Pros: Quality bass, Tonally rich and aggressive mids, Extensive treble, Cool retro looks, Airy presentation, Intimacy, Amazing modding community
Cons: Bass and Treble quantities, Mediocre comfort, Poor for long sessions, Unforgiving, Grado service / policy, Unluxurious, Narrow specialisation
Say what you want about Grado headphones, they certainly have a die-hard cult following. So, being a Head-Fier, it's relatively impossible to not know about them. When I asked for advice on the forums for upgrade suggestions to my HD448 with "Metal performance" being one of the key things I was after, it was inevitably that the Grado sound would be recommended to me. They seem to be a polarising line up of headphones, with the 225i often referred to as the sweet spot. They fit my budget at the time perfectly and apparently had the sound I was after, so I jumped on them (at a PC store no less, which I was quite surprised to hear were getting them in).
My first impressions of the headphones when I saw the box were that they were significantly larger than I thought they would be. I don't know why, but the pictures always just made them look so small for some reason. For me, they're somewhere between supra-aural and circum-aural in size (and practice, I'll get to that later). They have a thick, dual entry cable that's approximately 1.5-1.6m long. They're open back, with fully rotating ear pieces, and sliding rodblocks to adjust the height. The headphones hug the top of the head with a vinyl covered headband.
The first night I had them, I must admit, I thought I had made a huge mistake. The Grados are known for not being great for comfort, and that had been eating away at me, but I figured I can put up with mild discomfort for the great sound. However, when I first put them on I thought they felt pretty strange. No immediate discomfort or anything, but it didn't feel like it was something designed to go on the ears in such a manner. They seem to put most of the pressure on the outside edges of your ear, rather than directly on the ear or head. Pretty weird, really, and it still feels quite unique every time I switch from a more conventional headphone to the 225i's.
After 30 minutes or so some pretty serious discomfort started to set in. This was because of two things; the clamp force and the earpads. I knew before I bought them that you had to stretch the headband out, but I didn't do it enough. As they are now, when relaxed (face down) the closest points of the earpads sit about 7.5cm away from each other, which leaves the clamp force just right for me. However out of the box they probably sit 1.5cm apart, hence why they were so violently uncomfortable. As for the earpads, they are not as soft when new as they are after a good fortnight of use (and a wash or two), which also improves the comfort. Still, even with these improvements the comfort is mediocre at best, and will inhibit long listening sessions. The cable is also fairly heavy, disproportionately so to the weight of the headphones, so if the cable isn't supported it will feel like the cable is dragging down your head. Still, it could have been a lot worse since to it's credit they're quite light and allow your ears to breathe quite generously, so sweat and heat never really occurs. Really, these are actually comfy for listening to a single album, but the longer you listen after that, the more they become uncomfortable. These are definitely not all day headphones.
The build quality is actually better than I was expecting (since I'd heard they were "extremely cheap" feeling). There's no thin, flimsy plastics used. The plastic of the the cups, gimbals and rodblocks actually seems very sturdy. It sounds very solid when tapped with my knuckle and has absolutely zero give when pressure is applied to it. The metal grille is very nice, in fact I prefer it to almost every modified grille I've seen. The cable is very thick and sturdy, and the 6.35mm jack is very solid. The dual entry cables are also attached very well to the cups. The overall build and sturdiness isn't stellar but it's actually fairly respectable. I think the sense of cheapness that many people get is from some of the materials and the design. The aforementioned earpads are just foam. Sure, it's significantly higher grade foam that what you get on a crappy $10 pair of headphones from a reject store, but it's not a luxurious material to sit on your ears or to look at. But the real killer is the vinyl headband. Once again, it's not as bad as I was lead to believe, but it is most certainly the weak point of the entire build. It's quite thin, and doesn't feel or look nice in the least. This is the main thing that makes you feel as though you've been ripped in the build department. Also, when you hold them in your hands, the free swivelling ear cups give the sensation that the headphones are less 'solid' but I think that's more of an illusion than anything.
I knew that the vinyl headband had to go before I even received the 225i's, so I got myself a genuine cowhide leather headband from Headphonelounge.com (now Turbulent Labs). It adds a whole world of extra quality, looks and a bit of comfort to the Grados for $50. I think my 225i's look quite nice with it on:
But, even with this addition, I must agree that for a $200 headphone they are rather rudimentary and un-luxurious. You want (and can get) something that just feels and looks much more high end for that amount of money. I still think they look quite cool, but take that with a grain of salt because I'm one of the weirdos that thinks the Koss Portapro looks cool (and it's not even me reminiscing to the 80's, I'm only 21 ).
With all of that said about the quality and comfort, this is probably the time to mention the modding community. I won't say much, but there is a wealth of info about ways to modify your Grados (and even businesses you can send yours into). The relatively modular design of the Grados allow for many DIY possibilities if you have the know-how or the dollars.
