If you've been paying attention you'd notice that in more than one review I've mentioned that audiophiles are quite lucky to be a participant in high-end audio at this point in time. This should be obvious: No matter if one chooses analog or digital, tubes or solid-state, a super-modest system or ultra-extravagant monster rig, there are more than enough competent manufacturers and user groups to cater to everyone's wants and needs. And even if one lives nowhere near a metropolitan area, equipment, software, and kibitzing are usually just a click away. As is the case with music, limiting oneself to a playback option of one sub-genre is illogical. So, even though I have a large LP collection, it is hardly an exclusive playback option – as proof there is my 4 TB worth of hard drive space filled with music files. And as it should be, our collections aren't only played at home, but when we're on the go. As the ubiquitous iPod and its brethren invaded the aural space all but the most traditional among us, the in-ear headphone market has been making in-roads well into the upper echelons of the high-end. And thankfully, and for good reason, it is unthinkable for an audiophile to even consider using the worthless stock ear-buds that are provided by either Apple, or any of manufacturers of portable digital players
There are many among us that take the sound of our portable players very seriously, and the makers of headphones of the traditional and in-ear varieties have responded with many fine models to choose from, and there are also very high quality portable headphone amplifiers available as well. And it also should be obvious to all that have been paying attention that the iPod is making itself at home among our humble high-end systems. I'm not here to debate the merits of this device (it's far too late for that). But I do own a loaded iPod, and spend countless hours listening to it when not at home. I also want it, if possible, to sound good, but I'm not ready to drop a wad of cash on the project as of yet. So I (as many other audiophiles it seems) have also enjoyed many a Grado product through the years, and we've come to expect a certain level of not only value from this company, but excellent sound as well. Enter the Grado GR8 in-ear headphone.
On Grado's website it makes clear right off the bat that the GR8s were the brainchild of not proprietor John Grado, but his sons Jonathan and Matthew. Grado states that “they realized the need to offer our customers a Grado in-ear headphone” and that they were “instrumental in the process of voicing the GR8”. At first that didn't sit so well with me – I'd be more comfortable with the techs at Grado doing the voicing, but then I realized that it did say that they only were “instrumental”, and after only a short audition it was obvious that no matter who had their hands in the birth of this product the end result, that is, the GR8, speaks for itself. In fact, the Grado spent over two years in research and development before these headphones were ready for the big time. Yet many will wonder why they chose to follow John's son’s advice and enter the very crowded in-ear market, especially at this popular price-point. This will probably forever be unknown. They are also in no doubt subjecting themselves to the often vicious opinions of gadget web-bloggers that will undoubtedly either praise or trash the GR8 for reasons that will also forever be unknown. But what these dilettantes might not realize is that Grado Labs products are hardly known for trendy, fly-by-night products. Longevity is a rare thing these days, yet many a component in the Grado line has lasted decades, and for good reason.
Some might find it curious that at this price point (not to mention its high level of performance, but more on that in a bit) that the GR8 relies on a single driver. Many similarly priced units use two, or even three separate drivers. But again, it's the end result that counts, and at least for now, we're going to throw our trust to Grado and assume that they had their reasons for only using this single driver. This “moving armature” driver is snuggled into the ear canal with the help of a choice of three provided silicon/rubber inserts: small, medium, and large. The medium-sized fit surprisingly well into my ear with only a bit of play while I was moving about. They were also very comfortable, sometimes they were planted in my ears for hours with no discomfort whatsoever – which is more than I can say for the many, many other brands of in-ear headphones that didn't have custom-molded sleeves. Grado uses a rather thin cable fitted with oxygen-free copper wire. Of course the conductivity and resistance of a cable is important, but more so, at least when used as with a portable device the physical noise of the cable contacting one's clothing causing an intrusive shuffling. At with the GR8 this was minimal. The 51” cable might seem rather short, but only when using the GR8s for anything but portable listening. It reached the iPod on my belt or in jacket pocket perfectly, with no unnecessary excess. The left and the right ear-pieces were identified not by an “L” or “R” printed on the sides of either in microscopic font, but by a raised mark on the left earphone so it could be correctly identified by touch. Thank you very much, Mr. Grado.
