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Grado SR80e review: The best-sounding headphones under £100?

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £89
inc VAT

Dynamic and wonderfully detailed, these open-backed headphones are a delight to listen to but they’re not for everyone


  • Engaging, detailed sound
  • Spacious sound
  • Relatively inexpensive


  • Leaky, open-backed design
  • No passive isolation
  • Some may find the sound too full on

Grado’s SR80e are something of an anomaly in today’s headphones market. Not only are they hand-built in Brooklyn, New York, but they’re proudly non-techy. There’s no Bluetooth connectivity, no in-line microphone or active noise-cancelling and, thanks to their open-backed design, they’re hopelessly impractical for use on the commute or in the office.

For all those flaws, though, the Grado SR80e offer a peerless listening experience at their price and represent unbeatable value for money, providing you know what you’re getting.

Grado SR80e review: What you need to know

The Grado SR80e headphones aren’t exactly new. In fact, they’re the latest iteration of one line of headphones, following on from the SR80i and the legendary SR80 before them.

Compared to their predecessors, the SR80e have a new driver, although Grado doesn’t advertise their size, a new cable and use a new plastic that damps resonant distortion in the driver housing. The SR80e have an impedance of 32 ohms, which means you’ll have no problems driving them with a smartphone or laptop. Naturally, however, they’ll sound better when powered by a dedicated headphone amp.

Sadly, the SR80e come with no carry case and the design is non-collapsible, making them best suited to home-listening sessions rather than a life on the road. They come with a 3.5mm to 6.5mm adapter for professional use but otherwise have no additional accessories in the box.

Grado SR80e review: Price and competition

Alhough they’re pretty cheap at £89, the SR80e aren’t the entry-level model in Grado’s Prestige series. That title belongs to the Grado SR60e (£79), which are £10 cheaper. Above them in the range, there’s the SR125e (£150), the SR225e (£190) and SR325e (£270).

At this price, there’s nothing much that can compete with the SR80e for sheer sound quality but Audio-Technica’s ATH-M40X (£70) give them a good run for their money. These are closed-back design headphones and deliver a slightly less dynamic sound as a result, but superior noise isolation means they’re much more practical for travelling with.

Grado SR80e review: Design and features

Grado’s Prestige series has been around for more than twenty-five years and that’s immediately evident in the design of its SR80e headphones. Intended to sit on your ears rather than over them, they simply consist of two chunky plastic earcups joined via metal rods to a simple vinyl headband.

Instead of the plush earpads found on many over-ear headphones, the SR80e use rather coarse, lightweight foam. These are deceptively comfortable for the most part, but after an hour or two of listening, I usually found my ears grew a little warm. That’s not altogether surprising for on-ear headphones but still worth thinking about if you’re looking for something for all-day listening.

While the pared-down, retro look is pretty trendy, the flipside is that the headphones don’t feel robust and aren’t especially practical. The cord, for instance, is a chunky non-detachable wire that attaches directly to each earcup and, although the earcups can swivel through the full 360 degrees, there’s no way to fold the headphones for packing them away.

The fact there’s no wireless connectivity or microphone isn’t a deal-breaker for this type of headphone, but what ought to be top of your list of considerations before buying them is their open-backed design. While this plays a significant role in how good they sound, crucially it means they leak a significant amount of sound – even at moderate volumes – and block out very little ambient noise.

That rules them out for a great number of scenarios where you might opt to listen to headphones, from aeroplane flights to working in a shared office, and even walking down the street. In fact, unless you intend to listen to them in a quiet room on your own, you’re best looking elsewhere. Closed-back alternatives such as the Audio-Technica ATH-M40x or ATH-M50X are much more practical for general listening.

Grado SR80e review: Sound quality

Having said that, listening in a quiet room is exactly the reason you should buy the Grado SR80e, because they deliver emphatically in this regard. It’s not an exaggeration to say these headphones sound as good as models that cost three or four times the price.

In particular, the Grados offer a sparkling level of detail through the mid-range and treble frequencies – a common trait of Grado headphones – but their open-backed design also enables them to deliver a sound that’s as energetic and lively as it is compelling.

To my ears, the headphones sound excellent with all manner of musical genres, whether that’s rock, electronic or classical and they deliver a healthy dose of controlled bass to supplement those prominent upper registers. The sound isn’t as expansive as some open-backed over-ear headphones, but there’s an energy and sense of space you simply won’t find on most closed-back models, even at lower volumes.

In fact, the only criticism you can level at the Grados is the prominence of those mid and treble frequencies. Although it makes for a captivating listen, it’s a sound signature that can be fatiguing with some types of music at times. The SR80e certainly don’t make for relaxed listening but then they’re not supposed to.

Grado SR80e review: Verdict

There’s no denying the SR80e’s sonic capabilities; the question is, should you buy a pair? If you’re looking for a pair of headphones for your commute or for flying, then the answer is, emphatically, no. There’s not enough sound isolation and too much leakage for that.

But then, these are not everyday headphones and, if you listen to headphones mainly at home, then they’re absolutely worth considering. There’s simply nothing else – no other speakers or headphones – that can deliver this level of sonic excellence for this little money.

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