The Copper Interview

John Grado of Grado Labs, Part Two

In Part One (Issue 115), John Seetoo and John Grado talked about Grado’s reference vinyl discs, the “Grado sound,” the use of wood in headphones and cartridges, company founder Joseph Grado and more. We continue the conversation here.

John Seetoo: Let’s talk more about home audio. The premium Epoch cartridge line combines cocobolo wood with precious stones, gold, and intricate wiring to create an ultra-low mass cartridge that has garnered rave reviews. What inspired you to arrive at this design and what motivated you to create it during a time when streaming has become the dominant platform for most music listeners?

John Grado: Grado had been in business for over 60 years and was the first to offer a stereo moving coil cartridge. Now we hadn’t made a moving coil cartridge since the early 1960s and over the years it seemed as though vinyl listeners came to think that if the cartridge wasn’t a moving coil it just wasn’t very good. To be honest, it bothered me that after all these years in business making cartridges longer than most companies around, I felt we weren’t getting the respect we deserved.

A 1960s Grado turntable.

So my competitive juices started to flow, being a boy from Brooklyn. I went to work designing what I wanted to be considered one of the finest cartridges in the world and not a moving coil design. Two years later, we introduced the $12,000 Epoch cartridge to rave reviews, [with] notable reviewers saying it was the best cartridge they had ever heard. But we didn’t stop there. We continued to work and recently we introduced the next generation of the Epoch, and the response has been that after hearing this new version, it was difficult for people to listen to the original. We were so proud of this new Epoch3 that we offered a trade-in program for people who had bought the original: send us your old working Epoch and we’ll send you a brand new one free of charge. That’s how eager we were to get the word out that we felt we had the best cartridge money could buy.

The Grado Epoch3 cartridge.

All we have learned in developing the Epoch3 has trickled down our cartridge line, all the way to the entry level Prestige Black3, a great sounding cartridge for the money.

JS: While streaming is the dominant platform, vinyl has made a resurgence. What is your opinion on this trend, and how has Grado Labs addressed this burgeoning new market?

JG: The younger generation has been brought up with streaming as the dominant platform. To them vinyl is a new technology, something they can touch; the turntable is a toy they can set up and play and, most importantly, they hear how good it sounds. They enjoy the act of shopping for an album and looking at the photos and reading the album jacket. It becomes a discussion with friends about what albums one has and the music the bands are making. All that is more than just pulling music out of the air and not thinking of where it’s coming from. Vinyl brings them closer to the music and makes it a more enjoyable experience.

During our peak years [in the] late 1970s, we were producing about 10,000 cartridges a week. During the 1980s with the introduction of the compact disc, demand for cartridges steadily dropped to a low of 12,000 for the year 1990. As we entered the headphone market at that time we really didn’t expect that in the year 2020 we would still be producing phono cartridges, but we are and we are thrilled to be doing so. It has been a very pleasant surprise to be in the phono cartridge business and still innovating 67 years after Joe made his first cartridges on his kitchen table.

Building an Epoch3 cartridge.

JS: Vinyl has undergone physical changes over the last century, from heavier discs during the post-World War II period to the 1960s, the wafer thin and prone-to-warp RCA Dynaflex LPs of the 1970s and 1980s, to current vinyl discs, which are a closer return to the more robust records of the early to mid-20th century.

How have Grado Labs’ cartridges addressed these changes in vinyl disc manufacturing regarding optimum fidelity, the tracking force required and the playback of warped discs, and which Grado models do you think would be the best all-around-use cartridges for someone with an extensive record collection that may be nearly a century old?

JG: We manufacture cartridges for 78 RPM, mono and stereo reproduction. The signal on the vinyl is transmitted the same way as it was a hundred years ago. Of course, there have been improvements in materials science; however, the signal on the vinyl is the same. There is no one solution; someone with an extensive record collection would possibly need all three [cartridge] designs.

JS: In the relatively early years of Grado Labs, Joseph Grado was making loudspeakers, turntables and receivers, but made a conscious decision to focus on phonograph cartridges and ceased production on all other product lines. Some of those early Grado speakers and other units have become historic collectibles. Do you remember what those units sounded like? What popular rival brands and models would you compare them to?

Grado loudspeakers.

JG: I’m not sure how old you think I am but fortunately I’m not that old. Joe started with cartridges and expanded into speakers and turntables and also a few accessories. All that ended with the exception of cartridges in 1964. I started work as a 12 year old on July 3, 1965 so I missed out on those earlier products, but their reputation lives on. We still get calls for parts or information about them, especially the turntable and the wooden tonearm and it’s been almost 60 years that they’ve been out of production. That’s the reputation they’ve acquired and that we work to uphold.

