Exceptional, reference quality fidelity at a real world price
By Phil O'Keefe
Grado headphones have a stellar reputation for exceptional audio quality; indeed, the finest sounding headphones I have ever had the pleasure to listen to were the company's then-flagship RS-1 model, but unfortunately their $695 price tag puts them out of reach of many home and project studio owners. Fortunately, Grado makes some more affordable alternatives, such as the SR125i headphones under consideration in this review (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The Grado SR125i supra-aural, open back headphones
WHAT TYPE OF HEADPHONES DO YOU NEED?
There's some confusion about headphones out there, so first, let's open this review with a discussion about the types of headphones, and what tasks they're best suited for.
Closed back headphones are usually the best bet when you want isolation--for example, to reduce the chance that someone nearby will be disturbed by the sound of whatever you're listening to. Their solid, sealed ear cups lack any openings or "vents"; which is very beneficial when you're tracking and you don't want the sound of the headphone mix or your click track "bleeding" into the mic. However, they are not without their drawbacks. The lack of rear openings causes the sound to reflect inside the ear cups, which can cause phase and resonance issues. They often suffer from a "boxy", over-hyped and bass heavy sound, and their isolation can give the listener a claustrophobic feeling, and the sense that they are completely sealed off from their surroundings.
Since they do not completely isolate the individual ears, open back headphones, such as the Grado SR125i's, tend to offer a more open and natural sound. Their vented design allows for a less boxy and muddy sound quality, with less funny business in the bass response. They tend to work well as a mix reference headphone, however, they are not well suited for tracking, because some of the sound from the headphone will "bleed" out and be audible to any nearby microphones--or people.
Headphones also differ in how they "fit". Circumaural headphones are usually large and heavy, and the ear cup surrounds the entire ear; they tend to seal the listener off from the outside world and can make the ears feel hot and sweaty over long listening sessions. Supra-aural headphone designs like the SR125i's actually sit on top of the pinnae (the outer, fleshy part of the ear) itself. While they are less effective at isolation, they are usually lighter, which can result in less discomfort over longer listening sessions. But "comfort" is a matter of personal taste--some people dislike having something pressing directly on the ears, while others get claustrophobic when they feel "sealed off" from the world around them.
Because of their supra-aural, open back design, isolation is not the Grado SR125i's strong suit; however, exceptionally detailed and accurate sound quality is.
The SR125i headphones are hand assembled in the USA and have a definite retro vibe to their look. The design offers simple but effective up and down adjustment of the individual ear cups to fit the user's head size. They use a lightweight, rigid plastic for the ear cups, and each cup is mounted in a pivoting yoke that allows them to conform to your head. The headband is a single metal band that is incased in an unpadded leatherette style covering, and it is flexible enough that it can be gently "bent" to widen or tighten the overall fit. The ear pads, which enclose the entire driver and have no "hole" in the middle, are made from a fairly soft foam rubber and can be removed for cleaning or replaced if needed (Figure 2). The overall build quality is solid and reassuring, and the SR125i's appear to be built to last; assuming the user takes reasonable care of the headphones.
Figure 2: The ear pads can be removed, or even replaced if needed or desired
Grado says the "i" in the model number stands for "improved". Compared to the earlier SR125 model, the housing of each earpiece is larger. The increased cubic volume of the larger air chamber / driver enclosure gives the "i" model a larger, fuller and more open sound than its predecessor. Additionally, Grado says the neodymium magnet equipped drivers have also been improved; they are matched to within .1dB of each other, and now use ultra-high purity, long crystal oxygen free copper wire in the voice coils. The headphone cable is also improved, and now features an 8 conductor design and the same UHPLC OFC wire. The cable terminates to a molded 1/4" plug, and the contacts are gold plated. The SR125i uses a "Y" style cable that feeds each ear cup separately, and the new 8 conductor wires are extremely thick and heavy-duty. This bodes well for their long term durability, although the stiffness and weight of the cables can be somewhat annoying when moving around while wearing the headphones.
Figure 3: The SR125i's Y cable is heavy-duty, although somewhat stiff
MODIFICATIONS AND OPTIONS
Along with the headphones, Grado thoughtfully sent along one of their optional Prestige Series Mini Cable Adapters ($14.95 MSRP - Figure 4). This eight inch long 1/4" to 1/8" adapter includes a length of flexible cable which helps relieve strain on laptop and portable player (iPod, iPhone, MP3 players, etc.) connectors. As with the SR125i's 1/4" plug, the connectors for the adapter are also gold plated. Although I didn't have a chance to try it out, Grado also makes a 15' headphone extension cable for those who need longer cable "reach".
A quick look around at various forum threads will show that it's not unusual for some Grado users to customize or modify their headphones to address perceived comfort issues. and frankly, the comfort level of these headphones could be a bit better. The main criticism I had in the comfort department wasn't the ear pads, but the actual headband. While it is easy to adjust the ear cups upwards or downwards to fit the head, even when optimally positioned, I still felt the headband pressing on the top of my head enough to feel mildly annoyed by it. True, I have a shaved head and no natural "padding" from hair, so I may be more sensitive to this than most people, but I do feel the SR125i's would benefit from having some padding built into the headband. Some people add wraparound / snap on pads from other headphones (the pads from Beyerdynamic DT770's will fit, and run about $10 online) to address this issue. However, even in the stock configuration, the "feel" of the headband wasn't all that bad, and didn't annoy me enough to distract me or make me feel like not wearing the cans.
