On the occasions when I'm unable to listen to music on my home stereo, in the perfect world which exists only in my imagination I use a pair of large, fully sealed stereo cans built with the largest drivers available for use in a pair of headphones. These 'phones are sealed, and block out every last bit of environmental noise. They are driven by a battery operated high-power outboard headphone amp connected to a battery operated component stereo system, and I use my mobile device to remotely choose from my full library of full-resolution FLAC files stored on portable hard-drives. As I travel by foot, train, and plane all this gear is carried at my side by my team of assistants. Then there is reality: where I cannot even muster the energy to use my outboard headphone amp other than when on a long plane ride. I rarely even use it while at home. And when on the go, in-ear headphones are used to block out as much noise as possible, but not too much because I'd prefer not get run over by a bus when crossing the street.
There is also the reality of cost considerations, although you know as well as I do that we (that is, audiophiles) tend to spend more on audio and its software much more than the average citizen, yet is often a consideration nonetheless. These in-ears are hooked up to my mobile device which plays mostly compressed files, a large portion of which are guilty pleasures in the rock and pop genres. Only occasionally do I load a full-rez file on the player, only because the material demands it, which is usually orchestral or jazz in nature. But I don't load too many of these large files because the dynamic shifts jazz and classical make it less enjoyable in noisy environments, and especially because of drive space limitations – I like to have as much material loaded onto the player, and smaller files means more selection. Of course I've tried to listen to Internet radio through my mobile devise, but the less said about the sound quality of these broadcasts, the better.
As with the GR8, Grado does not provide a wealth of technical information regarding the GR10. That's really ok, I'd rather a company concentrate on making a good product then spending the money assembling fancy literature or a website, and Grado rarely disappoints in the good-product department. From their website I found that Grado claims that the raison d'etre of the GR10 is from their desire to improve upon the already successful design of the GR8. They took this older design and built the new one with a higher level of manufacturing precision and incorporated new materials. This ended up not only in increasing the frequency extension in the bass and treble, but also lowering the amount of distortion. The GR10 also uses only a single driver, Grado calls it a "proprietary single armature design", which as I humbly learned from my time with the similarly designed GR8 one should not write off this approach on just principle and assume that an in-ear headphone made from a single driver is inherently inferior to one made with multiple drivers. Referencing the specifications on their website one will note that the biggest difference between the GR8 and the new GR10 is their impedance ratings. The new 'phones 32 Ohm rating is more in line with others in-ear headphones of this ilk, as opposed the older model's 120 Ohms. I have to admit though, I really didn't hear anything that would indicate that the older model's impedance negatively affected the sound of the headphones, and I'm not about to admit that the newer GR10's improved sound is due to its "improved" impedance rating. Plus, the "sensitivity" of the GR10, that is, how high I had to turn up the volume and whether it could be set sufficiently low enough for background listening was fine. Yes, when trying out the dreadful standard issue Apple ear-buds I didn't have to raise the volume on the iPod as much with them, and when using the GR10 the volume had to be turned up less than if I was using a pair of Grado or Sennheiser over-the-ear cans. But so what? The low-level background hiss of the iPod is very difficult to hear when using in-ear headphones in an environment that is likely to encounter when in a public space.
A nice touch is the raised dot on the left earphone for quick identification of the proper orientation of the earpieces, thus eliminating the need to struggle to figure out which earpiece is which in low light. The GR10's rather thin 51" cable uses oxygen-free copper, which is good, but what concerned me was that with a cable so thin there would transfer the rustling sound from the cable hitting the clothing, interfering with the music. My worries were for naught. Although one might think the cable length a bit short, it reached from the mobile music source to the earpieces with only a bit of slack. The GR10's appearance is rather nondescript, they're a pair of in-ear headphones for Pete's sake. But one shouldn't be fooled by their mild mannered appearance. So, enough of the technical side of things. I will attempt not to compare the GR10s to their lower cost, and quite fine by the way, little brother the GR8, and judge them on their own merits.
This was true whether this was on a 70s gem such as tracks from the latest mastering of Free's Fire and Water album with Andy Fraser laying down the bass lines with Simon Kirke on the drum kit, or newer offerings such as Grinderman 2 where any of the members of the band, Nick Cave, Jim Sclavunos, Maryn Casey, or Warren Ellis could have been playing any of the instruments at any given time. This gave the recordings the requisite low-end thump that was needed to drive the music forward, and gave me at least a taste of what I could look forward to when I arrived home to spin the record on the big-rig in the main listening room. But it would be foolish of me to imply that these 'phones can plumb the depths of the sub-sonic netherworld. They can't. And the bass' (as well as other characteristics that we'll get to in a moment) family resemblance to Grado's over-the-ear headphones is probably more than just coincidental – they are voiced very much like the SR-125i's (and even their lower priced SR-60i and 80i) in that the bass has a warmth that gives the bass a human touch, and actually compensates, if that is the correct term, for the bass not being able to reach down below what would be rather impossible for such a miniscule driver. I think that Grado was also conscious of the bass overpowering the other frequencies of the small driver, and thankfully voiced it so this does not occur. Again, we're considering a pair of miniscule in-ears – they don't have the whomp-factor that a pair of floorstanding four-way dynamic speakers possess, nor do they attempt to defy the laws of science that prevent this.
