Grado has always been known for a brighter than usual, harsh house sound. The SR60, 80, 120 and PS1000 were troublesome up top, icy even and overly snappy. Thankfully, the release of the PS500 finally edged Grado out of the world of harshness and into the sublime, yummy and smooth type of sound. Gosh, I love my original version PS500 and it is certainly my absolute favorite mid-tier headphone, but it bugs me that my belief in the PS500 original being Grado’s best headphone still hasn’t changed.
The GH1 and the new PS500E are neigh indistinguishable in sound quality, although fairly easy to spot which one is which purely based on the midrange appeal of either compared to the other. The GH1 is noticeably thinner sounding than the original PS500 and lacks the yummy oomph on the low end that was plentiful to boot. The new PS500E and the GH1 share identical bass quantity and treble, literally. It is 99% the same, despite the GH1 being an entirely new driver design. Grado let me know that the GH1 is not a rehash driver, but entirely new and specially designed to sound the way it does. I am beyond shocked by this, as I’ve failed blind testing repeatedly over the course of weeks when comparing them to the PS500E.
*With some very moderate EQing of the midrange, you can get the PS500E to sound identical to the GH1 with a bit of mid boosting. You can get the GH1 to sound identical to the PS500E if you drop the midrange on the GH1 a bit. Not only did I fail these tests to tell either set apart, remember that these headphones have identical build quality and feel identical with the same pads on, but other peers that are audio enthusiasts that I’ve performed this test on have all failedas well.*
Hopefully, you didn’t take that last section in a negative light. It wasn’t meant to be negative towards the headphone in the slightest…because I think the new GH1 sound excellent. The old PS500 sounds noticeably grainier than the GH1. With regard to the GH1, the midrange is bloomed just a bit, providing just the right locale for vocals that isn’t overly in your face, nor recessed. It certainly feels very rounded in shape and vivid in dynamics and texture, something I adore greatly, which is a stunning contrast to all of the other Grado’s before them. There is a very nice sense of substance, heft and weight carried to the entire midrange and is a far cry from pretty much all Grado models before it. I don’t think the all wood housing does anything for the sound or tone, it’s too thin and it does feel rather cheap in that regard, but at least it is aesthetically pleasing.
If vocals are your thing, you’ll love this headphone, but you’ll also enjoy the PS500e if you EQ it properly. It really doesn’t have many faults when it comes to genre selection and that is due to the locale that Grado tuned the GH1 to offer in the midrange. It is just right for me and that is something I’ve not expected to ever state about a Grado headphone. Substance factor and heft is again surprising and this is great to know that Grado may finally be tuning their drivers with some forethought into the direction they want it to go. Compared to something else from years ago like the Philips L1 or X1, the Grado only just compares in solidity factor and what other companies have done for years past, Grado has only just started to offer.
Listening to Tony Bennet and K.D. Lang’s DSD-64 album from www.accousticsounds.com, I’ve found a world of neutral enjoyment that I’ve not experienced in a long time. As most of you know, I despise neutrality on a personal level and the natural midrange tone of the GH1, combined with the mid bloom effect vocals tend to have, is simply breathtaking at times. There were days where I let my DSD files from this website play through for hours while using the GH1…such a thing hasn’t happened to me with a midtier headphone since the original PS500 was released neigh five years ago.
If you get a chance, check out the extensive .DSD library these guys have. They are super nice, helpful and have a big stockpile of high quality music from artists that range from jazz to classical. However, with all the remastering’s available now of great albums of the past, why not go big with DSD. I’ve got to say, their DSD Thriller album by Michael Jackson sounds phenomenal straight out of my Mayflower O2 Dac/Amp. Not much of a difference between that DAC alone and tossing my expensive Pathos Aurium in the mix. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say the Pathos overly smooths things out to the point of it being a bore, I prefer the punchier Mayflower with these DSD files alone. This GH1 handles lower quality music well, I’ve plenty of 128 audiobooks and older music files in 256kbps that sound nice from Audible. It feels nice to know the GH1 isn’t a clinical snob of a headphone with track quality requirement.
Well, it is still very lacking for me on a personal level. Grado will likely never offer solid bass quality again and beyond the original PS500, which is the black sheep of the Grado family that sounds and plays nothing like any other family member in the pen. That older PS500 had noticeably more bass than both the new PS500e and this GH1! That really upsets me and why Grado decided to drop the musicality tone off the drawing board with the new models is just beyond my understanding, as there is no doubt the GH1 sound drier and much thinner than the older PS500 I love so much. That bass heft and weight is overly thin and lacking to me, bass lovers will hate this. Those who like a linear and smooth appeal to their sound signature will enjoy the GH1.
The GH1 loses control beyond +5dB of bass boosting with realbassexciter, which is a Foobar2000 .dsp that acts as a more detailed and user friendly bass EQ. Compared to my original PS500, the GH1 is not at all responsive to low end alterations. That older PS500 responded audibly in quantity beyond +5dB without losing too much quality and unfortunately the GH1 doesn’t follow suit. This is not a bass head headphone, if you want that in a Grado, you’ll need to buy a used Grado PS500 original, the non-e version. That is really your only path to bliss on the low end if you like that sort of a sound, neither the new PS500e, nor the GH1 will be strong enough on the low end of the spectrum to do justice to any track with a solid bass experience. What you will get is a clean and clear, very low end of moderate bass quantity experience, something you might be familiar with in the 225i when it comes to bass quantity. The GH1 is plenty clean and smooth for bass purists, but will never satisfy anyone who wants that yummy, thick and weighted bass type.
