I just realized I owe this thread a review! So here it is, I actually typed it out a while ago.
SR-325i vs. HF-1
For this review I’ll try a shot at the traditional Highs, Mids, Lows, Soundstage type review.
AND EXTREMELY IMPORTANT NOTE ON PADS FIRST: In this review, it’s important to note that I used the SR-325i’s stock bowl pads while I use my own pair of Todd’s flat pads on my HF-1’s. I do this because I believe this is the way each of these headphones sound best. For me, the HF-1’s are far too bright with the stock bowl pads and while they certainly offer a soundstage and high-end detail gain, I can’t help but hate the fatigue when I listen to them with the bowls (for me, this means ears ringing at the end of a song for a couple seconds). The flats, for me, bring everything up to level in terms of an even and balanced sound. The highs smooth out while retaining most of the detail, the bass is brought up to healthy, full, and exciting levels, and the mids gain a lot of presence. This does not happen with the SR-325i’s, however. With them, the sound gets extremely muddled and murky, and the separation goes from great to poor, rather than the HF-1’s similar transition from great to decent. The bass is good enough on these phones and the highs toned-down enough to use them with the stock bowls, and this is where they sound best. John Grado wouldn’t re-engineer these if he didn’t have the bowls in mind. Thus, I review the phones in this fashion because this is the way I feel each of them should sound. Bear in mind that I’m an established musician with good ears and I’m used to hearing things a certain way and think the phones’ should reflect that.
Highs: The SR-325i’s clearly have some seriously boosted highs over the HF-1’s. Sure, put the bowls on the HF-1 and they become brighter than the SR-325i’s, but in that case they become what is, frankly, to my ears, disgustingly bright. The SR-325i’s actually find that spot right at the high end of the spectrum before it becomes uncomfortable. In songs like “Southbound” by the Allmann Brothers, the highs and high-end detail with the excellent separation really helps you hear each individual instrument in a way the HF-1 can’t quite manage. The piano solo sounds fantastic on the SR-325i’s, much better than on the HF-1’s, which sound fuzzy by comparison in such cases. You can hear absolutely everything. Now you might be saying to yourself, “then put the bowls on the HF-1’s to restore the detail, dummy!”. Au contraire, my friend, if you do that, the cymbals from the drums become so grating that it distracts you from the music and you find yourself paying attention to the ice-pick sensation grating at your eardums. The SR-325i’s highs also cross the border into discomfort at times. I put on some Dream Theater to illustrate this. “Erotomania” from “Awake” is an instrumental that shows that the highs boost in the 325i can get uncomfortable. Mike Portnoy’s well-recorded drum set and cymbals get a little uncomfortable and I find myself turning down the volume to compensate. Now on the HF-1’s with the flats, the highs are brought down, allowing the guitar, bass, and drums to give you a nice punch without any fatigue, even at a slightly higher-than-normal volume level. In fact, you get more fatigue from the bass, if anything. This laid-back approach may sound inferior at first listen, but the fact is, I can’t listen straight through the Temptation’s “Standing on the Top” (gonna get weird looks for that one
) with the SR-325i’s, (or much of Michael Jackson’s stuff for that matter, speaking of recordings with boosted highs) since the claps and cymbals can literally make me wince, and meanwhile, the HF-1’s allow you to hear the rest of the music a lot better. Overall, though, I think the SR-325i pulls off a win – by a hair – in this department. The main problem is that you will listen to 100 tracks on these two phones, 40 of them will sound great on the SR-325i, 20 will sound OK, and 40 will sound way too bright to listen to on the SR-325i’s forcing me to reach for the HF-1’s for that more laid-back, fatigue-free sound.
Side-note: One of the things I noticed when comparing the RS-1’s with flat pads to the HF-1’s with flat pads is that the phones basically sound very similar, but the RS-1’s fix that slight fuzziness issue that the HF-1’s have compared to the RS-1’s.vv
Mids: Guitar, guitar, guitar. When I think of mids, I’m thinking of how well that crunchy distorted electrical guitar sounds, and I listen to a lot of music with guitars, so let’s get started, shall we? Eric Clapton is a prominent blues player and his style is unmistakable. Excellent blues guitar and vocals. “From The Cradle” is an excellent album, if you haven’t heard it. Anyway, we’ll examine “Blues Before Sunrise” for a reference point (keep in mind I am actually comparing many, many tracks with these two phones). The opening lick is an excellent opportunity to hear each phone’s character, and once again, the SR-325i’s high boost plays a huge part. The HF-1’s bass-dominated character actually gives it the edge here. There’s no harshness whatsoever and the sound is a tad dull, but the guitar sounds really, really full-bodied, like it would in person, with the proper amount of lower mids to fullen the sound. The SR-325i has the clarity advantage when the drums come in, but for the guitar’s sake, it sounds a lot fuller with the HF-1’s to me and a little too bright and distorted with the 325i’s. As for Eric’s vocals, they actually don’t sound too hot on the SR-325i to be honest (by comparison, of course, they still sound great). His voice really sounds shouty and overdriven and the distortion in the recording of the voice is too obvious. The HF-1 brings the vocals up and balances them out and the result is a better-sounding vocal, to be honest. The SR-325i’s main problem with the mids is that they are actually recessed compared to the HF-1’s, very much a la the GS-1000! And as a result, the upper-mids and highs range takes over and the result is a brighter-sounding, more detailed mids department. It depends on your preference, but an important note here is that the SR-325i can sound a little “hollowed out” and bright at times.
