It’s always exciting when one of the big names in head-fi releases a new flagship model. When you leaf through the press releases for most manufacturers, you can expect to find a laundry list of new things to find in their latest and greatest, as well as a leap forward in terms of design. New technology? New overhauled styling? New gimmicks? Well, when it comes to Brooklyn’s own Grado Labs, history is a good indicator that they’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Grado, being family-owned for three generations and being famously averse to such crazy ideas as advertising and detachable cables (along with all other kinds of new-fangled technology) likes to keep one foot firmly planted in the past, keeping true to their origins of being founded “on a kitchen table in 1953”.
While at a glance it may look entirely reminiscent of the larger wooden Grado models of yore, the elder statesman of their premiere “Statement Series” headphone range has taken a mild, yet noteworthy generational leap forward with the release of the range-topping $3499 Grado GS3000x Headphones Statement Series. And if Grado has deemed their new GS3000 model worthy of bearing a new “x”-suffix, it’s definitely worth taking note of, because if it ain’t broken the Grado clan certainly don’t go about fixing things in too much of a hurry on their hand-made assembly-line.
Adding the “X” factor
It’s been some 8 years since the “e”-series Grado headphone models were first unveiled, and we’ve since seen the drip-feeding of the successors to this line-up with the gradual release of the latest “Prestige” and “Reference” headphone families, each bearing the racy “x” lettering at the end of each alphanumeric model name. I had the pleasure of reviewing the new RS2x earlier in the year - not only was it somewhat radical (in Grado terms) in that it sandwiched both maple and hemp fibre in replacement of Grado’s tried-and-tested mahogany wood along with a fabric-covered (but still, firmly attached) cable, but it also marked a somewhat more “crowd-pleasing” tuning that was first hinted-at with the launch of their playfully-marketed Grado Hemp Limited Edition Headphones back in 2020.
It was inevitable then, that the Grado family’s fanciest wooden cans - the “Statement Series” - would also follow suit with a refresh. And sure enough, the mahogany and ipê-bodied GS1000x and the range-topping GS3000x were revealed (in suitably Grado understatement) in August of this year. As an audio reviewer, I’m excited by any new model release by major headphone manufacturers, but as both a lover of all things vintage and all things Grado labs (my GH1s are still to this day my go-to kick-back cans), this announcement certainly caught my eye.
If you’re a Grado-phile, or perhaps just “Grado-curious”, then one thing’s for sure - you know right away that these headphones are stubbornly and distinctively unlike anything else on the market, and for that reason alone the new GS3000x deserves your attention. The new GS3000x certainly make a “statement” - not only in terms of their gorgeous retro-appeal, but also because they happen to make music come alive in a way that makes you want to switch off your smartphone, close your eyes, and forget about things like the Metaverse and self-driving cars.
Meet the new Grado GS3000x
It’s probably easiest to start with what’s unchanged with the new GS3000x, because at a glance, they’re a dead-ringer for the outgoing GS3000e (and pretty much every other Grado headphone) in terms of how they’re put together. If you’re yet to encounter a pair of Grado cans, then these newest ones bear all the hallmarks of their idiosyncrasies: the GS3000x uses an open-back design, in that you’ll hear absolutely everything in your immediate surroundings while you’re wearing them. They employ a pair of dynamic drivers, but in this case, the new “x” model sports an all-new 52mm driver with an impedance of 38-ohms and 99.8dB sensitivity that are good for a purported 4 - 51,000Hz. What can these numbers tell you? In a market where other manufacturers are producing headphones that absolutely require a dedicated, powerful headphone amplifier to shine, the GS3000x will happily deliver a concert-grade performance from the humblest of smartphone or laptop headphone jacks.
The GS3000x’s predecessor, the GS3000e used cups made entirely from cocobolo - a South American tropical hardwood - to house their drivers as well as forming the body of their large, signature cups. Grado Labs decided to retain Cocobolo for the GS3000x for both its aesthetic and sonic properties, but this time around they created a wood/metal hybrid to house the GS3000x’s new 52mm “x” drivers. Grado explains that they chose this metal chamber to create a more solid mass for their driver housing, making it possible to better control the rigidity of their drivers. As well as being a dense, solid wood that has unique properties when it comes to creating pleasing sonic resonances, Cocobolo also features distinctive dark traces throughout its cross-section, creating unique and attractive patterns that makes every pair of GS3000x truly one of a kind.
