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October 2012
Enjoy the Music.com
Grado PS1000 Headphones
An outstanding sounding set of dynamic cans.
Review By Tom Lyle

 

Spoiler Alert!
Grado PS1000 HeadphonesLet us get this spoiler out of the way first: the Grado PS1000s are the best sounding dynamic open-air headphones I have ever heard. Comparing the PS1000 to other headphones would be akin to Michael Jordan playing a pickup game against a 12 year old. In every category that one would consider a positive audiophile trait: bass response, midrange clarity, treble purity, sensitivity, etc, the Grado trounced all other comers. Ok, in the past I've admitted that I may be exaggerating to make my point, yet I've never been accused by readers, at least not directly, for not being accurate in the point or points that I was trying to make. And I admit that in this case there are probably some that might require other headphones for use in certain applications, such as those who are monitoring the playback in a recording studio one might require a dryer, less extended frequency response, or those who must have a sealed headphone as not to bother those who are in close proximity to others when listening at a healthy volume. But honestly, if sound quality is to be considered above all other traits, and if an audiophile is going all out on a purchase of a headphone and demands that the music not only be played back with all the fidelity that was put into the original project, but also played back with all the musicality and realism that an audiophile should demand from any product that claims to be "the best", the Grado PS1000 doesn't have few peers -- it has none – at least none that I've ever heard in my home, other audiophile's homes, in audio salons, or in professional recording studios.

But don't tell me I didn't warn you: if one purchases a PS1000 and expects it to arrive from the dealer in a red-velvet lined rare Amboyna burl wood box embossed with gold-leaf Art Deco-inspired typography, one might want to look elsewhere for headphones. The Grado comes in a rather plain cardboard box with the Grado name and model printed on it, the headphones cables secured with wire ties. A headphone extension cord and a 0.25" to mini-plug adapter cable are the only accessories that are provided. I can only assume that Grado is a rather small family-owned type of audio manufacturer, one that might not have the resources to lavishly package their products as some of the larger manufacturers. But Grado has been producing great lines of headphones for a quite some time now, and they sure haven’t skimped on the quality of the PS1000 headphones themselves. And those who are familiar with Grado's less ambitious models will definitely see a family resemblance between them and this top model, so one might imagine the PS1000 as the modest Grado SR-60i on steroids. They use the same "cake-pan" type foam cushions, although are much larger. The cable is a plain-Jane black plastic-coated affair, and like the SR-60i the ear-pieces adjust to the size of one's head by sliding on a post attached to a plastic mounting piece. The ear-pieces themselves are beautiful, with heavy polished metal on the outer portion of the earpieces with a grill in the center, and wood hidden underneath the foam at the heart of the ear-piece, which comes in contact with the cushioning. There is a leather strap surrounding the adjustable metal strip that surrounds the top of one's head is comfortable enough to not notice once the music is playing, and once I got all the parameters of adaptability just right, that is, mostly bending the metal underneath the strap, there were no problems at all enjoying the exceptionally high sound quality coming forth from these headphones.

 

Selected
Grado calls the PS1000 a hybrid design, with an inner sleeve of a selected species of hand-crafted mahogany made "by using an intricate curing process". They claim that they machine the outer housing of metal from a “special non-resonant, very hard metal alloy" using "special processing" and a casting method to increase the porosity of the alloy. This combination, says Grado, helps reduce the "ringing" inside the earphone chamber which might reduce resolution and add coloration and distortion. Inside the rather plain looking cable connected to each earpiece is an eight-conductor cable design using "ultra-high purity, long crystal copper", which is said to improve control and stability within the entire frequency spectrum.

 

Regard
Without regard to any of Grado's claims, again, if anyone is familiar with any Grado headphones, even at the most affordable of their extensive lines, the PS1000 will look familiar. It seems as if rather than starting with a clean slate, Grado took what they knew about headphone design, both the outward physical considerations that are needed, and the workings of such headphones and brought them to the state-of-the-art with the PS1000. And one will surely recognize the PS1000 as having the Grado family sound, except in this case it is brought to the outer limits of all the audiophile traits that have made Grado headphones so desirable in the first place. Of course one must consider the level of transparency of any audio product that calls itself high-end, and the PS1000 doesn't disappoint. I felt a direct connection to the original material when listening to the PS1000.

