An Interview With John Grado
Well folks I just had one heck of a time chatting with John Grado of Grado Labs (like that needed to be mentioned )
I rang him at just after 9 am today and we talked for a little over three hours! I was pretty nervous in the beginning but John was so laid back and forthcoming that I soon settled into a comfortable state and it felt like talking to a friend rather than me "interviewing" a manufacturer.
I just arrived at work so I can't write too much just yet, but I will get to it tonight. When one speaks candidly for three hours with someone, the write-up is going to be lengthy to say the least.
Were some myths dispelled? Oh you betcha!
Are there new products in the works? Perhaps
Did we tackle any of the sticky stuff? Even though I didn't try to go there, nor want to, JOHN brought it up. Yep, we talked distribution and pricing.
I would like to again extend my sincerest thanks to John Grado for taking time out to speak with me and for being so open and willing to discuss anything and everything. I more than once was ready to end the conversation, not wanting to annoy him with my lists of questions, nor wanting to venture into dark waters, it was John that kept the conversation moving forward, asking me if I had any more questions and to just ask them. It was a privilege and a pleasure.
UPDATE: I Have Finally Posted Something Worthwhile!
Everybody can pick out a few prized moments in their life, moments they can reflect on as truly spectacular. One of those moments for me was the first time I heard a really good headphone. I remember my frame of mind, my excitement, where I was, what I listened to. Every single detail (well okay, not everyone, but close!) is permanently etched into my brain. Why was this so special? I mean get over it already, it was just listening to some good gear! Well, for one thing, my music never sounded so good, and music was and still is very important to me. For another thing, it sparked a new hobby for me, one that I enjoy immensely. The phones that did it for me were the Grado SR60’s. Seven years later I still enjoy them, but I have moved beyond them to better phones for sure, mostly Grados. They seem to do it for me. Those who read my posts are of course familiar with this.
This spring I finally decided to go down the final path in this hobby. I say final path, disregarding a choice speaker rig only because, well, this is after all a headphone enthusiast site and I simply enjoy headphones more, so I don’t see speakers as the “final frontier” of the hobby. I do however feel going vinyl is, particularly growing up in the digital era. It was while listening to vinyl that I noticed a few things I had never noticed before – sonically that is. Some of my recordings were ridiculously better on lp than Redbook. No secret there for many of you in the know. But something else was up. My Grados, no matter which I used, seemed to really come alive in a way that the other phones were not. I’ve had some serious headphones on hand over the last 6 months or so, but none of them were really exhibiting earth shattering differences between formats. That is, though from many of my lp’s, the sound was extraordinary but when I was using Grados…the sound was just something else entirely. This prompted me to reread some responses in a NY Head-fi meet thread where it was noted that John Grado listens to a lot of vinyl. Being a phono cartridge manufacturer, that doesn’t come as a surprise, but I began to wonder…maybe he voices his phones with vinyl? If so, then it would stand to reason that his gear would sound best with vinyl! By that I mean despite the perceived superiority of the medium. I had to find out. It was really eating me inside. Call me O-C, but I really needed to know. So after pondering how I would go about this, I just bit the bullet and sent John Grado an email. I requested a time that we could chat and I could ask him about his headphones and his thoughts on musical playback. At the same time I figured I would ask some other questions that had been in the back of my mind. A few days later I received an email from John agreeing to chat with me. We went back and forth over a week or so trying to find a good time for the both of us and this morning was that time. Today will go down as one of those moments in my life which I will prize and reflect on.
Okay so let me set this up just right. I didn’t sleep well the night before. I never really do, sleep well that is, but I certainly don’t when I have something important the next day. Public speaking, exams, needles (I hate needles, oh sure I can give them but take them? Nah, I’m a wimp!), and well talking to one of the leading audio manufactures round out the main things that keep me awake at night. I was up at the crack of dawn and started to sort my questions out. I am by no means a reporter. I have never interviewed anyone before. John and I had agreed anytime between 9 and 9:30 was a good time to call. I chose 9:15 to be safe.
I dial up the number he gave me and the phone rings twice. “Hello” a friendly voice with a slight Brooklyn accent answers.
So far so good, I haven’t said anything to screw this up! Yet…
I was not trembling, but I did fear that my voice would crack if I tried to answer him. Damn, what am I a 13 year old prepubescent? So I muster a: “Hello John, this is Jason speaking.”
And folks, the rest is history…
Okay, so I suppose after my dragging this post on for a while, some of you may want me to stop beating around the bush and just get to the good stuff. But what is that good stuff? Is it the answers to some of those questions that were posted? Some would argue yes, but honestly, after speaking with Mr. Grado, the fact is, the good stuff was all the other stuff, or most of it and not the answers to those questions or my own personal ones.
I called from my home, in my dungeon-like basement on a work day. I took the morning off so I could do this right. I don’t have the means to record phone conversations at home, and I doubt any of you would argue that there would be just a slight problem in calling up a guy in another country for oh…the better part of 3 hours or so, just to talk shop. So there is no transcript nor will I attempt to recreate one. What I will do is tell the story of the conversation and within the story I will have sections wherein I will post the questions and immediately after the answers. I really hope it is worth while to you, I know I felt my time speaking with John sure was and I hope I do him justice with this write-up.
So here we go!
Right off the bat, John was very relaxed and that made me relax a lot which was quite helpful for me. I started out by thanking him for offering his time and of course I offered up my best non-fanboy praise. You know the kind, the brown-noser who does not want to come across as one? I’m not sly, and he already knows I own almost every single Grado headphone product (or have at one time) so my “fanboyness” was already out there and I know he knew that already (I think I may have mentioned this in my first email to him, just to perhaps get him interested in ). He responded with a veryspeaking with me, or maybe just to suck up friendly comment about how it was his pleasure and that he would like this to be as candid as possible. If I were to ask something that he didn’t want to answer, he simply would not. By the end of this write-up you will find that it was I that wanted to cut the “interview” short. John kept pushing us along. He sensed there were more questions and he didn’t mind spending the time with me. How is that for a great guy?
So where did I begin? From the beginning of course! One of the questions that circulated in the other thread was the fact that Grado has a house sound and how does he attain it and is he going to deviate from it in the future. This concept of house sound seems to have been consistent from the company’s inception. Considering it was “Uncle Joe” who started Grado, I wanted to find out how John got into the business and how he attempted to carry on the company’s tradition.
Without me repeating what is written on the Grado Labs website, John started at Grado when he was just hitting his teens. He would sweep around the shop while Joseph was busy at work, designing products, listening acutely, or discussing the art of music reproduction. I specifically asked if John’s good ear (I won’t call it golden, because he did not use that term, but I suppose that term was not used for Joseph’s ear either and his ears are legendary…so perhaps golden would be operative anyway…) was directly related to hanging out with Joseph as a young boy? He responded that of course it has an effect:
“Think of an Italian Chef “ he said. “If my uncle had been an Italian Chef there is a good chance I would be an Italian Chef as well. Sure I may use different spices, the flavours may be slightly different, but we would both be Italian Chef’s. Neither better, just different types of chefs.”
