It's no secret that I like Grado headphones. My fandom started in the early 1990s when I purchased Grado's lowest priced model at a local dealer, the SR-60 for $69. I was very, very impressed. This model is still in production as the more refined SR-60e. Believe it or not, these "budget" headphones currently sell for $79, and by using an internet inflation calculator -- in 1992 dollars the SR-60e would have sold for around $45. I know, those on-line inflation calculators don't account for many things, but really, even at $79 in 2017 dollars this headphone is a steal. I don't know how Grado Labs does it, but I've met many owners of these headphones and every single one of them is happy with theirs. What is also surprising is that when listening the to their top-of-the-line headphones, I can hear a family resemblance to every other Grado model I've ever heard. That's a good thing, because the sonic characteristics of the Grado line lean very strongly towards the excellent.
In the October 2012 issue of Enjoy the Music.com's Review Magazine I wrote a review of Grado's then top-of-the-line PS-1000 headphones, which was basically a love letter to Grado, as I had only praise for this headphone, sonic and otherwise. After this review these $1695 cans became my reference for dynamic headphones. Not long after that, Grado upgraded this model to the PS-1000e, without changing its price. I couldn't imagine how Grado could make improvements to the older model, yet Grado surprised me and indeed made some minor improvements to their excellent sounding flagship model. And so, the newer PS-1000e became my reference for dynamic headphones. Grado surprised me again by recently introducing their even newer flagship model, and the subject of this review, the PS-2000e.
And I again find myself wondering how improvements can be made to their flagship model. But indeed, they did. The PS-2000e is built with a hand-carved maple inner chamber surrounded by a "smoked chrome" finish. Grado says that by surrounding the maple with metal, it eliminates "ringing" and other anomalies that can distort the sound that comes through to one's ears. They also redesigned the driver of the headphone, lowering the amount of coloration that could distort the music. The redesigned diaphragm geometry of the PS-2000e is said to be more accurate.
Grado also developed a new front cap and grille to lessen diffraction of the musical signal. The PS-2000e has a wider leather head-strap with more padding than the PS-1000e, which I thought was very comfortable to begin with. These improvements that I'm writing about come from Grado's website, which is designed very well, I must admit. But the most important thing to me about these ‘phones, and in any audio component, is its sonic performance. I wouldn't care if Grado made the headphone out of spare computer printer parts held it all together with duct tape. If the result was that it sounded good and had a decent warranty, I'd be OK with that.
I find that the noisy environment of the streets or the train don't warrant using super-pricey headphones. Others may disagree, and so one day I might be convinced to change my mind, but it is only at home where I perform my serious headphone listening, and where I bring out the best headphones I have. I believe listening to a great headphone at home through a decent headphone amplifier is something every audiophile should experience. Yes, it is very different than listening to a system with speakers, but it can be just as rewarding. Currently, my headphone amplifier of choice is the Pass Laboratories HPA-1, which I first gushed over in the October 2016 issue of Enjoy The Music. I also have on hand an Oppo HA-1 headphone amp, which I became aware of during my review of OPPO's PM-1 headphones, which I still use regularly. The PM-1 headphone amp has a built-in DAC, but the Pass Labs model is strictly a headphone amp, with very few extra features, but its sound quality is the best I have in my home.
When listening at home I use a stretch of Cardas cable that runs between the Pass Lab's headphone amp's input and an output on my main system. I like to connect the cable as close to the source as possible, so when listening to vinyl I connect the Cardas cable directly to an output of my Pass Labs XP-15 phono preamp. When listening to digital I like the interconnect to be attached to an output of the DAC I'm using, which is currently a model made by Auralic, either the VEGA or their newer VEGA G2.
This is relatively expensive for a headphone, but not that expensive for a high-end component. When one considers the price for a decent pair of high-end speakers, or just about any high-end component, yes, there are less expensive components, but there are many that cost more, and the price of these headphones seem to be in-line with the pricing of many other high-end components. Headphones are a very important piece of the audio chain, where one hears the result of why we've assembled our audiophile systems in the first place, the systems that are designed to provide us with the highest fidelity that is technically possible given the flexibility of our budgets. To skimp on headphones makes no sense. One should aspire to the best headphones one can afford.
When I played a complex recording, such as some of the mid-60s Bluenote LPs that are in my collection, the sound was extremely detailed, but at the same time, extremely musical. Again, this is the same thing I said about the PS-1000 and PS-1000e, and like those headphones, the music sounds so good that when performing serious listening sessions, I'd often become distracted by the music that was playing and forget to take listening notes. Through all of this, it was the music that made itself known, not the sonic prowess of the headphone. This made it easy to hear the intensions of the musicians, producers, and engineers that made the recording.
Once again, I've been on a John Coltrane kick, listening to all eras during his reign as one of the best saxophone players in the world. Some of my favorite Coltrane, and said by many to be his best albums, were recorded on Atlantic Records from 1959 to about 1961, where he had permission from the record company to do pretty much whatever he wanted as a band leader, and in doing so released some of his most famous works. One of the first albums he recorded on Atlantic was his groundbreaking Giant Steps, released in 1959. On this recording is a small combo, with John Coltrane on tenor sax, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. Pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Jimmy Cobb sub on one track. It might be assumed before listening to it that this four-man band would be a simple recording, with all the musicians playing their instruments in the same room, with no overdubs, and the musician's instruments only divided by small baffles to prevent bleeding into each other's microphones. It doesn't sound simple when listening to this album through a high-end system, that's for sure.
