John Grado graciously sat down with me (figuratively, considering the current situation) for this interview.
John Seetoo: In another interview, you mentioned that your three reference recordings for checking headphones are Jazz Party by Duke Ellington, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged and a record by Ella Fitzgerald, Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!
What is it about those specific records that you feel cover the spectrum of music sounds needed to evaluate headphones?
John Grado: I feel anyone who has to listen, compare and categorize their findings needs a reference point. Since the beginning these three have been that for me. On Duke’s Jazz Party I listen to the xylophone; on Eric’s Unplugged it’s the applause and on Ella’s album I listen to her voice. Everyone, I’m sure, has their own system [for evaluation], and these are part of mine.
JS: You are a tremendous Beatles fan and Ringo Starr is a friend and Grado headphones owner. Do you ever include any Beatles records in your quality control test listening, and if so, which songs and what specific elements (vocals, guitars, drums, etc.) do you listen for and why?
JG: I am a big Beatles fan, have been since the fourth grade when they first visited the United States. Ringo is an acquaintance; he is a good friend of my best friend of over 60 years, Mark Rivera. Mark and I actually had a Beatles cover band in the fourth grade and Mark is currently Ringo’s musical director and saxophonist for Billy Joel. I truly enjoy the Beatles’ music, [they’re] actually my favorite band, but the songs haven’t worked into my reference listening list.
JS: Do you have your own criteria for tweaking a headphone design if the vinyl (presumably played on a Grado cartridge-equipped turntable) sounds noticeably different from the CD or SACD of the same recording?
JG: When designing a headphone or cartridge we have our techniques of controlling and guiding the design through the process, techniques we’ve learned over many years of working with different materials, shapes and forms. We’ve learned how to control and damp the different resonant frequencies to blend and work well together, [and lower] the noise level. Bottom line, we produce and sell products and sound that we like, and we’re happy to have a customer base that enjoys what we enjoy.
JS: Are there one or several Grado cartridges that you deploy to check your headphones? Also, what other equipment (amp, preamp, et al) comprises your monitoring setup?
JG: We use our Lineage Epoch3 phono cartridge mounted on a Grado Signature tonearm which is mounted on a Micro Seiki turntable. This all feeds into Audio Research electronics and plays through our custom-built speaker design consisting of 32 headphone drivers in each of the two towers. The headphones are driven by a Grado Signature HPA-2 headphone amp.
JS: Audiophile writer and critic Steve Guttenberg is a fan of Grado headphones. He says that all the various speaker formats, such as planar magnetic, dynamic, and electrostatic have headphone equivalents. However, he feels that Grados are the only headphones on the market that one can consider analogous to horn speakers, which he thinks are the reason Grado headphones exhibit the same “live,” open and “immediacy” qualities in music reproduction. The reputation of Grado headphones and their characterization as being excellent for listening to live music and recreating the sense of space for ensemble performances has been echoed by many reviewers. These are also shared traits with horn speakers.
Were there any particular model loudspeakers whose sound influenced the design of Grado headphones?
JG: We are thrilled to have Steve Guttenberg as a fan of our products; it’s always nice knowing our work is appreciated. But, there were no loudspeakers that influenced the design of Grado headphones; it was the sound of live music. The headphones were part of getting recording mixes right under live situations. Joe [Grado], with me as his assistant, did many live recordings and this let us hear what things sound like live and helped us develop what has become known as the Grado sound.
JS: The RS1 was the first Grado headphone model to use wood construction. You have since used cocobolo, jarrah, spruce, mahogany and other woods in manufacturing headphones and cartridges. Are there certain sonic properties that these hardwoods possess, akin to guitar lutherie, that inspires you to try these woods for headphone and cartridge design, or are you first captivated visually by the woods or other qualities, with the design driving the engineering to create the sound?
JG: In 1994 I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, “let’s try wood.” I then started the journey. Within two days we had built a headphone out of walnut. Why walnut? That was the only wood we happened to have in the shop and we needed to start somewhere. We listened to this headphone and immediately knew we liked what we were hearing, although we didn’t think the final design would be using walnut. We are trial and error types of designers; we get an idea and go to work. Every idea doesn’t work out but we learn from it and move on. We went through numerous woods till we came to mahogany, and that’s what we used to make our first wooden headphone, the RS1.
Over the years we have used several different woods. The first was for Bushmills Whiskey, who gave us whiskey barrels, white oak, to make headphones out of for one of their promotions. Then, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we got a maple tree that had been knocked down locally and made our first limited edition headphone out of that. Just recently, we introduced the first headphone made out of hemp wood, and this is a real mind blower.