Beyond that, the GH1 is very similar to the older PS500 with regard to slam and kick. Those who yearn for a softer appeal to bass kick should feel very happy with the GH1, as it lacks a forceful impact factor that is common with most other Grado models before it. This is a smooth headphone, you’ll never wince or perk your shoulders up, nor will you be likely to consider the bass experience to feel fluttery or lacking. It isn’t bass light, but it is on the lower end of moderate. Combine that with a solid density factor that is smooth on the draw and you get a very relaxing sound down below, something that is great for jazz standards and big band, soft rock and similar genres or tracks that aren’t fast or with a ton of snare drumming in the recording.
As with the theme of the E-models, the sparkling treble of most of the previous models has been stripped and voided down to that of a more reserved appeal. Gone now is the piercing upper tendency that most of us think of when we imagine Grado’s house sound. The GH1 offers a more subtle and enjoyable treble response, replaced by a response type that is without shriek, shrill, snap and sibilance. The GH1 and the PS500e are identical up top and require no EQ to sound similar. Tracks with violins work, perhaps something like Bach’s Sonata 1 in G, as played by Mr. Perlman alone, are completely impossible for me to tell both headphones apart with. Again, it becomes evident which headphone is which when vocals are introduced in various other genres, but for Classical in particular, I would say that both of them are literally the same headphone in sound and setup.
The upper end is quite smooth, very relaxing as well and I find it nicely tuned, which is a stark contrast to the more dense feeling PS500 original for sure. The GH1 upper end seems intended for those who want a more reserved treble experience and something in line with the rest of the spectrum as a whole and not standing out like a mountain peak up top. If you like Big Band and Jazz, this headphone will suit you well with regard to the treble and how it is portrayed, you get a nice sense of quantity without it going overboard as most other Grado models have in the past. I don’t find the headphone overly sibilant with tracks I know to be poorly recorded, as mentioned I enjoy audiobooks in low birate, so that isn’t a problem even when there is some “hiss” with certain terms in the track.
The most serious problem with this headphone, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is that the headphone becomes a mess of “something” when the track has too much treble occurring at once. The faster the track speed, the worse the headphone sounds up top and it becomes an absolute nightmare to discern what the hell I am listening to. High hats, screaming guitars on older 80’s tracks in rock and metal and similar become a total washout and detail is lost quickly if the track has too much going on. Stick to the slower to moderate paced tracks and you’ll be fine, you’ll certainly enjoy the headphone more…the GH1 is not a speedy headphone, the decay up top and below are both fairly slow on the draw and the headphone doesn’t mesh well with fast tracks/genres in the slightest. Simply put, speed Metal is the enemy.
No different from any Grado that I am aware of in the past, although the now more tolerable treble response makes things less light feeling for the most part. This is a very clear problem that exists solely due to the stock O-ring pads, which is a statement proven to be true by the G-cush pads existence. With those stock pads, the sound is flat, lacking dynamics and stage width. With G-cush pads, the stage opens up significantly and becomes far less claustrophobic feeling. As mentioned before, with just a little EQ in the mids, you can get the PS500e to sound identical to the GH1. With that in mind, I must say that the newly minted and designed GH1 drivers accomplished literally nothing in the way of creating a superior product in staging compared to what Grado has already put out in the past.
Grado owners don’t really care about the lack of staging qualities anyway, so I can’t use this against them on a personal level when preferences are considered. However, I can use it to deduct points for not improving anything in so many years and after so many different models have been released in recent times. If you like Grado, you probably like forward or an engaging midrange and odds are great you don’t want large sound stages that will take away from the intimacy you may crave. I can say that honestly because I am one of those types of listeners. I am not sure I’d want a large, vast sound in a Grado headphone. If it were possible to achieve that without ruining the fantastic midrange, I’d snatch that type of a Grado headphone up without thinking twice, but Grado won’t break that tradition and isn’t likely to offer anything truly new in the way of sound signatures any time soon.
This headphone is good for the price and Grado enthusiasts will adore it, but it does need some work. For now, the most tasty and satisfying qualities found in Grado headphones has not evolved in the slightest over the course of an entire new generation of E-series models. Do I like the GH1? Yes, absolutely. It is vividly engaging in the midrange and more than smooth enough for me to be satisfied. Comfort is fine, so long as you swap the pads out for my mod or the Gcush and the headphone is strikingly beautiful. Everyone likes woodie headphones, right? I mean, that’s a given these days to most of the community. The GH1 is very enjoyable and the pinnacle of musicality in a midtier headphone, it is very efficient and plays great with pretty much every source I used during the review process. It isn’t at all stuck up and requires very little in the way of sources and amplifiers to sound very good.
Evolution of products is something everyone else is doing right now, but Grado is far too rooted in their tradition to develop something that will push the limits of price to performance, offer a new type of driver (imagine a Grado Planar!) or anything that is very different from their past SR-series headphones. At the end of the day, I really liked the GH1 and it is very good for the price when it comes to clarity ratios, but the exterior design elements concern me greatly. None of the elements of design that I’ve listed in the rant section of this review are important to what “tradition” should be about. Grado can change these qualities tomorrow and never need to worry about breaking their core design…I hope they do just that sometime soon.
I’d like to thank Grado for this wonderful opportunity to review the GH1. I certainly enjoyed the sound, it really is very nice. As a musicality enthusiast and not a critical listener, I feel at home with Grado headphones, so this was a real treat for me on a personal level.