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Grado SR80i Headphones

Striking the balance between music and ambience

Grado SR80i

My co-workers here have learned I'm easy to sneak up on. First of all, I have a tendency to fall into "the zone" pretty easily, getting lost in whatever the task is at hand. More importantly, I've been using a decent, but by no means spectacular, set of earbuds since arriving at Crutchfield to do my listening and screen out distractions.

But they also seal out my sound field.

This leads to a variety of people standing behind my shoulder waiting to be noticed. I've been thinking that, in the interest of better co-worker relations, I'd be better off with a set of open cup over-the-ear headphones for my day-in, day-out applications.

Of course, an open cup not only lets some ambient noise in, but also some of the music you're listening to out. Since I normally listen to my music at a fairly low volume level and there's a good deal of space between myself and my coworkers, such leakage wasn't likely to be a problem.

The other day, one of our Know Zone editors showed up at my desk. He patiently waved his hand in front of my face, and when I had recovered from the shock, presented me with a set of Grado SR80i headphones and its cousin, the Grado SR325is. Both had the open cup design I thought would help my situation. Given my obvious need, I was pretty psyched to get a chance to put these headphones through their paces.

We'll stick to my experience with the SR80i's in this review, — later on I'll fill you in on my time with the SR325is.

Utilitarian looks but solid performance

Grado headphones are quirky, yet classic, and the SR80i maintains the family reputation. Everything about these headphones seems to harken back to another era, from the thin leather-encased steel headband and thick foam ear pads to the 360-degree-rotation pins that mount the earcups to the headband. They looked like the type of headphones you'd use with your 1960's Heathkit radio. And the box they come in seems more suited to carrying a dozen doughnuts than a high-end piece of audio gear.

Yet the SR80i's performance belies their workmanlike exterior. My first listen to these headphones involved putting them into my standard at-work audio steup: listening to my iPhone®, playing 256Kbps AAC files. I was pleased with Grados' sound quality at low volume levels.

Pop tunes sounded reasonably balanced and the vocals were clean, intelligible and uncolored. Pushing the volume, I perceived some emphasis in the mid-to-high midrange, between 800-1,600 Hz, which really made the vocals cut through. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially for my "experienced" ears, but some adjustment of equalization settings might be necessary depending on your personal preferences.

Results across the musical spectrum

I spent my first few hours with these headphones trying them with a wide variety of material from my iTunes® library with all equalization and limiting off. Some of these were more highly compressed than others, and while I could hear some of the compression artifacts, I wasn't distracted by them. Interestingly, the midrangey impression that I got with jazz, pop, rock, and alternative tunes was less obvious when I got to some classical material. Being open-ear, these headphones are not huge on bass impact, but what is there sounds balanced and clean, with no clipping.

Built for comfort

Initially, I thought that the headband's minimal padding would be a problem. When I put the headphones on, I was immediately aware of the point of contact on top of my head. But as time wore on, I realized that I wasn't experiencing any discomfort, and that, with proper adjustment, these headphones would work well for extended listening. Which they did.

Grado SR80i detail
The Grado SR80i headphones come with a
1/4" plug and minijack adapter.

The entire headset is quite light, but the fit is secure without constriction. The foam pads, thick and dark grey, are surprisingly gentle on the ears. The headset comes with a miniplug/quarter-inch adapter input. From there, a thick cord leads to the "Y" intersection with the earcup leads — one to each side, no wires through the headband. It feels substantial, but it does look like the earcup leads might be susceptible to some strain (particularly with the free-spinning, 360-degree rotation, so be careful). It's best to pay attention to where and how your cables lie.

Sound results at a good price

The Grado SR80is are inexpensive for the performance they deliver. Some adjustment of equalization may be necessary to get balance in the low midrange, at least by my taste, but that's not unusual for headphones in this class. The standout point for me was the wearability — these headphones felt really comfortable for extended listening at work, and there was a minimum of ear fatigue at medium volume levels. I was sorry to see them go at the end of the trial.

If you like your music cranked high and your bass dominant these probably aren't the headphones for you; but if you want a day-in, day-out working headphone companion that faithfully reproduces your song collection and keeps the sneak-ups to a minimum, you should put a set of Grado SR80i headphones into the mix.

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