AVForums, Grado GR8
The market for high end earphones (often referred to as "In-ear monitors" to differentiate them from less sophisticated designs) has expanded dramatically in size in recent years. What was once a market largely focused on the pro-audio and live performance sector has spilled over to the domestic market as well. On a personal level, I have long preferred a decent pair of in-ear monitors over full size headphones when listening on the move as the effect is more discrete and I generally find them more comfortable as well.
Grado is a long time producer of full size headphones that have carved themselves a fearsome reputation. Their open back designs are highly regarded for tonal accuracy and neutrality. Their distinctive appearance generally doesn't do them any harm either- if retro is cool, then the Grado range is very cool. Initial attempts by the company to produce more portable models were focused on over ear designs but the company has now moved to in ear models. There are now three such models of which the £300 GR8 is the one in the middle.
There is no escaping that the Grado GR8 is not a cheap product. It is fairly demanding of partnering equipment and if you are planning to listen on a laptop, you might have to budget for a headphone amplifier as well. When you are dealing with a product that is already twice the price of the test winning Beyerdynamic DT660 from the headphone group test many of you would be justified in taking the decision that the Grado is a little too demanding for their needs.
The reward for this investment though is an extraordinary sounding in ear monitor that has coherence and integration that is rarely found in earphones at any price. If you work on the principle that many of us spend more time listening to earphones than we do our home systems, the GR8 starts to make more sense. If you are looking for a high end audio experience on the move, the Grado is too good to ignore.
The GR8 is an in ear design intended to sit in the ear canal and block out noise to the outside world. To this end, a selection of rubber domes is supplied to achieve this and the "pipe" that the domes attach to seems to be of the size that aftermarket domes will fit. The GR8 will not support custom moulded ear pieces however which is something that can dramatically improve the performance of some designs that can accept them.
Visually, the GR8 is nothing to get especially excited about. It is smaller than many rival in ear designs- Shure in particular produces in ear monitors with a substantially larger body by the time you reach £300. The metallic blue paint finish on the housings is of a high standard but nothing that much cheaper offerings can't match. The cord is of average thickness and there is no inline remote or any other additional controls available.
A more pressing concern is that the cord terminates at the housing in a conventional rubberised seal. This is the area where most earphones will fail thanks to the rubber perishing and the internal wire being shorted or snapped. Shure has recognised this as a point of weakness and created a rotating "cuff" that reduces the stress at this critical connection. While the earphone housing of the GR8 is much smaller and less likely to be a point of stress, it would still be good to see something sturdier put in.
The build of the housings is very good though and in general, the GR8 feels solid and well thought out. Many people, with every justification, might want a bit more visual drama for their £300 but for me, the understated looks are a bonus. Walking around in public with the GR8 attracts no attention whatsoever. They avoid giving out the message that you have expensive objects in your possession and might have some more if less salubrious elements of society felt like asking you about them. One area I am much less keen on is that your £300 does not cover any form of case or holder for the GR8 and I think that this is unnecessarily mean. The case doesn't need to be leather or anything fancy but a little pouch to prevent you from having to simply stick them in your pocket when not in use would be welcomed. The sum total of bits that come with your purchase are the three sizes of dome and a cleaning cloth.
So, if they aren't very large, aren't made of unobtanium and don't come with any ancillaries, what are you paying for? The short answer for people unconcerned by matters of engineering is "trick drivers." The longer version is a bit more involved but as it is the main feature of the GR8 and quite interesting in, worth looking into. In the words of half woman half moisturising pot Andie MacDowell "here comes the science."
The majority of high quality in-ear monitors on the market today use balanced armature drivers. The armature is a variation on the conventional driver and is better suited to in ear designs than a conventional "dynamic" driver which is simply a shrunken version of the type used in most speakers. The armature is suspended between two permanent magnets and by passing a current through it via a coil, it produces sound via the diaphragm of the earphone. The result is more compact than a dynamic driver, requires less energy and has superior treble performance as well.