From all the talk over the years here on Head-fi, there has been hot debate as to who made the better phones, Joseph or John? Each of them had a specific goal in mind and a specific “flavour” of music they wanted to present. For Joseph, he was making phones specifically for the recording industry; they needed to be very accurate, very linear, sharp and detailed. John however was designing for the music lover, the music listener, the person at home, or on the bus grooving to their favourite tune. I covered this in my comparative review of the RS-1’s and HP-1’s and 2’s. Polling the folks online, it would not be a landslide for either Grado, some love the HP-1000’s others love the current Prestige and Reference lines. Whichever one loves, it would be difficult to argue that either of the top offerings, HP-1’s or RS-1’s were not revolutionary at the time, and perhaps still are.
In the beginning of John’s “reign” as chief Grado, which took place in 1990, the company was hurting with as little as $300,000 in sales. In fact, before John took over, Joseph Grado was very close to closing the doors of his beloved company. John remarked how the late 80’s and early 90’s were the market lows for both headphones and cartridges. Redbook had fully unseated vinyl at this point and Sony’s “Walkman” craze was clearly established and in fact, the “Discman” was out and it too was catching on and the kids sure weren’t turning to vinyl! At this point as well, DAC’s started to become quite proficient and with tricks like upsampling and oversampling, CD players started to actually sound good! Even with the poorly mixed and mastered recordings of the 1980’s! This speaks nothing of the increased proficiency in digital mixing and mastering after ten years playing with the media. It seemed even audiophiles started to dump their turntables in favour of a good cd player. Grado began as a cartridge manufacturer and eventually moved into turntable manufacturing as well as producing tonearms and speakers. Yet, in 1963, everything was dropped save for cartridges. With Joseph’s invention of the stereo moving coil cartridge, he was able to refine this design such that true audiophile grade carts were available to the world. They sold like hotcakes and the decision was made to focus on what was working and selling best. What was best then seemed certainly to be the death-blow to one of the oldest family-run audio manufacturers in the world, and one of the most innovative audio companies period . Perhaps to help sales out, Joe Grado had begun designing a very high-end headphone to be used in recording studios near the end of his tenure at Grado. This signature series which we all know and love as the HP-1000 series was actually never meant to be called the “HP-1000 series.” In fact, Joe had created the HP-1’s which were then called HP-1000’s. That was to be the only headphone Joseph ever designed; however, during the building process, (btw, it was John who built every single one of them, and there were only 1000 TOTAL, not 1000 of each type but 1000 of the HP-1000’s that’s it that’s all!!!) they tried building an HP-1000 without the phase switch. This was a much easier build (John holds a special place in his heart for the HP-1’s, but I don’t think that is a , those phase switches were a PITA to assemble and atvery good place present he is the only one who knows how to fix any problems with them) process yet all of the cups had already been screened with HP-1000, so the decision was made to call the HP-1000’s with the phase switch the HP-1’s, the HP-2’s the ones without and the HP-3’s the ones wherein the drivers were not matched as closely. The end result would be a revolutionary line of audiophile-grade but more important truly pro-grade dynamic headphones called the HP-1000 Signature Series.
As an aside, is anyone interested in knowing how to tell HP-2’s and HP-3’s apart? No? Okay, I won’t spill the beans on that. Oh what’s that I hear? Some threats of castration? Heh, no need to get all uppity and everything! The answer is…..on the underside of the pads, just like we tell the production number of the Reference series and the Pro series! On each HP-3, it was clearly marked HP-3. This HP-3 is easily rubbed off though. Ah crap then…how can we really know if someone can just rub it off? Well, for one thing, only 50 HP-3’s were ever made! Yep, that is a fact! The number is 50 max, likely less. The first batch of drivers were not as closely matched as possible (where the matching of the drivers was less than the .05 db) and so the decision was made to sell them at a cut below the HP-2’s. These would be paired up and shipped out as HP-3’s. However, on the later runs, the drivers were all able to be matched to .05 db. Therefore what was sold as HP-3’s were usually HP-2’s. That means, of the 50, the majority are up to HP-2 spec anyway, or in a word, HP-2’s rebadged. For those of you with definitive HP-3’s, John said he could not tell the difference in most trials between any of the models. The HP-3’s are so close or dead on exactly like the HP-1’s or 2’s. Another thing, the HP-1’s and 2’s, sound identical to him as well. There should be no difference in the sound at all. The only difference in sound should be equated with the cables if at all. Regarding cables, and this is interesting…only TWO cables were ever produced for the Signature series. The first is the Standard Joseph Grado Signature Cable, and then the second generation or the Joseph Grado Ultra-Wide Bandwidth Signature Reference Cable. But waittaminute…what about those HP-1000’s that came with a cable without any writing on it? Those, folks, are equipped with the RS-1 cable. Some of the phones had to be recabled and those that were, were recabled using the newest cable. I find it very very interesting that those who have heard all three cables have nearly unanimously agreed that the unmarked cable is the best. How many times have I read that Joe was the master and that much was lost on his apprentice John? Could it be that in fact, John does know what he is doing and that as I already stated, the priorities and/or goals are simply distinct? What is also important is that John was working full-time at Grado during the development of the HP-1000’s. Having assembled each and every one, he is keenly aware of their build quality, the production costs and most importantly, their sound. Above all, it was during the production of these HP-1000’s that John took over the company. I think I’m back on track now, aside finished.
When John did take over the company he turned it around. In fact, because of John, the company went from a $300k/year company to an over $10 000 000/year company with 2004 being their strongest year ever. Except of course for 2005 which is showing numbers of 20% increase in profits. How is that for a man who doesn’t know how to design headphones?
Even so, in the early 90’s the market was not strong for $395, $495, and $595 phones, even the pro world. What to do? Carts weren’t selling…these nigh indestructible headphones weren’t selling and John did not want to return the Grado Labs to its roots that is, a grocery store. (This is actually a cute tale. When John’s grandfather moved from Sicily to Brooklyn, he started a fruit and vegetable stand outside his house, which is now Grado Labs. The business grew and John’s grandfather hoped that each of his sons - I believe there were 5 – would all go into the grocery business with a full-out Grado chain of stores around Brooklyn and beyond! The problem was that son Joseph wanted to be a watchmaker and son Angelo wanted to be an artist - Angelo being John’s father. The other sons I guess didn’t want to get into the business either. Eventually Joseph started up Grado in that same house and the rest is history). The SR series of phones were marketed but did not sell all that well, at least not compared to the numbers Grado enjoys today. In fact, it was not until John decided to completely revamp the line by designing new drivers that the Grado we all know today really took off.
John in these early years was VERY driven and his goal was to take on the world, but his target was not the pro market but the home listener market as I stated earlier. The SR-60’s were an all-out assault on musical reproduction at a steal of a price. Though $69 is still quite a bit for many people, when compared with other audiophile phones, $69 was and still is a steal of a price. The SR-60’s met with universal acclaim. Just hop over to the SR-60 appreciation thread to discover that after nearly 10 years they are still over-the-top when the price/performance ratio is taken into consideration. The SR-60’s enjoy legendary status in the industry and won TWO Stereophile Product of the Year awards in “The Accessory of the Year” and in the “Budget Component of the Year” categories. At one point it was said that the SR60’s made up 50% of Grado sales. This product was the starting point for the true turnaround of Grado and all at the hands of John and his golden ear. I won’t go into details on how the SR-60’s sound, this is well known and reading through the threads will give a solid indication. Even those who really hate the Grado sound (if one could ever use hate in such a way…) will usually declare that the SR60’s are incredible at their price point. So with the SR60’s came the 80’s, 125’s, 225’s and then the penultimate of the Prestige series…the 325’s. I’m going to assume plastic was used to cut costs and meet price points that would work for the general public. The 325’s though are made of metal and John was familiar with working with metal enclosures. These were to be the best of the line. Yet as we well know, though the media hailed them as a great success, the overall consensus was that the 325’s were perhaps a side-step at best but not an upgrade over the 225’s. Many here recommend the 225’s over the 325’s. This is what sparked the 325i’s, but more on them later. What came next was more of an Archimedian Eureka! vs. a conscious effort to improve the line. In the middle of the night, John had a thought…what if he used wood instead of plastic or metal? Thus began the search for the perfect wood. He had some walnut on hand, the sound was good, but not what he was looking for. In the end we know he ended up choosing mahogany. The Reference series is currently the top of the line at Grado. It encompasses the RS-2’s and the famed RS-1’s. The RS-1’s are another fan favourite, extremely well received in the hi-fi press and they are the only product ever nominated for Stereophile’s product of the year two years in a row!
