There were many famous US brands established in the post-war period, commonly named after their various founders. Few remain independent. But Grado is still in the hands of the Grado family some two-thirds of a century after it was established in Brooklyn, New York.

And even though the Grado GH3 Heritage Series headphones are priced towards the lower boundary of this collection, they also are hand-built in Brooklyn.

They are by far the lightest in physical weight of any of the headphones in our group test: 156 grams according to my scales. These are also the only on-ear model from this collection. The light weight means that they need not apply much pressure on your head to stay in place, even with a bit of head shaking. That’s important for on-ear models. Too tight a grip on my ears and they begin to get uncomfortable after a while.

The pads are foam rubber, removable and replaceable. The earcups had sufficient travel on the headband to properly align with my ears, and had a little left over. The band has a leather-look cover, which I suspect is a synthetic. I found the headphones comfortable to wear. They are also unique amongst this bunch in that the cups rotate 90 degrees, so you can pack them away without them occupying too much space. But you’ll have to come up with a case or bag, since none is provided.

The cables are fixed. They join to both cups and are combined into one cable a couple of hundred millimetres under one’s chin. It’s terminated with a 3.5mm plug, and a 6.35mm adaptor is provided.

The bodies are made from Norwegian pine, so of course Grado entitles its webpage for this model (and the more expensive GH4) ‘Norwegian Wood’. Note, this isn’t just a stick-on bit or insert. If you peel off the foam pads you’ll see that cases look to have been wood-turned. They are ridged cylinders because the driver units are open-backed. Consequently they give virtually no isolation to ambient noise, and will share music to which you’re listening with others in the room.

The drivers are dynamic. They are rated at 32 ohms nominal impedance. Grado rates their sensitivity at 99.8dB for 1mW of input. A claim of driver sensitivity specified down to tenths of a decibel seems a trifle over precise, but Grado does say that the left and right drivers are matched within 0.05 decibels. The company seems very keen on precision.

Nominal impedance is one thing, actual impedance over the audio band is another. The headphones clearly have a very high impedance peak at 80 hertz. When fed from certain home theatre receivers, this is going to result in an eight decibel boost at that frequency. With good sensitivity and a clear preference for low output impedance amplifiers, these headphones are best suited to being used with modern designs. Indeed the Pioneer portable music player drove them to highly satisfying levels with Eminem’s Stan, even in its Euro-compliant low output ‘Headphone mode’.

I briefly tried the headphones on a Yamaha home theatre receiver, which has around 100 ohms of output impedance — relatively low for the genre. It clearly hurt the sound, not only boosting the bass noticeably, but adding a level of harshness to music which was best avoided. Going back to the portable player and sticking with Stan and other tracks on ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’, the sound was a pleasure.

The bass was appropriately hip-hop-forward without being overblown. This album can easily sound tiring with ear gear that is too strong in the treble. Instead, these headphones kept everything very smooth and listenable.

That impression was maintained when I moved to a DAC/headphone amplifier with a higher output.

Moving to Tzimon Barto’s ‘Liszt Recital’ on EMI, this usually over-bright, sometimes slightly thin, recording is granted good body and weight by these headphones. In the quieter parts the complex sounds of the hammer blows on the strings were faithfully conveyed. Only the climax at the end of the Second Hungarian Rhapsody ended up a little muddied, as though the drivers retained a little unexpended energy even after the signal relaxed. But this is a monstrously difficult passage.

The restrained — dare I say ‘mellow’ — delivery usefully made such tracks as Lay Down by Melanie nicely listenable. Often with high quality gear the notable deficiencies due to the recording of massed vocals at the tail end of the 1960s are emphasised, making the track sound barely tolerable.

Overall, despite the open-backed design, I wouldn’t describe the sound as very ‘airy’. It’s up close, personal and right in your ears. That makes it involving, and certainly seem very accurate... indeed, precise.

Even though I complained that the headphones may not have managed the complexity of some of the Liszt, when moved to the classic Telarc 1812 overture, I noticed that even when the orchestral bells kicked in towards the end, the coherence of the work was excellent, with the many, many dynamic peaks being discernible within the mix, ringing through the massed orchestra. The bass drum strikes earlier in the piece had good authority, without being overblown.

Importantly, I was able to achieve satisfying levels with the orchestral sections, thanks to the good sensitivity of these headphones. Yet when the cannon let loose at the end, the headphones coped well.

Likewise when the massed percussion strikes in the Schedrin arrangement of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ — if there was any dynamic compression, it was far from obvious.

There was good detail in the violins of the Schubert string quintet, without any sense of grating. The reverberation of the kick drum in the Primus’ Southbound Pachyderm came through the mix very nicely, proving that the delivery was clean. 

Finally, not once was there any mechanical noise from the headphone. No creaking, no sound of the cable chafing on nearby objects. All I could hear was music — plus room noise, thanks to the open-back design.

These headphones are not really suitable for use with things like AV receivers, since those high output impedances will mess up their tonal balance. But high quality portable audio players — even those hobbled by Euro rules — are ideal, as is any high quality home headphone amplifier.

Grado GH3
Price: $475

+ Smooth, enjoyable sound
+ Excellent value
+ Fold flat for transportation

– Requires low impedance amplifiers for good performance
– On-ear design may be a drawback for some listeners
– Little isolation from ambient noise

Drivers: dynamic
Quoted frequency response: 18Hz-24kHz
Nominal impedance: 32 ohms
Sensitivity: 99.8dB (1mW)
Weight: 156g
Contact: Addicted to Audio
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03 9810 2999 (Melbourne), 08 6478 4816 (Perth)
Web: www.addictedtoaudio.com.au