A Headphone Grows In Brooklyn

Grado’s Heritage Series GH1 headphones are carved from a tree that stood near the company’s original headquarters

The Grado GH1 headphones, part of the company's Heritage Series.Will Styer

Audiophiles speak in reverent tones about the Grado family and their headphones—even though Grado Labs, which makes them, hasn’t spent a dime on advertising since 1964. The warm and full-bodied sound of Grado’s handmade headphones have been enough to keep them consistently stocked in high-end audio boutiques. Sadly, earlier this year the company founder and family patriarch, Joseph Grado, died. The Grado kin have now decided to pay homage to him and their Brooklyn legacy with a limited-run headphone—made from a local maple tree once destined for the wood chipper.

Their new Heritage Series GH1 headphones are carved from a tree that stood near the company’s original headquarters in industrial Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “These trees were about to fall down,” says 24-year-old apprentice, and great-nephew, Jonathan Grado. “We bought one from the city and made a bunch of headphones.”

His father, John Grado (founder Joseph’s nephew), has run the company since 1990. He hand-tunes every headphone the family ships.

“What people love is our midrange sound,” says John, noting that 80 percent of all music we listen to lives in that sweet spot.

Up until now, the Grados have relied on mahogany, known for bringing beefy mids out of an otherwise balanced sound. The Heritage Series uses maple, which offers bright highs, punchy lows, and a more precise sound overall.

To tune his headphones, John uses an intuitive rather than a technical approach. “I never watch the frequency meter,” he says. “If I look at a meter, I’ll start hearing what it’s displaying and not the true sound.” But it was Joseph Grado who gave him that golden ear. “My uncle trained me,” he says. “He taught me that listening to sound is like looking at a painting. You’re not looking at the whole painting. You’re looking at the brush strokes, listening to a particular part of a song. You really have to get in there and listen.”

This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of Popular Science.