The news isn't all good however. A balanced armature driver usually has significantly less bass response than a dynamic driver. To achieve decent bass response, the seal between your eardrum and the outside world must be very tight. More recent balanced armature designs from some manufacturers make use of more than one armature to allow for a bit more grunt. Three way designs are now relatively common and as many as five are not unheard of. This approach is not without limitations though. More drivers means bigger earphone bodies and more effort in the way of crossover design to have them work as one.
What the GR8 sets out to do is make use of the speed and accuracy of a balanced armature and combine it with the low end heft of the dynamic driver. It does this by using a moving armature design. Each GR8 housing has a single relatively large armature that in turn is partnered with a larger than usual diaphragm. The result should be the best of both worlds- it combines the speed and upper frequency neutrality of an armature design but the bass of more conventional earphones. Additionally, because there is only one driver, the coherence from top to bottom should be much improved. This single driver also means the housing is much smaller.
All well and good but making any armature is a costly and complex business. Making ones large enough for moving armature designs is very hard indeed. The two drivers that make up a GR8 are as best as I can work out are only made by one factory on Earth and they are by far and away the bulk of the production cost. As such you are paying for the insides when you stump up your £300.
I left the GR8 running for a few hours before doing any serious listening. My experience with all high end earphones is that they are usually a bit shrill out of the packaging. As I have ear canals you could park a Volvo estate in, I found the largest of the three supplied rubber domes gave the best fit for me. Unlike the slightly involved process that goes into getting a "correct" seal with some rival designs, the GR8 simply involves poking it into your ear and going about your business.
I used the GR8 out and about with my iPhone 4. Sources used include 256kbps MP3, Ogg Vorbis files Spotify and various streams from TuneIn Radio. I also used on demand TV services. For listening at home, my Lenovo Thinkpad was the most commonly used source and I used it both via the built in headphone socket and with a Furutech ADL Cruise USB headphone amplifier. This allowed me to listen to lossless and high resolution material via Songbird.
If you are seeking the answer to whether those moving armatures make the GR8 sound radically different to other in-ear monitor designs, I'll save you the bother- not really. If you ask the slightly more nuanced question, can I see the point to this approach, then more positively, I can definitely see why Grado has gone to the effort of engineering this solution.
The GR8 shares many aspects of voicing and tonality with the full size Grado headphones. They are clear and detailed and have a largely flat low end frequency response with a benign roll off to the top end. The result is very natural and unforced. I found the GR8 easy to listen to for long periods of time and they would be an ideal partner on a long flight. A quick "cheat" that is easy to apply to earphones is engineering a "U Crossover" where there is stacks of bass and artificially lifted treble. This without fail makes for an exciting 30 second demo but a rather less satisfying long term listening experience. That the GR8 avoids this approach is a real boon to living with them for extended periods.
This natural performance means that the GR8 is easily able to adapt to the music you are listening to at the time. Relaxed music is given the space it needs to open up and really engage with the listener. Part of what makes this an impressive achievement is that as an in-ear design, "space" created by the GR8 is pretty much entirely an illusion. Despite this, listen to something like the live recording of The Cinematic Orchestra at the Albert Hall and there is a genuine sense of the vast building that they are performing in. The audience is an appreciable distance from the musicians and this gives the GR8 a realism that is often a tough thing to achieve in with earphones.
The tonality is excellent as well. Like full size Grado designs, the GR8 is able to replicate voices and instruments in a way that is unambiguously real. Quite how effective the GR8 is at this really only really becomes apparent when you switch over to another pair of earphones in an A-B demo. Where many earphones will give you a sound that is "probably" a violin, the GR8 will accurately highlight the difference between a violin and a cello and provides the resolution to separate individual instruments as well.
This ability is especially pronounced with voices. Give the Grado something well recorded, like Imogen Heap's Little Bird and it is capable of startling realism. The results are genuinely competitive with full size headphones and after a minute or two, the GR8 achieves the holy grail of all earphones (actually most hi-fi full stop) in that you cease to be aware of sound reaching you by earphones and simply focus on the sound itself.