I thought the earpieces were less of an issue, although some people are going to prefer circumaural headphones over supra-aural cans like the Grados (or vise versa). The ear cups themselves, as well as the headphones overall are reasonably light in weight (13.4 ounces) and don't "press" on the ears overly hard - and you can gently bend the headband to adjust the amount of "press" if they do. You can customize the ear cup foam by using the optional "donut" shaped L-Cushion type ear pads ($20; as found on the SR225i and SR325i models), or stick with the stock "pancake" style Grado S-Cushion pads that are included with the SR125i's, which felt fine to me, even over the course of listening sessions that lasted several hours. The extra large, bowl shaped (circumaural) "G-Cush" ear pads from the top of the Line Grado GS-1000 headphones will also fit, and offer a third (although at $45, a considerably more expensive) option. Sennheiser HD414 pads are popular with some Grado owners, but they use a "pancake" style that is similar to the S-Cush pads that are included with the SR125i's. Also remember that using different foam pads can have an effect on the sound of the headphones; possibly for the better or for the worse, so proceed with caution.
Figure 4: The optional 1/4" to 1/8" adapter is highly recommended for use with MP3 players, and comes with a rather large vinyl storage bag
So why would people be willing to put extra money and effort into modifying headphones for increased comfort? Simple - because they sound awesome.
I have spent considerable time listening to the SR125i's with a wide range of program material and playback devices. I tried them with everything from the Simon Systems CB-4 headphone boxes that are connected to the high powered headphone distribution system in my studio, the headphone output on a 3rd generation Avid Mbox, the headphone outputs on my monitor controller, Kurzweil keyboard and Yamaha digital mixer. The 32 ohm impedance allowed the Grados to work well with a variety of headphone amps, and they can be driven adequately even by relatively low output devices such as the headphone outputs on my iPhone 3GS and MacBook laptop.
For music, I listened to a variety of material in different genres. Classic and hard rock, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Michael Jackson's Thriller, various Beatles albums, The Beach Boy's Pet Sounds, Miles Davis Kind of Blue and various other jazz recordings (including some of the work I have done with Jules Day), as well as tons of "shuffle mode" listening to the wide range of material in my iTunes library. I also spent quite a bit of time listening to a variety of my other recordings and mixes. The Grados did well with all the different types of source material that I threw at them, although they really seemed to love to rock, and they didn't have quite the hype in the bass that some folks may prefer for deep dance and electronica styles. Their natural sound quality also works exceedingly well with acoustic instrument recordings.
I did A/B comparisons of the same program material with a variety of other headphones in my studio (AKG, Sony, Fostex, Skullcandy) and with a variety of playback monitor speakers, including JBL 4412's, and ADAM S3A, A7 and A5's. While I normally wouldn't expect headphones to fare well in direct comparison with high-quality speakers like the ADAMs, the SR125i's impressed me with how similar their overall character and level of detail was. Attack transients are effortless and immediate, with none of the smearing that I noticed in some of my other headphones, and the stereo image was nearly as wide and expansive as the S3A's, which was nothing short of astonishing to me. The bottom end is full, yet also retains that same level of detail--it's easy to hear the all-important kick / bass relationship. The bass response is full and punchy, yet there is no trace of flab or woofiness. You can easily hear "into" a mix; you're almost guaranteed to catch things you've missed on your monitors or other headphones when listening to these headphones. This can be very helpful when monitoring individual tracks; due to the extremely detailed nature of the sound, these cans are an outstanding choice for track "housekeeping"; seeking out those sonic gremlins and anomalies that you want to eliminate from your tracks--and ultimately your mixes, is extremely easy with these headphones. However, detail is not provided at the expense of musicality. I spent many, many hours listening on these headphones just for sheer musical enjoyment. And yes, I found listening to them to be extremely pleasurable.
The overall spectral balance was also quite good, without the artificial low frequency hype that most of my tracking (closed backed) headphones exhibited. The sound is definitely open, and leans towards being slightly bright, but never harsh or brittle. The slight brightness contributes to the overall level of detail the SR125i's provide, and in actual use, never became fatiguing. Indeed, the longer I used the headphones, the less noticeable the slightly bright tendency became, so give the headphones a bit of a break-in period before making any final judgments on their overall tonal balance.
Compared to most headphones, the Grados are far better suited for mix referencing, and while I still prefer using speakers as my main mix reference, and supplementing them with headphones, I feel that I can actually recommend the SR125i's as a primary mixing reference for users who are in a situation that precludes the use of speakers; especially if the user is willing to spend a little time to acclimate to their sound and "learn" how they translate. For people with poor acoustical environments and limited budgets, they offer a far better playback experience than they are likely to achieve with speakers.
The Grado SR125i's are not perfect for everything - if you need isolation from outside sounds, or if you want a pair of tracking cans that won't bleed into the microphones, they're not for you. But for critical listening in relatively quiet environments, they're outstanding. You'd be hard pressed to find a better sounding reference at anything close to their price. To get speakers that are anywhere near to this level of performance, you're going to have to drop at least a grand on them, and that makes the $150 price tag of the Grado SR125i's seem like a bargain. While I do wish they had a padded headband, even if only as an extra-cost option, the comfort level was sufficient for even long listening sessions. You could spend much more for headphones, or get cheaper cans, but I feel the SR125i's hit that magic "sweet spot" in terms of price vs performance. If you are serious about improving the quality and accuracy of your headphone listening, then the Grado SR125i's are well worth checking out - I highly recommend them!
Transducer type: Dynamic
i completely agree with every tip in your article, big thanks man.