(Last Updated On: May 7, 2021)

Strong, dark, and handsome with gentlemanly posture and grace.

First, a sincere thank you to Emotiva for allowing Headphonesty to review the Airmotiv Graphene Reference GR1. As is my standard, I did not read any reviews of the GR1 before my evaluation.

Emotiva has worked diligently for years to make a name for themselves with audiophiles and enthusiasts who expect uncompromised audio performance. Building their reputation for designing and building high-value quality products, including amplifiers and speakers, has been a labor of love.

It is a risk for Emotiva to throw their first-ever headphones into the ring with heavyweight, well-established competition in their price range. Is it worth risking their hard-earned reputation and credibility? Let’s attempt to answer that question…

The Emotiva Airmotiv Graphene Reference Headphones (GR1)

Emotiva Airmotiv GR1

"These GR1 headphones bring enough innovation and differentiation to be distinct from competitors and do so much, so well. Emotiva has gracefully balanced many typical trade-offs successfully and earned its place amongst the competition. While they will not be given trophies for being the best at any one dimension, the GR1 may well be a category contender for Best in Show."

Pros:

  • »Impressive and attractive form and function
  • »High build quality, polished fit and finish
  • »High dynamic range
  • »Non-fatiguing, warm sound signature
  • »Strong bass with impact, texture, and musicality
  • »Treble clarity and midrange presence are there when appropriate
  • »Easy to drive and EQ is unnecessary
  • »Excellent premium carry/travel case

Cons:

  • »Tone may be too warm for some who prefer neutral, flat “audiophile reference” sound signatures
  • »Potential long-listening comfort issues
  • »Ear pads are too small, soft, and shallow, with a tendency to retain heat
  • »No alternative ear pad options available from Emotiva
  • »Headband shape may cause hotspots for people with oblong-shaped heads
What I first wrote in a recent review is worth repeating once more. Based on your feedback, dear readers, I will consistently make my reviews a journey in sound and showcase for diverse global music. I hope that you take the time to listen to the artists and expand your musical horizons.

The links posted will generally be YouTube or YouTubeMusic links. Please note that the quality of these online files vary drastically and are provided for quick reference. I primarily listen and evaluate from original source CDs or high-quality lossless files when available. You can likely source them through high-quality streaming services. Let me know if you find some new favorites, and please share yours with us at Headphonesty!

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First Impressions

“Fine” is our word of the day. The GR1 are fine. Not “fine” meaning “OK” or “acceptable.” They feel like luxury, superior quality, and refinement. Fit and finish is exceptional and everything is polished, literally and figuratively. The manufacturer (not in-house Emotiva) deserves applause for such fine execution. For Emotiva’s first-ever attempt at making headphones, and not a basic entry-level model at that, the GR1 are impressive indeed.

I begin formal evaluations after a lengthy burn-in period (72-100 hours). In addition, I do not use secondary EQ adjustments while testing.

Company Overview

“Emotiva” means “emotional” in Italian. Emotiva Audio, of Nashville Tennessee, is an engineering company founded as a stand-alone brand in 2003 by Dan Laufman and launched into reality by audio enthusiasts, engineers, and product specialists. Originally dedicated to reinventing audio and home theater, Emotiva has extensive experience in research, development, and design. Over the years since, they have become well-known for audiophile-grade processors, DAC/Amps, speakers, subwoofers, CD players, and other audio accessories.

“When Emotiva started, we had one goal: to offer exceptionally designed, high performance products at prices that more people could afford and enjoy.” – Emotiva

Emotiva has held to Dan Laufman’s intent to make as much product as they can in the United States, and prefer to have in-house control over the production and quality control of final products. Over the years, Emotiva has earned a champion’s hall-sized collection of awards and accolades.