Every time you look at the GS3000x it somehow manages to look completely different, depending on how it catches the light - it’s a truly magnificent creation that looks (and feels!) like it belongs in a glass cabinet alongside other vintage heirlooms. The charm of the GS3000x is that it manages to combine a certain sense of old-world luxury along with their decidedly hand-made nature. Remove their ear-pads, and you’ll see the unit's serial number practically scratched onto the metal driver chambers. Does this detract from their appeal? Not for a moment. It’s great to know that you’re listening to something created by a human as opposed to a robot on an assembly line that simply injects plastic into a mould, and that helps create more of an emotional and personal experience before you've even pressed “play”.
Let’s not mix words - the GS3000x is not an inexpensive pair of headphones, and at this price they tango alongside many other headphones that are made from carbon fibre and kinds of exotic alloys, so they do seem a little…basic in the sense that they borrow much of the same furniture as other Grado headphones that cost around 5% of the GS3000x’s asking price. However, their basic gimbal and rod-block assembly just works in an unfussy and entirely functional sort of way. The cups will happily spin 360 degrees, and there’s plenty of height adjustment to suit just about any sized noggin. For me, comfort is the most important fundamental that a headphone needs to nail before you even start listening to them, and the GS3000x has this box well and truly ticked. They might not feel over-engineered, and they certainly don’t feel particularly bomb-proof in terms of their sturdiness, but the the GS3000x is the kind of headphone that will certainly start a conversation if you leave it sitting around on your desk - there’s nothing else remotely like it (barring other Grado cans, of course).
The GS3000x’s Cocobolo cups are large both in terms of diameter as well as how far they stick out beyond your ears - it’s not exactly an inconspicuous headphone. But then again, they’re designed for stationary, at home listening where you won’t care for a moment about what other people think about how you look with them on. The cups are connected to a pair of metal gimbals (an upgrade to the black plastic on lesser Grado models), which are affixed to a simple pair of aluminium rods that slide up and down on the same familiar plastic rod-blocks (handily marked with “L” and “R”) as Grados’ bog-standard SR60x.
The GS3000x’s rod-blocks join a simple black leather headband which is very thin and very light when it comes to cushioning, but then again, plush padding isn’t really necessary as the GS3000x feels positively featherweight as full-sized flagship headphones go. The headband does get a little bit of the “Statement” treatment, however, being a little broader than the rest of the Grado pack and has white stitching across each seam.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for a Grado headphone to feature a detachable cable anytime soon - there’s probably more chance of us seeing Harold Holt returning from his swim before that happens. The GS3000x’s cables are the newer style seen on all Grado headphones of late, with a woven fabric outer sheath that is designed to make them more durable. The GS3000x’s cable certainly feels durable - it’d take a pair of bolt cutters to damage this chunky boy.
While it does give you the confidence that it’ll stay intact long enough to pass it down a couple of generations, the GS3000x’s cable isn’t exactly the most unobtrusive or wieldy example as far as high-end headphones go. It’s bulky, doesn’t straighten easily, and can actually drag the lightweight GS3000x off your desktop if you’re not careful. For the GS3000x, Grado Labs has used a “super annealed” copper 12-conductor cable array underneath to ensure a faithful transmission of voltage and music signals, and the cable is terminated in a classic 6.3mm stereo jack - a clear sign that the GS3000x is a serious headphone that’s best paired with proper source equipment.
The GS3000x is equipped with the same familiar “G-Cush” pads that have been used on the recent generations of “Statement” headphones for many a year now. Known affectionately by Grado cognoscenti as “salad bowls”, the black foam G-Cush pads are very large and are very much circumaural (around-ear), being able to completely envelope your ears. The GS3000x’s lightweight (some may say “Spartan”) build and large pads make them a super-comfortable pair of headphones. If you take away the occasional “tug” of their hefty cable, you actually forget that you’re actually wearing a pair of headphones at all - especially when you take their open-air design into account that keeps you “at one” with your surroundings. The GS3000x is most definitely a candidate for all-day music enjoyment.