We enjoy working with different woods and the challenges they bring [in making] a reputable product for Grado.
JS: The explosion of DIY music production on computers in artists’ bedrooms – Billie Eilish being one of the most notable of late – makes pro-level recording headphones a necessary piece of equipment. As Grado competes successfully with many larger companies in the consumer headphones market, getting into the music production arena would be interesting, especially given the current demographics.
Since Grado headphones are admired and owned by several famous musicians, has there ever been an exploration into designing a professional headphone specifically for music production? If so, what changes in the frequency response and design do you think might be required to meet the market need without diluting the famous Grado sound?
JG: We haven’t designed a headphone specifically for the music production arena, but we are aware that our headphones are used worldwide by some of the most prestigious recording engineers in the world. One of the largest recording companies buys RS1s for their engineers and one famous engineer used the RS1s to redo the vocals on [an album by] one of the surviving Beatles that he had produced.
Listening through headphones is a personal [experience] and to one’s preferential taste, but we hear back that the engineers who use Grados like them because they hear [music the way] it sounds live and that’s what they want.
JS: Your uncle Joseph Grado received his first exposure to the electronics and hi-fi business while working at Marantz. Do you recall any stories he might have told you about that time or any lessons that he learned before forming his own company in 1953?
JG: Uncle Joe didn’t work for Saul [Marantz], he did some unpaid industrial design work on the early Marantz equipment. Joe had three or four non-audio businesses before Saul introduced him to Sherman Fairchild of Fairchild Industries in the early 1950s. Sherman was also an audio enthusiast, and had a phono cartridge production line that was having quality control issues. Joe agreed to work and correct these issues using his talents as a master watchmaker. By the time Joe had completed that task he had come up with his own ideas for phono cartridge designs and left Sherman’s and set up designing and building cartridges on his kitchen table. He’d build a few and go out and sell them and then go back and build some more. As demand grew, he needed to set up a real production line, and when his father closed his fruit store, Joe took over the space. Grado Labs still occupies that space today.
Joe and Saul stayed close friends till Saul’s death in 1997.
JS: Joseph Grado was awarded a US patent for the first moving coil phonograph cartridge, which was an audio milestone. Has any competitor ever come up with an innovation for cartridges that impressed either you or your uncle as something that made either of you go, “Wow! How come I didn’t think of that?”
JG: Joseph Grado was awarded the first US patent for the stereo moving coil cartridge and enjoyed receiving royalties during the life of the patent, although he didn’t enjoy fighting manufacturers who infringed upon it, but he did and won.
I never knew of any audio product that Joe was sorry he didn’t think of first. He did admire other people’s work but Joe was the type that would always try to see how he could make something better, in the audio realm or anywhere else. I remember having lunch and he’d tell me how to improve the shape of a fork to eat with, or the filter of a coffee machine so the water flows more evenly over the coffee grinds. The one thing he didn’t want to improve was the hot dog stand hot dog. He liked them a lot and that tradition continues.
JS: Grado Labs has made a number of cartridge improvements over the last few years. Can you elaborate on some of them without divulging any proprietary trade secrets?
JG: We have been using our patented Flux-Bridger design since 1972. Each cartridge is built using 43 parts. These parts consist of molded plastic, molded metal and most are made on Swiss screw machines. This design is like a fine Swiss watch, taking from Joe’s background as a watchmaker. [The Flux-Bridger design uses four separate magnetic gaps that the cantilever bridges in order to generate a signal. This construction is said to reduce distortion and offer other sonic advantages. – Ed.]
Over the years we have worked at refining the parts, which [has] helped with cutting down on the effective moving mass of the cartridge. In our latest series we have worked at eliminating noise through the signal path and in our wooden series [we’ve initiated] a process of thermally aging the wood, which we have found has a dramatic positive effect on the performance of the cartridge.
JS: Grado Labs currently makes a line of cartridges specifically for the DJ market. What were your first thoughts and Joseph’s when DJ’s began scratching records and bringing bass-heavy sound systems to events as hip-hop started in the late 1970s? Did you think at the time that they might need a new cartridge and stylus design, or did Grado Labs react to increased demand from a more established market later on?
JG: Grado didn’t get onto the DJ market till later on in the 1990s. We were kind of pulled into it by the market demanding us to give them a cartridge of higher quality than was available to them at the time. We used our Flux-Bridger design but adjusted it to track from 3 to 5 grams with a more stable cantilever for back cueing and a spherical 6 mil diamond stylus. The response from end users has been overwhelmingly positive.
In Part Two John will talk about Grado’s ultimate-performance cartridges, changes in vinyl formulations over the years, bringing the next family generation into the business, why pizza is so good in Brooklyn and more.