Since 1953, the Grado family has been making headphones and phonograph cartridges by hand in a South Brooklyn brownstone converted into a factory, which they’ve owned for nearly a century. The 18-person company, Grado Labs, has never advertised—a cultish audiophile customer base drives its sales through word-of-mouth. Devotees include Neil Young, director Spike Jonze, Phish (the drummer wears Grado headphones on stage), and Aerosmith.
This past month, Brooklyn-based photographer James Chororos and producer Eddy Vallante, a filmmaker and Grado headphone-wearer, became fascinated with Grado’s old-school design process. "There are obviously faster and more efficient ways to make a great pair of headphones, but Grado has had the same process and equipment since the early ‘60s, and they’re still in business," Vallante says in a phone interview. Choronos photographed the four stories of the Sunset Park-based Grado Labs factory, where three generations of Grados have worked. Current vice president of marketing Jonathan Grado Jr. grew up on the top floor with his father, John Grado Sr., who runs the company. (The founder, Joseph Grado, a second-generation Italian immigrant died in February at age 90.) The images tell a story of small business success: a family-owned headphone manufacturing company that’s managed to thrive without advertising or fancy new equipment in the age of big audio corporations like Beats by Dre. Grado Labs’ business model reveals that good hand-crafted design with a compelling story sells itself.
Grado Labs makes five headphones series in 15 different models. They range from the $1,700 flagship Professional Series 1000, which gear-head musicians and engineers drool over in reviews, to the $79 SR60, the layman's introduction to Grado's handmade cans. Most models are old school, over-the-ear styles available for purchase at Grado's online store, 4ourEars, as well as via 400 dealers in the U.S.
Grado Labs has seen steady success, the latest being a partnership with JetBlue to bring Grado headphones to its first class "Mint" flights. Last year about 150,000 Grado units were sold, and the company expects to sell 200,000 this year.
Grado Sr. credits their success to its heritage and the reputation it has developed around the world over 65 years, thanks to the higher quality that comes from manufacturing the old-fashioned way: by hand. "We focus on all the little details of each pair of headphones. That’s something a machine knocking out headphones can’t really do," Grado Sr. says.
Many mass-manufactured headphones are made of several pieces snapped together, and subtle vibrations between these shoddily assembled pieces detract from sound quality. A pair of Grado headphones is instead bonded together with glues and agents selected for their sonic qualities. Even the cord is constructed to diminish vibrations. "All these little details, none are night-and-day sound changers, but they all add up," Grado says. A pair of sisters have run the production since 1994, focusing on higher-end headphones, while seven others work on entry-level headphones.
To stay competitive, bigger audio corporations often roll out new products every six months, "even when the engineers don’t really have any new ideas," as Grado Sr. says. This leads to gimmicky marketing, rehashing of old designs, and newfangled features that might detract from sound quality (like heartbeat sensors). "We only come out with a new model or series when we feel we’ve come up with enough innovations worthy of a new series," Grado Sr. says. The recently introduced e-series, for example, gives some subtle but important internal revisions to their classic over-the-ear, open-backed design. They look similar to their predecessors, but through trial and error, they redesigned the cable to cut out distortion, improved the housings, added gold plating to the plug, and even changed how the mahogany is cut in order to create better sonic fidelity. But they're not into tech-nerd gimmicks: "If I suggested putting a heartbeat sensor in a headphone, my dad would laugh," Grado Jr. says.
Grado Labs’ approach to business and design is so soft-sell it’s nearly zen. (Though Grado eschews celebrity endorsements, actor Elijah Wood and his DJ partner Zack Cowie did collaborate on designing the company's limited-edition Bushmills headphones in 2013, made from the wood of whiskey barrels.) "We’ve never seen a new headphone come out from another company and thought, ‘We need to make a new headphone to compete with this.’ My dad literally does not care," Grado Jr., who studied graphic design in college before devoting himself full-time to his family's business, tells Co.Design. "He’s happy to just make what we enjoy, and I guess other people enjoy what we enjoy, so it works out."
Click the slideshow above to peek inside the factory. Read more about Grado Labs and their products here.