Pros: Extreme accuracy, life-like with reference acoustic recordings
Cons: Very uncomfortable, will not suit any genre, rare and expensive
First of all, excuse my English if you find any mistakes – I'm not a native speaker.
I suppose these don’t need much introduction. They were the first Grados – all made by Joe Grado himself –, and are usually regarded as some of the best headphones ever made. Even by today’s standards they are a reference for neutrality.
Three variations were produced: HP1s (with polarity switch), HP2s (without polarity switch) and HP3s (without polarity switch and more tolerant driver matching). There were also at least two cables used during the HP1000s’ production: the Joseph Grado Signature Ultra-Wide Bandwith Reference Cable and the Grado Signature Laboratory Standard Audio Cable. From what I could gather, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to which is better or rarer. This review was done about an HP2 with the JGSUWBRC, but since then I replaced it with an HP1 with the GSLSAC (had both for a short period of time) and found that they sound exactly the same.
The HP1000s are pretty much equal to other Grados, but with a few distinguishing details that make them, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful headphones ever made. The whole structure is made out of metal, unlike all other the other Grados, which have plastic and/or wood. Joseph Grado wasn’t fooling around: this is a tough old bird.
The headband is made of genuine leather, but that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable: it definitely isn’t. The weight is quite substantial and the headband has got pretty much no padding, so it exerts considerable pressure on the top of my head. The clamping force adjustment is a joke: you do it by bending (!) the headband. Yes. On a 1.5K headphone. Only those who have done it will know how scary it is to do such a thing on such a rare and expensive headphone. The up side is that you can pretty much adjust it to your liking, unlike most other headphones I know. Vertical adjustment is made by the traditional Grado rods – but in here the whole thing is made entirely out of metal and there are little screws that secure the rods in place.
The original pads are similar to current Grados flat pads, but have a more consistent foam and a hole in the middle. I’ve tried all other pads and these (which are now sold through TTVJ) undoubtedly give me the best sound. The trade-off is that they’re incredibly uncomfortable. I really can’t wear these headphones for more than 30 minutes without some rest.
The HP1000s are usually regarded as being completely different from all other Grados. This was not my first impression, however. It is indeed more relaxed, less energetic and darker than the other Grados I know, but the crude and direct house sound is still intact. Tonal balance still seems to be centered on the mids, but the highs are much more relaxed than the brand’s recent offerings.
Regardless, I’ll go straight to the point: these are easily one of the most neutral headphones I’ve ever heard. Not long ago I reviewed the Orpheus, and my conclusion was that even though it might not be entirely neutral to the media, with its slight colorations it ends up being (accidentally or not) extremely natural and neutral do the original musical event. The Grados, to me, achieve a similar level of neutrality, but in a completely different way.
The Sennheisers seem to show you an embellished reality, putting you in the middle of a gorgeous and well decorated scenario, with beautiful musicians playing beautiful sounds around you. You appreciate every detail that is presented in great style. The HP1000s, on the other hand, show you a much cruder version of reality. It simply portrays an ugly reality, with tired and sweaty musicians playing on a dirty stage, after hours of recording.
Bass is very good. They’re not as strong as some other reviews made me believe, but they have good presence and excellent definition, impact and speed. However, extension is not that great – it’s good, but not spectacular. Integration of this region with the rest of the spectrum is seamless. In some cases I feel that they could be a little bit more present, but this is very recording-dependent. Reference recordings will find one of the best performances every, but artificial genres, such as electronic music, not so much. Some might find the bass to be a bit too dry.
The mids are the best – though the most complicated – aspect of the HP1000s. The thing is that to me they do sound forward, like other Grados, but the interesting thing is that this doesn’t seem to affect the way in which the tonal balance is translated to a truthful presentation. It’s as if we had mid-centered instruments (voices, guitars, pianos, etc.) more forward than the others in the Grado’s soundstage – something that usually happens in real performances, by the way. This is quite interesting, as something that initially sounds like an alteration of the tonal balance ends up sounding more adequate and real.