John was and still is doing something right to be attracting such attention. The fact that he sells between 5 and 6 thousand woodies a year is a testament to their competitiveness in the high-end headphone market today. How does he do it all? Unlike any other headphone manufacturer in the world, he uses his ears, and his ears alone when designing a product. Sure he has some fancy equipment which he uses to match the drivers, but he does not depend on specs during the design phase. Instead, with the excellent training he picked up while working with Joseph, the golden eared opera singer, and using albums THEY made, along with some clips of selected tracks, John is able to get the sound he likes, the sound he is hoping for and then off to production they go. Now the advantage of using recordings one makes on their own is that one knows what the live performance sounded like and how close the recording comes to it and subsequently how close the product reproduces the live performance. Joseph bought the best equipment available to make these recordings and then…he modified it to make it better! There is little doubt that Joseph and now John, know exactly what these recording represent. These recordings (on cd) were samples for them to work with and were as truthful to the live performance as possible. John also uses three specific recordings on vinyl but only about 20 seconds as references. One clip is from a track on Eric Clapton’s unplugged album (could this be why the RS-1’s sound so unbelievably real when it comes to reproducing the sound of strings?), another is off an album by Duke Ellington where he is playing a xylophone and the final one of note is an track with Ella Fitzgerald doing what she does best (I can honestly say, female voices do sound incredibly real with Grado phones, particularly with the RS-1’s!). The reason for this interview on my part was the vinyl bit…and I asked him about the voicing using vinyl. Considering he mostly uses cd’s I was quite surprised! His answer to my surprise? “If it sounds good on cd, you know it will only sound better with the lp.” Well, honestly this is exactly my experience and that works for me!
A question was asked what types of music does John listen to? Perhaps this influences the end sound of Grado phones? John said that he listens to just about everything but that growing up during the 60’s heavily influenced him. So the Beatles, the Stones and the Who are driving factors behind the driving nature of Grados. The ultimate rock phones? Now we know why! During the 80’s John and his wife went through a country spurt, and though John admits he is not the greatest at recalling names, he does enjoy many of the bands his sons listen to. Hard rock is still in his blood. Yet while being the president of a hi-fi company has its perks, Mr. Grado finds himself listening to the radio mostly, primarily because of time constraints and the ease of letting the music run for hours on end if need be. If he can, he will listen to vinyl as he considers it best, using a micro sieki with a Joseph Grado Signature Arm and the John Grado Statement cart. He does listen to Redbook through a variety of cd players. All of this is pumped through a tube or ss system with a switch that he can use to seamlessly choose between each. The tube system is all Melos based. Heh, well now…isn’t that just incredibly interesting! How many times has it been written that the absolute best, hands down, no questions asked, amp for the HP-1000 series is a modified-out-the-wazoo Melos? Too many times, that is how many. And of course, this same amp is always a great match for the present lines of Grados as well. As a preamp, John has a SHA Gold and he uses the massive Melos monoblocks with Grado ic’s. His SS system is all Threshold and Forte. He will generally listen with whatever is readily available, though he did admit that he listens to speakers more often than not simply because of the ease of moving around and multitasking at the office. While at home, the speakers are preferable while listening with the family. Of course we are all familiar with those honking huge towers with an array of 32 RS-1 drivers in each paired with some subs. Ah yes, the ultimate Grado speaker. Yep that is what he listens to, but he also uses OTHER Grado speakers at home. Other speakers? Yep! In fact, John has designed and developed a line of 5 speakers! He even called in an engineer for additional input and help!
Some of you are probably thinking, why the heck doesn’t he start selling these things? The answer may surprise many of you, but when he gave me the reason, I was truly impressed and my respect for the man went through the roof. The reason he has not is because he is so busy making his current products, and slowly expanding his dealer network that producing a line of speakers would take too much time away from his family! John’s goal is not world domination of the headphone world, but rather to produce a quality product that appeals to people and that will put food on his family’s table and those of his employees (of which there are 17). When he began as head of the company, he was very driven and perhaps at that time, he may have pursued speakers more seriously. In fact, speakers were on the agenda when Joe was still involved with the company, but getting Grado Labs back into the market as a true contender was the most important task and headphones sales were strong and so that is where he focused his attention. At about that time, vinyl sales were picking up and so John revisted Joseph’s designs and improved upon them making a hybrid cartridge which takes technology from MC’s and puts it closer to the design of an MM. In the end, the top of the line cart, the Grado Statement is said to have the finesse and resolution of high-end MC’s but without the shortcomings. Again, given that Joseph invented the thing, one would assume that John would have stuck with the MC design. But given his intimate knowledge of the design, there were and are flaws to the sound (at least as he sees it) and so he moved away from it. Instead, perfecting what is known as the moving iron design, John has created a line of cartridges that possess the speed and finesse of the finest MC’s but without the known resonance problems. John’s website gets into the nitty gritties on the science behind the two types of cartridges and addresses the known resonances. If one has any experience with the Prestige lines of carts, one will notice that they sit in a plastic body, with 45 different parts all resonating at different frequencies. His Reference and Statement lines though sit in a wooden body and are all potted with an epoxy solution that was selected specifically for its resonance frequency or lack thereof. In fact, the wooden carts, as constructed are reduced to only 5 possible points of resonance and when potted they synergize to function as a unit. This very important concept lends heavily to that famed Grado sound, love it or hate it and this same concept in resonance dampening is dealt with in John’s phones, particularly his Reference line (RS-1 and 2). This move away from their patented stereo MC design was indeed a smart move and one that would help sell a plethora of carts. So between carts and headphones, John doesn’t see the need to actively design and market new products which will ultimately take time away from what he values most – his family. He said that one only gets to witness their children grow up once, a new product can be made any day. That garnered much respect from me as a man fairly new to fatherhood. Certainly John wants to see Grado succeed, but Grado is enjoying great success at the moment, and while other business owners may work long hours to maintain such success, Grado has oscillated between success and failure and back again. He knows the long hours it takes to get a company back on its feet and that time spent is time away from his family. Now in his early 50’s, perhaps a bit more mature, understands that life is not all about work. He realizes this is a business and that customer service and keeping dealers happy is more important that pumping out new products every year.