However, this also brings me to Grado's policies and service. If you're modifying your headphones and break a part, often you can get a replacement part from the manufacturers, or another store that sells the parts. Not so with Grado. All they sell are replacement earpads, extension cables and 6.35mm to 3.5mm converters. They have a policy against selling parts like metal headband inserts, grilles, gimbals, badges, cups etc. So unless you're able to find somebody selling a used part, you'll be forced to send your headphones into Grado and pay what will end up being an exhorbitant servicing & repairs fee for a single part. I think it's a crap policy, and I don't really care what reasons they have for it, it just makes things worse for their consumers. I've heard of people carefully wording their emails to Grado about spare parts (lying) and having success getting the part sent to them for free, but that people should have to do that just to get their hands on some innocent little spare parts is ridiculous. Not to mention, my particular grados were missing the sheets of paper that normally come with them, I contacted them about it and got bounced all around the place with unhelpful crap (I never got the papers). I've seen Grados service praised but I haven't had a single good experience with them.
It's probably time I got around to talking about the sound. I've had the Grados for 6 and a half months now, and my enjoyment of their sound (if put on a graph) has been somewhat bell-shaped. It took me a little bit to appreciate what they did, and since I did I've been loving them immensely, but with time and exposure to other headphones, my maturing tastes and their flaws have had a bit of a sobering affect in that I realise I can't use them for everything. Here's what I think of their sound;
Bass- Fantastic quality but lacking in quantity for certain applications. The bass is very tight, fast and punchy. It does a fantastic job of keeping up with drum blasting or fast-paced bass rhythm. It's well defined, too. The problem is that for stuff like electronic, hip hop, ambient and even quite a lot of metal, I think the bass has too little authority. It leaves quite a few tracks sounding like there's quite a bit missing, kind of like 2.0 monitors with poor extension / authority vs a balanced 2.1 setup. It's just far too light for some music. Compared to the HFI-580, the bass sounds embarrassingly weak for said genres. The quality is there in spades, but the quantity is insufficient for those bass heavy uses. For stuff like Jazz, Progressive, Acoustic, and for more technical Metal the bass is great, though.
Mids- These are kick ass. Easily the highlight of the 225i, and they sound just bloody fantastic to my ears. They possess a very warm, crisp tone, and they're quite forward and aggressive. This works wonders for distorted guitars but it also gives intimacy and authority to other instruments. Vocals sound just right to me. Keyboards are one of the stand-outs for me with these, they sound quite 3 dimensional, very real, very fun. The mids are definitely the best quality of these phones.
Treble- Basically what I said about the mids, the forwardness and aggressiveness can be fantastic for the right music. It gives darker, relaxed recordings excitement and intimacy. Power. But, like the bass, the treble isn't good for everything. It's not as bad as the HFI-580s, but the fatigue and piercing isn't exactly hard to come across in long listening sessions or with an already bright recording. Comparing bright Black Metal recordings between the PX100 and the 225i definitely made it apparent that if I was going to stick to the album on the Grado it would be at the expense of fatigue. A good example of where the treble is advantageous is Tool's 10'000 Days. It's music that is peaky by nature that the extra peakiness of the Grados makes things too bright.
The 225i's sound intimate, coherant, fast and airy, punchy and energetic with the correct music. These do sound fantastic with small ensemble Jazz, Progressive and Acoustic, as well as metal that isn't quite as "grand" or "epic" sounding, they're too narrow and not bassy enough for that. Also, all of this is with the assumption that you're feeding them well recorded music, because I don't find the 225i to be a very forgiving headphone at all.
Would I recommend these? I would, but only for a very specific type of user; Somebody who doesn't prioritise aesthetics or quality, but who wants them for short listening sessions at home with SQ that will excel with well recorded Jazz, Progressive, Acoustic and Metal, and is interested in modifications. It's fantastic for that sort of person. However, I feel anyone who doesn't fit into such a narrow userbase will likely encounter some glaring flaws.
If you want stellar build quality you will be disappointed. If you want bass power you will be very disappointed. If you want easy listening you will be disappointed. If you want forget-they're-on comfort you'll be disappointed. If you want wide genre compatibility you will be disappointed. If you want portability you will be disappointed. If you want luxurious finishings you will be disappointed. If you want top notch support and service you will be disappointed.
There's quite a number of things that can very easily leave someone disappointed in these headphones, it's true. It does some select things very well indeed, though, and if those things happen to be those that you value most, then you've found yourself a great buy. For me personally, I really love what they do well. However, these are certainly headphones that belong in a collection, not on their own. My music tastes have branched out considerably since I bought them, so their narrow specialisation no longer fulfils my needs as a whole. I'll probably upgrade to a more easy listening, all-rounder in time.
A great specialist headphone, just don't expect it to do everything well.