“It is hard to imagine headphones looking, or sounding, any better.”
- Astonishingly detailed sound
- Precise and clear equalization
- Beautiful wood design
- Comfortable for long listening sessions
- Strong quality control
- Some rough finishes
- Open-back design limits usability
- Restrained bass response
Grado Labs grabbed headlines with its cheekily priced $420 Hemp Headphones. When John Grado explained to me why hemp was an excellent material for constructing headphones, I was curious to hear the results for myself.
Now that I have, I am starting to understand the complex tone of joviality and dead-seriousness I heard from Grado during that interview. Hemp might seem like a gimmick, but the performance of these cans is no joke.
No frills, classic design
There isn’t a lot to go over when it comes to features with the Grado Hemp Headphones. They’re refreshingly simple. Plug them in, and they work. The Hemp Headphones ship in an understated white box with a letter from the Grado family.
These open-back wired monitors have only two parts — the headphones themselves, and a 3.5mm to 6.35mm adapter that I immediately uncapped from the end of the cable and placed in a drawer since I don’t play electric guitar or run a recording studio.
Coming from years of using over-ears with a single cable running off one side, it at first felt strange to put on the Hemp Headphones. They throw you back to a time when cables were king and every headset required them.
Speaking of cables, the lines are especially thick with the Hemp Headphones. Compared to my Sony MDR-7506 studio monitors, they’re about twice the girth and are not coiled. Not coiling the cable means I don’t get them tangled nearly as much as I do with my MDRs, but it also means the cable is hilariously long.
I understand why Grado included so much line, but it’s a lot of cable to find a place for, and it usually ends up bundled in my lap. Also, the added cord has some weight to it, and though it’s not so much that it’s a true bother, I definitely noticed when compared to other wired headphones.
The earcups are simple. These days you generally see some kind of leather or leather-like material wrapped around memory foam, but Grado is going for a material that they specifically chose because of how it works with the drivers to produce sound. In this case, it’s plain, classic foam. It’s a bit rough to the touch, but the headphones breathe well and are comfortable for long listening sessions, provided you don’t move them around much.
I don’t recommend you swap them out, even though you can. I changed them to the more “typical” leather-wrapped foam as a test, and the audio quality dramatically diminished. Grado knows what it’s doing when it picks materials.
The standout feature of the Hemp Headphones is the hemp, obviously. Because of how they had to blend it together to make the material work like normal wood, each headset’s grain appears unique. The two-tone circular wood swirls are beautiful from a distance and up close. The earcups draw your eyes in and hold them there.
This is good because other parts of the headset aren’t quite as refined. The joints that the hemp and maple earpiece use to connect to the headband are plastic, and they’re not smooth the whole way around. If you have ever constructed a model where you have to pop the pieces out from a plastic panel, you’ll know what I mean when I say there are edges and slight bumps that you can feel if you run your finger across them.
Additionally, the mesh that separates the driver from your ear is a bit frayed and imperfect.
In short, it looks like this headset was assembled by hand. Which it was. I can’t fault them too much for this, but since the Hemp Headphones are $420, I feel I should mention that most of that cost isn’t going toward some of the non-audio-focused parts.
That isn’t to say they are overpriced. No, these are worth every penny.
An unmatched listening experience
I’ve always been a headphone junkie, so I’ve had my fair share of experience with how music sounds through a host of different sources. Even with that experience, I was not prepared for how the Hemp Headphones sounded.
I sat unmoving for about 15 minutes as I let Tidal play a series of songs based on an artist that I enjoy (The Decemberists, for those wondering). As it cycled through artists I didn’t know and tracks I’d never heard, it didn’t matter. These Grado headphones make me feel.
I heard the nuances of vocals, the melody, each individual instrument, and the beautiful mix of them all coming together. The reproduction is both distinct and blended. It’s a beautiful audio paradox that I am still trying to wrap my head around.
But I can hear it all, and it nearly brought me to tears. I wasn’t just hearing with my ears, but also with my heart.
These Grado headphones make me feel.
With the Grado, I feel like I have my ear pressed to every individual soundstage speaker at a concert at the same time, but without the issue of being limited to my singular corporeal existence (and blowing out my hearing). I used to play the drums in a band, and music through these makes me feel like I’m right back up there on stage.
Speaking of volume, these can get loud. Given how truly outstanding audio is reproduced with the Hemp Headphones, it can be tempting to really crank that volume, which seems to improve in quality as I push them louder. Just bear in mind, you can truly damage your hearing if you push these too loud for too long.
I think the best way to describe how the audio sounds is in one word: Balance. I contend that music shouldn’t be too strong in highs, mids, or lows. Sure, booming bass can sound nice, but too much bass overpowers other frequencies and hides too much of music’s nuance. These Hemp Headphones are like studio monitors on steroids, in that they’re excellently balanced, with neutral reproduction while also providing some truly outstanding clarity. My Sony MDR-7506
If you twist my arm, I’ll admit the Grado’s bass is not quite as strong as I know some would like, but this might also be because most people are used to overblown bass. To be quite honest, I prefer the detail and precision found here.
I think the best way to describe how the audio sounds is in one word: Balance.
The Hemp Headphones have an open-back style that is praised for their sound quality, but not for their sound isolation. To enjoy these to their fullest, you need a quiet room that allows you to be alone with your music. Open-backs are also prone to letting sound out as much as they let sound in, so they’re not great for an office environment (not that this is much of a concern in 2020).
The swirly hemp looks beautiful and its implementation into headphones by Grado here sounds so good it will pull at your heartstrings. This is a masterful combination of visual and auditory beauty. The details of the build aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t matter. You’ll be hard-pressed to find this kind of music experience anywhere else and almost certainly not at a lower price.
Is there a better alternative?
“Better” is subjective here, but there are alternatives. The V-Moda M200 Studio Reference Monitors are slightly less expensive and offer a similar experience in terms of EQ, but do not offer the same expansive sound we praise Grado for here. For a lot less, the Sony MDR-7506 Studio Monitors offer the same neutral sound, albeit a flatter overall audio expression in comparison. They honestly don’t hold a candle to the audio reproduction of the Hemp headphones, but they’re the industry standard, so that does carry some weight.
How long will they last?
Grado offers a one-year warranty for the Hemp Headphones, which is pretty standard. Open-back
Should you buy them?
Yes. The Grado Hemp Headphones are absolutely worth their asking price for simply their sound reproduction alone, and you get the added benefit of unique hemp wood patterning.
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