Grado Labs is known for hand-making each of their headphones and it is where I began my love of high fidelity headphones. Their headphones sound as good as they look with their retro-cool build. However, unknown to some, Grado is actually highly modifiable because of its DIY modular nature.
No other brand of headphone has such an active community of DIY tweakers, modifiers, designers and custom part manufacturers. The abundance of alternative parts and methodologies can, unfortunately, be quite overwhelming for the novice just getting started.
You can modify for comfort, appearance, weight, etc, but today we’re going to primarily focus on changing (and hopefully improving) the sound of your Grados. From my experience, the modifications that result in the greatest transformations in sound can be listed (in order from most impact to least) as:
1. Driver replacement
Grado has changed their driver design over the years. While the same basic driver is used for multiple models, there are driver differences throughout the current lineup, including closer driver matching on higher-end models.
Grado says the diaphragms are put through a special ‘de-stressing‘ process in order to enhance detail reproduction at lower volumes. Grados are known for having a ‘house sound’ of warm harmonics, rich vocals, excellent dynamics, and lively highs.
Although many models share the drivers and or cup construction, there are noticeable performance improvements as you move up the line. The modular design, coupled with the relatively inexpensive Prestige series, has created an unparalleled foundation for the DIY modding community. This has become a business for some, and the manufacture and distribution of high-quality replacement drivers, with their own unique sound characteristics, was born.
You might be interested: Review: Grado SR80e
Replacing the driver with a non-Grado offering has the greatest influence on the sound and character of the headphone. Popular aftermarket driver manufacturers include Symphones, Nhoord Audio and Elleven Acoustica.
2. Shape, size and material of the ear pads
For clarity, stock Grado foam pads can be defined as:
- S-Cushion (‘comfy’ or ‘flat’ pad) is stock on the Grado SR60, SR80e, and SR125i.
- L-Cushion (bowl) is stock on the SR225, SR325, RS1, and RS2.
- G-Cushion (bagel or salad bowl) is stock on the GS1000 and PS1000.
Typically (depending on ear size) the S- and L-cushion pads are considered on-ear and the G-cushion pads are over-ear. There are a few companies making alternatives for Grado ear pads from generic foam options from eBay or Amazon, to the well-respected foam options from Todd The Vinyl Junkie or the luxurious merino wool or leather options from Beautiful Audio.
The size, shape, and material of the pad changes comfort, head interaction and the distance between driver and ear, impacting perceived soundstage, imaging, positioning, space, and volume. Basically, everything you hear. Supra-aural (on-ear) headphones typically are described as having a more forward, intimate, “close to the stage” sound.
3. Driver modification
Opening up (poking holes in) the fabric material covering the holes arranged around the rear circumference of the driver increases the quantity of bass that the driver delivers (although perhaps with a corresponding decrease in quality and control).
The stock Prestige series is not vented, while the GS and PS1000 have 4 vented holes. Modding enthusiasts claim success with anything from 2 to 10 holes vented per driver.
If you are feeling less adventurous, I have a non-destructive hack for you. Adding material to dampen resonances to the rear of the metal center of the driver (anything from Dynamat to Blu-Tack or Sugru) is a safe (and a light-handed) tweak.
4. Ear cup material
There are two equally strong and opposite points of view regarding cup material and the impact on sound reproduction (although aren’t there always two passionately differing viewpoints when discussing any hi-fi audio tweak?). Some popular aftermarket wooden cups manufacturers include Shipibo Audio, SpinAF, Wabi Sabi, Turbulent Labs, Rholupat and Yew Woodworks.
The first camp I shall call “inert” group, and they claim that the cups are too solid to vibrate or change the flavor of the sound, regardless of cup material (wood, plastic, metal, etc.). Basically, they assert that if the exact design of cup (shape, thickness etc.) is duplicated, the material used will not make a difference in the perceived sound, that there is simply not enough vibration to create any reverb or interaction with the music reproduction.
“Tone wood” group
The second camp is the “tone wood” supporter. Much like a musical instrument, a particular material is selected for its interaction with the driver, in an effort to find a positive synergy, where the final sound produced is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Resonance and reflection of materials are believed to affect the timbre of the music reproduction.