The sophisticated moving armature drivers are designed to give the GR8 more bass heft than rival designs and here the effects are less clear cut. The GR8 has good bass response. It can quite easily reproduce deep bass notes with authority and it starts and stops with impressive speed as well. I'm not convinced that it actually has any more depth and impact than a multiple driver design of the same price though. Whatever Shure might be losing in absolute horsepower to the GR8, they seem to be making up the difference with other aspects of the design such as the earbuds and driver housing. As my Gran has frequently pointed out, there is more than one way to skin a cat and my impression is that balanced armature technology spread across multiple drivers is the equal of the moving armature approach. The Grado is also relatively refined- this gives it a lovely richness with analogue bass but when you give it some thundering electronica like Younger Brother's A Flock of Beeps there is always the sense that it is slightly restrained.
Where the Grado unquestionably pulls back an advantage over rivals is the integration it possesses top to bottom. With only one driver per channel, the Grado has a focus and coherence that gives it an advantage with any music that has significant dynamic range. Every part of the frequency spectrum is given the same level of attention and it is only when you compare the GR8 to other designs that you again begin to realise how incredibly even-handed it is. The effect is the same as listening to a really well sorted single driver system but one without any appreciable roll off at either end. This is the moving armature design encapsulated and if you appreciate what it does, it is very hard to find any other earphone that can achieve the same effect.
In day to day use the Grado has many positive attributes but equally a few weaknesses. I found it to be very comfortable to wear. The light weight and comfortable dome tips meant I could listen for several hours without any discomfort creeping in. Sensitivity is also reasonably good for a design of this type although some lower powered headphone amps might struggle. I didn't find myself pushing devices very hard to reach reasonable listening levels (and like all good in-ear monitors, isolation is good enough to ensure you generally listen at lower levels than more "leaky" designs).
Where the Grado is less happy is with certain headphone sockets. I found that it picked up noise on the usually silent Lenovo headphone socket and seemed to find background interference on the other laptops in the house as well. The iPhone proved quieter although some cellular interference did creep in from time to time. If I used the Furutech headphone amp, there was no noise at all but given that this little combo weighs in at nearly £700, you'd expect it to be.
The GR8 is impressively forgiving of compressed and poorly recorded material. Spotify is perfectly enjoyable and a good internet radio stream was equally appealing. If you are listening to lossless and high resolution material, the GR8 rises to the challenge and really benefits from the additional quality. Heavily compressed music shows up the limitations but I'm not sure this is really the intended material for an earphone in this price bracket.
As you might expect, with their design that is intended to close the ear canal off, the GR8 provides excellent isolation from the outside world. They also leak virtually no noise back out. If you are a commuter, your fellow passengers will be very pleased if you choose the Grado as your musical choices will remain yours and yours alone.
Grado Labs' First In-Ear Headphones
Grado Labs is a small, family-run headphone company based in Brooklyn, NY. For years, they've been known for producing high-quality traditional-style headphones that deliver top-grade sound in retro style designs. In the past couple of years, Grado has taken notice of the ever growing popularity of mobile music, and have recently introduced their first ever in-ear model, the GR8. I don't know if it's supposed to be "G-R-8" or "great". If it's the latter, it's certainly a bold statement for a company that's never made a set of in-ear headphones before, no matter how good their track record is for traditional headphones.
The first thing I noticed about the GR8 is how simple and unassuming they are. Most headphones in this price class have fancy packaging, several accessories, and a striking design. The GR8s come in plain brown packaging, don't come with much in the way of accessories, and look very much like any other standard in-ear headphones. Their look gives no real indication of the high-quality components that lie hidden inside.
The GR8s have a sparkly dark blue finish and a very small design. The earpieces are about the size of raisins, and a small raised bump on the left earpiece makes it easy to find the correct earpiece, even in the dark. The overall weight is a mere 9 grams, including the headphone cable. Most in-ear headphones in this class are much bulkier and heavier than this. The GR8s are so small that you could comfortably lie down on a pillow with them in your ears and not even notice that they're there.
