Grado SR60s blast from the past.

If you’ve ever even suggested to mother Google the need to reference a purchase decision on headphones, then you know the Grado name. It frequently gets recommended on the interweb as the best bang for the buck in upgrading your aural experience at its current asking price of $79. And for good reason. The SR60, Grados baby of their extensive headphone line is pure gold at its price point. I got mine for $60 a some time ago before Grado thought it hip to add “i” making the current version known as the SR60i.

Grado SR60 headphones. (with a Beyerdynamic DT-770 headband wrap for comfort)

Just how good are they? Just how much “good” does $80 buy? Well, heres the thing,.. they really can be very good,.. depending on how you use them.

The SR60 (or SR60i for that matter.. they sound exactly the same to me) has a decidedly retro look to it for a reason, thats because they’re an old design forged, if plastic could be forged that is.. but you get my point, during the analog era. They look old because they are old. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad mind you. A good design is a good design. What you get for $80 is a pair of open air, plastic headphones held together by glue and a metal band of sorts sporting an antenna on either side which all comes together in a quaint sort of way and works rather well. Except for the appearance thats is, you will get laughed at with these things on your noggin, even if its just a little.

Ive never found them to be comfortable. The band is too thin and the earpads are pretty rough. If you’ve never tried Grado’s donuts, i would advise to simply stay away from them. My experience with Grado’s SR80 headphones that come supplied with donuts was not pleasant. They hurt even after listening to them for short periods of time and never “broke” in as some claim they do.

Grado donuts.. yeah, stay away. Note the thin headband on the SR80 which is the same on the SR60.

The flat pads on the SR60 are much more forgiving to your ears and dont take away anything from the listening experience.

Beyerdnamic DT-770. Note the headphone band with buttons that can be retrofitted to the SR60 for a more comfortable fit.

The band was so annoying that i was forced to improvise by covering the stock headband with the headband from a Bayerdynamic Dt770 headphone.

That helped quite some bit in comfort and fit.

These are not headphone you’d be wanting to use outside. They have no sound isolation. What that means is, you can hear whatever is around you and everybody else can hear you. Its simply not practical, plus you’d look downright silly. Dont do it.

The drivers are larger than what one may be accustomed to, for eg the iconic Koss Porta Pros, which im also a fan of, and has a very distinct sonic character which is far from neutral. At first impression when coming from anything lesser, it may seem like a sip from the holy grail, aural nirvana… veils are lifted, cymbals and high hats spring forth with renewed life, pauses in vocals become audible and everything takes the shiny sheen of a marked treble peak at about 6-8 khz or thereabouts. Details, details and more details once never heard make themselves transparently apparent.  Bass is crisp complemented by an air of spaciousness around instruments. Its standing in the front row at the park with the band in full swing in front of you.

Being an open air design, sonics are fast without bloat. Sibilance can be a nuisance at times but in my mind not enough to hold against it. Honestly, for the price, theres not much to complain about, provided you know what you’re getting. And even better so if you know why you’re getting it. If its all you can afford, nuff said. You’re done. Stop reading. Ahead lies pits you wouldn’t want to fall into. If not gentle reader, continue on.

I did say it wasn’t very neutral didnt i? Just how hard is it to design a “what you playback is what you wear and hear” headphones? Probably pretty hard a long time ago. Take speakers from way back when. Great designs of yesteryear. They sounded great, but they sounded great out of the box when matched to equipment and playback material from its time. The sonic signature of the SR60 lends itself superbly well to an era well past,… analogue playback. Right there folks, is its backyard, its where its the happiest. Pair it with gear with a good vintage and the bouquet that blossoms from vinyl is deliciously good. If there was a complaint to be had, there’d be none now. Thats just how good $80 can get used right.

Grado's SR60 feeling right at home.

When used with digital playback material, its downright peaky. That lack of bass thats a common complaint is not so much the lack of it but the slight peak in treble. Too much of one thing gives the impression of the lack of the other. Sure, you can live with it, in fact turn down the treble a notch or two… its got more to give than just that detraction, and its still a shoulder above anything else at its price. Highs while they make themselves present are of a poorer quality and tizzy compare to offerings further up the rung. Perfectly flat playback more often than not is no great thing either as it can sound rather lifeless. Lots of good systems are ever so colored in what ever hue the designer is partial to, giving playback a little zing. Systems sound different by design. But, heres the thing… how does it match up to something further up the money tree.

The SR80 in my opinion is pointless when compared to the SR60. It didn’t do anything more than the SR60, and the donuts are terrible. Its sound signature is more or less the same as its little brother with added discomfort.

Audio Technica ATH-ESW9

Going further up the ladder, compared to Audio Technica’s ESW9 that  i reviewed  sometime back at just about three times the cost, well i’ll summarize by saying that if you can afford three times the price, do it. Heck, if you had to pull an extra shift or persuade the Mrs with a treat to get it through the door, do it. It will be well worth your while. The ESW9 is much better all around. Its build is sublime and it sounds great with anything thats thrown at it from either the digital or analogue domain. And if you had to wear it out, it wouldn’t be a fashion faux pas. You may make a friend or two, or even get a date.

Sure the ESW9 isnt perfect, but then again nothing is. Its about getting as close as possible to a balance of trade offs that appeals the most to personal preference. A little further up the money plant in my collection of headphones is Denons well regarded AH-D2000. Yes i know, its apples and oranges.. err, i mean open back vs closed back is not really a fair comparison now is it? But heres the clincher, while the ESW9 fairs well in both digital and analogue playback, the AH-D2000 does digital real well but analogue.. not so much. Okay, its better than the SR60 for sure, but not three times better to justify its hefty price. Plus it can only ever be resigned to the home and needs a decent amp to do right by it. Forget wimpy portable devices. It sounds terrible running straight out from a portable media player (that includes an ipod.. no need to get sarky, ipods are portable media players too) even with a portable amp thrown in for good measure.

Yeah,.. dont.

Unless you’ve invested megabucks into your analogue system, the AH-D2000s uncanny playback of lower frequencies is not quite desirable, well unless you’ve got the low filter on the preamp permanently turned on. The SR60s dont play so low or presumptuously, and in this instance, thats a good thing.

Grado's SR60 next to Audio Technicas ATH-ESW9

So, there we have it. 80 bucks of good that can get pretty darned good when used right. With digital sources or portable media players, the SR60 is a fairly decent pair of headphones that will infuse new life, albeit with its own little twist, into the listening experience. But when used with vinyl, it comes into its own playing to the strengths and bolstering the weaknesses of analogue reproduction, which would make it in my opinion 80$ very very well spent.

– asmd.

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