Does that mean we can’t expect speakers from John in the future? No. Certainly not. Perhaps in the future they will be produced. Well what about other fresh products? John said that he only actively thinks about new products when he feels there is a lacuna or void in the market. For instance, the reason the HPA-1 was produced was because at the time, preamps generally did not come with a headphone input and if it did, it was usually an after thought and sounded awful. Joseph contacted his buddies at Melos, one of which happened to be the legendary Sid Smith who worked with the even more legendary Saul Marantz (who Joe knew personally and actually got started with in the audio biz). He contracted them to design an amp that would drive his HP-1000’s. Heh, enter Zanth’s super rare, only 2 of a kind pre mods, now one of a kind, Melos SHA-X! At the time it was unnamed, and when Joe got a demonstration he was not overly thrilled with it, not because the sound was not good, but because Melos took it upon themselves to “improve” on what Joe had wanted. They felt it should sound like this or that and ultimately Joe was not happy and he set out to make his own amp, which eventually came to life as the HPA-1. (How I ended up with my Melos is actually kinda cool and another reason I contacted John. Apparently, when Joe was about to move to NC from NJ, he wanted to unload some of his stuff, he is a pack rat of sorts. Tom Codelesce <<I hope I spelled that properly, he is the QC at Grado and used to work with Saul Marantz as his QC guy, he also happens to build all of the RA-1’s>> he contacted Joe and was able to unload some of the stuff, in particular a prototype amp, the one which I now own. The only other such amp was presented as a gift to a major dealer of Melos gear I think…or perhaps it was a speaker manufacturer, anyway that unit came up on Ebay about 9 months after I purchased mine.)
So back to John and his lacuna production philosophy. In the mid 90’s? Headroom started producing headphone amps, other companies joined in as well, but certainly with a major manufacturer pumping them out, John didn’t feel the need to continue with the HPA series. The HPA series was expensive to produce. The chassis alone ran them $175 at the time, their cost! I believe it retailed close to $900 (for the HPA-1) and John did not see that as a product that would help get Grado back into the mainstream. When the RS-1’s came to market, the headamps being used to drive them were adequate but still not what John wanted in a playback system. Remember of course, he himself owns a SHA Gold. He had a very specific sound in mind so he set out to make an amp that would give him what he wanted but meeting a price point. Cutting out the expensive chassis, putting in parts that would curb some costs but increasing the aesthetics (I think anyway) by placing it in a solid block of the same wood he was using with his Reference series, the RA-1 was born and it too met with great success. It accomplished what John wanted it to accomplish and even though it is a hotly debated amp, it is renowned as one of the top ten amps with a Grado phone in fact, depending on whom one talks to, it is usually listed in the top 2 and even as the very best! (I myself feel that the Ear HP4 is the absolute best with John’s phones, followed by the RA-1, though without hearing the EMP series, though that will be remedied soon – edit: I have since heard the EMP AE and dang it is sweet! But without proper tube rolling at this point I can’t say if it takes the Ear or not, but certainly I feel it is better than the RA-1, yet my bias is towards tubes, so bare that in mind).
Now it seems that the RA-1 has been criticized perhaps more than any other amp. I will get to that criticism later on, but for now, many have requested an upgraded model or perhaps a tube amp? With the abundance of amps in the market today, John does not feel the need to set out and design something that is likely already available. The RA-1 meets the majority of the needs out there (I know we at Head-fi may disagree but we have to remember that Head-fi may be 1% of Grado sales? If that?) and so going after a new SS design doesn’t make sense for him at the moment unless he thinks of some way it can be dramatically improved upon. With tube amps, there are so many out there that certainly one hits the spot!
So it would seem that John is very conservative when it comes to new products. He is. He does not want to become a multinational; he does not want to have to work behind a desk 100 hours a week. In fact, John can often be found packing boxes, doing the injection molding, putting a pair of headphones together, potting a cart etc. He is hands on with his business and he likes it that way. He has been contacted by the likes of Circuit City but frankly, dealing with a company like that is not for Grado. Perhaps if he were just starting out, he may have been forced to sell through them, but being an established and well respected company he doesn’t and that is a good thing. These companies generally think bottom line and profits. The don’t care about the company producing the stuff just that they sell X amount of product B for X dollars. Grado would rather depend on word of mouth which seems to be working flawless. Did anyone notice the Maxim article a while back? The one about the RS-1’s? They contacted him! “Hey John send us your best, we want to review them.” Heh, who needs to pay when you get it coming to YOU for free? Over the last few years Grado products have been featured in some of the worlds most widely read magazines including Mac World and Wired, which are decidedly outside the typical hi-fi press. No pressure with advertising means John can relax and build the company his way, unlike other companies who tend to do marketing switches to remain competitive or to hook new customers.
Getting back to future products...what about electrostats? Nope. Not necessarily not ever…but again not even a remote chance anytime soon. When I asked this question, John mentioned how he had never even considered this as an option until a company who produced electrostats for another company, contacted him asking if he was interested in ever producing a model and/or a line. John didn’t want to go through the trouble and there may have been some politics involved so he preferred to just stay away from it all. Of course, there was also the fact that he did not think electrostats were the be all and end all of headphones! Agreeing that electrostats can do some things exceedingly well, and perhaps better than any dynamic phone, he has always felt that they fall short in some ways, and those ways are too important to sacrifice. After this contact, he did ponder the idea of a hybrid! All theoretical for now, but could it ever hit the production line? Well, a hybrid sure will before any full electrostat! Something to hope for in my opinion.
It was apparent to me that John knows what he wants to produce, knows the exact sound he wants to have and doesn’t much care for the idea of producing things that deviate from this sound. Upon asking him about the idea of closed phones, he replied that he has certainly thought about it. Particularly since so many people has asked him about one over the years. His answer? “People want a closed headphone that sounds like a Grado.” But a closed headphone can’t sound like a Grado.” Until he can design one that does, he won’t produce it. Some people may think this is short sighted on his part, but John does not think so. He realizes that the Grado sound is not for everyone, but he does know that there are plenty of people in the world that do want it, like it and perhaps love it! He makes his phones for those people. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect those who prefer something different. This could not be further from the truth, at least from my speaking with him. He has suggested other phones for folks that want something different. He acknowledges we all have one distinct measuring device which happen to be a set of ears that are of different sizes and shapes and which play a key role in what we hear and how we hear and which help determine what we enjoy hearing. John likes the Grado sound, a sound that has been a hallmark of their company for 50 years. It is a fast paced sound which exudes PRaT. If it sacrifices hyper detail it makes up for it in musicality. Listening to vinyl will expand the headstage, and the soundstage is already massive. What is the ultimate sonic quality John wishes to portray? He wants his headphones (and his carts) to be FUN to listen to. If he wanted a monitoring tool, he would have stuck to producing the HP-1000’s. For those that adore the Grado sound, one would be hard pressed to hear something opposite to fun when describing their sound. When I mentioned that the musical nature of the phones and the fact that they are addictive and I often find myself tapping my foot, he chuckled and agreed, the foot tapping is important to him, it means the music is getting through.