Within my collection I have both the mono and stereo versions of Giant Steps on LP, and both mono and stereo versions on high-resolution digital downloaded from HDTracks. This album isn't what I'd call a stereotypical audiophile recording, however, it is one that I've played so often I feel as if I could transcribe the score for each instrument! The sound through the PS-2000e is far from "simple", because these headphones can not only separate each instrument, but also place it in distinct area of the soundfield -- better than I've ever heard before. The "distinct area in the soundfield" is what is most amazing because this is true even when playing the mono recording. In fact, I prefer the mono version over the stereo version, and on it there is still something one could call a soundstage akin to the one that we hear through our system's speakers, allowing each instrument or group of instruments, as in the case of the drums, to not only occupy its own area in space, but to allow the air around each instrument to be heard, and the air in Atlantic's West 57th Street studio in New York to become audible.
When playing this album, of course one of the most outstanding characteristics is Coltrane's playing, especially his choice of notes during his extraordinary solos. Many of his contemporaries seemed to have an assemblage of licks stored in their head for their solos, and call them up as needed. Coltrane, on the other hand, performed his solos as a stream of consciousness that is being revealed as he proceeded, with no two "licks" being the same unless that is what was needed at the time, as he explored the breadth of the tune, experimenting, but at the same time having an intelligent approach to these dense patterns. His harmonic ideas during these solos were sometimes relative to the melody of the head of the tune, sometimes in relation to the chords of the tune in a modal style, often diminished or other scales that come into his mind, and some of them remain a mystery, but they all seem as if they are decided upon at lightning speed.
While this is all going on my attention will often wander in a meditative fashion, like it often does when at a performance, such as when my attention would turn to the sound of his horn, perhaps noting its reediness, and then turn to the other members of his band's instruments such as Art Taylors drums, where I might focus on the realistic sounding hit and release of his often-hit tom skins, the sizzle of his cymbals, the lifelike sounding crack of his snare, and then my attention might be attracted to the sound of the reverb as it bled into the sound of the other instruments on the recording. The PS-2000e was not only able to sonically sort all of this out, but most importantly, reproduce every instrument with an extremely lifelike sound, transporting my mind's ear back in time to the recording session, making it easy to be able to imagine the session taking place.
As expected, more aggressive fare than the Coltrane sounded great through the PS-2000e. I'm a unique music lover in that I still listen to the music that I enjoyed when I was younger, I've just piled new genres and new artists on top of what was already in my collection. So, when spinning the relatively new reissue of Steppenwolf's first, self-titled LP from 1968 on 200-gram vinyl, mastered by Kevin Gray and pressed in 2013 at Quality Records owned by Acoustic Sounds, it not only was a great test for the Grado headphones, but I was able to enjoy the ever increasingly great sound this album has attained over the years. Actually, this album always sounded very good, even back when I had to endure the noisy vinyl of the late 1960s/early 1970s ABC Records pressings -- yet perhaps it was just the music on the record that overshadowed its sound quality.
Regardless, this album was recorded at American Recorders outside of Los Angeles, which has a history of making some very decent sounding products. Some might suspect that the Steppenwolf hits "Born To Be Wild" and "The Pusher" might be the only decent tracks on the album, but this is not so. It is a great listen from start to finish, with not a bad track on the entire album. The Grado PS-2000e let me revel in the sound of the band, including leader John Kay's distorted Fender guitar and amplifier on most of the songs. But listening to this album on headphones is a real treat, and listening to it on what I consider one of the best headphones ever made was even a greater thrill. All the instruments, the drums, the piano, distorted Hammond B3, the guitars, and especially the vocals were all separated into different parts of a relatively crowded soundstage, made to sound even more crowded because the dynamics on the majority of the tracks range at most from loud to louder. And that's certainly cool with me. This listening experience was not as if I was eavesdropping in on the session, as on the Coltrane, because when listening at a healthy volume through the PS-2000e the Steppenwolf was more of an immersive experience.
The reason given by some as why they don't like headphone listening is that the sounds seem to emanate from "inside the head". Listening to Steppenwolf's debut did not sound like this at all when played back through the Grado PS-2000e when connected to the Pass Labs HP-1 headphone amplifier. The collection of sounds that made up the band and the vocals were, as I mentioned, separated in a large soundstage, or soundfield as I like to call this when speaking of headphones. But these sounds didn't emanate "inside of my head", but were part of a huge soundfield that surrounded my head like a 3D halo. This relatively early stereo mix had some instruments panned hard left and hard right, some of those sounded as if they were coming from across the room, some much closer to me. The vocals that were centered in the mix sounded as if the originated a few feet in front of my forehead, the reverb bleeding above, below, and to the sides of the voice, as if it was casting a light- colored shadow. I hope some listeners get to audition these headphones through a good source connected to a decent headphone amp to experience a sound such as this, with material as good as what is recorded on this LP. Even when I played the remastered digital version of this album, it was quite an experience. 35 minutes of hippy bliss.
The wrinkle here, though, is a common one -- the law of diminishing returns. The Grado PS-2000e costs one thousand dollars more than the model one step below it in their line, the PS-1000e. It certainly seems as if it costs Grado quite a bit to manufacture these headphones, and to make the improvements in the PS-2000e. But even if this new model does sound better, is this extra cost worth it? I cannot answer that question, because this is a question that the potential owner of the PS-2000e is going to have to ask for him or herself. I certainly think the Grado PS-2000e is worth the price. If you can afford it, go for it.
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