GS3000x packaging and accessories
This section will be short and sweet. Rather than spending money on hurricane-proof pelican cases or leather-bound boxes, Grado Labs presents their premiere wooden headphone in the simplest of white cardboard boxes, often dubbed the “Grado pizza box”. Mind you, it’s a slightly fancier “pizza box” than the lower models in the Grado line-up, having a magnetised side and thicker material.
Inside, the GS3000x rests inside a basic foam cutout with only one accessory of note: a one-page note from the Grado family that summarises the company’s heritage. That’s it - no additional cables, no additional adapters, and no fancy saddle-bound booklets or instruction manuals. You’re simply meant to take your new GS3000x out of the box, plug them in, and spend many long years enjoying music out of them. Its simplicity is refreshing compared to the arms-race that many other audio manufacturers undertake to in order to complete the visage of “luxury”.
But, no one's buying a pair of Grados to revel in an intricate unboxing nor a lavish product experience - they’re intended to be taken out of the box as quickly as possible and fed with whatever music happens to tickle your fancy. Grado headphones make music come “alive” in a way that no other headphone manufacturer does, and the GS3000x are easily the most exceptional example of Grado’s headphone tuning philosophy that I’ve yet encountered.
Listening to the GS3000x
I can summarise the GS3000x experience in two words: vast and engaging. The GS3000x very much embodies the classic open and energetic G-Cush-equipped Grado headphone sound, but then takes it up a more-than-noticeable notch in terms of both refinement and overall balance. If you’re comparing them back-to-back with other similarly-priced and similarly-regarded headphones, you might be in for a bit of a shock (especially if you haven’t spent time with Grado headphones previously) - they’re a brash, lively-sounding headphone that leaves nothing on the table when it comes to detail and giving you a warts-and-all picture of what’s gone through the mixing desk at the studio.
If you are looking for flagship headphone with a “flat”, or “reference” tuning, these aren’t the cans you’re looking for. Neither is the GS3000x the sort of headphone that will deliver bucket-loads of thumping speaker-like bass, or coddle you with syrupy warmth. Rather, its talents lie elsewhere. The GS3000x is an unashamedly bright and vivid headphone thanks a decidedly forward upper register, and it simply shines in terms of clarity and treble information. I mused for a moment before listening to the GS3000x that the "x" might have signified a zag towards a tamer and more accessible tuning, but that's not quite the case here. These are 100% made for those who love the Grado sound - and then some.
Once you get past the initial Grado “acclimatisation” (which might take an album or so if you’re coming from something else), the GS3000x starts to reveal layers of talents and technicalities that reveal to be more than simply a shiny, airy detail-monster. Compared to my favourite pick of the Brooklyn bunch, the G-Cush-equipped GH1, the GS3000x is - to my ears - the most balanced and coherent-sounding Grado I’ve yet encountered. Yes, there is still plenty of lower treble forwardness, but it’s not exaggeratedly so - there’s no sense of honkiness that overshadows the other frequencies, and as a result the GS3000x sounds natural, but in an unusual and entirely exciting sort of way. While the GS3000x’s bass is taut, quick and responsive; its mid-range has a wonderful textured crispness; and its well-extended treble glistens with sparkle and sheen; everything sounds like it’s dialled-up to “11” in terms of definition and aggressiveness. The GS3000x’s ability to layer, separate and magnify individual sounds can turn even the most laid-back listen into a rollicking roller-coaster ride - if that sounds like your kind of listening party.
The GS3000x can nimbly and articulately sift through detail with the best of them, and while it’ll perform strongly with even the most humble of sources, it’ll reward by the truckload when paired with terrific sources. And as headphone sources go, the dCS Lina stack (headphone amplifier, master clock, and network DAC) is as good as it gets. Plugging the GS3000x into the Lina stack was an absolute treat in terms of micro-detail, immersion and soundstage. The GS3000x, with its G-Cush pads, creates a genuine sense of air and space that makes you feel like you’re floating within a track. Mind you, it’s more of a left/right space that you’re placed in. Swapping over to the new 2022 Focal Utopia, you’re immediately presented with a clearer 36-degree picture, despite its more intimate “around head” soundstage. Imarhan’s Ehad Wa Dagh shows of the GS3000x’s nimble bass capabilities - there’s some definitely roll-off once you start reaching below the lowest notes of a standard bass guitar, but it has a punchy and pleasantly “rounded” low end that never overplays its hand or intervenes in the mid-range with any sense of bloat-y warmth.
