Grado SR60i Headphones Review
There is no shortage of competition but the Grado can still hold its own
IntroductionThis is not a sentimental industry by and large. In the multichannel segments, products have a lifespan of twelve months at best and even in the more relaxed world of two-channel, most products will not be around much after their third birthday. No product is kept on the books because the manufacturer has a deep seated fondness for it. If a product needs to be superseded it is with scarcely a mention.
Despite this, some products manage to enjoy lifespans that are much longer than normal. Often this is because the product exists in a category so unusual that it doesn’t really have any competition. Sometimes however, a product exists in a super competitive category that persists for far longer than you might expect. The Grado SR60i has been around since 2007 which is fairly impressive in itself but the SR60i is in fact a revision of the SR60 which has been in production for the best part of twenty years. With more and more companies entering the headphone market and the technology involved getting ever more sophisticated, can a ‘living fossil’ still cut it?
DesignThe SR60i is pretty much the textbook definition of an open back, over ear headphone. It uses a pair of dynamic drivers (of a material that Grado are curiously cagey about discussing) mounted in a set of earpads that are vented to the rear. This means two things. The first is that the Grado is really not designed for use on the move (more of which later). The second is that this configuration allows for drivers to work most effectively in the context of being bolted to either side of your head. A driver will radiate energy in both directions and allowing it to do so increases the efficiency considerably.
The earpad itself mounts the driver relatively far forward in the enclosure and this leaves a fair amount of space between it and the rear grille but the assembly is clearly visible from the outside of the earpad. The side in contact with your ear makes use of a removable foam pad which when removed from the earpad shows the driver quite clearly through a transparent mesh. The pads themselves are incredibly simple but are effective at providing a little isolation from the driver assembly.
It isn’t only the foam pads that are simple. The entire design of the SR60i is a masterclass in making something as simple and effective as it is possible to do so. On most headphones, the size adjustment is an integral function of the headband. On the Grado the headband is a fixed size and cannot be adjusted. The earpads are connected to the headband by a single sliding pole mount on either side. This allows the earpad to slide up and down to fit your head. This sounds crude but it has two clear advantages. As most of us to a greater or lesser extent have a slightly lopsided head, the very fine adjustment of the Grado which is independent of the other side means that fine adjustment is a simple business. The second is that as the mount is a single slider, the earpads also fold flat when not in use.
The news isn’t all good in terms of adjustability though. The earpads have an excellent range of movement from side to side but the movement up and down is very limited to the point where there is effectively none. The effect on comfort isn’t too serious as the headband is relatively flexible and allows the earpads to move enough to be comfortable. There is no provision for folding the SR60i up which is another nod to these being for domestic use only.
Otherwise this is a well built pair of headphones. The headband is leather and although thin it is wide enough to spread the weight of the SR60i effectively across the head. The hinges and pivot points all feel substantial, like they will stand up to several years of use. The cable is also a poke in the eye to rivals. Not only is it very thick for a headphone at or anywhere near this price, it is also coated in a jacket that manages to avoid irritating the skin and also doesn’t seem to snag on any clothing. As a matter of course Grado supplies a quarter inch jack adaptor as well as the default fit 3.5mm jack.
The result is a very comfortable headphone but it must be said one with an appearance that is going to divide opinion a bit. Grado hasn’t really been interested in the cut and thrust of fashion at any stage in their history and the SR60i is either ‘timeless’ or ‘laughably old fashioned’ depending on how charitable you are feeling and I have met people who have rejected the SR60i on the appearance alone. Personally I think this is a little harsh. The Grado’s have a degree of retro charm to them but overall effect is impressively functional and has an element of anti cool about the whole design. You get the feeling that some of the Beats by Dre range might be looking a little dated in a year or two. The SR60i will almost certainly still be in production and as it never really looked of the moment, it probably isn’t going to be any different in ten year’s time either.
SetupThe SR60i’s were mainly used with my laptop listening rig which is a Lenovo ThinkPad with or without a Furutech ADL Cruise USB headphone amplifier. This allowed me to listen to lossless and high resolution FLAC via Songbird as well as Spotify and more general web listening. I also used the Grado with my iPhone 4 and iPad 3 and connected to the headphone output of a Naim SUPERNAIT integrated amplifier. The latter allowed me to test the SR60i’s with Vinyl and try them in a more full sized ensemble.