As with most audio tweaks, I believe the difference is noticeable but subtle. As per my list above, I find cup changes to be one of the subtlest of the perceptible Grado sound modifications. This isn’t to say that a change to well made wooden cups isn’t worthwhile. Regardless of the impact on the sound, the humble Grado can be transformed into a work of art aesthetic-wise.
A little throwback from John Grado himself
In 1996, John Grado discussed why he started using mahogany for the cups on the Grado Reference Series One headphone. “The idea of using wood just came to me one night,” explained John Grado. “We went through quite a few species of wood before finding this mahogany—which type, we’ll just keep our secret for the moment. When you’re building speakers, you’re supposed to want a dense, really hard wood—well, that’s not mahogany. But it works really well—I don’t always spend a lot of time figuring out why something works; sometimes I’m just satisfied that it does. Maybe the mahogany has a lower resonant frequency, or maybe its resonance just doesn’t emphasize something in my driver—I’m not saying it would work in all cases, but it seems to work well with our driver.”
So what species of wood sounds the best?
Common cup materials include cherry, cocobolo, ebony, limba, mahogany, maple, oak, padauk, rosewood, and walnut. Users report anything from improved bass, midrange or treble. Some report changes in soundstage and imaging. Typically reports are positive, although some feel that there are perceptible decreases in the treble with particular woods.
Please take all this as a second-hand impression as I have not had the opportunity to try all these cup types (and certainly not in a controlled test environment). I personally feel the differences are quite subtle between what I have tried.
After changing to wooden cups, the users often report a more woody, earthy, warmer tone. Aluminum or metal cups are often described as bright, tinny, cold or sibilant. Notice anything about those descriptive terms for the sound? They seem to be descriptions of the material itself; perhaps the eyes of the user are impacting what they hear? I digress.
I should mention that the other items typically changed on a Grado are
- the headband,
- the gimbals (the horseshoe shaped piece that holds the cups)
- and the rod blocks (the square pieces that attach the gimbals to the band).
There is one very good reason for changing the band: comfort. Grado bands are thin and unpadded. Especially if you are using the appallingly cheap vinyl headband included on the SR225 and below, replacing it with a well made padded leather band is an immense (and somewhat necessary) upgrade for long listening sessions.
High-quality replacement gimbals and rod blocks address the common complaint of free spinning cups that lose your preferred position while annoyingly twisting the cables – the unfortunate reality with the stock units.
A great DIY headphone build is not simply about function and utility. It should combine style, performance, and luxury. The products pictured in this article make beauty a priority and have infused art into supremely functional objects. With Shipibo Audio’s creations married to the superb sounding Symphones V8 drivers, you have a wearable work of art, with a refined sound quality to rival or better any of Grado’s best.
Add the satisfaction of DIY, the unique hand-built style, improved comfort, and durability and it just keeps getting better and better. Factor in the relative bargain cost when comparing them with higher end headphones (with which the quality of sound certainly compares favorably) and it becomes obvious why the Grado modification community keeps growing.
I went through a big modding phase a long, long time ago and stumbled onto some cool tweaks. Many of the mods I and others tried, were just blue smoke and mirrors. Like a lot of headphonia, they were winner-take-all b.s. grounded in enthusiasm, ego and marketing.
The easiest way to kick up the bass is to vent the drivers. That’s what I did. I’m the one who went around telling people to use a ballpoint pen, because the thicker part of the pen prevents you from poking too deep and perforating the drivers. I still laugh when I see my own pics taken next to the sink in my kitchen.
There’s a sweet spot in there but it’s hard to resist the temptation to perforate all the holes. The added airflow makes it easier to get good bass without having to use an amp. The downside is Grados don’t extend that low, so grumble is a pipe dream, you only get so much bass – even with an amp – and if you crank too loud, the copper ring will pop out and you’ll have a dead driver.
Grado likes to vent four holes, an idea it hit upon after watching innovations and excitement over at Headfi. You can go too far with the holes but it balances out when you mod out the cushions. None of Grado’s cushions are perfect. TTVJ’s flats are the best for capturing thump from an open air headphone but they minimize treble and shrink soundstage. The S pads are comfy and efficient bass catchers, but you still lose treble and soundstage. An easy way to open things up is to use the dime mod and cut a hole in the pad’s center. I also liked to remove the front grill screens. I don’t know if doing so made much of a difference but it eliminated a barrier between my ears and the drivers.