So what can we expect from Grado Labs? Well…how about those nifty new street styles? Yes, not only are they in the works, he hopes for a year-end release date, Christmas gifts anyone? John made the prototypes, ensuring that the Grado sound was retained. He then hired an industrial design firm to develop the body. For all of you who want Grado venture away from the “retro” look, your wish is granted. These will be so far from the retro look it will have to say GRADO LABS in order for people to believe they are a Grado, at least without hearing them first The designers have gone back and forth a few times, each time getting the comfort a bit better, the fit and feel just right and now they are hopefully on the final model before production. John wants to make sure everything is perfect for this phone. If there has ever been a “flop” it was the SR40’s. John had hoped these would be the portable phone everyone was hoping for, but they simply didn’t move. Ironically, at the NY meet wherein John gave away SR40’s it seemed the sound was a hit! This time, he is being far more cautious and so he won’t release them until they meet his very high standards. Still…if he builds it we will come, and we will be waiting in line for them
How about any new modifications to the current line like that of the 325i? The i in the 325i stands for improved and the reason for John revisiting this model was two-fold. The first was because it is the 50th anniversary of Grado Labs and he wanted to do something special this year. The second and far more interesting for us, is that he felt that it was considered the weak link in the line-up. He set out to improve it by upgrading the driver with a newly designed model (perhaps taking from the PS-1 technology? I asked and John was tight lipped about the new design). He also improved the mass distribution as well as decreasing resonance. This made for a whole new sound, much improved over the 325’s in my opinion. However, now that the line does not have a glaring weak spot, John does not see the need to “improve” any other phone. Does that mean that there will never been a trickle down effect with this new driver design entering into the higher models (or heck even the lower models!)? Who knows, but again not any time soon. John’s motto is the typical engineering motto: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
This is really disconcerting to many, I realize. This means that we can’t expect anything new anytime in the immediate future and as has been discussed ad nauseum John is not interested in reproducing the HP-1000’s. So then what about the “super secret PS-1’s?”
Here’s the story. In Europe it seems there is one market, at least to us North American folks. It is the “European market.” However, this is clearly not the case and for audio, Germany is at the forefront, if not in design and manufacturing then in sales. The German Grado Distributor does excellent business and he contacted John and requesting a unique product he could sell. There was no perceived problem in selling in Germany because the market was solid. John agreed but this was a special order, John was seen as strictly the manufacturer, not the owner per say. The German Distributor owns it. It’s his product. This is the reason that when questioned about the PS-1’s, John would dodge the questions or would be pretty tight lipped about them. He had to, they were not his to talk about. The Germans wanted a particular phone, John made it to their specs and the rest is history. They got their phones and a pro review hit the streets. John was flooded with calls and emails questioning him on this new Pro series. He said: “Contact the German guy.” The deal though was that these phones were only to be sold in Germany, that was agreed upon by both parties. After all, the Germans pretty much own it. They set the price; John had NOTHING to do with anything besides designing and producing them. Well how did Todd get involved in all of this? I guess Todd wanted to sell them but the Germans were a little unsure, I mean to them, who was this Todd guy? So they contacted John and John did nothing more than provide a positive reference for Todd. The Germans and he worked out the deal they currently share. We were told by Todd that deal was 2 PS-1’s/month that’s it that’s all, until they run out. We had heard musings that they would be produced as long as there was a demand. Well folks, the demand has seemingly been met. John told me that he has parts for 200, perhaps 250 total. TOTAL! I’m not sure what the numbers are up to now, but mine is #83 and its 8 months old? Basically, time is running out on these things and they won’t be coming back.
The PS-1’s were never intended to supplant the RS-1’s, many here feel they don’t and perhaps John feels the same way. Regardless, they will not be released as a Grado product. Will John ever make a “Statement” headphone like his “Statement” cartridge? Perhaps, and perhaps he will use some of the new designs from the PS-1’s or 325’s, but for now, don’t hold your breath.
For those that do want something a bit different, there is still the Alessandro line. George is a friend of John’s, who happens to live very close by and who decided he wanted to add a little bit to his already popular amplifier line. He asked John if he could whip up some custom made phones that he would be able to sell direct. John agreed, and although the various models resemble the current run of phones (MS1 looks like an SR60, the MS2 looks like the 325 and the MS Pro looks like an RS1) the drivers are different and perhaps there are other differences. John was very tight lipped about them. So, what exactly are the differences? It’s a trade secret folks. That’s that.
My gosh man! What about even the re-release of FLATS!!!? Well, flats are available from Todd, which means they are available. Two, the bowls were designed to improve comfort. Now some of you may totally laugh at that comment. I know that I prefer flats for their comfort if not for the perceived improvement in sound, but there are others who feel different, John being one of them. He feels that bowls rest on the ears and keep the diaphragm further away from the ear permitting a better sound pressure and dispersion because of the increased space and in the end a better overall sound. Additionally, the pads actually “burn in” that is, for those that find them abrasive, they actually get softer with use as the natural oils from the skin soften the foam over time. This is intentional and works very well. Of course this will be ear dependent. I have smaller ears so the pads actually go around my ears and the driver is actually closer so that does not bode well for me. For others, it works perfectly. For every 1 person who likes flats over bowls, we could find a bowl person who prefers them over the flats. So, the bowls are seen and heard and felt as an improvement.
So no new amps, no new headphones save for the street style, and no new pads. Well how about mods? Though John is not in the business of modding, he has absolutely no problem with folks modding their gear, in fact he encourages it so long as one is not making money off of it. By that I mean, selling the modded version as a Grado. He is super cool with what Larry over at Headphile does. If folks find his pads to work better? Go nuts!
Speaking about money…
The RA-1 received much criticism regarding the parts used, the design etc. Moreover, subsequent to that criticism, folks starting to CLONE said poopy amp. THEN some of these folks started to SELL said poopy amp. Well, if it is so craptacular, why sell something that sounds that way? Why copy a design which resulted from R&D and sell it without any investment themselves? Thieves? Crooks? Immoral primates? I’ve used a bunch of fine words to describe these folks, John was much kinder, he simply stated it seriously “Pissed Me Off” that people did this. First he explains, very few people understand what it means to run a business. This is very evident by many of the posts I read and oh yes, he reads them too. Though he is not a member he does browse from time to time. Head-fi is not a holy ritual like it is for most of us but he does like to read it. Anyhow, back to his pissoffedness… He has a company which people enjoy purchasing from. He has a family, which he likes to support, along with the families of his employees. He has rent, insurance, benefits etc. All of this costs money. Tyll would be a great one to chime in on this as he has repeatedly been criticized for higher prices next to the DIYer’s or the now DIYFP types. Even people like Ray or Mikhail (I bring them up, not John), all of these people sell practically direct, and it is much easier for them with so few staff, if any, to cut prices and best the price and margin of those manufacturers who are established and structured in a different way. Some may remark how the RA-1 is a super simple design. The point is that it was tested with the phones, the proper opamp was chosen after cycling through every opamp possible and John and John’s time is VALUABLE not to mention all of Grado’s expenses. When folks opened the RA-1 up and cloned it for their personal use, John was not thrilled but he was not angry. When folks started selling the RA-1 clones and CALLING them RA-1 Clones, well it was too much for him. How has that affected us? Well, for one thing he was more close lipped about some of the new designs of the drivers and some of the testing methods he uses in production than he otherwise would have been. HE also no longer sends out drivers to folks who could easily replace them on their own. He now feels he has to aggressively product his designs. All repairs must be done in-house. I don’t blame him one bit and it just goes to show that the bottom feeders hurt the rest of us. So for those who may have saved some money on buying the RA-1 clone, they screwed the rest of us in a variety of ways and perhaps we will feel some future repercussions (my thoughts not John’s).
Other criticisms John has received with regards to pricing has to do with his international distribution system. Regarding his actual US prices, there is a phone that meets the budget of practically anyone and again, the regular profit margins apply in order for a company to stay afloat exist. And we DO want companies such as Grado to stay afloat, they are the ones creating, not replicating.
