Pros: Startling clarity, expansive soundstage, tuneful and articulate bass
Cons: A bit strident on suboptimally engineered / mastered recordings
First, a big thanks to Todd The Vinyl Junkie for making the 'e' series loaner program possible. To the next guy in line: sorry I kept them for so long.
The very first pair of 'high-end' headphones that I listened to were the Grado SR-60s. It opened my mind, my ears, and my wallet to all the possibilities of high fidelity audio. So thank you, Grado Labs. From the bottom of my bank account. In any case, this was before the advent of Head-Fi. Perhaps if the stereo shop closest to my alma mater's campus had Senns, I would've been a Senn guy. But here I am - a fan of the Grado house sound. No matter what headphones I listen to, I always keep coming back to my trusty first-gen Alessandro MS-1's. Unfortunately, I don't have an 'i' series 'phone on hand for this review, though I did manage to squeeze in some time with an Audeze LCD-3 for a brief comparison. More on that later.
The SR-225e's that came in the mail were packaged in a smaller Grado pizza box than I'm used to. I won't get into the particulars of the ergonomics, the styling, or the materials used - all apparently largely unchanged from earlier generations. Yet the headphones that lay inside are quite beefier than their first-gen cousins, or perhaps more accurately, uncles. The earcups from the start of the bowl pad to the end is about 0.5" deeper. The diameter is larger by about 3/8". The connecting cord is also thicker, though whether the wire gauge increased is something I cannot verify. Physically, the SR-225e is heftier - but what does that do to the sound?
Fortunately for the Grado faithful, it hews close to the familiar, yet also offers improvements in several key areas. First, it leaves the Grado sonic signature largely intact - an overall vibrant, lively tonal character with incredible rhythmic drive. However it now adds a surprising level of bass quantity and articulation that is largely missing in the MS-1's. It also expands the soundstage (headstage?) seemingly past the ends of the earcups. Finally its clarity and resolution preserves the attack in transients and enhances the sense of air between instruments within the recording space.
The newcomer's impressive bass is most apparent in "Demons" on the National's latest album "Trouble Will Find Me". The kick drum and the bass guitar are convincingly weighty. The drums are given a particularly tactile quality that is wholly lost when listening to the MS-1's. The overall sound is also more layered and expansive. Whereas the backing vocals and a french horn are buried in the mix on the Alessandro's, I had no trouble picking them out on the SR-225e's. Matt Berninger's husky baritone becomes a flatter, less expressive reproduction on the old Grados, lacking the SR-225e's clarity.
Leslie Feist possesses a singularly haunting voice and it's rendered with more delicacy given the SR-225e's. On "1234" from her album "The Reminder", the improved drivers capture the microdynamics of her performance beautifully. The plucked banjo at the beginning of the track has a heightened sense of realism - the harmonics from the body of the instrument contribute as much to the tone as the sound of the strings.
Switching things up a bit, I popped in Telarc's Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 "Organ". I wanted to get a sense of how the new Grados played with material that's been somewhat of an Achilles' heel in the past. Telarc made a rather interesting choice for the recording venue - Saint Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia - and the accompanying reverberations associated with such a space make it somewhat difficult to reproduce the performance without having the reflected sound overpower the orchestra. The SR-225e handled this situation with aplomb, anchoring the orchestra within the nave and delicately blending in the enveloping echoes. The improved bass response and expanded soundstage lent a sense of majesty to the entire ensemble. Overall an excellent and satisfying presentation.
The 'phones could also handle the more intimate setting of "Getz/Gilberto". It was apparent when comparing the SR-225e's against the MS-1's that the latter sounded more distant and tonally darker. Cymbal and brush work on the snares were less present and the inner detail from Getz' eminently graceful and lithe performance went missing.
Just for giggles, I trekked on down to Gifted Listener Audio in Centreville, VA. Tom Unger, the sole proprietor, was quite gracious and allowed me to compare the Grados to a pair of Audeze LCD-3's with an Ayre CX-7eMP and a Bryston BHA-1. Surprisingly, I felt that the LCD-3's were more of a tonal match to the MS-1's than the SR-225e's - a bit more relaxed and just a tad more tonally dark. However, it also highlighted an area of weakness that Grado Labs has yet to address, perhaps. In modern rock recordings where dynamic compression rears its ugly head, the SR-225e takes no prisoners. It will faithfully reproduce the mix and make your ears cry uncle. The LCD-3's sallied forth with a smooth presentation of "Little Shadow" from the Yeah Yeah Yeah's 2009 release "It's Blitz!". On the Grados, my ears wished somebody at the studio had turned the gain down just a bit on Karen O's vocals. Ditto on the cymbals. A similar thought popped in my head when I listened to the same track on the MS-1's, though to a somewhat lesser extent.
Clearly, I believe Grado is on the right track here. Anybody who has an original generation set of Grado headphones should do themselves a favor and audition the corresponding pair out of the 'e' series - if not the SR-225e's. There's really no doubt in my mind about that. I also believe that these headphones are great. Not just in terms of value or within a particular category of transducer. But great. Period. They deserve to be at the top of a very short list of headphones anybody would consider purchasing. I'm not sure I'm going to send these on to the next guy after all.
Headphones: Alessandro MS-1, Audeze LCD-3, Grado SR-225e
Headphone amps: CIAudio VHP-1 / VAC-1, Bryston BHA-1, AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2
Sources: Ayre C-5xeMP, Ayre CX-7eMP, AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2