Buried in a packed townhouse on a quiet street in south Brooklyn is a manufacturing operation that produces some of the most renowned headphones in the business. Despite Yelp reviews for the business, Grado Labs doesn’t sell directly from its location to consumers, though it does take the occasional walk-up request for repairs. For the most part, its long-time employees, including owner John Grado and his son Jonathan, tinker away through four crowded floors on audio gear that hasn’t appeared in advertising since the 1960’s.
In the building, the company assembles and ships models that range from the flagship PS1000, priced at $1,700, to the $79 SR60s. As of early June, Grado has evolved the drivers for the second time in 23 years, from the I-series to the E-series.
The average New York City apartment building is narrow to begin with, but Grado’s space is like a house eternally in the middle of moving day. You get around by edging your way around boxes, through the halls, on the stairs, and in the rooms. During the holiday season, Jonathan says, the boxes are stacked high enough to effectively move the walls in.
The company does all the injection molding of the plastic parts for its headphones in the basement with two machines, one old and one modern. The machines also still churn out parts for turntable cartridges, of which Grado shipped half a million per year in vinyl’s heyday. In the early ’90s, those shipments dropped to around 12,000, but hipsters have surged cartridge sales back up to 60,000 units in recent years.
Throughout the house, women are putting the headphone components through stages of assembly: stamping logos and dates of origin, carefully gluing thin mesh screens onto the drivers, or snapping the pieces together into a finished product. One woman, Lorina, has worked at Grado for 25 years, since the company started making headphones.
The first stereo headphones were tiny speakers surrounded by couch cushion foam, created in 1958 by John C. Koss, a jazz musician who lived in Milwaukee. After Koss came Philips, Onkyo, and Sennheiser with their own models, and then Sony brought headphones out of the home with the Walkman in 1979.
Grado didn’t start developing headphones until 1989, shortly before John Grado bought out the company from his uncle. True to the headphones’ origins, though, their sound is particularly suited to jazz music. According to reviews, they tend to lack a bit on the low end and have a“bright” sound that can be too much for some ears. This contrasts Grado’s foil, Beats Audio, a company that makes headphones infamous for their emphasis on bass. Audio reviewers also know Grado headphones as products that expend as much quality as cost allows on the audio itself, often at the expense of style on the lower-end models. Beats is the other way around.
Lorina walks me through assembling my own pair of SR60s using injection-molded pieces, a driver, and two different kinds of glue. The various parts for each type of headphones are stashed all around the room and building in stacks of mostly unlabeled cardboard boxes. Lorina and the women who work putting together the headphones can distinguish which pieces belong to which models on sight, and they instinctively know which boxes the right pieces are scattered in. She culls parts from a series of boxes in different parts of the room and puts my incompetent self to work.
Lorina’s hands are so fast and sure at putting the headphones together her movements startle me. She shows me how to apply two different kinds of glue and how to solder the wires from the driver. In about five minutes, the headphones come together into one piece, and she lets me test them the way Grado tests every headphone: with an 80Hz tone that feels like Inception. Since my shoddy craftsmanship came after most of the important assembly steps (namely, the driver got there before I could mess it up), they actually work.
The only part of the headphones that are built off-site, according to the Grado family, is the driver. These are manufactured by one man on Long Island who doesn’t work exclusively for Grado, but he has the space to put drivers together that Grado does not in its packed and rickety townhouse. The driver design was built and refined in-house, John says; it’s just the handiwork that happens in Long Island.
All of the testing of the headphones takes place in the listening room on the top floor of the Grado building, which is filled with leather furniture and two shelving units of turntables and receivers. The shelves are bookended by a set of peculiar speakers, which aren’t so much speakers as two stacks of headphone drivers encased in wood. The speakers are an experimental design that Grado decided never to ship, but the models stand waiting if the company ever decides to expand. Playing to the headphones’ strengths (or, more likely, the Grado family preferences), the company tests and develops new drivers by listening to artists like Ella Fitzgerald or Eric Clapton in the listening room.
Here I try out two prototype models of Grado’s professional variety of headphones, the GS1000e and PS1000e, while listening to The Fairfield Four. I can hardly tell the difference between them, but in each pair, I can hear each individual reverberation of the baritone singer’s vocal chords.
And what if a big company, say, Apple, came knocking wanting to expand into a new hardware area? “It’s not for sale,” John said. He likes the hands-on process of taking headphones from pieces to product and being involved in the minutiae of the business. Selling, or even expanding the space enough that he would become more removed, isn’t in his interest.
After Jonathan graduated college and completed a stint at Sonos, he returned to the family business this year, ready to get into more of the profile-raising his father never really cared for. In the coming months, he’ll ship off to conferences to represent Grado to fellow audiophiles, interested retailers, and competitors. But while Grado is slowly adapting to social media, it has no intent to bring back advertising or celebrity endorsements. For the foreseeable future, it’s just the Grados in their narrow townhouse making the little-known, well-loved line of headphones.
Listing image by Jennifer Hahn