Pros: Beautiful, clean, high-end sound that can go in a wide variety of enclosures
Cons: You have to get off your arse and build the cans yourself
Grado headphones have lived in infamy among headphone enthusiasts for decades. They have a fiercely devoted following, for whom the company’s trademark aggressive, in-your-face signature is the holy grail of listening pleasure. Frequently these devotees are also followers of the classic rock scene and for good reason….Grados aren’t bass monsters, they aren’t pretty, but they can bring tears to your eyes if you use them to listen to a little Led Zeppelin…
Like all good cults though, there are some Grado tribe splinter groups. A prominent set are the Grado Modders. One of old Joseph Grado’s greatest unsung legacies is the industrial design behind the Grado line of headphones. It is brutally simple, modular and a temptation to every yahoo out there with a soldering iron, a glue-gun and the curiosity levels of a Grey Vervet Monkey…they do everything, from punching holes in the driver felt to increase bass, to making their own wooden cups for the drivers to be transplanted into.
The appearance of the Grado Modders in the Grado community spawned another offshoot as well…the Grado Modders who “went Magnum”. The Symphones Magnum is an amorphous, ever-changing creature. It started as a modification service you could purchase for your Grado SR325. It shifted briefly into a source for parts (metal sleeves and Rhydon’s own drivers) you could substitute into your Grados, and has finally settled as an almost completely different animal….a new headphone loosely related to Grados only by its shared headband and design…
At Symphones.com, you can now purchase a driver that looks like (but sounds nothing like) a Grado driver. You can also purchase a 3D printed cup, made by Shapeways, that looks kind-of like a Grado cup, but has some interesting modifications…The driver is in its sixth version (hence the name “V6”), and for Grado Modders who reach that ultimate point of no longer being able to squeeze anything better or different from the stock Grado drivers they have used in their builds, it represents a path out of the maze and into a new world.
I must confess to being a Grado Modder. I have a penchant for vintage Grados whose driver cloth has faded to pink. For me, these represent a golden moment in the Grado signature. They aren’t too aggressive-sounding, they are open, neutral and detailed. I love finding a pair of Grados with pink drivers, crafting them a pair of cups from an exotic wood or two, transplanting them into those cups and giving them an extended lease on life.
I frequently “Go Magnum” though…why? Because those drivers Rhydon makes are technically superior to the entire Grado SR line and I can purchase them alone for a reasonable price. I am not forced to cannibalize a perfectly good pair of headphones to get at them. This review is based around a pair of cups I built for a pair of Magnum drivers. Writing it is a little bit of a tricky proposition. All of the modders who make cups have a different style and method. No two modders make the same cup, and this means no two builds by different modders ever sound exactly the same. I did feel it would be good to write a few words about the V6 driver though. Rhydon has actually designed it to sound as consistent as possible, in spite of all of the different enclosures it finds itself in. His aim with the V6 has been to create a headphone agnostic driver…a stretch goal if I ever heard one. So I put them to the test. I have now made two V6 builds, both with similar cups, but both trying different methods of mounting the drivers and I can say that Rhydon has almost attained his goal. I paid full price for both sets and am receiving no financial renumeration for this review.
For my projects, the cups were made with Black Limba wood for the body, and Rosewood for the outside face. They were made a little narrower in diameter than normal for Grados, and mounted into headbands taken from old Sony MDR7502 studio monitors. They had a banked pad lip around the driver seat (provides a little more mass around the driver, which I like). They had very minimal ornamentation around the outside face. I like to keep a cup as simple as possible sometimes. Both used simple Mogami cables made by @PETEREK, sleeved in black paracord and terminated with a 1/8th Amphenol jack.
For the first pair, the drivers were foam-fit in their seat. This means I wrapped adhesive, foam stripping around the circumference of the driver and used that to ensure a snug fit in the driver seat. The cups were 1.5 inches in length.
For the second pair, the drivers were press-fit. This means when I turned my cups, I made the driver seat tight enough to hold the driver with no foam tape in between. The cups were 1.25 inches in length.
For both, I can say the following: the V6 driver feels like a direct descendant of the V5 driver, aiming for better clarity, and extension on both ends of the spectrum than its predecessor...perhaps sacrificing a bit of soul along the way. Think about the difference between your local watering hole/drinking dive, and that nice spot you take your missus on date night because you don't want to have to give her your favorite seat and explain to her why nothing on the snack menu is cooked without the involvement of a microwave or a deep-fat fryer...@Rhydon's V6 are like a spot where the barman has a mustache, but he didn't start growing it in the seventies (he wasn't even born then) and women seem to actually like the damn thing. Their signature is clean, crisp, like new chrome and mirrors in a classy bar.
I am not 100% sure the V6 is enclosure agnostic though. The foam-fit, longer-cup headphones had looser, woollier bass than the second pair. They also seemed to require that I turn up the volume to listen to them more…a dangerous thing as it introduced a little fatigue in my right ear. I attribute this to the length of the cup. Previous experiments have shown that Grado drivers also get a little bassier in a longer enclosure as well. The difference with the Grados was more marked though. I tip my hat to Rhydon….his driver tolerated the change far better, and the difference was indeed less marked.
I can’t wait to see what Rhydon does next. Although I am thoroughly devoted to the merits of mating wooden enclosures with Grado-style drivers, I can’t help be captivated by his goal to build a driver you could slap into any old thing and still get gorgeous sound from. If he ever attains it, the aesthetic possibilities will be endless for me in my workshop.
The first pair (1.5 inch cup length, foam-fit drivers):
The second pair of cups (1.25 inch long cup, press-fit drivers):
The second cups with drivers, headband and cable all assembled: