Your pickles are locally sourced. Why not your headphones, too?
On an R train to Sunset Park, I look around and count eight people wearing headphones. Six of them—three men and three women, ranging in age from roughly 16 to 65—are using Apple’s ubiquitous white earbuds. The other two—men in their 20s, I’d say—are using the much more expensive but similarly common Beats headphones, or Beats by Dre, as I guess they’re officially, horrifyingly known. This is about a month before the announcement that Apple had purchased Beats for $3.2 billion, but it’s already striking, how these two brands have come to dominate the market. When I ask John Grado what he thinks of them, he gives me a sideways glance, like, “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?”
Grado Labs is a family-owned high-end audio manufacturer founded by Joseph Grado in Sunset Park in 1953. John, his nephew, took over in 1990 and continues to run the business out of the same building. (“No signage. Very unassuming. You might think you’re in the wrong place, but you’re not,” read an email I received the day I visited.) At first, they made exclusively phono cartridges (record needles and the electronic elements that surround them) to the tune of 10,000 per week during vinyl’s peak in the 70s, and as few as 12,000 in all of 1990. Today, they’re making 60,000 per year, thanks to renewed interest in the format. 1990, though, is also when they got into the business of making headphones.
Even at the lower end of their line, the sound quality is outstanding. Compared to the standard-issue earbud, it’s night and day. Instruments are more distinct, more clearly defined, and everything is brighter, with none of that tinny quality everyone has come to accept these days. For people already using higher-end stuff—think Sennheiser, AKG, etc.—the differences are subtle but important. For one, there’s the price: start a Google search for “Best Headphones Under…” and no matter what price-point is auto-completed, a Grado offering will be at the top of the results. The SR-60i (soon to be the SR-60e, as the line has gotten a makeover, “from plug to diaphragm,” says John) is a steal at just $79, and the SR-125i might be the line’s best bargain at $150.
There’s also the fact that the headphones are all handmade right here in Brooklyn. At a time when buying locally produced goods has gone from a small movement led by forward-thinking, conscientious artisans to a full-blown trend dominated by cynical marketing executives, you can’t help but hope Grado is able to capitalize on it, just by doing what they’ve always done—with a few tweaks, perhaps: “The stickers on our boxes changed from Made in the USA to Made in Brooklyn,” says Jonathan Grado, John’s 23-year-old son, who’s been learning the family business. “I think it’s important for people to know that.”