The GR8s use proprietary moving armature drivers to deliver audio. Many higher-end in-ear headphones use this type of driver, and sometimes even 2, 3, or more drivers in each earpiece. The GR8s use single armatures, but this helps to keep the size and weight as low as possible, while still offering great sound.
I haven't heard sound this good out of a set of headphones this small in a long time. The GR8s have a clear, open sound and wonderful balance. They don't have the heaviest bass around, but bass is well represented, and never overpowers mid and treble tones. One of the things that impressed me the most was the balance between bass, mids, and treble. I was always able to hear all of the elements of a song, which made the listening experience really enjoyable. It's hard to compare headphones in this price class, because while they often sound different, they all sound good. However, I find that a lot of high-end in-ears have a more "clinical" kind of sound, offering great audio accuracy, but feeling a bit hands-off. The GR8s are very "alive", providing a rich, immersive experience. After a burn-in period of several hours of use, the GR8s were sounding even better. If you do happen to try these and don't like them, allow them to play for a solid 24 hours or more and try them again. You may be surprised at how much the sound opens up.
When it comes to comfort, the GR8s are hard to beat. This is partially due to the small size and minimal weight, which allow the headphones to disappear after a few minutes of use. The other comfort factor is the eartips, which are made from a special blend of 2 types of silicone. The eartips are offered in 3 sizes. Finding the right size for your ear canal lets the headphones create a seal that blocks out ambient noise, improves sound quality and bass from the headphones, and provides lasting comfort and stability. An improper fit will result in weak sound, and the headphones will keep falling out of your ears. Nobody wants that, so make sure you try all 3 sizes to find the best fit for you.
The headphone cable is ridiculously lightweight, but still manages to offer a solid feel. The interior is made of oxygen-free copper to make sure your sound has a clean signal path to travel along, while the outside has a flexible and durable coating. Strain relief is built into the connection points at the earpieces and the plug to help prevent cable damage. The plug itself is made from gold-plated brass for durability and resistance to corrosion. It's a standard 3.5mm size, so it will work with MP3 players, CD players, laptops, smart phones, and so forth. The cable also resists noise from friction and handling, so you won't hear bumps and scrapes as you move about with the headphones.
One minor drawback to the GR8s is their overall lack of bundled accessories. It's very common for in-ear headphones in this class to come with some sort of travel pouch, and perhaps a 1/4" plug adapter for connecting to high-grade audio components. No such luck here. On the other hand the GR8s come with a set of cloth filters and rubber rings, which are used to prevent earwax, dust, and debris from getting inside the headphones. These sorts of filters are not commonly included with in-ear headphones, and are a welcome addition.
Overall, this is a fantastic first attempt at a set of in-ears. I really shouldn't be surprised, given Grado's track record. When I saw how small and simple the headphones looked, I just wasn't convinced that they could compete with some of the big name in-ears. I was wrong. The GR8s gave me one of the most pleasurable listening experiences I've had from a set of in-ears in quite awhile. They would offer better value if they included a few more accessories, but if your overall focus is getting great sound in a really small and lightweight design, they're pretty hard to beat. I'm looking forward to seeing what Grado learns from their first in-ear adventure and how they develop the line in the future.
When we receive products for review, there is pressure to review it pretty quickly. Rarely does that pressure come from a manufacturer, mostly it's self-imposed. We just like to get the information out in timely manner but also spend enough time to give an honest assessment. But sometimes for various reasons it can take weeks before reviews are posted. And sometimes, thats turns out to be a real good thing.
For instance, if we had pushed a review of the Grado GR8 earphones, we would have had some not-so-nice things to say about them. But as it turned out, other things got in the way, so we listened to them more and more as time passed. And the GR8s just seemed to get better and better.
We don't know if they loosened up or we just got used to them, but with each use, they started to become indispensable. So lets break down what it is that is so "right" about these earphones.
