Grado Labs is a small, family-run headphone company based in Brooklyn, NY. For years, they've been known for producing high-quality traditional-style headphones that deliver top-grade sound in retro style designs. In the past couple of years, Grado has taken notice of the ever growing popularity of mobile music, and have recently introduced their first ever in-ear model, the GR8. I don't know if it's supposed to be "G-R-8" or "great". If it's the latter, it's certainly a bold statement for a company that's never made a set of in-ear headphones before, no matter how good their track record is for traditional headphones.
The first thing I noticed about the GR8 is how simple and unassuming they are. Most headphones in this price class have fancy packaging, several accessories, and a striking design. The GR8s come in plain brown packaging, don't come with much in the way of accessories, and look very much like any other standard in-ear headphones. Their look gives no real indication of the high-quality components that lie hidden inside.
The GR8s have a sparkly dark blue finish and a very small design. The earpieces are about the size of raisins, and a small raised bump on the left earpiece makes it easy to find the correct earpiece, even in the dark. The overall weight is a mere 9 grams, including the headphone cable. Most in-ear headphones in this class are much bulkier and heavier than this. The GR8s are so small that you could comfortably lie down on a pillow with them in your ears and not even notice that they're there.
The GR8s use proprietary moving armature drivers to deliver audio. Many higher-end in-ear headphones use this type of driver, and sometimes even 2, 3, or more drivers in each earpiece. The GR8s use single armatures, but this helps to keep the size and weight as low as possible, while still offering great sound.
I haven't heard sound this good out of a set of headphones this small in a long time. The GR8s have a clear, open sound and wonderful balance. They don't have the heaviest bass around, but bass is well represented, and never overpowers mid and treble tones. One of the things that impressed me the most was the balance between bass, mids, and treble. I was always able to hear all of the elements of a song, which made the listening experience really enjoyable. It's hard to compare headphones in this price class, because while they often sound different, they all sound good. However, I find that a lot of high-end in-ears have a more "clinical" kind of sound, offering great audio accuracy, but feeling a bit hands-off. The GR8s are very "alive", providing a rich, immersive experience. After a burn-in period of several hours of use, the GR8s were sounding even better. If you do happen to try these and don't like them, allow them to play for a solid 24 hours or more and try them again. You may be surprised at how much the sound opens up.
When it comes to comfort, the GR8s are hard to beat. This is partially due to the small size and minimal weight, which allow the headphones to disappear after a few minutes of use. The other comfort factor is the eartips, which are made from a special blend of 2 types of silicone. The eartips are offered in 3 sizes. Finding the right size for your ear canal lets the headphones create a seal that blocks out ambient noise, improves sound quality and bass from the headphones, and provides lasting comfort and stability. An improper fit will result in weak sound, and the headphones will keep falling out of your ears. Nobody wants that, so make sure you try all 3 sizes to find the best fit for you.
The headphone cable is ridiculously lightweight, but still manages to offer a solid feel. The interior is made of oxygen-free copper to make sure your sound has a clean signal path to travel along, while the outside has a flexible and durable coating. Strain relief is built into the connection points at the earpieces and the plug to help prevent cable damage. The plug itself is made from gold-plated brass for durability and resistance to corrosion. It's a standard 3.5mm size, so it will work with MP3 players, CD players, laptops, smart phones, and so forth. The cable also resists noise from friction and handling, so you won't hear bumps and scrapes as you move about with the headphones.
One minor drawback to the GR8s is their overall lack of bundled accessories. It's very common for in-ear headphones in this class to come with some sort of travel pouch, and perhaps a 1/4" plug adapter for connecting to high-grade audio components. No such luck here. On the other hand the GR8s come with a set of cloth filters and rubber rings, which are used to prevent earwax, dust, and debris from getting inside the headphones. These sorts of filters are not commonly included with in-ear headphones, and are a welcome addition.
Overall, this is a fantastic first attempt at a set of in-ears. I really shouldn't be surprised, given Grado's track record. When I saw how small and simple the headphones looked, I just wasn't convinced that they could compete with some of the big name in-ears. I was wrong. The GR8s gave me one of the most pleasurable listening experiences I've had from a set of in-ears in quite awhile. They would offer better value if they included a few more accessories, but if your overall focus is getting great sound in a really small and lightweight design, they're pretty hard to beat. I'm looking forward to seeing what Grado learns from their first in-ear adventure and how they develop the line in the future.