Thanks to sheldaze of Head-Fi for being gracious enough to loan his SR325 to me for this review.
Grado is a company that really needs no introduction. Started in the 1950s, with a long heritage in audio products starting with their famous phono cartridges, Grado has been a well known name in audio circles for decades. Their first line of headphones was created in 1990, and I remember them rising in popularity in online communities like Head-Fi in the late 90s, which was the first time I had heard of them. I was 12 or 13 at the time when I had just started really exploring headphones, learning to read FR measurements on HeadRoom, and had been reading a lot about Grado headphones. From my reading even then, the Grado sound was extremely polarizing. Some people championed its forward midrange and treble, while others constantly complained about its painfully sibilant treble and total lack of low end response. Fearing the latter, I never actually ended up buying a pair of Grados to try for an extended period of time. Curious to just try new headphones, I’ve always picked up and listened to Grados every chance that I’ve gotten. One of my first experiences was with a PS1000e at the DC-area Capital AudioFest in 2014. Not listening to a familiar selection of music and being in a loud environment, I didn’t get a very good impression of the PS1000e, but didn’t think it exactly fit any of the descriptions I had read about it. That year was the first year I was able to attend a few shows and meets to really dig deeper into this hobby. I always read news and research on headphones, participated in online conversations, but this was where I was really able to meet people to talk about them, and try a large variety of them to experience them for myself. Fast forward to today where I’ve gotten much more active in attending local meetups and had the chance to experience a variety of equipment, and sheldaze who I have mentioned previously has a pair of Grado SR325s that he was willing to loan to me to be able to share my thoughts. Not having a chance to spend any extended amount of time with a Grado, I was excited at the chance to get some extended listening time.
Fit and Comfort
Like all Grados, the SR325 is a very lightweight headphone with very little clamping force. I received them with the standard L-cushion (bowl) pads which are on ear pads made of a somewhat coarse foam material. Though this is an older pair of SR325 from the early 2000s, not the “i” or the newer “e” series, the height adjustment for the cups still retains some of its grip. The SR325 uses aluminum capsules as opposed to the wood or plastic capsules that come with other grado models. The headband is quite thin, with no real padding, however this didn’t bother me at all, with the shape of the headband conforming comfortably to the shape of my head. The headphone being so light, I barely felt the headband press on my head at all.
With the L-cushion pads, the SR325 was rather uncomfortable, I was only able to spend about an hour with them before my ear lobes would start to ache. Out of curiosity, I purchased a pair of 3rd party G-cushion pads for $20, a copy of the pads found on the premium Grado models like their flagship PS1000. The G-cushion pads were a definite step up in comfort and wearability for the headphones. Interestingly, they seem to modify the sound of the headphone in a very noticeable way that I find makes it quite a bit more enjoyable. I’ll talk more about that in the sound discussion.
The SR325 with the stock L-cushion pads has a very mid and treble forward presentation. There is a peak somewhere in the mids that really emphasizes female vocals to the point of being grating, a similar effect to sibilance in the presence region. It can also make vocals appear somewhat nasal sounding. There is no subbass to be found here, but a pleasantly punchy midbass response that lends the headphone a little bit of a counterbalance to its very forward treble presentation. There is definitely a peak in the presence region, which can make “ssss” and “tuh” sounds sharp and unpleasant and a what seems like another peak in the mid treble. Cymbals seem to have an additional shimmer to them that seem indicative of poor damping and driver control, like a ringing resonance in the driver. If not for the spike in the upper mids, I would say that the star of this headphone is the midrange. Enter the G-cushion pads.
The G-cushion pad swap did two things for this headphone: 1. Increase wearing comfort substantially and 2. Completely neutralize the upper mid spike that makes voices nasal and grating. While the SR325 lacks detail, clarity and depth to its midrange, the balance from the midbass up through the midrange is excellent and very engaging. A little bump to the midbass from the pads also makes the headphone punch slightly harder. While the treble can be sibilant or sharp, the muddiness of its treble lends a laid back character and also softens what could otherwise be very piercing peaks in the sound. The added midbass, while muddy and lacking in texture, warms up the headphone slightly, making it more tonally balanced than it would be otherwise. While the G-cushion pads don’t do anything for the lower and mid treble spikes, just getting rid of the upper midrange spike improves the headphone immensely, making it an immediately more pleasant listen. Female vocals are much more satisfying and no longer grate on the ear or sound too emphasized and makes the midbass bump more audible.
With regard to staging, imaging, and separation, I would not describe those characteristics as something the SR325 does well. The SR325 very much sounds like a headphone, regardless of which pads I used with it. Unlike most headphones which can at least create a sense of the music being in the middle of your head, this was never a sensation that I experienced with the SR325, it always sounds like two drivers pumping music into my ears from the left and right. Separation is mediocre, with vocal harmonies taking a few moments to register as independent voices. Its imaging capabilities don’t allow me to understand the relative positioning of instruments in space very well either. The overall sound of the headphone is a bit fuzzy, with the low end lacking in texture, just having a sort of one note “thud” for impact.
The Grado SR325 is not a headphone for someone looking for technical perfection. It lacks the technicalities to present music in an accurate or balanced way. What it does well however is provide a sound that is forward yet laid-back at the same time, bringing the excitement and engagement with its more forward mid and treble presentation and thumpy midbass, but masking a lot of the depth and detail that would allow a listener to actively analyze a piece of music. I imagine the most ideal listening scenario for a Grado is listening at a low volume to older vinyls that may not have been looked after with the utmost care. The Grado would be perfect for masking all of the flaws of surface noise while allowing you to hear and enjoy the music, something that would be much harder to do with a much clearer, more detailed headphone. I certainly enjoyed my time with the Grado SR325 and thank sheldaze for allowing me the opportunity to borrow them. It was an excellent opportunity to get some extended listening time in with a headphone I probably would not have been able to spend a lot of time with otherwise and helped me to understand why others may enjoy and prefer Grado’s presentation and sound signature.