Technical Specifications

  • Type: Circum-aural aperiodic (semi-open) headphones
  • Transducer driver: semi-open transducers; dynamic driver with copper-clad aluminum voice coils, and ultra-low-mass diaphragms, each consisting of a polyethylene terephthalate substrate, reinforced with a vapor-deposited graphene lattice
  • Frequency range: 23Hz – 24.5kHz
  • Impedance: 32Ohms (nominal)
  • Sensitivity: 106db/mW
  • Distortion (THD): < 0.05% (typical)
  • Cable length and type: 2m (6.6 ft) detachable unbalanced oxygen-free copper (OFC) cable, with all gold plated electrical contacts, machined metal connectors and strain reliefs, soft flexible insulation, and attractive cloth covering
  • Connections: each earcup has a separate high-quality 2.5mm audio input connector
  • Plug type: 3.5mm (1/8”) gold-plated straight plug, 3.5mm to 6.35mm (¼”) TRS adapter included
  • Weight (excluding cable): 400g (14.1 oz)
    • Note: Emotiva’s product features web page has multiple discrepancies regarding weight, in places claiming that the GR1 weighs in at a flyweight 240g (9 oz). Unless gravity is different where they measured this, these numbers are most definitely a mistake.
The GR1 weighs in at just over 400g / 14oz. Not too light, not too heavy.
The GR1 weighs in at just over 400g / 14oz. Not too light, not too heavy.

Packaging

Packaging is sturdy outside and in. The outer two-piece stiff cardboard box is nicely designed. The top lifts off the bottom and reveals the faux leather case nestled in a bed of sculpted foam. It is quite passable for the real thing and velour-lined, ensuring a scratch-proof interior. Opening the Emotiva “E” logo-embossed case finally reveals the GR1 headphones, perfectly placed in their protective case.

The initial presentation of the GR1 and their premium hard shell travel case. Bonus: included GR1 sticker!
The initial presentation of the GR1 and their premium hard shell travel case. Bonus: included GR1 sticker!

It is a pleasure to handle and appreciate such a finely-made and form fitting storage and travel case. Given that the GR1 headphones do not fold, this is as compact a case as I can imagine that feels sturdy and will actually do a proper job of protecting its valuable contents.

The premium hard shell travel case suggests that it's protecting something valuable. And it looks like a hippo!
The premium hard shell travel case suggests that it’s protecting something valuable. And it looks like a hippo!

In the box

  • Emotiva Airmotiv Graphene Reference (GR1) headphones
  • Replaceable 2m cloth-jacketed OFC unbalanced cable, with gold plated electrical contacts, machined metal connectors, and strain reliefs
  • Heavy-duty contoured velour-lined hard-shell carrying case
  • 3.5mm to 6.35mm (¼”) TRS adapter
  • Airmotiv Graphene Reference Headphones User Manual
Nicely designed, despite the typo. I'm certain *someone* was not happy about this. Good news, this mistake in no way affects the performance (or self-confidence) of the GR1.
Nicely designed, despite the typo. I’m certain *someone* was not happy about this. Good news, this mistake in no way affects the performance (or self-confidence) of the GR1.

Cable

The attractive and distinct silver and black cloth-jacketed cable is flexible and highly resistant to tangling. It is 2m in length and made of pure multi-strand oxygen-free copper (OFC). Features include soft flexible insulation, all-gold plated machined metal electrical connectors, a strain relief applied to the single 3.5mm plug, and standard 2.5mm audio connectors at the earcups. All three terminal connections are secure and fit tightly. The unbalanced detachable cable can be easily replaced or upgraded.

The black plastic protective splitter is sturdy. Minimal microphonics can be heard through the cable above the splitter where the single cable splits into two thinner cables leading to each ear cup. A 3.5mm to 6.35mm TRS adapter is included.

The distinct black and silver 2m cloth-jacketed OFC unbalanced cable, with gold plated electrical contacts, machined metal connectors, and strain reliefs.
The distinct black and silver 2m cloth-jacketed OFC unbalanced cable, with gold plated electrical contacts, machined metal connectors, and strain reliefs.