I have some slight regrets not starting off with a description of the midrange of the GR10. Yes, it was the bass that first drew my attention, but I think that might have only been because I was listening through reviewer's ears. Or, perhaps because I grew up listening to too much seventies rock and roll? Who knows? But objectively, it is the midrange of the GR10 that is the most noteworthy because of its patently lifelike rendering of these frequencies that are so important to the overall sound of the headphones. If a pair of headphones can't get the midrange right, why bother with them at all? And by "right" of course I mean transparent, as I've heard many in-ear headphones that cost much more than the GR10 that didn't come anywhere near their level of not only transparency, but the lifelike rendering of instruments and voices. At the same time the GR10 was able to separate these instruments and voices when they were contained within a complex mix. And sort of in regards to that last comment, I can't think of any tunes that I played through the GR10 that weren't well served if they were recorded well in the first place. Come to think of it, even if they weren't very good recordings, the GR10s seemed to "know" how to correctly reproduce the vocals and instruments that were passing through them.
The treble, too, was well served by the GR10. Its characteristic echoed not only the fine traits of the bass and midrange, but also reflected well on the Grado engineers' decision not to overtax the driver. The treble was well integrated into the rest of the sound of the GR10, never drawing undue attention to itself, but at the same time demonstrating its ability to render any instrument that contained significant amounts of treble energy as very lifelike. The natural sibilance of both male and female vocals, cymbals, and other treble sounds whether natural or synthetic never became spitty or otherwise unnatural (or annoying) because of this. I've spent a good part of my life listening to The Who's Live at Leeds album, and I've seen no indication that I'm going to slow down any time soon. The best thing that has happened in quite a while is that the powers that be saw fit to release the next day's show as Live at Hull, and not only does it give one the pleasure of reveling in the differences between the two shows, the Hull version improves upon the Leeds already great sound quality.
Ok, the Leed's show's quality is slightly flawed (which live rock recording from 1970 isn't?) and the "doctoring" of the bass guitar on the first few songs on the Hull show is at least subliminally disquieting, but hey, it is a classic recording of a classic show and I have no doubt that will stand the test of time, just as Leeds set has. Anyway, the upper mids and treble are as important as any other frequency on this album. Keith Moon's manic cymbal playing never becomes less than defined other than the times he wants it not to, as he often rides the beat between two crash cymbals where he is able to create a wall-of-cymbals sound. The GR10 was able to sort this out and his other explosive tendencies that occur throughout not only each song, but throughout the entire two-CD set. When the headphones are set at a comfortably loud volume and Pete Townshend unleashes his fuzztone upon the maelstrom where it joins Keith's pandemonium, his guitar is still able to cut through the mix, but never overwhelms the sounds emitting from the rest of the The Who's accoutrements. This is in no part due to the remaining frequencies being unaffected by the din in the upper registers.
The question often arises as whether listening to music through in-ear headphones should even be considered "high-end". This issue is compounded by the fact by people like me, who sometimes might not even be listening to this music at full-resolution. But it is safe to say that our breed are music lovers first and foremost, and in-ears such as the GR10 bring the mobile listening experience to a level certainly not as great as a high-end system might bring us, but elevates the sound of the music above what one can expect from average digital portable listening. It should be fairly obvious that listening to an iPod or other mobile device through relatively inexpensive (that is, when compared to components in our home systems) in-ear headphones does not enable one to get that close to finding the holy sonic grail as listening to a maxed-out home system. And I hope that this rave review of the GR10 does not imply that a pair of affordable in-ears can. But if one is as attached to listening to high-quality sound but doesn't want to go all out on a portable system, this is what we are "stuck" with. But being stuck with the Grado GR10 as part of a portable system ain't so bad. It's rather good, in fact. One also might have to deal with material that is of lower bit and sample rate, and not only is the sound less resolving, but there are artifacts that overlay the sound of the music. This aliasing, as it is sometimes called, can be some of the most annoying sound this side of, well, low resolution digital aliasing. I'm not trying to say that the GR10 rolls off the upper mids and high frequencies to accommodations for this, but the GR10's lifelike upper midrange and treble seem to emphasize the music over these synthetic artifacts. Of course, if this crud is on the original recording the GR10 will reproduce it in all its glory. Garbage in = garbage out. So the GR10 was able to revel in its source, and as such it makes perfect sense that the GR10 delivered better sound when playing material with a resolution 16-bit/44.1kHz or higher uncompressed lossless files versus lossy files @ 320 kbps or, heaven forbid, lower.