But I'd be lying if I said I didn't first notice the PS1000's frequency extremes before I noticed their remarkably transparent midrange. At first I thought that the PS1000 was boosting the bass more than a bit, the bass frequencies on every recording I played through them seemed to bring the bass to the fore – that is, the fore in my mind, not the sound of the headphones themselves, because the PS1000 was simply reproducing the bass in the original recording as it was recorded, and the PS1000 let me hear what was on the recording. And on many tracks, not only rock recordings, the engineers seemed to be setting the levels of the bass to not only take into account the amount of bass, but the quality of the bass. This is neither a compliment or condemnation – a bass guitar with a great deal of pick sound might cut through a mix more than a bass strings played with one's thumb, and the PS1000 was able to reproduce the bass sound as the musician, engineer, and producer of a record intended. The bass was consistent throughout in so many different albums that I listened to, in that it the bass response of the PS1000 was the epitome of the opposite of one-note-bass.

The PS1000 headphones deserves the best sources and amplification, and I tried my best to accommodate them. They were driven by an Audio Electronics Nighthawk headphone amplifier, which I reviewed in September 2012 issue. This $1200 solid-state amplifier is manufactured by Cary Audio, and its high level of transparency was a perfect match for the Grados. The Nighthawk's RCA input was connected to the tape-out of a Balanced Audio Technologies (BAT) VK-3iX preamplifier with Audio Arts IC-3SE cable, the preamp only entering the sonic narrative with its short run of internal wiring and its source selector. I listened to the Grado PS1000 with both analog and digital sources; the analog is a Basis Debut V turntable with a Lyra Kleos phono cartridge mounted on a Tri-Planar VI tonearm. The tonearm is wired with Discovery cable, which connects directly to a Pass Labs XP-15 phono preamp, which is then connected with balanced Audio Arts IC-3SE interconnects to the preamp. The digital front end is for the most part a 3.20 GHz Dell Studio XPS PC with 8 Gig of RAM running Windows 7 using Foobar 2000 with the computer's ASIO'd USB output fed via DH Labs USB cable to either a Benchmark DAC1Pre or Wadia 121 USB digital-to-analog converter, and balanced Audio Arts interconnects connect the converter to the preamp.

 

Latched
That The Beach Boys were "before my time" is hardly an excuse, as I've latched onto many bands later in life, but I'm not sure what factors were present for me not to become a Beach Boys fan, at least not as much as some of my peers have done. Despite this, there is no denying that The Beach Boy's Pet Sounds deserves all the accolades bestowed upon it. And now that I've heard this album through the Grado PS1000 I have to assume that one of the reasons might not have immediately embraced the album was because I never heard it. This is a complex recording, and it wasn't until I heard the album on a decent system that I realized how complex it was. This album is so much more than a bunch of guys harmonizing atop a bunch of studio musicians. Yes, the list of the LA studio musicians that were on the scene in the mid-1960s that are on this album is certainly impressive. Bassist Carol Kaye can be heard much, much better when this album is played on a decent system, and through the Grado PS1000 it is almost a revelation that the bass parts are so complex – overdubbed in certain parts by the bass guitar itself, with the lower strings of a clean electric guitar, with double bass, and sometimes accented with tympani such as in the verses on the bridge-less "You Still Believe In Me". Of course the complexity of the album is somewhat obscured because every instrument and voice is bathed in reverb, but I'm not in any position to second-guess Brian Wilson or the engineers that worked on this album. Yet through the PS1000 it all makes perfect musical sense, at least more sense than it ever has before thanks to the detail that these headphones allowed, all without turning the listening session of the album into a perlustration on how the album and the songs were conceived and constructed. This is largely because the PS1000 makes each instrument and group of instruments sound like themselves, that is, the actual voices and instruments rather than just "sounds", despite the heavy production values imposed upon them.

 

Great
There is no question that it takes much more than a detailed sound to make a great pair of headphones. Headphones by nature are detailed, as one's ears are located very close to the drivers, to say the least. Any problems with loudspeakers regarding the loss of detail that may occur during the projecting of the sound into the room before it strikes one's ears is non-existent. Yet one listen to any non-reference quality headphones will reveal that the quality of the drivers has as much to do with how much detail is retrieved from the recordings that are being reproduced, as a consequence, a characteristic such as reverb trail or the sound of a hall decaying into silence will be much improved with a higher quality headphone. The fact that the PS1000 manages not only to have a near perfect amount of detail without sounding analytical might largely be true because the PS1000's drivers seem to be designed with  a spot-on amount of said detail. When one hears a real instrument or voice, regardless of where this occurs, one rarely if ever hears someone utter "Wow, this sounds so detailed". The PS1000s seem to reproduce what one could easily imagine to be the same amount of detail that has been captured on the recording. Not only this, but while reproducing this near perfect amount of detail they sound frighteningly realistic not only on real instruments that were recorded in a real space, but electronically reproduced instruments that were recorded in a not-so-real space, such as an electric guitar in a studio -- with the same amount of "realism". Whether or not one's ever heard a live-feed being pumped through a recording studio's monitors or sat in on a friend's band rehearsal – one will now know what that sounds like thanks to the Grado PS1000 headphones.

