Grado GW100 Wireless Series Headphones review: Open-back design has been vindicated

Although most headphones on the market – especially those concerned with noise-cancelling – sport a closed-back design, there are some out there that get by just fine with the opposite. We’re talking a closed-back design, which has its own advantages and disadvantages, putting the focus almost entirely on audio performance and not much else. Brooklyn-based Grado has long been at the forefront of that niche market, and the company has been coated with more than enough awards to prove the design still has its place in an age where active noise cancelling is all the rage with headphones and earbuds.

What is open-back design? Essentially, this very specific way of constructing headphones allows air to pass through cups from the rear of the speaker driver, theoretically enhancing low-frequencies and allowing for better resonance. Essentially, better and more balanced audio quality despite the volume. This unfortunately means there’s a bit of leakage into your private echo chamber as well, so you wouldn’t really want to be wearing a pair of open-back headphones if you’re on a noisy commute or flight. They just won’t do that good a job at isolating noise.

If you’re using the Grado GW100 headphones at home as a lifestyle set simply to listen to music around the house, without needing to block anything out, there are few pairs of headphones you can get at this price point that can compete.

Design

The GW100 doesn’t look sexy in the same way Sony and Bose have been shaping their seamless headphones, but consider them unconventionally attractive. They are well-built, feel comfortable on the head, and don’t clamp down despite the tight look. The compact, all-black form is interrupted only by a distinctive cup design that fits in the standard physical buttons (power, volume, Bluetooth) that’s solid and easy to operate. The aesthetic is old-school and really not that trendy, but it’s more practical than pizzaz.

Unlike some of the other modern headphones on the market today, these don’t fold in any way, but they fit snugly in their compact shell storage case which, really, is all that matters when it comes to portability.

Performance

I’ve admittedly ever owned a pair of Grado headphones before so all I had to go by was the brand’s solid reputation for audio performance. I believe the hype, and if any brand is going to nail the open-backed design it’s going to be Grado, where designers have finessed the body in such a way that that expected sound leakage is minimised by over 50%, chipping away at the biggest con and turning it into a strength.

You’ll still get a lot of noise bleed from the external world, and I wouldn’t opt for this pair if I had to commute frequently, but if I was listening at home this would be the pair I would choose.

There’s a great sense of openness and detail when it comes to the soundstage, wide and full of detail when listening to soul artists like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, who like to croon over lush productions with a lot of artifacts. The sound is authentic and true-to-source, with a solid Bluetooth connection clearly calibrated towards natural sound rather than anything overproduced and excessive. As such, EDM won’t sound as good on these, but anything more organic like The Roots or John Mayer will be full of presence and energy.

Key to this is Grado’s clever design. The drivers in each earpiece have been coated with a special material that apparently suppresses resonance slightly so the sound produced is less delicate and not as easy to lose when the sound leaks out. This means you’ll get the better balance from the wide soundstage without it all sounding too unfocused.

Battery

Grado’s GW100 really is all about the sound, as it sure as hell isn’t about the battery. You’re looking at around 7.5 hours if you’re keeping these on at max volume; 15 hours if you’re set at half volume. That’s nothing compared to the all-day battery life many modern headphones offer these days, putting a bit of a sour mark on the GW100. Although put this into context. You’re not going to want to use these headphones outdoors, which means the majority of your use will be at home or – if you’re travelling – in a hotel room. That offsets this downside a fair bit.

Verdict & Value

You’re looking at $369 in Australia, with the Grado GW100 available exclusively from Addicted To Audio.

It’s a hefty price to pay for a pair of headphones that won’t do a great job at blocking out external sounds and lags when it comes to battery life. But if you are just concerned about having a nice pair of cans that sound excellent to use around the house (not when you’re mowing the lawn or doing anything loud, mind you) then just know that the performance makes up for quite a lot.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Exceptional sound quality, great with small details.
Lowlights: Battery life, still quite a bit of sound leakage in and out.
Price: $369

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy-Editor-At-Large of the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.

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