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In recent years, and with the help of everyone from Dr. Dre, to supermodel Kate Upton, to Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps, marketing noise has absolutely roared for the first time in the headphone industry—rocketing certain brands to unprecedented heights (here's lookin' at you, Beats).
Meanwhile, a little plant in Brooklyn, NY diligently toils away without a single advertisement. Founded in the 1950s by a gifted Sicilian watchmaker, time-honored Grado Labs just released its newest hand-assembled family member, the SR80e open-backed headphones (MSRP $99). An update to an older model, the SR80e on-ears seek to impress listeners with updates like patented polycarbonate materials for lowered distortion, and precious metal flourishes that resist corrosion.
Whatever its fancy components, the SR80e is certainly worth a listen: Thanks to its open-backed form factor and quality guts, these on-ears deliver truly excellent sound. They won't work for commutes or public places—open backs mean that outside noise gets in, and inside sound leaks out—but for a private space, the Grado SR80e is nothing short of an outstanding choice.
There are so many great things to say about this product's hand-assembled ensemble. To begin with, the SR80e on-ears are extremely comfortable. The foam speaker pads are soft and large, and the band applies enough clamping force for a firm fit, but not enough to cause your ears to ache. I was able to wear these for the better part of a day before my ears felt tired. I also appreciated the six-foot long cable, which gave me plenty of wiggle room at my desk.
The components are quite durable, as well. Grado outfits various components with a type of platinum called rhodium, for instance, to help prevent corrosion of vulnerable connections. Hefty metal rods join the cups safely to the band. A thick, brawny cable uses solid reinforcements at every joint, and the foam speaker pads are replaceable—adding yet another measure of longevity to this already super-durable product.
In case you're wondering, you definitely shouldn't take these headphones on your commute: If you do, you risk looking like Indiana Jones with the sprawling 6.83-foot long cable; outside noise masks and distorts your music because of the open-backed design; and you'll bother everyone in the vicinity with your Creedence Clearwater Revival. These belong in a quiet, stationary place: Think John Cusack making mix tapes in High Fidelity. Finally, the only extra included in the box is a gold-plated stereo adapter—no carry case, microphone, or remote.
As a headphone critic, one of the most enjoyable moments you can experience during the review process is when an instrument you never really noticed before suddenly stands out in a familiar song—which is precisely what happened to me while listening to the Grado SR80e open-backs. You think: Wow, I never noticed that soft tambourine in the background before.
Generally, I listen to headphones prior to running tests on them. Last week, I slipped the SR80e headphones on and hit play. The first thing I noticed was that delicate musical details and gentle overtones stood out with impressive clarity. Metal coils crackling across the underside of a snare, clapping hands, twinkling chimes, the initial touch of an animal-hair bow against a taut string—delicate details just flood forth with impressive auditory detail.
Sure enough, testing revealed very judicious balance across the audible spectrum. Bass notes are plenty strong without receiving inordinate volume; middle notes on strings, brass, percussion and the rest are perfectly audible; and high notes ring forth with ample volume. Literally, from top to bottom, every note in the book is expertly emphasized to retain high levels of detail and clarity.
Another standout feature of the SR80e on-ears is that they deftly avoid high amounts of perceptible distortion, or that unwanted mechanical noise that sometimes underpins your music during playback. The open speaker backs allow sound waves to travel outward as they would in an open space, which prevents music from bouncing around an enclosure, as with closed-back types. Where many headphones produce a prominent and unwanted ssssss sound that clutters the background of a soundstage, the SR80e doesn't.
Of course, the SR80e can't do everything well. I discovered an imbalance in volume in the left and right speakers that occurs in the high end, for example. Luckily, the flaw is mild enough that most listeners won't notice, but it's something for picky listeners to look for just in case.
Nor are these headphones made for commutes or noise blocking. Since these are open-backed, you can hear outside noise all too easily, even if you crank up the volume; conversely, your neighbors will hear your music because sound also leaks out. During testing, I could see coworkers from across the room head-bopping to my Led Zeppelin. If you absolutely need something for a public office and you have a smaller budget, the excellent Sony MDR-7506 might be your best bet.
Enthusiasts in search of headphones to use in private, stationary spaces need look no further than the Grado Labs SR80e open-backed on-ear headphones. For just $99, this American-made product delivers extremely detailed audio, plush design, and tons of clarity.
On the topic of comparison shopping, many buyers will no doubt compare the SR80e to the beloved Sony MDR-7506. The Sonys are certainly the better choice if you require similar performance with closed speaker backs, but the Grados boast lower distortion and more natural-sounding audio.
So while they won't do for commutes or public spaces due to the open-backed speakers, there are still plenty of reasons to invest in these excellent Grado headphones.
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