Design

The physical appearance of the circum-aural semi-open GR1 headphones is unique, eye-catching, and functional.

Ear cup construction is impressive and memorable. The first thing everyone will notice is the outside fascia of the GR1. Prominently featured are the water-jet machined aperiodic aluminum exterior grills and decorative dress panels, inspired by the hexagonal honeycomb lattice structure of graphene.

The striking, and functional, machined outer face plate of the GR1.
The striking, and functional, machined outer face plate of the GR1.
“Their semi-aperiodic earcup grills offer a cross between an open and closed headphone design – the best of both worlds. They partially isolate the listener from the outside world while providing an incredibly smooth, natural, and open sound field.” – Emotiva

The headband is solid metal with well-padded around the top by a soft, breathable vegan leather pad. All metal ball-bearing detents are employed for firm, precise adjustment and ensure that once set, they will stay put. I do not notice any noise from the headband or ear cups regardless of how I move around (e.g., no creaking, cracking, or rubbing sounds). The ear cups are non-articulating, and I do not find that ergonomically necessary.

The wood earcups are dark, subtle, and so polished that they are easy to mistake as metal.
The wood earcups are dark, subtle, and so polished that they are easy to mistake as metal.

Genuine natural ash wood is used for the ear cup bodies. The wood is so dark and polished that it looks and feels like an imprinted metal. The only way to see that it is actually wood is to remove the ear pads. While it fits with the overall dark theme, I would love the wood to be more prominent and obvious, possibly even a contrasting more natural color.

High-quality perforated vegan leather earpads are attached and secured to the ear cups with a rigid internal latch retaining ring. Premium, ergonomically contoured plush memory foam inserts promise comfort.

Comfort

Picking them up, I notice the satisfying sense of “mmmm – these are solid!” Putting these on my head, I notice the weight and clamping pressure with the sense that I am wearing something significant, in a good way. They don’t just sit or clamp onto your head; they snugly embrace.

For me, there is no hotspot on top of my head. I feel well-hugged by the wide and ample-padded headband. The weight feels satisfying and well distributed, without feeling burdensome.

I really like the ear pad attachment system, which is shared with the Sivga Phoenix headphones (the two share several common parts, which suggests that they are supplied by the same Chinese manufacturer). The ear pads are permanently attached to a hard plastic lock ring.

The excellent and tight latching system keeps the ear pads securely attached to the ear cups in proper position.
The excellent and tight latching system keeps the ear pads securely attached to the ear cups in proper position.

There are several challenges to fully enjoying the GR1 headphones, and they are significant for me. The ear pads are attractive and sculpted in a way that I anticipated them to be super comfortable. The soft, smooth covering is perforated which suggests breathability. The size leads me to believe that the padding is substantial. Well… not so much…

For long listening sessions, the weight and balance are not an issue – the ear pads are. First, they are too warm for me – uncomfortably so after a while. If you live and listen in a colder area, and generally find your ears don’t get hot and sweaty with other headphones, this will not be an issue.

The headband is thickly padded, as well as the contoured ear pads.
The headband is thickly padded, as well as the contoured ear pads.

Second, the ear pads are borderline too small in width and height. For those with medium and small ears, this likely will not be an issue. Here are the round earpad dimensions (circumaural): 3-3/4” outside diameter; 2-1/4” inside diameter.

Third, uncompressed depth dimensions are impressive: ergonomic depth contour ranges between 3/4” and 1-1/4”. However, this becomes an issue due to the super soft memory foam compressing far too much, too easily. As a result, the usable depth is shallow, resulting in the hard surface of the inner ear cup body pressing against my ears. Regardless of the size of your ears, they may become uncomfortable if your ears are not relatively flush to your head.

All parts fit and work well silently and securely.
All parts fit and work well silently and securely.

