cans.

By the way, the 500s are low impedance and plug into anything over 600 ohms which is about everything.

Summary

Introduced to the market this September, Grado presents a pair of cans that are their newest and greatest sonic trump card to date: the PS 500. At a fraction of the price of the top of the Grado line, they retain a boatload of the benefits belonging to their expensive big brother. This is the ultimate in Grado trickle-down technology. The PS 500s are more neutral and linear than any headphone I know of under $1000, and will please the audiophile and recording enthusiast alike. They make the über-expensive Ultrasone Edition 8s sound rather lumpy!

When it comes to high definition, the 500s can only be criticized if you have the 1000s or Omega's handy. Otherwise, it is all there for you to hear. Combined with great clarity and neutrality, the result is just plain stunning. If you are searching for cans in this price range, listen to these. There is a prairie-wide selection of headphones out there at $595, but I do not know of one brand's offering anywhere near this price that performs like the Grado PS 500s. As an audiophile friend of mine said when he heard the 500s compared to a mountain of other cans, "these are great headphones." Yes, my friends, the PS 500s are great headphones, and most highly recommended if you want the best bang for your buck—and want Made in America, too!

- Robert H. Levi

Positive Feedback ISSUE 57

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