Pros: A major improvement in the speed, detail and quality of Grado 325is or Alessandro MS2is. As good or better in some respects than the HD-800s.
Cons: Best value if you have high-end gear and the Grado pads tend to be uncomfortable to wear for long periods.
Updated March 24, 2011
Some time ago, a friend of mine decided he wanted to try Grados and picked up a pair of HF-1s from another Head-fier. At the time his DAC/amp was a Benchmark DAC 1, and I had an Audio-gd Compass and C2C, along with a Northstar M192 DAC. The first time I tried the HF-1s out of his Benchmark, they sounded horrid and thin, and I couldn't comprehend how anyone could possibly enjoy listening with them. Trying them out of my Compass and C2C yielded not much better results, though the latter provided more bass. So I left them for another day.
Later on, my friend bought a Yamamoto HA-02, and I had another go of the HF-1s from it. Listening to Chesky's The Body Acoustic, the result was so considerably different that I was immediately hooked. Not much later I bought a Audio-gd Phoenix (and HD-800s) and tried the HF-1s again. Now I had to have a pair -- they were completely different, punchy, musical and fun without being excessively coloured, unlike the Denons I'd previously owned. I ended up impulse buying both HF-2s and, of course, the Symphones Magnums. The idea was to see if I liked them, knowing that if I didn't, because the former were limited edition and the latter were being sold at a discount for first-time buyers that I likely wouldn't lose any money on them.
The HF-2s, as opposed to the SR-325is or Alessandro MS2is that the Magnum mods are based on, reportedly have a "John Grado" style sound, which is darker, without the usual strong treble of the regular models. With stock bowl pads this is certainly true and, along with a good dose of mid-bass, have what I call a somewhat "fun" sound, that is, one which is aimed more for musicality than neutrality. While not as detailed to my ears as a top-tier headphone (such as the HD-800) in my experience, they are still damn good, and best of all, can be powered by anything from an iPod up. You can also put the GS/PS1000 "Jumbo" pads on them, resulting in a quite bright, but still very pleasant sound, with a bit more bass than what I'd call neutral and a bit more spaciousness, which is great with classical, for example. On some rigs they end up too bright doing this, especially with modern pop and its excess treble, but it's worth noting the effect of the pads, as it will be important later in my review.
The Magnum (V1) on the other hand, had much the same sound signature as the 325is/MS2i from which they are based, something I can only gather from others as being the standard Grado "house sound". Headroom's measurements suggest to us some peakiness in the mids and treble with a bass that isn't so strong in the deepest ranges. As well, by design, Grados are supra-aural, that is, they sit on, rather than around the ears. In practical terms, this means the music is more forward and, as people describe, intimate, as if you were sitting closer to the stage. The downside the drivers being closer to one's ears can result in the sound becoming congested to some degree, more so with complex music, there being less space for the sound waves to transform before they hit the ear. They are also low impedance and easy to drive, which makes them extremely flexible in what they would sound good plugged into.
The V2 drivers, unlike the bright V1s are tonally closer to the HF-1s. While still reasonably bright, they aren't as much so as the 325is or V1 Magnums, yet still have more of a treble presence than the HF-2. The mids are still quite forward, rather like my Stax 404LE though not as much as some of the Audio-Technicas I've tried. The mid-bass, which was too strong initially, has tamed somewhat and is still more present than with the V1s. Deep bass is somewhat rolled off, so they wont rattle your head, but I'm willing to bet that their frequency response curve below 1kHz will look quite typically Grado with a hill peaking in the mid-bass.
After the Magnums were repeatedly delayed by Rhydon due to driver coating problems, in a fit of paranoia, I took up his offer to receive the headphones with the stock drivers -- the coated drivers to be sent later after everything was sorted out. As a consequence I had the chance to compare the stock drivers with the modified ones.
The most notable difference was visually between the two drivers: The Grado driver looked like someone had rushed to assemble it so hurriedly that they had snapped bits of plastic off on the sides of the two circular pieces that make up the driver. The paint around the side was also very roughly finished. Contrast the Magnum drivers which looked very carefully assembled and painted. I wish I had taken pictures of the broken bits on the sides of the stock drivers, as the assembly of them is terribly poor. However, the pictures I took of the front of the drivers, as hard as it was to photograph a black surface, should give one an idea of the difference in quality.
(Photographs currently unavailable, sorry)
Sound-wise, the difference after I'd installed the Magnum V1 drivers was, everything was simply better, as if, purely, a higher grade driver had been installed. More detail, more control, more right. Prior to that, I liked the tonal balance, but my HD-800s were simply and clearly more detailed. With the Magnum drivers, I stopped missing the detail of the HD-800s. At the time, my HD-800s had a DIY cable made from CryoParts 24.5 AWG copper wire on them. That cable, for me, didn't bring out the treble as I wished with them. I later put it on the Magnums with the same result. I'm used to Stax now, so I like my treble extension (but only with fast headphones, otherwise I find it unpleasant). Since then, both the Magnums and HD-800s have had an APureSound V3 cable installed, and the HD-800s have the edge again. What this comes down to though is, the stock cable on the latest Grados is great, in my opinion, and replacing it on the Magnums didn't bring any significant benefit, as it did for the HD-800s. Pity the stock cable is ugly.
