Until about midway through the day on Saturday, the most significant new product of the National Meet for me was the SHURE e500. While we see a lot of new headphone amps, portable sources, CD players, and accessories introduced in any given year, significant new high-end headphone introductions can have years between them. And yet at the National Meet we were fortunate enough to have two. On any other day, the e500's outlandishly excellent performance (in a universal-fit earphone no less) would have stolen the show. It would take a new flagship headphone from the likes of Sennheiser (think "HD700"), AKG or Grado to swipe some thunder from the e500, and that's exactly what happened.
It's a funny story. John Grado walked into the exhibition area. I'd never met him in person before, so when Todd Green (TTVJ) introduced me to him that day, it was the first we'd met. John was carrying around what looked like a typical leather soft-side briefcase, and, of course, I thought nothing of it. He was carrying it around for a while, before John and Todd clued me in to what was in there, which was a prototype of what was intended to be Grado's new top-of-the-line headphone. Shhhhhhh. It wasn't really ready for release yet. No copy had been written about it yet for things like press kits, dealer announcements, etc. Packaging for the headphone was (and is) still a ways away. With the exception of John's family and a few friends and associates, nobody knew what was in that bag, because, at the time of the National Meet, what was in that bag was supposed to stay, well, in the bag.
Those who know me know that the Sennheiser HD600 and HD650 have been my reference headphones for years. I love my Grado HF-1, and I use it for a regular change of pace, as well as one of my open cans of choice in my portable rigs. I have a Grado HP-1, and it's an occasional change-up, too -- a headphone deserving of its now legendary status, but, for me, still secondary to the HD600/650 as my primary headphone. I love the RS-1 (I actually prefer it to the HP-1), but, again, not enough to pry the HD600/650 away as my reference headphones. Having said all this, it should be no surprise that I was expecting something better than the RS-1 to come out of that leather bag, but something that I'd have to leave to more diehard Gradophiles to raise to the standard of their new reference. In other words, I was expecting to hear something I'd really like, and something I'd fully understand as a new reference choice for Gradophiles, but not a headphone that would become my new reference.
I looked at it and handled it. Yeah, it definitely looked like a design departure from the current Prestige and Reference Series headphones by Grado (as well as from the HP series from the Joseph Grado days). Larger in diameter, yet less heavy looking -- it felt lighter, too. Huge earpads -- next to the standard Grado bowl pads, the new headphone's pads look like a pair of woks.
I put it on my head. Hmmm.... very comfortable -- like they were barely there. What went through my mind was that I may have been wearing the most comfortable full-size headphones I'd yet worn. But the new appearance and comfort alone weren't enough to prepare me for what I was about to hear.
I turned the music on (Jazz at the Pawnshop on Todd's Panasonic portable CD player through a Ray Samuels Audio Hornet). "The soundstage is HUGE!" I shouted through the music. John just smiled. And I didn't mean huge soundstage for a Grado, I meant huge soundstage, period. I want to clarify something about the soundstage: I'm not talking about just making the headstage cavernous at the expense of coherence. I'm talking about a natural, open soundstage in which image density isn't compromised -- the GS-1000 just extends the sonic image objects out further in every direction, and makes them more alive and seemingly more tangible. This will almost certainly be the first thing about this headphone that most will notice.
But there's more to the GS-1000 than just soundstage. The overall sense of neutrality and transparency. The effortless and liquid midband. And the bass -- strong yet perfectly controlled and detailed. I'll say it now, as I've had a chance to listen to spend many hours with it since the Meet: The GS-1000 may be as close to a perfect headphone as I've so far heard.
But I've digressed somewhat from the story...
After giving the GS-1000 a listen, I looked at John and asked him if it was going downstairs to the exhibition area for others to hear. But he explained to me that he hadn't brought the prototype with any intent to show them publicly yet (for some of the reasons I mentioned a few paragraphs up, as well as other reasons specific to his business) -- he had only intended to give private sneak previews to a few people. I told him that I would, of course, not say a word to anyone if he wasn't ready to show it yet, but that I felt like I was now holding a secret that, at some level, I thought everyone downstairs would want to find out -- at the first National Meet no less. John did the arms-crossed, thinking-man's thing, and silently deliberated with himself over whether or not to bring the headphone downstairs to the exhibition hall, no doubt contemplating what the production and business implications would be. Somewhat uneasily at first, he said, "Should we do it?" Then he seemed more resolute, as he went from question to decision, saying, "It's the National Meet. Let's do it. Why not?"
And so I wore it downstairs in the exhibition hall (plugged into my iPod Shuffle). If I recall correctly, I think the first to notice was Trogdor. By the time the whole National Meet was over, many people had the chance to hear what would later be named the Grado GS-1000. The response was overwhelmingly positive. And it's not hype. It's not flavor of the month. It is, however, my new reference headphone. If the final product sounds like the prototype I've been listening to, the GS-1000 will -- I have no doubt whatsoever -- elevate itself into the pantheon of the highest-end headphones, and will, from this point forward, be discussed in the company of the likes of Sennheiser's Orpheus. It's that good.