So this piece is going to serve two functions. The first is going to be to review the Grado SR80I with L-Cush Pads and the second is going to be to write about the importance of synergy.
I’ll start with the Grado bit. First of all, it’s unique. It has a very tiny soundstage (although this improves a bit with L-Cush pads) with its entire goal being to bring as intimate of a presentation as possible to give one the sound signature that they’d get if they were in front row seats at a concert. The ability of this headphone to reproduce vocals is exceptional and they offer a wonderful sweet sound that isn’t extremely think or bright but with just enough body. As far as guitars go, this is where we begin to run into some things that can either be an advantage or a massive problem.
To start, the SR80I render guitars in an extremely edgy fashion which makes them insanely fatiguing after not very much listening time. The upside of this? Well if you’re at a rock concert with front row seats, that’s exactly how guitars sound. Edgy, strident, fatiguing, crunchy. It’s one case in which they do their job so well that it can either cause you to reach for them to have a nice change of pace from other headphones, or can cause you to recoil in disgust due to how outright offensive they can sound.
For you jazz fans, I’d highly recommend these for you as it models horns in a spectacular (and also fatiguing) fashion. They are full bodied on the horns with higher registers (i.e. trumpets etc) but present instruments such as saxophone in an extremely airy smooth fashion that is absolutely terrific. Beware though that the trumpets etc do get fatiguing as with most things on the headphone, they are extremely aggressive.
The treble is a similar story. It’s extremely bright and fatiguing. Very detailed and very crisp, but very bright. For a couple hours it’s tolerable — fantastic even. But after two hours, you begin to make faces like Tyll did in his Ultrasone Edition 10 review with every single cymbal crash. The brightness and up close presentation is just too much.
If you’re a fan of strong bass, don’t even think about it. They will give you very nice mid bass kick that’s tight, and very punchy due to the fact that you can feel the drivers moving (since they are basically sitting directly on top of your ear which makes these horribly uncomfortable) but for things that require sub bass, you can hear it up to a certain frequency threshold, and after that it loses any sense of pitch or impact and just becomes something that you can barely feel. It’s not going to give you anything like Denons or modded Fostex T50Rps do where you almost feel as if your brain is being sucked out of your ears due to how strong the sub bass is.
So, so far I haven’t given you any reason to buy these headphones. They’re extremely uncomfortable, offensive to the ears, and have a tiny soundstage. Why do I use them you ask? Synergy.
You see, take away all the parts where I mentioned that the headphone is edgy and fatiguing, and you have a fantastic sounding headphone on your hands. How do you do this? With an amp and dac. Contrary to popular belief, amping is not about volume and a dac’s goal is not necessarily to be 100% transparent. It is to create the best synergy in a setup possible with its sound signature. For me, it starts with my dac choice of the ODAC. It is transparent, but compared to other DAC’s that I’ve heard (Fiio E7, DAC Destroyer, Peachtree DAC-It), it’s more on the warmer end of neutral. Another area in which the ODAC helps the Grados is that due to the Grado’s small soundstage, sometimes imaging can get a bit crowded and messy. The ODAC’s large soundstage and excellent detail retrieval enhances the Grado’s imaging ability.
Now for the amp end of things. If you’re planning on getting anything Grado, unless you want a headache, don’t get a solid state. I get it. You want something neutral that doesn’t alter sound at all via distortion. You want crispness and clarity. For some headphones it makes sense, but in this case all it does is denies you the chance at a purely magical sound that can be obtained through the use of a tube amp. Now which tube amp you ask? Well, if it’s something that sounds solid statey, don’t bother. It’s still not going to tame the savage highs that the Grado produces. If you want something cheap, you can get away with something like a Little Dot I+, but for me, even that didn’t do enough to put the Grados onto my regular listening radar. You want something warm sounding. But a warm sounding amp doesn’t fit my other headphones so why would I get an amp for only one set of headphones, you say. Well, I wouldn’t get an amp for one set of headphones either. At least not until I get enough money to be one of those guys with Stax SR-009s and a Blue Hawaii amp. And a few other setups. And a dedicated speaker room. Anyway I digress. You want a tube amp that can offer a wide variety of sounds to get the best possible synergy with multiple set of headphones and for that purpose, my recommendation is the Project Ember. Let’s talk about what it does to the Grados to create the desired synergy.
As you may have seen in my Project Ember review, it’s highly customizable with a wide range of potential sound signatures. Problem is that (surprise surprise) the Grados are still awfully bright with stock settings. What do you do then? The first step is to choose a warmer sounding tube, but for me that still isn’t enough. The second step (and most critical) is to bypass the input capacitors and switch to high gain. For reasons beyond my knowledge, switching to high gain, bypassing the input caps, and using a higher output resistance provides a smoother sound and makes the Grados entirely non fatiguing. They’re still on the brighter end and guitars still have the edge that people look for when someone buys a set of Grados, but they’re smooth. The vocals and sax become even sweeter and airier. Trumpets still are impactful but in a way that’s incredibly tolerable and not ringy at all. Bass develops a nice warm roundness that makes it good to listen to for anything that is not electronic. The qualities of this headphone that can make it fantastic begin to surface and the savage beast that violates the listener’s ears goes away.
Due to the synergy present in this setup, the Grados have gone from a headphone that I only wear for a couple hours at most due to comfort issues and headache inducing treble, to a headphone that I’ve had on for 6 hours or so today with no fatigue whatsoever. I cannot stress enough that when buying audio equipment, the quality of each individual part is nowhere near as important as what the parts sound like when they are put together.
If you have any comments/constructive criticism/questions please let me know and as always thanks for reading!
Sidenote if you didn’t get the Tyll Ultrasone review reference you can find that video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L34S4Tt1EuQ