I most often use the Magnums with my Audio-gd Phoenix, balanced, as I like the synergy. The Phoenix is fed by the fully balanced Reference 1, which results in a soundstage that is WIDE, instruments not just being clearly distinct from each other, but having, with good music, a large space around them. Both components are of the type that the more words one attempts to use to describe them, the further away from portraying them one gets, they simply disappear and the music comes through without a trace of equipment imparting its own unique signature. This can be too much of a good thing, sometimes, however.
With the Magnums and the volume turned up a bit, this is rather like sitting in a concert hall in the front row, with the band stretched out either side of you in front. The beauty of it is that it allows you to focus in on individual instruments. The reproduction of those instruments is, to me, so organic and natural that I feel as I might if they were playing in front of me, with nothing in between. To a degree the HD-800 has this, but while you've got your own personal concert hall, you're sitting quite a few rows back, and that intimacy is not there, as if they are saying "We want to remain impartial in your experience." but if everything is set up right, then so will your experience will be. The Magnums, on the other hand, as Grados tend to do, thrust you right up front. Importantly, with the improved drivers, that micro-detail that brings forth the spirit of the music, especially if it's acoustic and not electronic.
Stevie Ray Vaughan, if you don't already know, is a legendary guitar player (and regrettably dead, damn plane crash) who can play Hendrix as good as the Hendrix did himself. His playing feels as if he is putting his entire soul into every note. His singing isn't always my thing, so my favourite tracks of his tended to be those such as Little Wing or Chitlins Con Carne. However, one of my favourite tracks of his is Tin Pan Alley. It's a dark, dark tale, which, despite the epic playing, I've always felt a little more distant from. Enter the Magnums and I've been brought close up, not just to his playing, but it is as if I can feel his playing, not just hear it, absolutely everything of every note brought to me in its glory, for the whole 9 minutes and 12 seconds of it. I have played this track to death yet it still moves me as much as it did the first time -- more so now. It's a combination of the Grado intimacy, tonal balance suited to gear and ears, and the icing on the cake, that high level of detail required to pass on the spirit of the music. Likewise, vocals are now simply mesmerising. Chopin is delivered to me in a way I've never heard it before, and I'm taken with every trumpet note from Coltrane or Davis. This is the detail and intimacy combined bringing this feeling about.
Compared to the Sennheiser HD-800s, they are both able to present instruments realistically, yet though the HD-800 has an amazing, cavernous soundstage that makes music sound big and other headphones seem less capable, but can be too spacious with some music. Where music was recorded in a small space, the HD-800s don't shrink the sound to match, such as with the Cowboy Junkies Trinity Sessions and Whites of the Earth Now, which were recorded in a small church and garage respectively. This is very much a consequence of the HD-800s huge cups.
Likewise, the Magnums are limited by the Grado design. With the driver so close to one's ear there are times I feel that the treble becomes a little congested to some degree in complex music. This is similar, though not anywhere near as severe with Audio Technicas (except the latest aluminium cupped models). My reaction was to try jumbo pads on them, but the result with the V1s was all treble, and almost no bass -- basically almost unlistenable (maybe unless you love Qualias). The V2s and V3s simply sound wrong with jumbos, so I'll leave it at that. In the other direction, for more bass punch at the slight expense of treble extension one can put flats on. I wouldn't be surprised if people left flats on them, in fact and never used bowls altogether, especially if they are used to LCD-2s as I am.
The bass of the V1s was lean, but of a similar quality I feel to that of the HD-800s, if lacking as much extension. It is just right, tight and neither over- or under-presented without the usual mid-bass hump which a lot of headphones have to give body to the music. On pop music this was somewhat lacklustre. As I write, I have iTunes playing on random on my 3-stars and better playlist, which covers a wide variety of genres. I usually play it when I don't know what I feel like listening to. So far, I've played through some Gorillaz and Sugar Ray, both of which I feel might be suited more to the HF-2s or the Audio Technicas I borrowed, which have more prominent bass. The V2s and V3s, being more like the HF-1s are the opposite, with possibly a tad too much bass, though there is the impression after some time of it tightening up with use.
Interestingly though, if I switched back to the HF-1s from the V1s, I noticed something interesting: While they do not have quite the peaky treble of the Magnums, they do have a bit more there in the bass, though they aren't as far in this direction as the HF-2s, but sit somewhere in the middle. Overall I like their tonal balance best, all things considered. I understand now why they are considered a bargain and especially good headphones if given the wood treatment by Headphile.
