Grado SR80x Review: A Headphone Grows in Brooklyn
I attribute my 30 year relationship with Grado Labs to our mutual desire to escape sameness. And there is a lot of that in audio these days. Sameness and Brooklyn do not belong on the same page and that is why Grado Labs can never stop being what it is.
One of the things that has made Grado Labs so successful over the past 50+ years has been its attention to the bottom line. I was fortunate to visit the “factory” many years ago in Brooklyn and I was impressed by the dedication of its employees who make all of their headphones and phono cartridges.
Sitting there all day winding and assembling is a very labor intensive task and they made the business decision to keep everything at home. Grado is not a flashy company; there are no fancy offices, press junkets, or bizarre products that make no sense financially. They invested from the beginning in the tooling and machinery and even make their own packaging.
The new generation has focused heavily on marketing and social media engagement and it has worked based on the demand for all of their products; Grado cartridges are usually backordered and the resurgence of vinyl has only made that situation worse over the past 5 years.
As I mentioned in the first part of the review, the Grado SR80x are their oldest and most successful headphones so far and it has quite the following. I’ve seen Grado headphones on the streets of Paris, London, Toronto, Asbury Park (that would be me), and even Jerusalem (probably the pair I had stolen) and more than a few people have asked to check them out. Some have even asked me to turn the volume down because of the leakage.
That is definitely a thing with Grado headphones.
If you’re looking for a pair of closed back headphones that provide isolation, the SR80x are not for you; you can hear people speaking to you with music playing and they can certainly hear it on the train or across the room.
On the plus side, the SR80x are extremely comfortable; far more than any previous Grado headphone I’ve tried over the past 25 years. The moment I placed the SR80x on my large head, I braced for that tight clamping sensation that bother me about my pair of RS2s.
When you’ve worn a particular brand of headphones for that many years, you know what to expect from a comfort perspective and these are dramatically better.
Because my journey with Grado began long before streaming was even a concept, I’ve tried them with a really wide variety of devices; everything from a waterproof Sony Walkman and Discman, Apple iPods, Vinnie Rossi’s modified iPod (called the iMod), laptops, and DAPs. I am not even counting receivers, integrated amplifiers, and desktop computers with soundcards.
It’s been far too many years to remember how the Walkman and Discman drove the original SR80 headphones that I lugged around the globe, but I definitely remember my mother lecturing me about listening at levels that she found quite alarming.
I would sit at the breakfast table when I came home from college and listen to music while my parents yelled at my 4 siblings for not eating their food or screamed at one another about how their business was doing that particular month.
Nothing stopped a family dinner table fight faster than “Baba O’Riley” or “2112” blaring out of the ear cups. I was a therapist before my time.
Fast forward to Christmas Day in our home where I attended synagogue early and made the walk home with my Rabbi before he diverted to his block and left me to walk alone in the rain.
I knew the house would still be asleep so I found my favorite spot on the office sofa and curled up with a copy of American Tabloid and the Grado SR80x headphones connected to my iPhone 6S — I need both a 3.5mm and Apple Lightning connector for headphones and Dongle DACs.
Déjà Vu (Qobuz, 24-bit/44.1kHz) just felt like the right album at the moment and the CSN&Y classic quickly reminded me why I’ve always liked the SR80 headphones; slightly bombastic, clear, and punchy bass that gave the album some additional presence.
The SR80x is warmer sounding than its predecessor but not overly so; the presentation is still slightly clinical but without that hardness on top that was definitely irritating on my original pair with bad recordings.
Grado has pushed the presentation slightly forward giving vocals more presence and I found that David Crosby and Neil Young’s vocals had more heft to them and better clarity.
Grado headphones have always been fantastic with rock and the SR80x did not disappoint one iota; Green Day, Rush, Queen, and the Tragically Hip proved the headphones to be rather revealing of bad recordings but also energetic, detailed, and excellent at pace.
The SR80x also surprised me with a “2021” playlist created by my kids filled with Drake, Lana Del Rey, Dua Lipa, Tyler, the Creator, and Olivia Rodrigo — I’m getting old apparently.
Not a huge soundstage with any of these recordings, but just enough midrange energy to keep my head swaying and more than sufficient punch in the bass to provide some gravitas to the music.
Pop and hip-hop are really engaging with the SR80x.
The SR80x proved to be quite energetic without crossing the line into top end hardness and I think that’s a definite improvement over the older model.
A Prayer for Lester Bowie by David Sanford Big Band was one of my top jazz releases of 2021 and a glorious recording to really test the SR80x and compare them to my budget favorite, HiFiMan HE400se headphones.
Both headphones deliver a wonderful degree of bite with horns and this fantastic album pushed both in regard to top end extension and clarity.
The SR80x had more bite but it wasn’t as refined sounding; texture and decay were definitely the strong suit of the HE400se with this particular recording.
The HiFiMan HE400se are only slightly more expensive than the Grado SR80x and definitely aimed at the same type of customer.
Neither headphone is difficult to drive but they do benefit from a Dongle DAC or dedicated desktop headphone amplifier like the Schiit Audio Magni 3+ or iFi Zen CAN Signature.
The Helm Audio Bolt is my daily driver with my iPhone and both headphones really liked the control and midrange warmth that the tiny Dongle DAC can deliver. The HiFiMan HE400se has better resolution than the SR80x, and definitely reproduces a much larger sounding soundstage.
The planar headphone also delivers a darker sounding presentation and lacks some of the Grado’s piss and vinegar with rock recordings.
The HE400se also suffer from leakage but not as much due to the earpads.
From a comfort perspective, both headphones are easy to wear for long listening sessions; the Grado’s improved headband and weight made the competition much closer than I expected.
Which would I buy?
I like the Grado a lot more for rock, metal, and electronic music — that extra degree of swagger just pushes one over the finish line with many recordings. It’s punchy and never boring to listen to.
The HiFiMan HE400se delivers a higher level of resolution and a much larger sounding soundstage. Is it boring compared to the Grado SR80x? Slightly.
I’m calling it a tie for now — but only because I have some incoming portable headphone amplifiers/DACs that are going to settle the score once and for all.
Both headphones represent the best of the category below $200 and that’s very good news for consumers who can’t spend more.
Where to buy: $125 at Amazon | Audio46 | Crutchfield | 4OurEars
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