So about this high priced deal for out of US phones. Here is how it works. When a company runs through a distributorship (as Grado does outside of the US, otherwise Grado deals with dealers directly in the US) Grado and the distributor sign a contract. Grado is obliged to adhere to the contract as are the distributors. Each distributor is permitted to sell only to their authorized dealers, of which exist within their territory (which usually a country). That means if the German distributor felt he could make some awesome cash by selling Grado gear cheaper than the Italian guy to the Italians, he can’t! Only the Italian distributor can sell to the Italian dealers. This is to protect the dealers. Why is protecting the dealers an important issue? Well, let’s say that dealer X works out of his basement, has no one to support but himself and doesn’t care about making a tone of money, but just wants to sell quantity, he may sell $5 above cost. At that price, everyone will go to this guy, and the other dealers will be forced to remove Grado from their lines. If this $5 guy decides to bolt because the work is too much for $5/phone, then Grado is screwed and so is the customer because Grado can’t sell their stuff, and we can’t buy it. Also, what if this dealer became the sole dealer? They could then jack the price to as high as they want and we would be forced to pay it unless Grado pulled the plug on the guy, and then where we would be? Grado would have NO ONE selling their stuff and we would have no way of buying it. If people assume John makes more when selling to the international distributors, then one is sadly mistaken, he makes less because the distributor is another link in the chain, and his costs come into play. So John sells lower to them. This is the exact same way Mercedes works selling their cars in NA. Go to Germany and they are far cheaper. Is it okay for a high-end car manufacturer but not a high-end audio manufacturer? I think not. Ironically, I remember a while ago that Sennheisers prices were higher in NA than in Europe. People complained about this vehemently, and what did Sennheiser do? Instead of lowering their NA prices, they INCREASED their EU prices to match. Is this what everyone would want to happen? I doubt John would want to raise his prices of his phones. He likes his MSRP, he expects them to be sold at these prices because all costs are factored in and there is no need to discount, that is, some manufacturers purposely price their products much higher than they would ever sell for so that one could walk into a store and see 25 or 40% off and think WOW what a great deal, meanwhile that is the actual expected MSRP. With Grados, this is not the case.
John Grado has worked hard to turn Grado Labs around and make it into the successful company it is today. He prides himself on a sound that is unique, and is appreciated by discerning ears world-wide. If he can make the sound better, he will, for instance, like shortening the “antennae” of the current lines by ¼” because there was a slight advantage with the reduction in resonance, it was slight but enough that it was worth doing John’s thoughts on sound reproduction are tightly linked with those of his Uncle Joseph’s with resonance dampening as one of the key factors. He is dedicated to the American economy with all of his products made in the US save for the new street styles which will be made overseas and the cables. John agreed that in the end, why spend more and charge more when wire could be easily produced overseas and practically everyone does so as well. Everything else is made in house, save for the wood work. What once was done in house, had to be outsourced because of the high demand. John would have had to branch out in an already tightly squeezed (his main floor listening room, the one Head-fiers are familiar with as the room the Head-fi Meet was in, has now been renovated and is used as a packing room) space. Instead, he has everything produced at a family run shop in New Hampshire, a company much like Grado in its dedication to quality and its philosophy regarding business and family. Grado is their largest customer.
John has created products, which keep people interested in listening to music. Perhaps this is the biggest compliment one could pay him. He shows himself to be an honest and hard workingman whose moral compass is set to true north. His priorities are firmly set in place and I believe he is a better man for it. Will his sons continue the tradition throughout this century? Here’s to hoping! With what John has built, it will be hard for his sons not to succeed.
John, once again, if you read this, thank you so much for spending time chatting with me. If I missed anything I’m sure it was not overly important and if it was just shoot me an email and I’ll slip it in when no one is reading
It is late now, I’m beat for sure. There is some more to write, mostly concerning cartridges and his design philosophy there but I will leave that for my next round of writing, I figured that would be a solid second to getting this up sooner than later.
As an addendum, I’ll add here a Q&A section, short and sweet though, again, I didn’t record the conversation, nor did I ever intend to.
Questions and Answers: Straight to the Point
Does John visit Head-fi himself?
Yes, but he is not a registered member. He also does not read incesantly, like the rest of us. He does peruse now and again though.
How many hours a week does John spend listening to headphones?
It varies and depends on which room he is in. These days he spends most of his time with speakers.
What kind of legacy does John desire to be his in the headphone industry? What does he want to be remembered by in the head-fi world?
Though I didn’t ask this specifically he did answer it in a round about way. He mentioned that he places his family above all things and I see that creating a company they can be proud of and proud of him for passing on as paramount. He also mentioned his idea of sound, a musical experience with all that one expects from an audiophile grade piece of kit, yet that one never forgets they are listening to music vs. listening to sound samples. His headphones are meant to be listened to and above all, they are meant to be fun.
If you were able to build a cost no object statement product what would it be?
John has never thought about such a beast, he prefers to make equipement folks can actually buy and use. This does not mean there will never be such headphone, but John has not thought about it at this point .
Have you ever thought about producing an electrostatic headphone?
There was a time that the idea of a hybrid came to mind but never a straight up electrostatic. He was approached by an electrostat manufacturer about building one, but given his preference for the dynamics Grados, John felt the short-comings of the electrostats could not be overcome or more spefically, attaining the Grado sound would only come through his idea of a hybrid. At this point though, the hybrid idea is just that an idea. Never say never, just don't say tomorrow!
What are your personal headphones if you use them?
Whatever is lying around.
What's your home system comprised of?
Grado custom speakers, Grado RS-1's, Melos pre and power amps, a myriad of cd players, a micro seiki with Joseph Grado Signature Tonearm and John Grado Statement Statement cart. Oh, and a radio which John finds himself using most these days given its long playtime and ease of use - i.e., don't have to get up to change the track.
What kind of music does John listen to?
John said that he listens to just about everything but that growing up during the 60’s heavily influenced him. So the Beatles, the Stones and the Who are driving factors behind the driving nature of Grados. However, he did do a concentrated stint of country during the 80's and he grooves to some of his sons' music too.
How did John arrive at the Grado Sound? Does he forsee revisiting the "Grado Sound?"
John, under the wing of his uncle, was trained from an early age on how to listen to music. Joe, an accomplished opera singer and renowned for having a true "golden ear," set John on a path emphasizing the emotion behind the music. John further developed this sound into the musical and very fun Grado sound we know today. At this time, John likes what he hears and wants to maintain this house sound.
Has John thought about adding or replacing any of the headphones in the line-up? How about some closed headphones?
The new 325i's were introduced as an improved model over its predecessor. Seen as a weak link in the line, particularly among fans who nearly universally felt the 225's surpassed the 325's, John set out to make his "top of the line" Prestige phone just that, top of the line. John believes in the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" maxim. For now, there isn't really a weak link in the line-up and there are no plans on adding a new Reference product; however, there are new Street Styles on the horizon (December release date) along with the limited edition HF-1 phone available to Head-fiers only until September 30, 2005.
As for closed headphones, retaining the Grado house sound is very difficult with closed headphones and so up to this point, closed headphones have not been available. This does not mean that they will never be available.
Will John ever release the Professional Series in the US? If not for commercial use, then at least to the US Pros? Or is it just a German one-off request? If it was, are there any plans to continue a Professional Series?
