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Headphones

Pioneering audio designer Joseph Grado passes away

The Audiophiliac looks back on the long and distinguished career of this New York-based maker of speakers, turntables, headphones and more.

Joseph Grado with one of his early headphones.
Joseph Grado with one of his early headphones. Martin McKenzie

Joseph Grado, an innovative audio designer, died Friday. He was 90 years old. I met Mr. Grado only once, and that was 30 years ago when he gave a talk at the New School in New York City. He was there to discuss how he started designing phono cartridges. Before that he was a master watch builder for Tiffany & Co. Listening to him talk, I was moved by his passion for tinkering, designing and building things; he was the classic American inventor type.

Grado Laboratories is still located in a small four-story building in the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, where Joe Grado started making phono cartridges in 1953. He invented the stereo moving-coil cartridge, and in the early years the company produced speakers, turntables and a highly acclaimed wooden tonearm. John Grado (Joe's nephew) took over day-to-day operations in the late 1970s and he bought the company in 1990, when the plant was producing 10,000 cartridges a week! The company still hand-builds all of its full-size headphones and phono cartridges in that building.

I bought my first Grado cartridge for around $10 in the early 1970s, and it blew away all of the Empire, Pickering, Shure, and Stanton cartridges I had used up to that point, not because the little gray plastic Grado cartridge sounded more accurate or detailed, but because it was more fun to listen to. My Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin LPs rocked harder with the Grado tracing the grooves; it really was as simple as that.

In the early 1990s Joseph Grado started designing high-end headphones, and the three initial models -- the HP-1, HP-2 and HP-3 -- were hugely popular with recording engineers and audiophiles. They were all hand-built by Joseph and John Grado, and those headphones now fetch many times their original prices on eBay.

In recent years Grado designed a professional microphone that drew raves from admiring engineers. Joseph Grado also loved singing and painting, and he held the rights to 48 patents.