JS: Grado is a Brooklyn-born company going three generations strong. What do you think makes privately owned Brooklyn hi-fi companies like Grado Labs or Ohm Acoustics different from their rivals? Would you ever consider expanding outside of Brooklyn?

JG: It’s the water; we have the best water in the world. But more importantly, it’s our employees and Brooklyn with its diverse population gives us a talent pool unlike any other place. We feel a company is only as good as its workers. At Grado, we like everyone to feel like family and that’s how we treat them.

The thought of moving or expanding any other place never entered my mind, I’m a Brooklyn boy always and always will be. Where else can you get pizza like what’s made in Brooklyn? Like I said, it’s all in the water.

JS: As your sons, Jonathan and Matt, are now working with you at Grado Labs, how important has their generation’s use of computers, the internet and digital technology become in your current business? What areas do you feel in which these are an advantage, and what areas do you think keeping things “old school” is better?

JG: First, I must say it’s a joy to be working with my sons, and I understand my Uncle Joe’s enthusiasm at having someone continue on what he had built over the years.

An early Grado tonearm.

Jonathan coming on board really took us into the new era of social media and of showing us the importance of having a properly designed and informative website. A while back the website Mashable did a nationwide survey of small businesses, evaluating their influence through social media, Grado coming in the top eight nationwide showed that we were making a presence and getting our message out. And the continual work on our website helps keep people well informed of the goings on at Grado.

Jonathan also works on the partnerships that we’ve been involved with. Companies such as Bushmills whiskey, Oreo, Reebok, Dolce & Gabbana, and Microsoft to name a few. We enjoy working with these and other companies. It keeps life interesting.

Family tradition: John and Jonathan Grado.

Matthew also gives his creative import on all the design work going out and actually promotes Grado through his personal Instagram and Facebook sites.

Working with both sons has been a blending of old school and new, and the result I feel has worked well. The boys were the ones to push for us to get into in-ear [headphones] development and more recently the whole Bluetooth market, all while keeping our full line of wired headphones and phono cartridges. All have been successful. So it’s been a good blend and I see many good things coming in the future.

JS: Are your sons involved with you in R & D (research and development), and what are some of the criteria you use to decide upon trying fresh materials, a new design, or going for a unique sound?

JG: Both sons are involved in all aspects of the company, and they both have their specialties. Matthew has been working with me to cover the daily operations, front office and production. He also works very closely with the production of the wooden series of cartridges which only he and myself undertake. What I’ve learned over my 55 years at Grado can’t be acquired in a few short years but he is eager to learn and picks things up much quicker than I did.

John, Matthew, Loretta and Jonathan Grado.

I have been around here since 1965, at first looking over Uncle Joe’s shoulder and over the years accumulating all the Grado knowledge and techniques, and I’m thrilled to be passing this onto Matthew. He also has some projects he’s working on that might be implemented in the near future.

We always keep our eyes and ears open for new materials that we feel could be interesting to work with, as with our latest, the hemp wood headphone. We had heard about hemp wood and thought it would be an interesting project to try to build a headphone, without knowing how it would machine or how it would sound. Both were a challenge but we worked at it and feel we have an amazing product.

Each Grado model has its unique sound but we feel none of our models roam outside of what we like to be known as the Grado sound. We think of each as having their own formula or recipe and feel anyone familiar with the Grado sound, if listening blindfolded, would be able to tell they were listening to a Grado product.

JS: If Grado Labs were to expand into an additional product line outside of headphones and cartridges, what would it be, and why?

JG:I really couldn’t see us expanding to other products in the audio industry, but maybe something to do with food. We are big foodies and do quite a bit of experimenting, and of course we enjoy eating our experiments.

JS: Of all the different cartridge and headphone models in the Grado product line, past and present, which ones, if put in a time capsule and opened fifty to a hundred years from now, would you say best exemplify the Grado sound?

JG: Well, I’d have to say what best exemplifies the Grado sound would be our two flagships, the PS2000e headphone and the Epoch3 phono cartridge.

The PS2000e headphones.

But the ones I’m most proud of would be our SR60e headphones and our Prestige Black3 phono cartridge. The reason being, I feel when cost is no object there are fewer restrictions when working on a design, but with the SR60e and the Black3, cost was a consideration and to design a $79 headphone and a $75 cartridge that are held in such high esteem are accomplishments I’m most proud of.

Grado is not a company that just makes products for one [price] segment of the market; we make products for every segment. We often get contacted with people telling us how they have grown up with our brand, starting with our entry level models and experiencing the thrill of moving up the product line over the years.

It’s hard to build a respected reputation, but it’s even harder to keep that reputation for over 67 years, and that is our game plan.

John Grado at CES 1995.

John Grado at CES, 1995.

 

Header image: an early Grado cartridge.