Grado PS1000 HeadphonesSo it is this bit of a sonic paradox when listening to a great headphone such as the PS1000: the sound is extremely detailed yet extremely musical. These headphones are so, so good, at the same time the sound so detailed, that even when serious critical listening sessions are being performed the music that is coming forth through the phones can still sound marvelous. Plus, when the source material is not top-notch, with such great sound quality, it is so much easier to revel in the music. Such was the case when comparing two different vinyl pressing of Wayne Shorter's Juju album on Blue Note. This 1964 recording contains some amazing playing not only tenor saxophonist Shorter, but his band-mates on this session, pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Reggie Workman. Of course you'll recognize Shorter's accompanists as John Coltrane's sidemen from some of his most definitive albums, and the influence of Coltrane is definitely heard on this, Shorter's first release for Blue Note and his first album as leader since 1961. Through the PS1000 comparing the original 1964 pressing to the 1973 re-issue was a pleasant exercise in vinyl-mania. The sound on the '73 re-issue is more than acceptable – and if it were one's only vinyl copy of this album one would have little to complain about. Through the PS1000 it is easy to hear that the tape is at least one generation removed from the master, or at least one removed from the copy that was used to press the '64 edition. So there is no problem hearing the tape dropping-out during the fade-out of the first cut on side one, the modal "Juju" leading into Shorter's introduction to the more straight-ahead "Deluge". Still, even with Workman's bass mixed a bit low, and listening to the later pressing, this album is a post-bop masterpiece. The timbre of each instrument as recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, despite his hard-panning to either channel is never un-naturally highlighted thanks to the extremely lifelike reproduction via the PS1000. Playing this album through these headphones will easily make one feel as if it were a privilege to step back in time and observe the goings on in the studio that August night in suburban New Jersey.

Lest this review read like some sort of Grado PS1000 tribute, it is worth mentioning that these headphones are not as comfortable as many other manufacturer's top offerings. For example, the Sennheisers are so, so comfortable one's noggin' might be more comfortable when wearing their headphones than without! I'm sure that different listeners will find some brands of headphones more comfortable than others, but perhaps it was my particular head shape, but the Grado PS1000 took more than a bit of finessing to get to the point where they weren't just resting upon my head, so walking around the room with a long cord was not possible unless I kept my head upright, looking straight ahead at all times, never making anything that resembled a quick movement. But again, after adjusting everything to my liking (and my head shape) the Grado PS1000 quickly proved that they are for serious listeners for very serious listening.

 

Quick
A quick aside: Some may balk at the price of these headphones. There seems to be some sort of disconnect between the price of headphones and other types of equipment audiophiles aspire to own. The fact that one can attain this type of sound from transducers that cost less than two thousand dollars is quite amazing. When one considers the price some are willing to pay for a pair of high-quality loudspeakers versus what they are willing to pay for a set of high-quality headphones it is a bit difficult to understand.

The Grado PS1000 is an outstanding sounding set of dynamic cans. Other dynamic headphones can only better these Grados in areas other than sonic performance – there are others that are a bit more comfortable, and there are others that come with more opulent packaging, And of course since the PS1000's operating principle is based on an open air design there are others that better isolate one's listening environment. But there are none that sound better in the overall subjective headphone listening experience. I've never heard dynamic headphones that sound so extended in the bass, have such a lifelike midrange, and possess such a true-to-life treble response.

When listening to headphones it not a natural experience – the music seems to emanate inside one's skull rather than come from an outside source, yet when listening to the Grado PS1000 this hardly matters because one's mind is directed to the recording and the source, and then directly to the musicians, instruments and the voices that are producing the music. Recommended? Don't be a fool and pass these up if you are looking for a top-flight headphone.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Dynamic driver over the ear headphones
Transducer Type: Dynamic
Operating Principle: Open air
Frequency Response: 5 Hz to 50 kHz
SPL: 98dB @ 1mW:
Nominal Impedance: 32 Ohms
Drivers are matched to 0.5dB
Price: $1695

 

Company Information
Grado Labs
4614 Seventh Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11220

Phone: (718) 435-5340
Email: info@gradolabs.com
Website: www.GradoLabs.com

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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