The PS-1's are a special product made by Grado but "owned" by the German Grado Distributor. This gentleman requested a special phone to be sold only in Germany and provided certain specifications which John met. Though Grado makes them, they are shipped to Germany and are wholely owned by this Distributor. The price was also set by him. Todd was able to arrange a deal with the German distributor to receive 2/month. Although originally the idea was that as long as there was a demand, they would be produced, the run is coming to an end. John said there were enough parts for only 250 and that he did not see Grado making any more than that. This means that Todd is on his very last few if he has not already sold out completely. They were never meant for sale outside of Germany and so the fact that Todd was able to swing even the modest 2/month is exceptional. There are no plans to continue this "Pro line."
Will John ever do a high impedance phone that works well with tube amps?
Given that his headphones already work well with some tube amps, there is no direct need to change the impedance, unless there is a benefit to the sound. The idea has been toyed with and there could be a high-Z phone from Grado in the future, but nothing directly in the works yet.
Bowls or Flats?
Bowls, as they were made to be more comfortable once the body's natural oils worked them in as well as an improvement in overall sound. Since they are available from Todd, there are no plans to provide them directly from Grado.
What does John think about amps besides the RA-1 and the building momentum for headphone-only amps? Is this a trend he is going to jump on, or is he content with his current line-up of RA-1's?
The RA-1 was produced because there was a need in the marketplace. At the time, there was not a single amp that suited Grado phones. John took the steps to manufacture an amp that would synergize well with his line while not costing an arm and a leg. Taking from the design of his uncle Joe's HPA-1 (MSRP=$895), the RA-1 was born. Since then, the plethora of amps and new amp manufacturers have since provided customers with a myriad of options, so at this time there is no driving force for Grado to produce a new amp.
What about those Grado speakers?
Yes John uses custom made Grado speakers using an array of RS-1 drivers and then two subwoofers for the low frequencies. He also has an entire line of prototypes (5 in total) which he has simply not had the time to go to market with. Given the excellent sales he is currently enjoying, he does not feel the need to take time away from his family to get the line of speakers off the ground. In the future, John may roll them out, but not in the near future.
How many people work for Grado? How many are involved in actually making the phones? How about the carts?
There are 17 employees currently at Grado, a number of people build the headphones and one woman in particular builds the carts, though John is known to get hands on at every level of his business including potting the carts, packing up phones for shipment etc.
Who builds the amps?
The amps are all made by Tom Codelesce, he happens to be the QC guy at Grado also, and previously worked in the same position with Saul Marantz.
How long does it take to make the various headphones?
When asked, John said the time was variable and he had never actually timed it himself.
What is John's relationship with George Alessandro? What was the thinking and/or business strategy behind this parternering?
George is an old friend of John's who happens to live around the corner from him. George was running a successful amp business and wanted to add something new to his line, so he asked if John would manufacture some custom headphones for him. John agreed and per George's specifications, John released the Alessandro line. This line is owned by George and the differences are trade secrets between this line and the Grado line.
Grado Interview Part Two
First, I would like to thank John Grado once again for agreeing to speak with me and to expound on his business, his products and his interaction with this community.
Second, I would like to apologize for my tardiness in getting this up on the site. Even though it will not be remotely close in length to the first part, I simply have had limited time to sit and write and I hate writing when I feel rushed or compelled to do so. Well, this morning I finally had some time to write and finish up what I started…so here goes!
The main reason for this follow up was to touch on the HF-1’s, which by now are quite well-known on the site. The second was to address the issue of the wooden box or the absence of it and/or a container like it and third (though already addressed) why no HE90 equivalent? Or better yet, why isn’t Grado aiming to make a “statement” product to compete with the likes of the Qualia, Orpheus etc.
I was very surprised and excited when I read that Grado would be producing a limited edition headphone just for this community. To say that it received a lot of exposure in terms of hype and excitement is an understatement. I don’t believe that I have ever witnessed such excitement by a good portion of the entire community, as I did regarding this headphone. In a word – INCREDIBLE! In fact, I don’t believe Todd and John were expecting the overwhelming support and desire for these phones either.
John had this design sitting on his shelf for two years. He had tinkered with the idea of a “hybrid” wood-plastic phone, but had initial difficulty with the wooden pieces cracking. (Let this be a warning to any modders out there who want to take apart their phones) Once John was able to perfect the design he waited for the right time to release them. Instead of making a full-blown new product release, he instead decided to reward the Head-fi community with something he felt was special, had a unique sound in the line-up, though distinctly Grado, and was priced in the region that most anybody would be able to afford one. Since this was for the Head-fi community, made up of primary highschool and college kids, it would have been quite a burden for most to have to shell out big bucks for a pricey model or worse, it would be limited to the those affluent students or those in the workforce. John makes phones to be appreciated by many, not the few, so instead of making a special RS-1 or PS-1 version, he made this phone based on the 225. I write based on because although it is priced around the 225, it now has the wooden inner chamber but also a new driver! Yes, this is true, it is a new driver, not just a tweaking, so I am thinking along the lines of the 325i or PS-1 technology but I can't say for certain, speculation only, John was tighted lipped about it, but did say the driver was new It has received nearly unanimous acceptance as a strong phone in the line-up (some feeling it is actually the best of the bunch, or a close second to the RS-1’s) and the price is certainly right for most. Even better, John priced the HF-1 BELOW that of the 225’s! For those who complained about the HF-1 being based on the 225, or simply complaining in general, certainly no company can cater to EVERY person out there and if one doesn’t like this phone, or does not like the Grado house sound in general, John has repeatedly said that this is a fact of life and that there are many great headphones in the world to choose from. To him, there is absolutely no point in making a headphone that sounds like a Sennheiser for instance, because it then would not be a Grado, but a Senn knock-off. If one wants an RS-1 or an HD650 etc, one is quite able to go on out there and pick one up. The HF-1 was meant as a support stream for Head-fi, and a big “Thank You” to the community. Yes of course this is a business venture and yes Grado does make money with the sale of these phones, but the margins are quite small given that the price is lower than the 225, the tooling and potting costs $25 above the 225 and there is of course the $25 that goes to Head-fi with each purchase. To declare John did this to make a boatload of cash would be a misnomer. That said, this was a venture of devotion to the hobby, to reward those with the same devotion and for this reason we have a limited run of the phones. The initial parts order was made with the expectation on building 400 or so. Once this is depleted, Grado will likely put the HF-1’s on the backburner while they try to make up for lost time on their regular orders. It takes 3 days or so to make 25 HF-1’s, the HF-1’s taking longer to build than the 225’s, and that is cutting into the build time of their other phones which need to be shipped to meet international orders. John didn’t say this means the HF-1’s would be gone forever, but it could mean that after the September 30th deadline, we won’t see them return for quite some time and possibly ever.
John contacted Todd who then worked out the details before contacting Jude about the donations to Head-fi. John had the parts in on the Thursday before the Friday announcement and the first batch of headphones shipped Monday and Tuesday the following week.
Initial impressions seem to be very favourable for these phones, but some have expressed disappointment regarding the absence of a leather headband. Besides the fact that the inclusion of the leather headband would further eat into the already small profit margin, John also likes retaining certain features of the upper models, for the upper models. So the leather of the 325i’s, RS-2’s and RS-1’s are limited to them alone, and adds a little to these models making them even more distinct from the lower models. Of course people are free to modify their headphones, but don’t expect Grado to sell leather headbands.