Another headphone I could compare them to at the same time was the Hifiman HE-5, which are only $100 different in price. They almost knocked off my HD-800s as my top headphones, but ended up by the narrowest of margins drawing the short straw. Like the Magnums, they deliver beautiful music, don't need a re-cable (except to make it longer) and have a very bright treble. Unlike the Magnums, they are more comfortable in the long run (if not at first), the mids aren't quite as forward and they didn't handle very fast music as well as I had hoped. You have to wait for the treble to settle too, but their vocal reproduction was fantastic. I have been informed that with a few mods, they can be made into an even better headphone, so I'd really be hard pressed to declare an all-around winner between them and the Magnums. I'd say the average person is more likely to keep the HE-5s (if they can live through the initial period while the treble settles). In the future I may well buy a pair again.
I think the great potential of orthodynamics is that they may strike the best balance between electrostats (Stax) and regular dynamic headphones. It was only recently that I discovered that dynamic headphones could present the music well enough that I don't feel the need for a Stax fix. The two headphones to do that were the HD-800s (post-re-cable) and the Magnums. For the most part, Stax present music in such a natural and effortless way that afterwards, regular headphones seem pretentious, as if they have been lying to you the whole time.
My Stax rig at the time of this review was a pair of Lambda Nova Signatures, top of the line Lambda models circa 1999 and the top of the line amp at that time, the T1S, which is kindly on loan from Lobstersan. Listening to Anouar Braham play the oud on The Lover of Beirut, overall, the Stax give the more natural presentation than the Magnums, by a hair. There is a masterful precision and absoluteness in the presentation of instruments from the Stax, even on this over 10 year-old rig, that the Magnums can't quite match, but do come close to. The area the Magnums better the Stax (possibly until I finish building my eXStatA) is the bass, which is tighter, though at least, very much defying the myth, there is plenty of bass from the Lambdas. The Magnums also, very much in the nature of dynamic headphones, have more impact. The Lambdas are also lighter and more comfortable, but have the worst plastic creak of anything I've ever encountered, but I forgive them.
Overall, I feel the Magnums are at least as capable as the HE-5s and knock on the door of the HD-800s and my Stax Lambdas. Considering that the Magnums are only $700 if you use MS2is, or less even if you get the Lite mods, that makes them quite a bargain, if, and this is a big if, you like their presentation. The things they have going against them are the Grado discomfort and tacky cable sheath. As well, if you like your music presented "warm" or with body (ie: a mid-bass hump) rather than "just the facts maam" they aren't going to be for you. In other words, they may very well be simply a very fast and heavily damped 325is/MS2i, good or bad, suitable or unsuitable for the music one likes that this may be.
Now with the V2 and V3 drivers offering a more flexible overall tonal balance, with more mid-bass and less of a peaky treble, the situation has changed, and thus my conclusions. As an all-round headphone, with my gear they are simply fantastic with acoustic music such as jazz, when used with my balanced system. At the time of writing this, I have been using the Audeze LCD-2s for a few days, which are another small manufacturer effort that is fantastic. As far as I can audibly discern, the Magnums are very marginally slower than the LCD-2s, but then, they are the fastest measured full-sized headphone bar none (at least until Tyll Herstens does some good measurements of the Stax Omega II) and have the best bass of any headphone I've heard. When you look at the cost of the Magnums, even the full mod, knowing that the gimbals alone are costing you $200, at around $7-800 all up, they are excellent value for people who already own high-end gear especially, besting the capabilities of my HD-800s in headstage (headphone soundstage) for example.
December 17, 2011 update:
Now, finally, my V3 pair has been upgraded to V4, which changes both the drivers and the aluminium sleeves for them. Back, I feel, is the V1 magic with instruments, along with a more present treble. Unlike my V2s, the bass of which varies depending on the amping, the V4s likely have a more flat impedance curve as they don't suddenly become boomy out of my Stacker II. The bass is now spot-on, neither too much nor too little. Interestingly for me, as I intend to take them with me when I travel, while I felt the V2s were great with my Fostex HP-P1, I feel the V4s are too good for it, revealing its flaws too easily, rather in the manner the upgrade from the LCD-2s to the LCD-3s can make them too sensitive to the quality of some systems.
Considering that the drivers + sleeves come to $240 total, adding a pair of SR-60s or your Grado plus a selection of hand-made wood cups from a number of people makes this, in my opinion, the biggest high-end headphone bargain, period.
Rhydon has also assured me he is in this for the long term, should anyone be wondering about the shipping delays. For me, they were worth the wait.
MacBook Pro, Audio-gd Reference 3 and Reference 1, Audio-gd Phoenix, Audiovalve RKV Mark II, Stax T1S, Van Den Hul The Orchid RCA and XLR cables, Audio-gd and DIY power cables.
Please see my profile for a list of gear I own, have owned or used. I haven't heard any other Grados other than those mentioned in this review, sorry.