In recent years, and with the help of everyone from Dr. Dre to supermodel Kate Upton to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, marketing noise has roared for the first time in the headphone industry — rocketing certain brands to unprecedented heights.
Meanwhile, a little plant in Brooklyn, N.Y., Has diligently toiled away without a single advertisement since the ’60s. Founded in the 1950s by a gifted Sicilian watchmaker, 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 are certainly worth a listen: Thanks to their open-backed form and quality guts, these headphones deliver truly excellent sound. They won’t work for commutes or public places — open backs mean that outside noise seeps in, and inside sound leaks out — but for a private space, the Grado SR80e is an outstanding choice.
There’s no better place to begin talking about the SR80e than with its hand-assembled ensemble. For starters, these on-ear headphones 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 aching. I wore 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 — these headphones are built to last.
With that said, you definitely shouldn’t take these headphones with you on your commute. If you do, outside noise will mask and distort your music because of the open-backed design, and you’ll bother everyone in the vicinity with your Led Zeppelin. These belong in a quiet, stationary place.
In the right environment, listeners can slip on the SR80e headphones and enjoy excellent sound quality: Delicate musical details and gentle overtones stand out with impressive clarity. Metal coils crackling across the underside of a snare, clapping hands and twinkling chimes all emerge gracefully from the musical mix.
This level of detail is thanks to judicious balance across the entire audible spectrum. Testing revealed strong but not overpowering bass notes; perfectly audible middle notes on strings, brass and the rest; and properly emphasized high notes. From high to low, every note in the book is expertly emphasized to retain high levels of detail and clarity. In addition, the SR80e on-ears deftly avoid high amounts of perceptible distortion, or that unwanted mechanical noise that sometimes underpins your music during playback.
However, 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 be on guard for, just in case.
On the topic of comparison shopping, one of the closest competitors to the SR80e is the beloved Sony MDR-7506. While the SR80e makes a great choice for private spaces, if you absolutely need affordable headphones for a public office, the MDR-7506 is probably your best bet. Still, the Grados boast lower distortion and more natural-sounding audio — so the MDR-7506 is the better choice only for those who require closed speaker backs.
So while they won’t do for commutes or public spaces because of the open-backed speakers, there are still plenty of reasons to invest in these excellent $99 Grado headphones — extremely detailed audio, plush design, and tons of clarity, to name a few.