The market for high end earphones (often referred to as "In-ear monitors" to differentiate them from less sophisticated designs) has expanded dramatically in size in recent years. What was once a market largely focused on the pro-audio and live performance sector has spilled over to the domestic market as well. On a personal level, I have long preferred a decent pair of in-ear monitors over full size headphones when listening on the move as the effect is more discrete and I generally find them more comfortable as well.
Grado is a long time producer of full size headphones that have carved themselves a fearsome reputation. Their open back designs are highly regarded for tonal accuracy and neutrality. Their distinctive appearance generally doesn't do them any harm either- if retro is cool, then the Grado range is very cool. Initial attempts by the company to produce more portable models were focused on over ear designs but the company has now moved to in ear models. There are now three such models of which the £300 GR8 is the one in the middle.
There is no escaping that the Grado GR8 is not a cheap product. It is fairly demanding of partnering equipment and if you are planning to listen on a laptop, you might have to budget for a headphone amplifier as well. When you are dealing with a product that is already twice the price of the test winning Beyerdynamic DT660 from the headphone group test many of you would be justified in taking the decision that the Grado is a little too demanding for their needs.
The reward for this investment though is an extraordinary sounding in ear monitor that has coherence and integration that is rarely found in earphones at any price. If you work on the principle that many of us spend more time listening to earphones than we do our home systems, the GR8 starts to make more sense. If you are looking for a high end audio experience on the move, the Grado is too good to ignore.
The GR8 is an in ear design intended to sit in the ear canal and block out noise to the outside world. To this end, a selection of rubber domes is supplied to achieve this and the "pipe" that the domes attach to seems to be of the size that aftermarket domes will fit. The GR8 will not support custom moulded ear pieces however which is something that can dramatically improve the performance of some designs that can accept them.
Visually, the GR8 is nothing to get especially excited about. It is smaller than many rival in ear designs- Shure in particular produces in ear monitors with a substantially larger body by the time you reach £300. The metallic blue paint finish on the housings is of a high standard but nothing that much cheaper offerings can't match. The cord is of average thickness and there is no inline remote or any other additional controls available.
A more pressing concern is that the cord terminates at the housing in a conventional rubberised seal. This is the area where most earphones will fail thanks to the rubber perishing and the internal wire being shorted or snapped. Shure has recognised this as a point of weakness and created a rotating "cuff" that reduces the stress at this critical connection. While the earphone housing of the GR8 is much smaller and less likely to be a point of stress, it would still be good to see something sturdier put in.
The build of the housings is very good though and in general, the GR8 feels solid and well thought out. Many people, with every justification, might want a bit more visual drama for their £300 but for me, the understated looks are a bonus. Walking around in public with the GR8 attracts no attention whatsoever. They avoid giving out the message that you have expensive objects in your possession and might have some more if less salubrious elements of society felt like asking you about them. One area I am much less keen on is that your £300 does not cover any form of case or holder for the GR8 and I think that this is unnecessarily mean. The case doesn't need to be leather or anything fancy but a little pouch to prevent you from having to simply stick them in your pocket when not in use would be welcomed. The sum total of bits that come with your purchase are the three sizes of dome and a cleaning cloth.
So, if they aren't very large, aren't made of unobtanium and don't come with any ancillaries, what are you paying for? The short answer for people unconcerned by matters of engineering is "trick drivers." The longer version is a bit more involved but as it is the main feature of the GR8 and quite interesting in, worth looking into. In the words of half woman half moisturising pot Andie MacDowell "here comes the science."
The majority of high quality in-ear monitors on the market today use balanced armature drivers. The armature is a variation on the conventional driver and is better suited to in ear designs than a conventional "dynamic" driver which is simply a shrunken version of the type used in most speakers. The armature is suspended between two permanent magnets and by passing a current through it via a coil, it produces sound via the diaphragm of the earphone. The result is more compact than a dynamic driver, requires less energy and has superior treble performance as well.
The news isn't all good however. A balanced armature driver usually has significantly less bass response than a dynamic driver. To achieve decent bass response, the seal between your eardrum and the outside world must be very tight. More recent balanced armature designs from some manufacturers make use of more than one armature to allow for a bit more grunt. Three way designs are now relatively common and as many as five are not unheard of. This approach is not without limitations though. More drivers means bigger earphone bodies and more effort in the way of crossover design to have them work as one.
What the GR8 sets out to do is make use of the speed and accuracy of a balanced armature and combine it with the low end heft of the dynamic driver. It does this by using a moving armature design. Each GR8 housing has a single relatively large armature that in turn is partnered with a larger than usual diaphragm. The result should be the best of both worlds- it combines the speed and upper frequency neutrality of an armature design but the bass of more conventional earphones. Additionally, because there is only one driver, the coherence from top to bottom should be much improved. This single driver also means the housing is much smaller.
All well and good but making any armature is a costly and complex business. Making ones large enough for moving armature designs is very hard indeed. The two drivers that make up a GR8 are as best as I can work out are only made by one factory on Earth and they are by far and away the bulk of the production cost. As such you are paying for the insides when you stump up your £300.
I left the GR8 running for a few hours before doing any serious listening. My experience with all high end earphones is that they are usually a bit shrill out of the packaging. As I have ear canals you could park a Volvo estate in, I found the largest of the three supplied rubber domes gave the best fit for me. Unlike the slightly involved process that goes into getting a "correct" seal with some rival designs, the GR8 simply involves poking it into your ear and going about your business.