The L Cush pads open things up a bit, both in treble and soundstage but they’re not as comfortable. They’re really just imperfect circumaural pads in disguise. I don’t know anybody who keeps their ears on those pads. Everybody hides their earlobe inside, which means that part of your ear is pressed up against the plastic grill. That gets painful. More importantly, it’s not open enough to get the top end or widen the soundstage to its full potential.
For full extension, you need the G Cush salad bowls, but they distance the ear from the driver to such a degree that bass is lost, probably because of the porous side rims. What you end up with is too shrill for everything below a GS-1000. That’s where venting the drivers helps balance things out. With fully vented drivers, you can pop a pair of salad bowls on and get a very nice combo of airy treble-happy Grados with great thump.
But even with vented drivers, the G Cush pads have flaws. Unlike the Beyerdynamic pads, which get their strength from the outer rim, which is not porous, the salad bowls are a big sponge. They’re far easier to put on and take off, and they allow a clearer top end, but the architecture of styrofoam requires the aperture to be v-shaped, like the gradual depth of a swimming pool rather than the sudden depth of a cup. This gives them better durability but it also means that instead of creating a cave for your earlobe, it creates a v-shaped cushion that touches your ear. This creates weird microphonics when you move your head around. It also makes the presentation more shrill.
I had the first version of the PS1000, which I sold because I was getting an almost identical presentation from my modded SR60s – and because, to compensate for the pad-induced shrillness, Grado added a touch of darkness to the drivers, making violins sound a little too husky for my blood. A violin should sound like a violin, not a viola and not a cello at it’s highest register.
The problem is in the pads, which should rest on the head without ever touching the ear. In experiments, I’ve cut a few millimeters off of the front edge of the salad bowls and achieved a most enjoyable tapering of the highs (without losing soundstage or coming back to the diminished clarity of the other pads). But because these pads are foam, cutting anything off of the outer edge not only makes them hideous but also undoes the structural integrity of the cushion.
Grado could have fixed this ages ago, when it introduced the salad bowls with the GS1000 but it has taken an indeviating course and told its customers to simply wash and mash the pads until they crumple with less height.
Grado may never give us a cup-like cushion or one with slightly less distance between ear and driver. Right now, the best you can do is to wash and mash your way toward a smoother tonality.
The goop on the back does little, if anything. The driver back doesn’t vibrate with sufficient intensity to merit damping. You can’t run your Grados loud enough to produce ringing. It’s just an imitation of something done to full-sizes speakers. I use car stereo stuff. It’s complete overkill.
Nor does the cabling make a difference. While it’s definitely a good idea not to go out into the world with cabling as flimsy and sketchy as the stringy cable on the iGrado, the four- or eight-wire “garden hose” is absurd. I liked the sound of a homemade silver cable and I’m fond of braids. But you don’t need the equivalent of a power cable to run headphones.
I have compared shell types and I’m pretty sure none of it matters except in a bad way. While you can sabotage an open chamber by making it less open, like gluing a plastic button to the center of the rear grill, the unvented Grados were doing far more to undermine the open chamber.
I experimented with a wide variety of tone woods. I liked cocobolo and Indian rosewood the best. Mahogany is just an inexpensive, visually-pleasing element. It’s easier to cut and it’s pretty. Comparisons to musical instruments using it are good marketing. Soundwise, it’s negligible at best in upping sound quality.
The choice is really to go hardwood or go chamber free. Hardwoods like cocobolo are not just gorgeous. They help accentuate bass for a driver whose bass easily slips out of the back of an open air headphone. But it’s backwave bass. You get greater thump at the cost of clarity. Why, oh, why would anybody want to “color” their sound.
Ideally, you don’t want to hear anything but the driver. If you’re hearing sound echoing off of the shell, you’re trading quality for quantity. The HD800 has no shell behind the driver. It addresses this problem by using a redesigned doughnut-shaped driver that gets rid of the cone. Without a cone, you can’t have cone break-up. But then, you need the right amp to bring the bass. Part of Grado’s charm is not having to spend $500 to $5,000 on an amp.
