Grado Labs' headphones have been audiophile favorites for decades. The company rarely introduces new models, but it recently upgraded its entire headphone line, adding an "i" to the model number to denote "improved." The new models look almost exactly the same as the old ones, but the sonic elements are all new. The sound, though, is still very much in the Grado tradition: the SR225i is dynamic, lively, and clear.
Grado headphones, ranging from the $79 SR60i to the $1,700 PS1000, are hand-built in the company's Brooklyn, N.Y., factory (where they also still produce Grado phono cartridges). The model we're testing here, the SR225i ($200), is one step down from the top model in the company's Prestige Series line.
The original SR225 remained in production for more than 10 years; the new model features all-new drivers, a structurally improved earcup design, and a thicker headphone cable. The 5.5-foot cable utilizes a "Y" design (wires to both the left and right sides) and comes terminated with a gold-plated 6.3mm plug. That means you'll need a somewhat bulky 6.3-to-3.5mm adapter if you want to use it with portable audio devices. More upsetting is that Grado doesn't include such an adapter; you'll need to pay extra for one.
The black plastic earcups and foam earpads of the Grado SR225i still seem old-fashioned compared with Sennheiser's sleek designs, and the Grado's comfort is below that of the similarly priced Sennheiser HD-595 headphones. That's not to say we find Grado headphones uncomfortable, just that Sennheisers score higher on comfort.
Headphone buyers with concerns about long-term durability should appreciate Grado's service policies. The company will repair all of its full-size headphones, even models going back over 20 years. For example, Grado will repair any SR225 or SR225i headphones--bad drivers, broken cables, and so forth--for a flat fee of $40 (the fee for the SR60 or SR60i is $25). If you accidentally sit on the headphones and break the "C" bracket that holds the earcup in place, Grado will send you a new bracket for free (the new one snaps into place). In other words, SR225i owners can reasonably expect to get at least 10 years of use out of their headphones.
We've noted before that the Grado sound--lively, very dynamic, and detailed--is consistent throughout the line. The more-expensive models have more bass and better overall refinement.
We listened to the SR225i headphones over an Onkyo TX-SR805 receiver, a Schiit Audio Asgard headphone amplifier ($249), and an iPod. The Onkyo sounded more laid back and mellow compared with the Schiit Audio amp, so yes, the SR225i's sound quality changes, depending on what it's plugged into. That said, we'd consistently characterize the SR225i's sound as clear, dynamically alive, and very open. Or, put another way, it doesn't sound like all of the sound is stuck inside your head.
Morphine's "The Night" CD immediately told us a lot about what the SR225i was doing right. Dana Colley's baritone sax sounded deep and fully present, as if there was nothing between the sax and our ears. It was easy to follow Mark Sandman's gracefully sliding basslines, and Billy Conway's jazzy drumming had a lively attack. Treble detail is exceptional, so you hear the cymbals' every shimmer and sparkle. The SR225i's treble is more detailed than average, and some listeners may find it too bright.
The SR225i brought out the best in well-recorded rock music, but a heavily compressed and harsh recording, like the new Arcade Fire CD, "The Suburbs," wasn't particularly enjoyable. The recording's flaws were hard to ignore over the SR225i, but the flaws were much less of a problem with the Ultrasone HFI-680 full-size headphones. That headphone's softer treble response and bassier bottom-end took the edge off the sound of "The Suburbs" CD. The HFI-680 was far from perfect; it's a closed-back design, so it had a more "canned," closed-in sound than the SR225i headphones. Even so, the HFI-680's easy-going nature made harsh recordings more listenable than they were on the SR225i.
On good-sounding recordings we definitely preferred listening to the SR225i. Puente Celeste's "Nama" CD is a stellar audiophile recording, so the voices, clarinet, accordion, acoustic guitars, bass, and percussion on this world music CD had an almost 3D presence and solidity with the SR225i. Switching over to the HFI-680, the recording's soundstage was squashed flat and the treble wasn't as clear. We had been listening over the Onkyo receiver, but from this point forward we used the Schiit Asgard headphone amplifier, which improved the sound of the Grado and Ultrasones. We still preferred the Grado on better-sounding recordings, and the HFI-680 on compressed rock music.
For the SR225i's home theater trials we watched the "Mad Men Season 3" Blu-ray disc and quickly forgot we were listening to headphones. The office scenes in the show's Madison Avenue agency were filled with the sounds of clicking typewriters, ringing telephones, and hushed voices that seemed to come from outside the SR225i headphones.
It may be a full-size headphone, but it sounded wonderful hooked up to an iPod. The design is unusually efficient, so it can play pretty loud, even when driven by an iPod's puny headphone amplifier. True, the headphone's size may be enough to put off some from using it on the go--and the fact that you need an adapter to connect to the iPod is a big turn-off--but when the SR225i's big sound and vivid clarity are available for portable use, it may be hard to resist.
The SR225i brings with it a notable list of caveats, at least for listening on the road: the dearth of a 3.5mm plug, an open-backed design that lets in external sound, and a somewhat unforgiving disposition to compressed music. On the other hand, it also exhibits top-notch sound quality, and we really like the idea of paying for quality electronics that are built right here in our back yard. We think the Grado SR225i is a great set of headphones, and we enthusiastically recommend it--but it's certainly not for everyone.