While I have grown more accustomed to them, I still begin to fidget with the GR1 after 30-60 minutes, and generally need to take an extended break. This is disappointing, compounded by the fact that Emotiva does not have any alternative ear pads available. Currently, there is only one alternative available on the market from Sivga, which I was unable to test as of the publication of this review.

Lastly, a word of caution: the GR1 are not large headphones and may be less comfortable for those with larger than average heads or ears. Specifically, the headband may not be ideally shaped for those with more oval shaped, oblong skulls.

Internals

Curiously, the GR1 headphones do not share the defining characteristics or technology of Emotiva’s speakers, particularly folded ribbon tweeters. Other innovations lead the way, the most significant of which is an industrial application of graphene.

Each GR1 diaphragm features a very thin polycarbonate membrane with a specially applied and deposited graphene lattice layer fused to both sides of it.
Each GR1 diaphragm features a very thin polycarbonate membrane with a specially applied and deposited graphene lattice layer fused to both sides of it.
Graphene is a single layer (monolayer) of carbon atoms, tightly bound in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice. Layers of graphene stacked on top of each other form graphite. Graphene is the thinnest compound known to man at one atom thick, the lightest material known, the strongest compound discovered, the best conductor of heat at room temperature, and also the best conductor of electricity known. Graphene enhances strength and improves materials’ dynamic characteristics in specific applications. (Source: Graphenea)

According to Emotiva, the Airmotiv GR1 headphones use a newly developed high-tech diaphragm consisting of a very thin polycarbonate membrane with a specially applied and deposited graphene lattice layer fused to both sides. The result is the ideal combination of low mass, controlled stiffness, and improved damping.

“The Airmotiv GR1 headphones utilize cutting-edge graphene infusion technology to deliver an exceptionally musical and engaging listening experience. Free of listening fatigue and non-linearities, our graphene-reinforced, low mass, 50mm polycarbonate drivers have crystal-clear highs and remarkably lifelike midrange. Bass is powerful, controlled, and extended.” – Emotiva

This ultra-low moving mass diaphragm, along with the low moving mass copper-clad aluminum voice coil assembly, operates in a carefully designed magnetic system, delivering exceptional clarity, linearity, and low distortion.

Emotiva GR1 Sound

For evaluation, I listen to a great variety of music through numerous sources, including:

With a high sensitivity of 106db and a low impedance of 32ohms, the GR1 are easy to drive with virtually any source. That said, they truly come to life when powered by a quality DAC/Amp with more power than a typical smartphone. I did not notice distortion at any volume.

Emotiva refers to these headphones as Graphene Reference 1 (GR1). They may be a ‘reference’ for music a la Emotiva, but they are not a reference for strict audiophiles and audio engineers.

For those who prefer a tonally cool, balanced, and clinical sound, the GR1 are most certainly not that. Very few listeners will be using these for professional purposes to reveal every detail with precision. The GR1 are designed and tuned for blissful enjoyment and absorption into music and sound.

When audiophiles, engineers, and producers hear “reference” what comes to mind is “studio reference” flat – i.e, the sound signature is clinical and accurate, as true to the source as possible.

Emotiva appears to have been inspired by the Goldilocks Principle with the GR1. In many aspects, there is not too much, nor too little – finding a happy medium in almost every way.

They are warm and charismatic, though not dark. They have ample character, depth, and body. Nothing is overly colored, too forward or too recessed, unless it was intentional in the recording.

The semi-open design makes for excellent bass impact, generally more so than full open-back; and natural soundstaging, more so than closed back headphones. With some sound leakage both in and out, it is not excessive either way.

The GR1 are handsome, with presence and style from any and every angle.
The GR1 are handsome, with presence and style from any and every angle.

Something exceptional about the GR1 is that they are not more exceptional in any frequency range than another. Just when I think the GR1 has a dominant strength, they prove me wrong – they are well balanced and feature all parts of the sound spectrum well.