First, there's the armatures or armature in this case. For those of you who aren't up on all the earphone lingo, armatures are basically tiny speakers (though not like your traditional speaker design) that are tuned for different audio frequencies coupled with crossovers that determine how those armatures handle those frequencies (single armature earphones have no crossovers). Its the same thinking that goes into bookshelf speakers. The downside to this expensive approach is that if not designed properly, the music can sound muddy or 'not quite right'. However, if done right, the results are stunning. It goes like this: more armatures means better sound. Simple, right? We have heard many dual armature earphones that will amaze you. And there are many triple, quad and even more armature setups available. And they are priced accordingly, meaning from out of a normal person's financial reach into insane territory.
So why do the Grados which are priced as much or more than most double armature earphones sound so good with only one armature? We haven't a clue. Seriously, we don't. There are only two single armature earphones we've heard that sound as good as duals: These and the Klipsch X10.
We try to avoid direct comparisons of different brands of earphones, because usually the sound differences are more preference than quality. But we will say that the GR8s sound as "fun" as the single-armature Klipsch's and even our dual-armature Westone 2s, Not better or worse, but just as pleasurable. It's really hard to quantify since each brand has what is known as a "signature sound". But we could easily listen to the GR8s all day with no fatigue. Believe it or not, that is rare, even on more expensive earphones.
We listened to the GR8s for almost 2 months, testing them in all kinds of musical genres which, in turn, also let us get used to them. Like we said earlier, they took some getting used to. Initially, we had a seal problem. They were just too shallow and 'fat' for deep insertion, so bass was awful. And the puny choice of tips didn't help much. The GR8s come with three. Thats it. We've received less expensive earphones with 10 different tip choices. If Grado has determined that only three different sized tips are needed, then they could have at least supplied two pair in each size. And also, where's the case? This is one big oversight. We can't explain that one. You do, however, get some replacement wax filters which is rare even in this price range.
But we stuck with the supplied tips and finally realized that inserting the GR8s upside down while wrapping the cord around behind the ear did the trick. That allowed the earphone to be pushed deeper into the ear canal which made for a fantastic seal. Wow, what a difference. And while the bass was and still is not forward sounding, it's there and it kicks. Actually now, the GR8s have a round, warm sound that is not harsh or clinical as some armature-based earphones can be.
Listening to complete albums back-to-back just brings smiles. Human League's "Sound of the Crowd" features a synthetic bass and drum line that permeates the song within a wide soundstage. It's all over your head. The orchestral "Heroes" by Philip Glass, David Bowie and Brian Eno sounds every bit as good as a live performance. Instruments are left, right and in front of you. It's like you are in the middle of the orchestral pit. The highs are not bitter at all and the bass is just right without being boomy.
The GR8s really bring out all the analog-synth glory of Wendy Carlos' "March from a Clockwork Orange". The fake choir and orchestral symphony is almost magical. Turned up loud, some of the notes physically hurt but in a good way. You understand the allure of Beethoven for Alex, the main character from the book and movie.
You can feel the power in George Thorogood's "Who Do You Love?" as he mercilessly crashes down on the strings with his pick. On lesser earphones, the bass would have drowned out half of the mids. Here, mids are up front where they belong.
All in all, we think that the Grado GR8s are more suited to older rock and orchestral than the newer, more bass-heavy music popular now. If you like your hip-hop and such, you may be happier with cheaper earphones that vibrate your brain.
The looks of the GR8s can be deceiving. At first glance, they look like black, generic earphones packaged in a nondescript brown box. Look more carefully, and you begin to notice that the 'Black" plastic is actually a very dark blue with a silvery sheen. It's the kind of paint treatment you might find on a hotrod car. Plus they are banded by a simple aluminum ring. Its an understated look that grows on you. Also, on the left earphone, there is a tiny, almost invisible bump in the plastic so you can feel which one is the left one without looking. It's a neat trick.
It's been written that the GR8s have that famous "Grado sound". We don't know anything about that because we haven't heard any Grado reference headphones. All we know is that the GR8s sound really, really good. What else matters more than that? I couldn't have said it better myself.
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