The sensitivity rating that Grado specifies for the GR8 might raise some eyebrows. One might even be concerned to whether the GR8 can be driven by a portable device. If they cannot, and one must rely on an outboard headphone amplifier for listening, thus limiting the 'phones to “enthusiast” use, Grado would obviously fail in their mission to provide decent in-ear 'phones to the masses. Curiously, the impedance of the GR8 as stated on their website is a high-ish 120 Ohms (for comparison sake, Apple's stock ear-buds are rated at 23 Ohms, and my Sennheiser HD-600 cans are rated at 300 Ohms). But fear not – those who think that the GR8's 120 Ohm rating will require an external headphone will be pleasantly surprised that they had no trouble whatsoever being driven by an iPod. And that's how I did the bulk of my listening before sitting down to write this review. Yes, the volume needed to be turned higher than when using even the comparably priced Shure SE310 which are rated at a low 28 Ohms. But even plugging them directly into my laptop's headphone jack volume wasn't an issue.
The GR8s aren't advertised as “noise-canceling” or even “noise-isolating”. But the “ear tips” (as Grado calls them) fit very well, and formed a very good seal between the music coming from the iPod and my the outside world. I not only used them whilst walking around the busy streets of the city, but on a very long flight over the both the continental USA and the Pacific Ocean. I never once thought that traffic or engine noise interfered more than I expected from this type of headphone. I guess some electronic noise-canceling would have done a better job (at the expense of the sound quality), and of course custom molded ear-pieces would have done an even better job (at the expense of the expense). But then we're entering into different categories of headphone listening (and price), and it is better to compare apples to apples (no pun intended).
Let us get this out of the way first: I'm not for one minute going to even entertain the notion that the sound of a pair of in-ear headphones can sonically compete with their conventional over-the-ear brethren. As far as I'm concerned, it is physically impossible. OK, I've heard some amazing cost-no-object in-ears with custom molded ear-pieces sound incredible, but it is quite amazing that for the price of an inexpensive interconnect the GR8 had me at times turning my head quickly to one side because I was startled by what I thought was a sound coming from “outside” the headphones. This suspension of disbelief didn't happen that often, but often enough on orchestral and chamber tracks played via uncompressed files. And of course that's the beauty of an iPod, tracks that deserve it can be loaded in full bandwidth (well, at least in “CD quality” or better .wav files or uncompressed Apple Lossless, or AIFF), and that's how I did my critical listening. But to be honest, most of my listening other than to evaluate the GR8 through the iPod was hardly “critical”, it was listening to guilty pleasures whilst on the go, and a good part of that was with compressed files, and in a rather noisy environment.
Still, I was able to find the time to connect the GR8 'phones to my Headroom outboard headphone amplifier being driven by the front end of the big rig, and that's when I was often taken aback by their sound quality, such as when playing a FLAC file of a movement of Sibelius' Seventh Symphony conducted by Paavo Berglund and his Chamber Orchestra of Europe on Finlandia. Not only was the all-important midrange very natural sounding (the strings of this ensemble are certainly first-rate), but I could sense the hall sound, too, as well as extraneous noise from the orchestra and conductor. As the symphony starts with its Adagio, where the winds introduce us to the main recurring theme, and as the intensity of the piece builds to its stormy (snowy?) climax, the GR8 never lost its cool (sorry). Instruments and their sections kept a respectable distance from each other in the soundstage between my ears (which I like to refer to as the headstage), and made me think that Grado knew what they were doing when they decided to design the GR8 around a single driver. The bass didn't go super-deep or have a lot of power, but was well balanced, and had enough heft to let me “feel” not only what was happening on the right side of the orchestra, but also let me hear individual instruments that had lots of bass energy.
Yet it was the treble where it set itself apart from similarly priced headphones, as each high pitched sound differentiated itself from the others. I've run into the “one-note treble” of many an inexpensive pair of 'phones in my career, and thankfully the GR8 steered well clear of this sound. Through the GR8 different cymbals could be differentiated from each other, and thankfully sounded like metal cymbals, not as if they were discharging spray-paint cans. Listening to the GR8s on pieces of music featuring vocals revealed, again, a very lifelike sound. I guess some might think that the midrange of the GR8 might sound a little set-back in the overall mix, but again, I think this might be a comparatively minor complaint when considering their sound on a whole. I have often felt that other similarly priced in-ear headphones push the mids to the front of the 'stage”, but the GR8 portrays these sounds in a much more natural light. Vocals sounded like, er, vocals – and the GR8 was revealing enough to render these vocals as either well, or not so well recorded. But these “serious” listening sessions proved to be only research, because the GR8's short cord made it clear that I was not destined to listen to these in-ears whilst connected to an external preamp when seated. Yes, one could purchase Grado's forty dollar extension cable, but if one finds themselves listening with in-ear 'phones at home it is indeed time to invest in a pair of “real” headphones, and I would be remiss in not recommending a set of cans in Grado's extensive line for this purpose.