Sound QualityOne of the reasons why the SR60i has been in continuous production for as long as it has it that the reviews the original SR60 secured right up until the end of its life were of a sufficiently high standard that there wasn’t a huge amount of reason to change it and indeed the SR60i is very much an evolution rather than a clean sheet design. In an industry that we associate with relentless technical change, this seems oddly counter intuitive. If everyone else was ‘improving’ their product every few years, how did Grado get away with releasing a product and leaving it unchanged for over a decade?
The simple answer is that the Grado’s make a number of very clear design decisions that mean that the SR60i is remarkably free of compromise in many areas that have a considerable effect on the performance. In turn this has other effects on the design that means it will depend entirely on how you choose to use it as to whether the SR60i is either a stand up bargain or a complete non starter.
The decision to make the SR60i open backed is the most critical of these choices. The Grado radiates a huge amount of energy from the back of the earpad and this means that if you elect to try and use them on a train or tube, you have a very real chance of being lynched. You might as well have two small speakers bolted to either side of your head. Equally, given the Grado lets in a huge amount of noise from the outside world, you wouldn’t want to use them on the move unless you absolutely have to.
The trade off is that the Grado has a sense of life and space that is far removed from most pairs of headphones you can find at this price point. The soundstage is incredibly detailed and impressively spacious. The high res FLAC of Mark Knopfler’s Privateering is wonderfully open and makes for an incredibly natural performance. The placement of musicians and instruments is so self explanatory and believable that there is little sense that the sound is as close to the ear as it is.
The other aspect of the open backed design is the sensitivity. The SR60i needs very little amplification to reach impressively high listening levels and this is a set of headphones that can be used on a portable device without running out of puff. The downside to this is that if you are using a headphone amp that introduces any form of noise into the signal - and a great many laptop headphone outputs will do just that - the Grado is likely to pick the noise up.
The other decision is to fit a driver that is relatively compact by the standard of some of the designs at the same price. Used in the open back configuration of the SR60i, they manage to achieve reasonable bass extension but the biggest payoff is the integration across the frequency spectrum. From the very top to the very bottom of its range, the Grado is natural and doesn’t seem to have any obvious point of weakness. Most headphones only use a single driver on each side but it is unusual to find one that is so consistently strong almost everywhere.
The absolute sacrifice comes at the very bottom end. The Grado has an extremely detailed and agile bass response that in isolation rarely feels anything other than entirely up to the job. When listened to directly against some of the competition, it can’t quite go as low or hit as hard as some of the larger designs. Equally, few of these designs can touch the integration or spaciousness of the Grado but if you want headphones to rattle your skull, these are probably not the models for you.
For people with slightly more varied musical taste though the Grado takes a huge amount of beating. My time spent with the Grado has been longer than usual, mostly down to illness, and in that time, I didn’t find a single piece of music where it was anything other than convincing. On occasions, there were specific pieces of music - mostly at the electronic end of spectrum - where I wanted a bit more bite and attack and compared to more expensive models – like other members of the Grado range - there is the very slightest sense of a slightly restricted scale. Most of the time though the performance is consistently excellent.
The Grado did not feature in the headphone group test I carried out for AVForums last year but makes an interesting comparison with the models that did. Even more than designs like the Audio Technica A500X, the Grado is designed absolutely for home use and even though their size is more in keeping with some of the portable designs, they would have ranked bottom for use on the move. At the same time, despite the fact they would have been about the cheapest design in the test, they would have probably placed at or very near the top for absolute sound quality.
An area where the Grado is at times less than satisfactory is the comfort over long term listening. As the earpads are not hinged for movement in the vertical axis, they can start to exert a fair amount of pressure on the back of the ears after an hour or so. There are definitely more comfortable headphones available at the price and if you are looking for a set of headphones to use for a working day or similar these are probably not the model for you - ignoring the fact your workmates will be driven crazy by the noise leakage if you were using them this way.
- Excellent sound quality
- Solid build
- Light overall weight and good cable jacket help comfort
- Massive noise leakage
- Can become slightly uncomfortable after long periods
- Looks a matter of personal taste
Grado SR60i Headphones Review
The Grado is a perfect demonstration of a specialised design that plays to its strengths to achieve impressive results. The reason why the basic design has prospered for as long as it has is because it's superbly well adapted to the requirements made of it. This is not an all-rounder. It is nigh on hopeless when used on the move and it is sufficiently sensitive that if you have any flaws in your headphone amplification, the Grado will show it up. The counter to this is that the SR60i is an outstanding home headphone that has little competition at or anywhere near the price. If you are looking for a headphone that is capable of a truly hifi performance at a sensible price, this is it.
Ease of Use8
Design and usability6
Value For Money9
Our Review Ethos
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