The GS3000x can’t quite match the Utopia in terms of naturalness of decay, however, having quite a “snappy” tone that tends to be a little more abrupt on the leading and trailing edges of notes. But rather than considering this a fault in the talent ledger, it makes for an entirely different interpretation on certain music. Take Bob Reynold’s Sway, for example - the Utopia has more mid-range tonal mass, which gives his tenor sax a denser sound. Play back that same track on the GS3000x, and it’s a different listening experience altogether - the brighter and brassier characteristics of the instrument immediately shine through, and it’s suddenly a far more engaging take on that same piece of music. The GS3000x’s bass is more assertive and punchy, but the Focal reaches deeper, with greater control and refinement.
The GS3000x is a god-tier headphone if you’re a lover of rock and metal. Listening to Smashing Pumpkin’s Siamese Dream, you quickly note that the GS3000x recreates crunchy guitar parts and all the energy of cymbal splashes and snare drum hits with a dynamic crispness that simply can’t be matched in terms of alacrity. The Utopia almost sounds sober and subdued by comparison - and that’s saying something, because the Utopia could also rightly be called a starkly detailed headphone.
If you're the kind of listener that likes to experience the raw energy and emotion of a live recording, the GS3000x should be right at the top of your list. Not only are all the delightful rough edges of a live gig evident in terms of ruthlessly revealing every microphone "pop" and wrong note struck, but the GS3000x just simply has an ability to place you there unlike anything else.
Grado’s famed RS1 model line has rightly been the reference benchmark against which many other headphones are judged, and putting the new RS1x up against the GS3000x was an interesting match-up, revealing two very different “takes” on the Grado house sound in the reign of the new “x”-series drivers. Long story short, the GS3000x sounds every part the more technically-adept and better tuned headphone than its little brother - its bass is more accurate and tactile, and feels faster and more surefooted. The back-up vocals in Lake Street Dive’s Linger feel like they’re a part of a deeper, layered soundscape than they do on the smaller L-Cush equipped RS1x. But the biggest delta between the two is the greater sense of coherence in their tuning - the RS1x’s upper midrange and lower treble feel extremely emphasised, giving it a “cuppy” sound, while the GS3000x simply provides a more natural, balanced overall listen.
The GS3000x isn’t power-hungry by any means, but does better suit source equipment that leans more toward having a more euphonic, richer sound. I found some chip-based solid-state amplifiers would get a little too stark and fatiguing at the halfway point through some albums, but I simply wanted to keep on grooving when it was plugged into the Class-A Burson Funk headphone/speaker amplifier which I’ve found has a wonderful synergy with low-impedance Grado headphones. Tubes are also very much a viable proposition with the GS3000x, but just note that output transformer-less (OTL) amplifiers do make its bass quite jovial and tubby. The tube-hybrid Schiit Lyr 3 kept a proper handle on the GS3000x’s frequency response while adding some pleasing harmonic richness and doing some interesting things with the perceived depth of different instruments within its soundstage.
The new Grado GS3000x is probably the most interesting choice you could make if you’re looking to invest in a flagship headphone that’s the ultimate expression of what a manufacturer believes. If you’re the kind of person who still prefers to change the gears in your car all by yourself, or who prefers vintage furniture shopping over a visit to IKEA, then there’s a good chance that you feel that enjoying music is more than simply a listening affair. From a first glance at its cocobolo ear-cups, to the first heart-starting note of your favourite tune, the GS3000x will demand your attention and simply make you want to enjoy music more often, in a deliberate sort of way. It’s the finest-sounding and most complete headphone Grado has made to-date, and if you even get around to taking it off I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s easily their most handsome one as well.