Pre-conceived Biases

I came into this review with an ambivalent attitude toward Grado. Many years ago I owned a set of Grado HF-2 but ended up selling them as I found competitor offerings more to my liking. I’m not a big fan of the Grado industrial design or ergonomics, but the wooden ear cups do have their own rustic charm. When buying new headphones, I rarely seriously consider Grado as I prefer closed headphones or IEMs with strong bass, present midrange, and smooth trebl (more or less the Harman curve). My impression of the Grado house sound has been rolled-off deep bass, accentuated mid-bass, forward vocals, and a spike in the treble.

Initial Impressions

Right out of the box my impression of the build quality was so-so, not something that immediately wows you with a luxurious look and feel, but the wooden ear cups do have their own distinct character. The headband is a strip of metal wrapped in leather, while the ear-cups adjust up and down on a metal rod, which is held in position by friction. The headphones sit on the head nicely with a “just right” amount of tension. Grado has been doing this for years and while no one will describe the build as refined or elegant, the design gets the job done. The earpads are simple foam that sit on top of the ear. I could see this causing discomfort during longer listening sessions.

The cable is sturdy enough, however they are hard-wired to the earcups which is an old school throwback in these days of removable cables. Since the earcups swivel freely, the cable above the Y-connector can easily become twisted up which takes some finagling to smooth out. I prefer cables that “don’t draw attention to themselves” so this is a bit of a let down.

Test Setup

All sonic impressions will be done using the Oppo PM-3 as a reference point. The Oppo PM-3 is a very neutral set of closed-back, planar magnetic headphones with excellent bass extension. Although discontinued, while available they retailed at $399 which is roughly the ballpark of the Grado HF-3. I’m not necessarily comparing the two headphones head-to-head to determine which is better, rather the PM-3s serve as a neutral reference point for comparison. For test set up, both headphones are driven by a RME ADI-2 DAC FS with level matched to 80 dB via pink noise and a SPL meter. The transport is a Macbook Pro playing FLAC files.

For reference other head/ear phones I currently own are: Audio-Technica M50x, Sony WH-1000XM3, Sony Z1R, Shure SE846, Shure KSE1200, Sony MH755, and Tennmak Pro.

Sound Impressions

I listened to a variety of tracks, but for the sake of brevity I’ll only post a cross-section of genres.

Billie Eilish – bad guy
This track begins with some punchy bass that extends down into the sub-bass region. The HF-3 has a surprisingly nice amount of impact with perhaps a smidge less “thump” than the PM-3. Given the Oppos have basically no bass roll-off to 20Hz, this a more impressive feat than one might think!

The initial vocals have clear separation between channels and it’s very apparent that there are distinct vocal tracks for each channel (lesser headphones have difficulty resolving this). Main vocals immediately jumped out as more forward than neutral, but on the positive side it sounds like Billie is singing up close and personal. The Oppos might be slightly more resolving as you can pick out a bit of the recording’s noise floor which is not apparent with the HF-3s.

Sabaton – Carolus Rex
This track hits like a wall of sound on the HF-3s, with the growling vocals and crunchy guitar rips right up in your face. I can see why Grados are known for rocking out! The midrange again jumps out, which does well for tracks like this but I could see it get fatiguing over the long run. I actually had to turn the volume down when listening with the Grados (despite the level matching at 80dB) due to how “in your face” the sound was. I imagine if you mainly engage in low-volume listening, these HF-3s should be high on your list. My RME ADI-2 DAC has a “smart loudness” feature where it’ll raise the bass and treble as you lower the volume in order to maintain “punch”. The HF-3s tuning basically have this built-in.

Endless Love – Jackie Chan and Kim Hee Sun from The Myth Soundtrack
This is a great duet in Chinese & Korean which serves as a great test for sibilance. There are the beginnings of sharpness in a lot of the “shh”, “chh”, and “xing” sounds which can be smoothed over (ala Shure IEMs), presented with nothing removed or added (PM-3), or accentuated to ear-drum slicing levels (Etymotic ER4P/S, Sony SA-5K).

Jackie’s voice comes out with a much bigger image, again that forward midrange. The HF-3s really put the vocals front and center on this track, whereas the Oppos present the vocals more in balance with the instrumental mix. If you like an emphasis on your vocals and the idea of “recessed midrange” strikes you with horror, these Grados should be right up your alley. Despite how prominent the midrange is, there is no undue sibilance. That said, I finally understand what people mean when they describe vocals as “shouty”. With the HF-3s Kim’s head voice almost sounds like chest voice.

Conclusion

The Grado HF-3s have a forward & vibrant midrange, which is great for vocals and simpler instrumental mixes. The mid-bass is punchy with surprisingly extended low-end, which was easily the biggest surprise for me. On the other end of the spectrum the HF-3 is on the bright side, and while it won’t smooth over sibilance in tracks, neither will it accentuate it. It’s probably no surprise soundstage is below average for open cans as everything is basically right in your face (the forward midrange has a lot to do with this). The HF-3s are probably not the best cans for complex classical and orchestral music, nor is it the last word in refinement.

Overall the Grado HF-3s have a fun sound signature. Due to its tonal balance tuning, they make a good low volume listening headphone within a quiet environment.