~ A Nicola Hay Review ~
• Sound brilliant – very natural, open and detailed. Really impressive.
• Good-looking set of earphones.
• Very respected brand name.
• Lack of accessories
• Personally, I found they have an awkward fit – however most other reviewers who’ve tried these say the opposite. Perhaps I have funny ears?!
• Cable-noise – These transmit a lot of noise if brushed against anything, however this could easily be avoided with the inclusion of a cable-clip!
Having tried the GR8’s a while back, I was rather excited about getting my mitts on a pair of these. However, I was decidedly underwhelmed by the little clear plastic box, with its’ tacky, gold cardboard insert keeping these in place. My immediate thoughts were of the older Shure models (the SE420s and SE530s with their premium boxes and immaculate presentation- before you’d even listened to the product, you felt as though you had a decent, high-quality product in your hand. Effectively, opening a pair of £354 earphones from such a drab, flimsy little box was how I imagined it would be to receive a Faberge egg in a brown paper bag. Lacklustre packaging aside, the accessories, or lack of, was equally disappointing. Grado provide three sets of silicon tips with their flagship model. One medium (already fitted on the earphones), one large and one small. And nothing else. That’s right, no cable clip, no case, no cleaning tool –nothing. Again, very disappointing considering earphones we sell for around £10 have more tips, a cable-clip and a case provided. Grado do themselves no favours here. As you’ll read below, these sound brilliant, but for £354, I’d really like a cable-clip and a case at the very least.
Design and Fit
Yes, my ears are relatively small, but no, I’ve never encountered any issue with fit – I’ve tested both newer and older-style high-end Shure’s, Etymotic, Klipsch, Sennheiser, Westone etc etc. And yet, I struggled with these. They’re short and chubby, with very short stems. Their girth meant I couldn’t get them very far into my ears, and their short stems meant I couldn’t resolve the problem by positioning the tips slightly further up the stem. Because the stem is quite fat too, even with foam tips, I imagine I still wouldn’t achieve a comfortable fit. People complain of the likes of Shure and Westone being chunky – but the thinner, longer stems allow for tips to be positioned slightly differently, and for foams to be compressed more within the ear canal. The poor fit of course resulted in me still being able to hear the bimbo next to me on the phone to her ‘BFF’ talking about ‘hot pink nail polish’ and whether or not it was ‘safe to re-heat toast’. I kid you not. Lack of noise-isolation also meant I had to turn the volume up – which caused discomfort at times. I would have preferred them to sit a little deeper, definitely. If there were flanges available for these, I’d definitely invest.
Within half an hour of sitting still on the bus, I’d learned something else – the cable tangled easily. Even with the slider pulled up to my neck, the cable had a tendency to curl into the left. They’d only been out of the box half an hour, I’d been sitting still on the bus, and yet I was worrying about having to spend my evening de-tangling them. Imagine walking with these, or -shock horror- gently winding these loosely into a circle to store in a case?!
The ‘woman in me’ liked the shiny green colouring of these, but I would question how long this finish would take to chip or scratch.
Having been so disappointed with the packaging, accessories and initial fit, it was a huge relief to hear the sound-quality these provide.
All readers should be aware that whenever I test earphones, I really ‘put them through their paces’, so to speak. How can you know how a set really perform without testing them with a variety of styles of music? I have one playlist full of music I know incredibly well, ‘inside out’, and so can therefore assess what said earphones handle well. My playlist consists of:
• Stravinksy’s ‘Le Sacre Du Printemps’ –in its’ entirety
• Straus II’s ‘Die Fledermaus’ – similarly in its’ entirety
• Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’
• The Scorpions’ ‘In Trance’, ‘Humanity’, ‘Acoustica’ and ‘Blackout’ albums.
• Deep Purple’s ‘Made in Japan’
• Christina Aguilera’s ‘Back To Basics’
• Machine Head’s ‘Through the Ashes of Empires’
• Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’
• The Ramones’ ‘Subterranean Jungle’
• Zero 7’s ‘Simple Things’
Transparent and engaging, these offer excellent sound quality. They’re pretty balanced overall, which I really liked. Admittedly, in one or two songs I did find the lower treble somewhat overshadowed the higher treble, but this was only really noticeable in heavy guitar riffs which left higher vocals sounding a little recessed. But this was only noticeable in one or two songs, so shouldn’t be made an issue of.
The mid-range in particular is so natural, so lifelike, that it’s easy to forget you’re on a crowded train surrounded by stuffy businessmen and noisy, bratty children. I like the fact that they don’t have the (almost artificial) warmth or fullness that the likes of Westone provide – they neither add anything nor take it away, they simply open the sound to allow you to experience each and every intricacy. Whilst they don’t add a great level of warmth, they aren’t as cold and clinical sounding as the Klipsch X10. The overall sound signature is very ‘textured’ –and allows each and every intricate note to be heard clearly and precisely. Even within a ‘busy’ piece of music with high levels of polyphony, the detail is superb, really impressive. Whilst the sound is very ‘open’, the soundstage isn’t quite as wide as that, say of the Shure SE535s for example, and so the perceived distance between instruments isn’t quite as large, but this is by no means a negative.
Some reviewers had suggested these are ‘bass shy’ – which is ludicrous. No, the bass is not muddy, obnoxious and booming like a set of Sennheisers would provide, but it’s crisp, precise, tight and accurate. Just the right level for me personally. They are pretty well-balanced overall.
Another thing that really struck me was that I’ve never heard percussion sound so ‘live’ and natural –their reproduction of even a simple 4/4 drum-beat on a basic kit is so impressive. Unlike other earphones, it is very easy to tell exactly what type of cymbal is being hit, exactly what it’s been hit with, and where it’s been hit. The accuracy would allow anyone with a half-decent ear to learn full timpani parts within moments. Percussion, tuned or otherwise, really comes alive with these.
And speaking of ‘live’ – the noise of a crowd within any live track is awe-inspiring. Listening to The Scorpions live recording from Berlin last year made me almost feel as though I was back there. It was almost haunting how encompassing it was. These handled all live recordings spectacularly well, I must say.
Everything else aside, the one factor these handle best of all is DYNAMICS. The difference between even piano and pianissimo, or at the other end of the spectrum forte and fortissimo, is exceptionally noticeable. Any gradual crescendo or diminuendo will sound exactly as smooth and seamless as the composer intended – and much better than the likes of Shure, Klipsch or Westone could produce. And it is this one thing that really sets these apart from any other earphone model. They really do handle dynamics beautifully.
One indicator I always trust to determine whether or not a set of earphones are any good is the rest of my body, everything apart from my ears. Only three sets of earphones have ever given me ‘shivers’ –made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, made my toes tingle. And these, are one of those three.
My encounter with these began with dislike, and flourished into a short-term love affair that made my toes tingle and left a smile on my face.
Their impressive, excellent sound quality really redeems the Grado GR10s, and makes my initial disappointment seem silly.
If I had £350ish to spend on a set of earphones, would I? Admittedly, I would probably consider the Westone 4s or SE5353s instead – but that’s really just because I struggled with the fit, and my small ears prevented me from getting a good, tight seal. But, good golly, these sound lovely.
These have definitely secured a place in my top 5.