The bass is strong without becoming overbearing. At the same time as it impresses you, it will not steal the show, so to speak. The mids are not recessed or too forward. The highs extend well without becoming sharp and harsh. If I am hearing it correctly (and without an accurate FR graph sadly – Emotiva does not share this publicly), the profile is slightly U-shaped with some mid-upper treble roll-off.

Dynamic range is excellent, most notable with recordings of classical music and live performances. Excellent as well are distinct channel separation, adequately wide and deep imaging, and a medium-wide soundstage. The sound is revealing and detailed. Consistent with our theme, they are fine – satisfying and entirely well-rounded.

A prime example of music with high dynamic range and imaging is Turceasca by Kronos Quartet. This composition is complex, fast, and layered, creating a super-challenging workout for speakers and headphones alike. Through the GR1, instruments sound natural with noticeable placement in the sound stage. Texture and string resonance are standouts. San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet has an incredible catalog of diverse recordings that clearly show strengths and weaknesses in audio equipment.

Bass

Overall, bass is plentiful enough to satisfy bass-lovers and surprisingly dimensional. Bass quality and texture is excellent, capable of significant impact and rumble without drowning out or distorting higher frequencies. It is generally natural and appropriate to the source.

Sub-bass is most notable when there are not many competing sounds. Mid-bass impact has adequate speed and strength, with slightly extended decay, attaining a happy middle and making sound and music feel full. The GR1 will not blur your vision and does not get overly loose.

Pain Redefined by Disturbed is a heavy metal sound avalanche that comes at a pace and intensity that is very difficult for IEMs and headphones to keep up with. With lesser equipment, the sound is muddy and a total mess.

The GR1, as with all else, are middle of the road regarding attack and decay. Bass notes resolve well. They manage to do a respectably good job keeping pace. The bass is distinct with punch and medium-paced decay. Midrange is rich, and highs still come through with clarity and precision. Impressive!

Midrange

The midrange comes forward prominently when featured in the mix, and the highs do not lose accent or clarity at the expense of bass or midrange bleed. While some may experience the midrange as slightly “scooped out,” my experience is that it is well balanced and even tempered.

Aberdeen by Avi Kaplan is a lush landscape of varied tones and numerous instruments placed all around you in distinct positions as Avi’s voice is clearly centered throughout. His vocal performance is smooth and solidly in the midrange. The bass is present and supports the movement of the music without overpowering the focus on the midrange.

Balanced and feature all parts of the sound spectrum well.
Balanced and feature all parts of the sound spectrum well.

Treble

In the same vein, treble is distinct and balanced; I have yet to experience sibilance or any excessive unpleasant sharpness. Clarity and detail present well and remain relatively unaffected by the prominent bass and lower midrange. The GR1 are not shiny or sparkly in treble presentation. They are clear and open – fatigue is a non-issue.

Hang Massive, hailing from the UK and Sweden, have a sound all their own. In their song Once Again, reproduction decay is critical. Too much, and the sound becomes muddy and distorted. Too little, and the music can sound hollow.

While the whole wall of sound produced by Hang Massive presents so smoothly and with beautiful flow, there are moments that ring out with treble distinction. The first example of this comes just after the 2:00 minute mark – there is a high note strike that rings with awakening clarity.

Where to Buy

Thank you once again to Emotiva for providing the Airmotiv GR1 for review. If you’d like to purchase a pair, you can buy them directly from Emotiva.

Conclusion

Answering my own question from the beginning: in short, yes, Emotiva’s risk is likely to pay off. These GR1 headphones bring enough innovation and differentiation to be distinct from competitors and do so much, so well. Emotiva has gracefully balanced many typical trade-offs successfully and earned its place amongst the competition.

While they will not be given trophies for being the best at any one dimension, the GR1 may well be a category contender for Best in Show. Well done, Congratulations Emotiva! In Italian: Ben Fatto, Congratulazioni Emotiva!

The premium GR1 travel/storage case - it's a wrap!
The premium GR1 travel/storage case – it’s a wrap!