Bass: I’m not sure how else to say this, but the HF-1 flat-out takes the cake in this department. The flat pads really, really, and I mean really, bring up the bass, lending the music a fun, foot-tapping beat to lay everything else on top of. Really, you can’t replace this kind of sound. The bass line kicks, the drums thump, and if you listen to the 325i’s for a while with some good rock music and then put on the HF-1’s, the bass on these will really put a smile on your face. One of the things I think Grados do really well is The Who, so putting on “5:15”, you can really hear the difference in the bass deparment. You’re struggling to hear John Entwistle’s bass a bit on the 325i’s while it really kicks on the HF-1’s. The drums sound a lot tighter on the 325i’s and this is very useful for some songs, but they gain a load of impact with the HF-1’s at the sacrifice of some of that tightness. I think that’s kind of the theme here, as a matter of fact. Now if we’re talking about non-rock music (which for me means pipe organ music primarily), the HF-1 still trounces the SR-325i. Listen to any organ recording with some big fortissimo chords in it. The fullness and richness of the HF-1’s bass just plain sounds better, in fact, it is actually still lacking compared to the way it sounds in real life, which isn’t to say the SR-325i sounds like its bass has been sucked out, no, in fact, it’s actually still quite good, it’s just not as good as the HF-1’s by any stretch of the imagination… but more on organ music later. As for how deep the bass goes, well, it’s kind of a toss-up. I said in the beginning to myself as I was preparing to write this review, “These phones are SO similar and so well-matched, I don’t know what to do”. The simple solution in terms of bass tests for me is to put on “What You Know”, a rap song by “T.I.” apparently. Whatever, this “song” may suck, but the fact is, it has really deep bass, and if you want to know, the HF-1 can handle that low note (it is audible, but not really up to snuff with real speakers, actually) and the SR-325i cannot. This combined with some organ music tests I did leads me to believe that with the flat pads, the HF-1 can gain a significant advantage in the bass, and the bass most certainly is more extended than it is in the SR-325i’s.
Sounstage: Now this is one area where the SR-325i trounces the HF-1. Organ music relies heavily on the headphone being able to lend to the listener the cavernous space that the instrument was recorded in, and with the flat pads, the HF-1 is unfortunately stripped of what little soundstage it had to begin with. The SR-325i still isn’t up to the level of the DT880 in this regard, but it is better than most Grados I have heard (besides RS-1, PS-1, HP-1000, GS-1000) and is a real pleasure to listen on because the music and its elements have a very focused position and the headstage and soundstage are much larger than it is on the HF-1. The treble on the SR-325i also allows it to gain the advantage when it comes to chiff and the pipes speaking.
Build Quality: There’s no question here, the SR-325i makes the HF-1 look like a toy. Nice, heavy and solid metal housings help press the drivers against the ear for better bass response than if you lift the phones to the HF-1’s level of pressure and the gold anodized aluminum looks absolutely fantastic and is machined with extreme precision and boasts an excellent finish. The thick, comfortable, real leather headband of the SR-325i actually leaves you wondering how John Grado can stand to sell the mid to lower-end Grados with such a flimsy headband. Many users requested leather headbands for their HF-1’s upon receiving them but were denied the request, and really, for such a nice headphone, it is a shame the HF-1’s have such a cheap headband. Also, the SR-325i’s cable is just a tad thicker than the HF-1’s for some reason, unless I’m going insane. But make no mistake about it – the SR-325i feels like its price tag.
Conclusion: The HF-1 was a limited run and thus not available or applicable today, however, it’s still a good reference point because of its similarity to the RS-1 and the higher-end Grados, its price tag, and its balanced sound (IMO). This lends this review a bit of a bias, but at the same time reveals the SR-325i’s flaws and strengths. Overall, though, I would definitely recommend the SR-325i, depending on the user’s music preference, of course. The fact is, for $300, there’s nothing like it out there, and it’s an excellent pair of headphones both in sound and certainly in finish. But really, in retrospect, I’ve never seen a comparison like this in my life and probably never will again. I’ve never seen two better matched phones and in this review, I literally can’t point and say “that one is better” and while we tend to gloss over some things as Head-Fi’ers and exaggerate others (as I have exaggerated in this review, undoubtedly), the reality is, at a meet, when you listen to two headphones, you absolutely will prefer one, and in this review, I do not have a preference. The SR-325i is still an excellent headphone, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone considering it.