I used the GR8 out and about with my iPhone 4. Sources used include 256kbps MP3, Ogg Vorbis files Spotify and various streams from TuneIn Radio. I also used on demand TV services. For listening at home, my Lenovo Thinkpad was the most commonly used source and I used it both via the built in headphone socket and with a Furutech ADL Cruise USB headphone amplifier. This allowed me to listen to lossless and high resolution material via Songbird.
If you are seeking the answer to whether those moving armatures make the GR8 sound radically different to other in-ear monitor designs, I'll save you the bother- not really. If you ask the slightly more nuanced question, can I see the point to this approach, then more positively, I can definitely see why Grado has gone to the effort of engineering this solution.
The GR8 shares many aspects of voicing and tonality with the full size Grado headphones. They are clear and detailed and have a largely flat low end frequency response with a benign roll off to the top end. The result is very natural and unforced. I found the GR8 easy to listen to for long periods of time and they would be an ideal partner on a long flight. A quick "cheat" that is easy to apply to earphones is engineering a "U Crossover" where there is stacks of bass and artificially lifted treble. This without fail makes for an exciting 30 second demo but a rather less satisfying long term listening experience. That the GR8 avoids this approach is a real boon to living with them for extended periods.
This natural performance means that the GR8 is easily able to adapt to the music you are listening to at the time. Relaxed music is given the space it needs to open up and really engage with the listener. Part of what makes this an impressive achievement is that as an in-ear design, "space" created by the GR8 is pretty much entirely an illusion. Despite this, listen to something like the live recording of The Cinematic Orchestra at the Albert Hall and there is a genuine sense of the vast building that they are performing in. The audience is an appreciable distance from the musicians and this gives the GR8 a realism that is often a tough thing to achieve in with earphones.
The tonality is excellent as well. Like full size Grado designs, the GR8 is able to replicate voices and instruments in a way that is unambiguously real. Quite how effective the GR8 is at this really only really becomes apparent when you switch over to another pair of earphones in an A-B demo. Where many earphones will give you a sound that is "probably" a violin, the GR8 will accurately highlight the difference between a violin and a cello and provides the resolution to separate individual instruments as well.
This ability is especially pronounced with voices. Give the Grado something well recorded, like Imogen Heap's Little Bird and it is capable of startling realism. The results are genuinely competitive with full size headphones and after a minute or two, the GR8 achieves the holy grail of all earphones (actually most hi-fi full stop) in that you cease to be aware of sound reaching you by earphones and simply focus on the sound itself.
The sophisticated moving armature drivers are designed to give the GR8 more bass heft than rival designs and here the effects are less clear cut. The GR8 has good bass response. It can quite easily reproduce deep bass notes with authority and it starts and stops with impressive speed as well. I'm not convinced that it actually has any more depth and impact than a multiple driver design of the same price though. Whatever Shure might be losing in absolute horsepower to the GR8, they seem to be making up the difference with other aspects of the design such as the earbuds and driver housing. As my Gran has frequently pointed out, there is more than one way to skin a cat and my impression is that balanced armature technology spread across multiple drivers is the equal of the moving armature approach. The Grado is also relatively refined- this gives it a lovely richness with analogue bass but when you give it some thundering electronica like Younger Brother's A Flock of Beeps there is always the sense that it is slightly restrained.
Where the Grado unquestionably pulls back an advantage over rivals is the integration it possesses top to bottom. With only one driver per channel, the Grado has a focus and coherence that gives it an advantage with any music that has significant dynamic range. Every part of the frequency spectrum is given the same level of attention and it is only when you compare the GR8 to other designs that you again begin to realise how incredibly even-handed it is. The effect is the same as listening to a really well sorted single driver system but one without any appreciable roll off at either end. This is the moving armature design encapsulated and if you appreciate what it does, it is very hard to find any other earphone that can achieve the same effect.
In day to day use the Grado has many positive attributes but equally a few weaknesses. I found it to be very comfortable to wear. The light weight and comfortable dome tips meant I could listen for several hours without any discomfort creeping in. Sensitivity is also reasonably good for a design of this type although some lower powered headphone amps might struggle. I didn't find myself pushing devices very hard to reach reasonable listening levels (and like all good in-ear monitors, isolation is good enough to ensure you generally listen at lower levels than more "leaky" designs).
Where the Grado is less happy is with certain headphone sockets. I found that it picked up noise on the usually silent Lenovo headphone socket and seemed to find background interference on the other laptops in the house as well. The iPhone proved quieter although some cellular interference did creep in from time to time. If I used the Furutech headphone amp, there was no noise at all but given that this little combo weighs in at nearly £700, you'd expect it to be.
The GR8 is impressively forgiving of compressed and poorly recorded material. Spotify is perfectly enjoyable and a good internet radio stream was equally appealing. If you are listening to lossless and high resolution material, the GR8 rises to the challenge and really benefits from the additional quality. Heavily compressed music shows up the limitations but I'm not sure this is really the intended material for an earphone in this price bracket.
As you might expect, with their design that is intended to close the ear canal off, the GR8 provides excellent isolation from the outside world. They also leak virtually no noise back out. If you are a commuter, your fellow passengers will be very pleased if you choose the Grado as your musical choices will remain yours and yours alone.