Grado Labs is an audio manufacturer known for hand building high-end dynamic open-air headphones and cartridges in Brooklyn, New York.
Grado Labs was founded in 1953, by master watchmaker Joseph Grado. The Brooklyn company is currently run by President and CEO John Grado, who bought the company in 1990 after running day-to-day operations since the 1970s. John’s son, Jonathan Grado, recently entered the company as the third generation of Grado.
Grado specializes in dynamic open-air, supra-aural, high-fidelity headphones. In its over 60-year history, Grado has kept a very low profile by relying on word-of-mouth among audio dealers and consumers instead of mass advertising campaigns. Nearly all of Grado’s products are hand-crafted in Brooklyn, New York.
In 2014, Grado released their new line of headphones, The e Series, and was named in the Top Eight Most Social Small Companies in America by Mashable and American Express. In 2015 JetBlue partnered with Grado to bring their headphones to their Mint Flights.
Foundation and phono cartridges (1953–1989)
Grado Labs was founded in 1953, by master watchmaker Joseph Grado. The origins of the audio company date back to the early 1950s, when Joseph left Tiffany & Company and Sherman Fairchild to start crafting phono cartridges at his kitchen table in Brooklyn, NY. After seeing a market for cartridges, he went around the corner and closed the existing Grado fruit shop, opening up Grado Laboratories. Joseph went on to invent the first stereo moving coil phono cartridge while building up Grado’s cartridge lineup.
Throughout his time at Grado, the company made cartridges, speakers, turntables, and tonearms, with cartridges being the only product line not discontinued. In 1965 Joseph’s nephew, John Grado, got his first job at Grado and began sweeping the floors. John spent time training with his uncle, and in 1975 John started running day-to-day business at his family’s company. In 1982, Joseph Grado was inducted into the Audio Hall of Fame. The peak of cartridge production took place in the mid-1980s, reaching 10,000 units a week. Their all-time low took place a few years later, dipping to 12,000 units for a year.
Resurgence and first line of headphones (1990–2012)
On the brink of closing, in 1990 John Grado bought the company from his uncle, becoming President and CEO. John created the first line of Grado headphones, building them at a workbench with his wife, Loretta, in the early half of the 1990s. At the time, John and his family lived on the top floor of Grado’s Brooklyn building as well. Due to the company not advertising, John would travel to audio shows around the world to spread the word. When he had established a sizable distributor list throughout multiple countries, he completely stopped going to shows to spend more time with his family.
At one point, the family was going to build Grado Towers: ceiling tall speakers made of their headphone drivers. With the unexpected immediate success of their first headphones though, the speakers never made it past five pairs. Over the next two decades, John created over three generations of headphone lines and oversaw Grado’s cartridge reinvigoration, bringing units per year north of 60,000.
Grado goes social and the e series (2013–present)
In 2013 Jonathan Grado, John’s son, entered the company under his father with a goal of modernizing their word-of-mouth style and expanding the brand. Originally embarrassed about his family’s company, Jonathan had a change of heart in his sophomore year of college and started the Grado Facebook and Twitter pages. The hobby soon became his main focus, becoming Social Media Director over the course of his college career. After graduating and working at Sonos, he started full-time with Grado Labs. Late 2013 brought Grado’s first large collaboration, creating an experimental headphone out of Bushmills wooden whiskey barrels, which Gizmodo called “warm and clear, with a sweet-spot right in the mid-range, as Grado products are known for. The New York Times also praised them, although noting they might not fit everyone’s budget.
2014 had Jonathan become Vice President of Marketing, but having to get creative due to a “zero dollar ad budget”. Soon afterwards in the same year, Grado was named in the Top Eight Most Social Small Companies in America by Mashable and American Express. In June 2014, Grado released their third generation of headphones, The e Series. The reception was positive, with Wired Magazine calling them “the Best Headphones in the World”. Jonathan is currently training with John, as well as learning the business.
In early 2015, JetBlue Airways chose to partner with Grado to be their official headphone for their Mint Class flights.
Joseph Grado died February 6, 2015 at the age of 90.
Limited edition/specialty headphones
Most of these headphones are rebranded and/or limited versions of Grado headphones. The Grado HF1 was sold exclusively to the Head-Fi online community, which had a total of 450 original November sales, one replacement (December), seven waitlist sales, three March sales and twenty April sales, each numbered 001–481. RRP for the HF1 was US$200. The HF1 is, arguably, one of the most sought-after Grado headphones.
In May 2009, the limited edition HF2 was announced, also for sale exclusively to Head-Fi members. The production limit was set to 500 units or however many units sold by the end of July 2009, whichever came first. The 500 units quickly sold out, ending the sales of the HF2 early. It was announced on October 12, 2009 by Todd Green that there were several left unsold, bringing the total number produced to 524. These extra pairs also quickly sold out. RRP for the HF2 was US$429. As of February 2010, there was a run of 26 B-stock HF2 that were released, totalling the production to 550. The B-stock serial numbers began from #550 and went until #575.
The PS1 Pro was a special production order for a German Distributor, and was more expensive than any of the Grado line. A partnership between headphone manufacturer Grado and wireless technologies manufacturer FreeSystems paved way for the FreeSystems headphones. The FreeSystems package included an integrated Grado RA 1 amplifier (as mentioned above), headphones which have a physical appearance similar to that of the Grado PS1, and a Free Systems infra-red transmitter and receiver. The RRP was US$3,800. The system was intended for release by February 2002, but was never released.
In August 2014, Grado Labs celebrated its 18-year partnership between John Grado and Varat Kamolchotiros – Grado’s Thai distributor – and created Grado Thailand Anniversary edition for the Thai market. The limited edition was based on the RS1e design with minor tweaks: reintroduction of classic RS1 button, 18-year celebratory writing on mahogany housing, brown leather headband with white stitching, unique serial number (00-72), and personally signed John Grado’s signature on the headband. Each of the 73 headphones produced also came with a bespoke Grado wooden box with their unique serial number engraved at the bottom.
All headphones have a 32 ohm-Impedance.
Each individual cartridge manufactured by Grado is hand assembled and tested for frequency response, channel output, channel balance, phase linearity, inductance and resistance.
The Prestige series of cartridges are designed for high output and stability under much use. A considerable tip mass reduction results in a manufacturer-reported frequency response to 50 kHz and tracking forces from 1 to 2 grams.
Prestige models available in both ½” mount and P-mount. 78 RPM styli are available for these models. All styli in the Prestige series are user replaceable.
The Reference series of wooden cartridges are a fixed coil design, handmade at Grado labs from a specially selected species of mahogany. A curing process is performed between production steps to achieve Grado Labs’ desired sound. Unlike the Prestige series, the Reference series generator/stylus module is not replaceable allowing a redesigned one piece magnetic circuit and a reduction of chassis resonances. The Reference Series has been a flagship of Grado Labs since its early history.
All Reference series cartridges are ½” mount. 78 RPM styli are not available with the Reference series. All re-tipping on the Reference series is done by Grado.