This characteristic is one of the biggest reasons for this raw character that the HP1000s possess. In some styles, this nude and crude reality is exactly what I want. There seems to be no artificialities, but at the same time the mids do sound forward, composing a personality that is borderline unpleasant – but it’s as if it was a reality that is borderline unpleasant, and this is the key here. It sounds like reality, so for a headphone, it’s almost pure perfection. That’s the HP1000s’ paradox. In acoustic reference recordings it sounds, well, like the reference, and in some cases, particularly with rock music, guitars just seem to attack your ears in a life-like way. It’s bloody fantastic.
The highs, just like the mids, are something special. I’m fairly sensitive to how treble should sound – I had a band for a while and I know how cymbals should sound, and the truth is that like 95% of the high-end headphones I know (that includes HD800s, JH13 Pros, SR-007, T1, HE500 and many others) just get them wrong. There seems to be some bright spots that completely distorts cymbals. I should say, though, that this is also highly dependent on the recording as well. There seems to be some peaks in the treble that somehow are in the wrong place, and the results frequently are cymbals that have no body. They simply don’t sound like the real deal.
I know of a few headphones that do get them right – HD600, HE90 and K1000 immediately spring to mind –, and to me, the HP1000s outclass them. They may be the most realistic treble I’ve ever heard on a headphone before. They are slightly laid back, especially compared to the forward mids, but in terms of timbre, they are simply spot-on. Cymbals have body, attack, presence and an extremely realistic decay. Some of my reference recordings for treble are Mogwai’s The Hawk is Howling and Hard Rock Will Never Die, But You Will and Esperanza Spalding’s Esperanza. With the Grados, I found what are the most realistic cymbals I’ve ever heard on headphones to date.
In terms of transparency the HP1000s are good but already show their age. It’s not nearly as transparent as something like an HD800, even though, to me, they do sound more realistic in its overall signature. The same can be said about speed: the Grados are somewhat quick for a dynamic of this age, but comparing them to may modern offerings will show you that they are indeed 20+ year old headphones.
Soundstage is considerably more expansive than the brand’s usual, but it’s still small and can’t be compared to something like an AKG K702 or an HD800. It resembles the LCD2 in that regard, though a bit better since the Audez’es have a fuller sound that seems to diminish their spacial capabilities.
The HP1000s are truly incredible headphones. In my opinion, if you feed it the right recordings, it simply sounds like the real thing.
It’s not as neutral as an HD800, HE90 or JH13 Pro... it’s quite hard to explain. What happens is that it sounds raw. That’s the word that better describes it. That’s why it doesn’t work with every genre, and I why wouldn’t want to live with them as my only headphones – its nude and crude reality is not always welcome.
An HD800, for example, has got reasonably present bass, sweet and cohesive mids but treble that’s slightly hot and with a detail retrieval that simply surpasses the limits of what would be natural. A JH13 Pro is like an extremely capable studio monitor, full of energy but with slightly accentuated bass and treble – which sound a bit wrong in terms of timbre.
The Orpheus is pure perfection, but has it’s euphonic signature and diffuse soundstage, also with a relatively unnatural detail retrieval in many cases. Like I said before, it seems to embellish the music. Don’t get me wrong – they’re still by far the best headphones I’ve ever heard, but in absolute terms, the HP1000s are just as neutral, though in a different way. An HE90 lets you hear every nuances of a female voice, for example: the breathing, the opening lips, as if the singer was there whispering to you. The Grados just leave them on the stage, doing whatever it is they want to do, their way, not looking to please you.
It’s really quite different. It sounds acoustic, analog – but not the warm-vinyl-analog, I mean analog in the sense that it sounds like a passive tool that conveys all the sonic and physic nature of instruments, with all their perfections and imperfections.
With the right recordings, they don’t sound like a studio recording. They just sound like the real deal.
Associated Equipment: HeadAmp GS-X, Meier Audio Eartube, Melos SHA-1, Woo Audio WA3, Electrocompaniet ECD-1, Abrahamsen V6.0, Cambridge Audio DacMagic.