Interview by Amanda McCorquodale. Images by Mike Matos.
The Grado family has been building industry-leading phono cartridges and headphones by hand in the Brooklyn studio where they’ve lived and worked for 65 years. We spoke to father John Grado and son Jonathan about the roles of family, quality and community in perfecting the “Grado sound.”
The Grado name has deep roots in Brooklyn. “My great uncle Joseph was a watchmaker at Tiffany’s,” says Jonathan, the younger Grado, “but he also was an opera singer with a passion for music. He began making turntable cartridges on his kitchen table.”
Meanwhile, the first business under the Grado name – Grado’s Fruit – opened in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood in 1918, but went out of business by 1952.
“When Grado Fruit was closing, [my great uncle Joseph] bought the space from his siblings and moved cartridge production over there. By the mid-1980s, Grado was producing 10,000 cartridges a week.”
John, the older Grado, started working with Joseph in 1965 by sweeping the floors and performing other straightforward duties, but by the 1980s he was running day-to-day operations.
Of course, turntables, though now trending, were losing market share to cassettes as the ’90s approached.
“The cartridge business started to die down and my uncle wanted to retire,” says John, “so I bought the business from him in 1989. My uncle and I had experimented with making speakers, and headphones are really just small speakers connected by a headband. In the 1980s, headphone quality was inferior so we thought with our knowledge and ability, we could make a statement in that business.”
It seems – in time – they’ve made more than a statement. Grado headphones have been called “the finest electricity-to-sound transducer in the world.” But that’s not something they take for granted; they test the quality of each and every headphone. “After each pair is built,” says John, “I listen to the same 30 seconds of the same three songs. Eric Clapton’s “Signs” was recorded live so I listen to the precise sound of individual hand claps in an audience of 300.”
Then it’s Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Night in Tunisia” because “any audio designer knows the importance of listening to the female voice because it falls into the middle range that makes up 85% of the sound.”
And to check high frequencies?
“I play the xylophone part in Duke Ellington’s ‘Malletoba.’ My father was an artist and he would say, ‘Don’t look at the picture just yet. You have to get close, examine the brushstrokes, then stand back and look at the picture.’”
They’ve even undertaken some interesting projects. Bushmills Whiskey asked them to make headphones from the same white oak they used for their barrels, and sent their then-spokesperson, Elijah Wood, to the studio to make a behind-the-scenes video. “It turns out Elijah is a huge music geek and a super nice guy,” says Jonathan.
Another unique product? “We made the first headphones to be made from a Brooklyn tree,” says Jonathan. “A maple tree went down during Hurricane Sandy and we turned it into almost a thousand wooden headphones, which sold out in two weeks.”
For some, family gatherings like Thanksgiving can be less than harmonious, but not so for the Grados. “We’re often asked if we argue or disagree a lot,” says Jonathan, “but we really don’t. My dad taught me a lot about patience. It’s probably one of the reasons we’ve been around so long. Funnily enough, we were contacted by a reality show about family businesses. They asked if we fight a lot, and when I told them that we don’t, I never heard from them again.”
But they stay true to their values even while competing in a fast-paced industry. Every single pair of headphones is hand-built in their workshop. Jonathan says his dad once woke up in the middle of the night with an idea for a set of wooden headphones and went downstairs to carve a pair.
They also source everything as locally as possible. Their foam and metal come from Long Island and their leather comes from Pennsylvania.
“Sure, we’d be able to build faster if we didn’t do it by hand,” says Jonathan, “and it’d be cheaper if we moved everything overseas, but this is what we enjoy. It makes us feel good that we’re supporting our city and region. When you find something you’re good at, you don’t need to keep changing. It’s what we’ve been doing since 1953 and there’s no reason to change now.”