The ideal shell is the absence of a shell. Without a shell, there is no resonance to dampen. Fortunately, every headphone wearer is equipped with a shell: their earlobe. Your lobes create a natural barrier to backwaves behind them. On a headphone, it’s the the area between the drivers and your ears that needs a baffle, not the area behind the drivers.
I’ve had great success with shell-free Grados. The cushions act as the baffle. Without shells sticking out that much further, I look a lot less reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster, with the “bolts” sticking out of his neck. The cushions press out far enough.
You’ll notice that both the hammerhead mushroom shell and the dainty RS-1 rear-grill cap make these open cans less open. My experience going backless has been that backless sounds clearer. Then again, I’ve decided the only sound I want is that of the driver. I’ll take tighter bass over bloated bass, even the “warmth” of wood.
As for wood-aluminum hybrids, it’s just great marketing, and it’s undermined by Grado’s use of a plastic driver capsule on even its $3,000 PS-2000. If you want maple or mahogany or cocobolo, those are beautiful choices but they’re more about aesthetics than sound. If maple mattered, the driver would be carefully mounted to it, not mounted to a plastic cage that’s then glued to this miracle wood. A big reason the 325 never got you to the HP1 or the PS1 was the absurdity of using aluminum as a cap on a plastic shell (with unvented drivers).
Sennheiser has the right idea with the HD800 (even if it places the driver further from the ear): No headphone needs a shell, whether it’s made of plastic, wood or aluminum. The best, tightest bass comes from an infinite baffle, which is what you have if you mount a speaker to a hole in a wall or your headphone tosses the rear shell.
One idea you came up with that I respect is the idea of damping any part of the rear chamber that might add resonance. This is easily seen with plastic, whose coloration is entirely unwelcome, though less obvious when we are drunk with the promise of tone woods and aluminum.
Let me state this in the clearest, most obvious way I can: NOTHING BUT THE DRIVER.
I was wondering if you could elaborate on the shell-free grados? Could you describe how you made them? Do you just undo the backend shell (the one with the net shape and grado logo) and leave it like that?
You don’t need the second half of the shell, the outer shell, to run the headphones. The pads attach to the inner shell. What you end up with is a backless inner shell that lies flush with the pads.
Thanks for the detailed response! Sounds like you are very well versed in Grado modding. From what you’ve written, I think you and I feel similar about most things. I feel that the driver is fundamental for the sound and everything else is impacting that sound to a lesser degree (for better or worse). Of course some of the reasons we modify is for aesthetics and not solely for sound – those wooden cups just look so nice.
I’m intrigued to try a set of drivers with no cups/shells as you suggest (something I haven’t tried) just to hear the difference, but I worry about the fragility and lifespan with such a setup – at least with my usage (although I do appreciate the Frankenstein’s monster bolt reference!). I’ve found Grados to be relatively prone to rattle (Grado ‘grattle’) due to hairs, dirt, etc finding their way onto the driver, so I’ve never been tempted to remove the grill screen in front of the driver.
If you ever have the chance to try Beautiful Audio’s merino wool or leather ear cushions (with replaceable foam inserts of differing densities) I suggest them. Allows for a lot of customization of the sound and comfort.
Cheers and thanks again for your input!
Great article Trav!
I found this page while doing some research before I started a Grado mod project and it helped in making a few decisions up front. For aesthetic reasons I had been shopping wood cups and polished aluminum rod blocks / gimbals. I decided to scratch all of these things until I settled on a driver and I’m really happy that I took this approach.
I started by looking for a ‘donor’ Grado headphone and within a week I found an early Grado SR325 with the small brushed aluminum cups that had already been modded (drivers, Dynamat damping inside, leather headband, etc). I cleaned up the inside of the cups, removing all damping material, installed SMC jacks for detachable cable, threaded the rod blocks for set screws to secure the loose-fitting steel headband, and installed a set of Symphones Magnum V8 drivers. I have been listening to them a great deal since then and they turned out to be an exceptional headphone! I am unable to discern any shortcomings as a ‘Grado-like’ headphone. I’ll be selling my Grado SR325e headphone as my modded SR325 / Magnum V8 is superior in every way to my ears.