There were also some ferocious remarks regarding the packaging. Certainly, given the price point, and given the fact that the RS-1’s do not come in elaborate packaging, the expectation of the HF-1’s to come with something other than the same box is out there. Now then, John did decide to do something unique (not that he feels he is a celebrity, but felt it added a personal touch to at least the early run of phones), by signing some boxes. I have not kept up with the HF-1 threads, and perhaps he has signed more than the first 25 boxes, but the fact that he signed any of them is cool in my book and certainly others felt the same. Would the CEO of Sennheiser or Sony sign each case of their phones? I doubt it, even their limited run phones don’t come with that level of personal touch. This was just another way of saying thank you to the community.
Now then, for those that really want a wooden box, not just for their HF-1’s but for any Grado, we have the phones, we have the dimensions of the old boxes, how hard would it be for someone to start mass producing a stylish wooden box? Oh wait, no one has yet? Even though Grados are ubiquitous at least on Head-fi and there is a demand? Hmmm, that should give an indication to many that perhaps it is either a) not so easy to do and/or b) the profits would be slim to none and not worth the effort. Is this why Grado has stopped including the wooden box even with their RS-1’s? Partially.
Originally the RS-1’s came with a wooden box (I believe I have one from the first manufacturer). The supply was small, 250-300 boxes per order, which suited Grado because they didn’t have the room to store more than that. John would order up more boxes when needed. One day, he was waiting for boxes to come in since he only had a handful left. He waited and waited and tried to contact the company. Well, to his dismay, this company had closed its doors in late summer leaving John without boxes for the entire fall season. John rigged up some other large boxes he had on hand and shipped the RS-1’s in those with bubble packaging as he sourced a new box supplier. Finally, John managed to find a new company (hence the slightly variation in the boxes, thus there exist two designs). That lasted a year before this company too, closed its doors. Even though Grado was a big enough client, these companies didn’t have enough work to keep them alive from other clients, and once again, John was left without boxes. Fed up with sourcing issues, he moved to the older style boxes the HP-1000 and early SR series used (the same as his present SR line-up) and these were specifically made for the RS series, thus subtracting the wooden box as a feature forever and instead he included the extension cable and the adapter. Grado had looked into buying boxes from bigger companies but initial orders were 5k minimum, an amount he simply did not have the room for.
Many people welcomed the utility of the new cables seeing as most had the wooden boxes sit on a shelf or away in storage. The vocal minority (in my experience, mostly here on Head-fi) demand something more, wanting an elaborate box, but John doesn’t want to get in the business of making boxes. Grado is a headphone and cartridge company, not a box company. Many forget that it is not just a matter of sourcing the equipment to make the boxes, then buying the materials, the personnel to make them, but also the storage for the boxes, the labels, the invoices, shipping etc. The free market exists for anyone who wants to go on out and begin a side business making boxes for Grado phones, but the likelihood this will happen is nil in my mind, or someone would have tried it already. The effort doesn’t seem like it would be worth the small profits if any. Some bring up companies like Sennheiser or Sony or AT who provide elaborate boxes for their statement products. Does anyone really think these companies make their own boxes? They don’t. They are not in the business of making boxes but audio devices, same thing with Grado.
Speaking about statement products, after the initial interview, some remarked on John’s decision not to go ahead and push the boundaries of technology, an all-out assault on headphone manufacturing and provide some sort of product that would be akin to the Orpheus or the R10’s. John’s reasoning was clear and sound in my opinion but perhaps others wanted more clarification. One only needs to look at the Qualia fiasco (I’ll call it a fiasco as the entire line is apparently drawing heavy criticism on the whole). Many MANY people, having heard both the Qualia and the R10’s, feel the R10’s are not just a bit better, but leagues better than the Qualia. In fact, many feel that although the Qualias may be technically superior, the electron microscope of headphones, that they are sterile, lifeless and distinctly unmusical. But wait! They are the newer bestest product Sony makes right? Apparently not. This could be a prime example of marketing people telling the engineers what they want and forcing their hands, vs. the engineers doing what they want and going through with it. This forces development that is not necessarily better, as in this case with the Qualia. The benefit for Grado is that John is both the marketing department and the engineering department. This means that what he wants is what is produced and sold. It means that Grado will have the sound he wants, one can depend on a Grado for that sound and if one doesn’t like it they can move onto something they prefer, offered by another company. It also demonstrates that the engineer may already know that the new technology may not generate something better, just different and in some cases worse. The fact that the RS-1’s are often hailed as the equal or superior phone to the Orpheus (yes this does happen, maybe not so often on Head-fi but in the world, cause I mean, as much as we hate to admit it, Head-fi is NOT the world ) Until John feels that the RS-1’s are not competing on the world market, one should not expect something that supersedes the RS-1’s. I mean, even the PS-1’s are not unanimously hailed as better than the RS-1’s. So who is to say that what he goes on to make would be better? One can’t. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Grado is a business, best to stay in business selling what works rather than lose one’s shirt trying to make something that is an unknown. I hope this addresses the issue of a new super duper headphone. Will Grado ever make a phone that costs 3k, 4k? 20k? Likely not. John likes selling headphones to people, not spending endless hours on making something that a handful of folks may or may not buy.
John is not opposed to outsourcing some parts of the headphone process however. As already mentioned, John is in the process of putting to market a streetstyle phone that will undoubtedly drum up a lot of attention here on the boards, if not worldwide. John made sure that the sound would be Grado, but he understood that going with a successful and reputable design firm would benefit him, and so working closely with them, he has been in the final stages of the phone. A few designs have been etched out as final contenders but John won’t release something that he does not love and so far, there are a few things that need to be finalized before he goes to production, namely getting the design JUST RIGHT, while maintaining the sound he wants. It will take 45 days for tooling, then manufacturing, and we spoke mid-September, so will December still be the release date? If so, it will be cutting it close, but if not, it will be in the early new year. This is not a vapourware product, this is going to happen, and it is so close we can almost feel it, but until it is exactly what he wants, we will have to wait. My Koss KSC 35’s are hanging together with electrical tape, I don’t want to buy another pair until the Grados come out, but dang, I don’t know if I can wait anymore!
To end, John revealed that he has planned on attending the National Meet as a headphone fan, not as a manufacturer, however, but to help support the meet, and Head-fi, he would again show his kindness and generosity by donating a near mint HP2 and HPA2. Though this is now old news, I’m still very excited about this, particularly because I was unsure if the tickets would be only available to those attending the meet, but since Immtbiker has opened up sales to anyone on Head-fi, this is an excellent opportunity for anyone who has ever wanted to own perhaps one of the best combos in headfidome.
Many feel a kinship with American manufacturers, a compelling need to support their “homegrown” products, if only to ensure that Americans keep on producing quality items in an ever expanding and volatile world market. Though I’m not American, I can appreciate this and try to support Canadian outfits when I can. Dealing with Grado is not only about dealing with an American company where the phones are produced and assembled in the US, but also about dealing with a small company that can offer the customer a personal touch. Certainly that personal touch is once again demonstrated to the community through the HF-1’s, the HP2/HPA2 raffle and the fact that John has repeatedly opened his doors to NYC Head-fiers for meets and now is attending the upcoming National Meet, again not as a manufacturer, but as an audiophile, and “headphonophile” and best yet as a friend.
Thank you John for taking the time to speak with me and for elaborating once again on the inner workings of your company.