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Grado SR80x Headphones: Early Thoughts

Can the $125 Grado SR80x still bring the magic in a category filled with great sounding budget headphones? Never bet against Brooklyn.

Grado Labs SR80x Open Back Headphones

Grado Labs have been a part of my audiophile journey for almost 30 years and over the past 3 decades, we’ve been through a lot together; both in terms of my manic adventures in the world of hi-fi but also some bad luck when traveling. The Grado SR80 were my first pair of high-end headphones and I took them everywhere; on cruise voyages, airplane trips, and treks through the Negev in temperatures that would melt your vinyl purchases. And they did.

On February 25th, 1996, I was listening to music on a pair of Grado SR80 headphones while taking the bus from Tel-Aviv to Eilat. Around the time that the bus was entering Beersheva, a Palestinian suicide bomber murdered 27 Israelis on bus No. 18 near the Central Bus Terminal in Jerusalem.

The bus driver slowed the bus down and turned up the news on Galgalatz (one of two radio stations operated by the IDF) and a palpable silence overtook all of the passengers.

Even in my broken Hebrew, I understood most of the major details as the news announcer explained the carnage that had unfolded in Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers ride public transit in Israel and the bus was ordered by the police to stop on the side of the road and wait for the them because there were rumors that another bus attack was feared.

At the time, you were not allowed to bring your bags onboard out of fear that they could contain an explosive device. In my haste to get off the bus, I left my Grado headphones and stood outside in the heat for over 2 hours.

After every bag was checked and the IDF gave us a green light to proceed, we were allowed back on the bus.

My headphones “mysteriously” vanished during those two hours and I spent the remaining few hours on the bus in silence.

A Headphone Grows in Brooklyn

I’ve owned 3 Grado Labs cartridges as well over the past 30 years and I have nothing but praise for the latest Timbre Series that are some of the best cartridges the Brooklyn-based company have ever produced.

There is a Grado “house sound” but I think that’s changing with the new cartridges and headphones.

The Grado SR80 have been around for decades; Grado first introduced these best-selling headphones in 1991 and they continue to be a strong seller at $125 USD; which makes them the second least expensive model in the lineup.

A lot of the features that made my original pair of Grado SR80 headphones rather cumbersome to travel with have been fixed on the new SR80x and it’s something that I think should have happened many years ago.

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Better late than never I suppose.

I also own a pair of Grado Labs RS2 headphones that suffer from similar issues but the sound is sublime and I enjoy them too much to openly kvetch about it.

The reality is that the headphone industry has experienced a revolution over the past decade and what was acceptable 10 years ago — really isn’t acceptable anymore.

When I purchased my first pair of Grado headphones, my high-end options were fairly limited; Sennheiser, AKG, and Beyerdynamic. The thought of spending more than $100 on a pair of headphones was ludicrous.

I schlepped around Toronto, Washington D.C., Beersheva, and Paris with a Sony Walkman or Discman. The Apple iPod wouldn’t emerge for another five years and streaming was not even a concept.

Grado Labs SR80x Headphones Angle Left
Grado Labs SR80x

The Grado SR80x exist today in a very different environment; Meze Audio, Audeze, HiFiMan, 1More, Sony, Bose, Skullcandy, Beats, Apple, Audio-Technica, Denon, Focal, and the aforementioned German/Austrian legacy brands are all formidable competitors and the Head-Fi space is far more developed.

The headphone industry will hit $27B in sales by 2027 as a point of reference.

$125 is considered entry-level in 2021 and while the vast majority of headphone sales are still below that number, consumers have been conditioned to spending anywhere from $250 to $4,500 on a pair of headphones.

In case anyone thinks the Grado SR80x are overpriced.

I do wish that Grado got with the program and included a carrying case/bag of some kind with the SR80x because that’s what consumers expect. I own 14 pairs of headphones and all of them come with a case.

As a runner and commuter, I genuinely hate dropping a pair of unprotected headphones into my AER backpack which also holds a 15″ MacBook Pro, Dongle DACs, magazines, reports, snacks, a collapsable pair of shoes for the office, pens, and all kinds of hazarai.

Grado Labs SR80x Headphones Angle

Back to the Future with the Grado SR80x

Grado headphones have never been super comfortable to wear for extended periods of time; the SR80x feature a much thicker headband and it was noticeable from the first listen just how much better these feel.

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Back in the day, I would listen to the SR80s for hours and always felt that the headband was too tight and hard. Both of those issues are things of the past with the Grado SR80x; the weight and additional padding are a huge improvement.

The headband slider really hasn’t evolved on the SR80x but there is enough range of motion to make them work.

Grado Labs SR80x Headphones Front

The circular foam Grado earpads have always been kinda weird. They will last forever but I did experiment back in 1996 by cutting out the section that covered the driver and they did sound clearer. It also hurt your ears feeling the plastic surround push down on your skin without the foam.

Grado has manufactured probably close to a million of these earpads over the years and they work just fine on these headphones. Durability and comfort are key and I’ll take that over sweaty leather 24-7.

One of my biggest complaints over the years has been that Grado needed to ditch their existing headphone cable and go with a tougher, braided one that wouldn’t kink or snag on other objects. Like an M16 rifle with a grenade launcher on the seat next to you.

The new braided cable is so much better. I’ve already worn the SR80x around Asbury Park and Long Branch and it gets an enthusiastic thumbs up.

The SR80x are 38 ohms and my iPhone 6s had zero issue driving these. Adding a Dongle DAC made a huge improvement but I’m going to leave that part of the equation to the second part of this review.

The biggest change on the Grado SR80x is the new driver.

Inside the SR80x is the new, fourth-generation 44mm driver, which utilizes both a more powerful magnetic circuit for improved efficiency and a newly designed, lower-mass voice coil and diaphragm to further reduce distortion.

Grado claims that this makes for a better-sounding pair of headphones and one that is also easier to drive by a variety of portable devices. The Grado SR80x are terminated with a 3.5mm plug for those types of devices, but they also come with a 6.3mm adapter for components with that headphone socket.

One thing that hasn’t change is leakage. You can definitely hear people speaking to you and they can 100% hear what you are listening to. I was listening in bed and my 8 year-old walked over to me and poked me in the ribs.

“Too loud. I can hear Gween Day from across the woom.”

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Just be aware of that if you plan on listening on the train into work or sitting at a cafe working.

Grado Labs SR80x Headphones Side

The Streets Are Alive with the Sound of Music

I’m going to focus more on the sound quality and how the SR80x compare to some similarly priced headphones from HiFiMan and 1More in the second part of the review, but I’m enjoying these a great deal.

The Grado SR80 were always great rock headphones and the SR80x are decidedly better; clearer, pacing, and a tinge more warmth. They are definitely on the lively side of things but not as neutral sounding as my older pair.

There was a hardness in the treble on the SR80s that could really make one turn down the volume with bad recordings and I still think that is part of the deal — just not to the same degree.

These are forward sounding headphones for sure. But with far more refinement and body than their predecessors. I wouldn’t call these warm sounding headphones compared to something like the Meze Audio 99 Classics or HiFiMan HE400se, but they are very engaging and expressive and I’m starting to remember why I fell in love with these in the first place.

Continue reading part 2 of this review

Where to buy: $125 at Audio46 | Amazon | Crutchfield | 4OurEars

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