Your article helped me remain focused on the singular reason I started looking into Grado modding – the sound. Ultimately I spent a couple hundred dollars less in doing so and reached my objective sooner than expected
I have a quick question for you if you don’t mind. Where did you get the 3.5mm jacks shown installed in the wood cups in section ‘4. Ear Cup Material’?, and have they held up under regular use? I have another project where those jacks may be a good fit.
Hi Dennis. Thanks for the kind words. Grado modifications are a slippery slope… there’s always just one more tweak you want to do! 😉
As far as those jacks go, they are described on Ebay as: 2.5mm 4 Pole Female Stereo Audio Jack Socket Soldering Connector. Very inexpensive but I’ve yet to run into any issues with them. They are solid and stay really well in place if you drill an appropriately tight hole. I’m pretty much exclusively using them in all my headphones so I can just have a standard cable (dual 2.5 mm mono plugs) for everything.
Cheers and thanks again!
This is a fantastic article. I used it as a basis for my Nhoord Red V2 build with aluminum and mahogany cups from Wabi Sabi, turbulent labs leather headband and Generic G Cush pads. I have had some success with my SR80e mods as well. I noticed that adhesive felt inside the cup walls was successful in taming some of the treble. Thanks again for your 1 stop shop for Grado mods and build knowledge. It was immensely helpful.
Thanks for the kind words! Your build sounds terrific (to me – and likely in person as well)!
The ‘1 stop shop’ approach is exactly what I was going for… and strive for in many of my articles.
Yeah, some of my incursions in headphones, which of them I started using as little as with 14 years old, included AKG 240 and 340, Sennheisers, Beyerdynamic and Grado SR80 also – my last extremely broken ones. As an example, my SR80i cable in general had its duration guaranteed, but now drivers are more distorted in basses, general headband structure is also destroyed and stereo plug and earcups with foams are just too much glued. Overall, remember having soldered these more than a dozen times and sent them twice to repair cables. Perhaps buying these new drivers should apply actually – for I’m fond of this Graso resounding waves with so many kinds of music – classical, prog or jazz. I declare have never had such inexpensive headphones with this typical on face sounds! Thanks by this clever article and now, from my 43 years in general popular music and my almost 63 years – from Brasil -, might desire to all of us the best in sounding headphones!!
Ah, already ordered Symphones V9 and they quickly arrived here in Brasil! Oh, they’re beautifully craftsmanshipped in rough paper sent from Canada! Wow, now I have the chance to restore my broken SR80e! Let me have an idea how to do it well…
Finally adquired my Symphones V9 and with no waiting soldered these to my broken SR-80. Well, just hearing these drivers still without the cups made me an enormous smile – what a great sound these drivers produce! Used them with original Grado’s flat foams and while sounded as my son’s Marshall headphones – highs a little subdued – basses were more pronounced that I could bother – so much that frequently obligated me to lower volume! Then, tried some round on-ear foams I had as new and suddenly highs got better and deep basses also were minimized. In my PC with audio interface, in 48 KHz, I emphasize highs a little and with 92 KHz I do nothing in eq. For general films, these allowed me to hear out of head sounds and real details of everything! They don’t deserve the in-face sound of Grados but are flatter and satisfactory. Just had now in my hands South Afrika’s Noord drivers that I should solder in my old Senns hd 420 – already without original drivers; as for foams, I possess someones I might consider. With no money to spend at all and with chinese imports to Brasil avoided here, I’m satisfied with these bad heaphones’ headbands structures with those marvelous drivers – I’m aware it would be better acquire a new good Sony or Audio-Technica for these prices, but also it’s a funny experimentation!
Hm what about the driver membrane?
Do they make this or someone else make it for them? From the video tour of their factory it seems that they are just putting things together there but where does those drivers come from and who makes them or is that a top secret?
Placing the driver itself into wooden shell instead of plastic would make more sense maybe they tested it and results were NOT that great but we will never know and they will probably never tell…
bacause life and stuff right?
While I’ve read speculation on the subject, the construction of the Grado drivers is a mystery – at least to me. 🙂