I've started using cheap Grado open-back headphones, and now I can never go back

Grado SR80x headphones on white background
(Image credit: TechRadar)

I like to listen to a progressive rock band called Coheed and Cambria. Maybe you know them? If so hi and we should be friends. But my point is that my colleagues now also know of this excellent act, because when I listen to Vaxis II: a Window of the Waking Mind, they do too. 

This is because of the Grado SR80x open-back headphones. I have been trialling them with a view to recommending these open-back headphones, and I can tell you two things: if you want some of the best on-ear headphones going for clarity, neutrality, and detail, these are they, and secondly, if you listen to Taylor Swift more than you ever want anyone to know, ever, you're going to have to give them a miss. 

But here's the thing: the world of audiophile headphones is usually a realm where cash is king and getting truly great sound means lacing the palm of whichever manufacturer is providing your listening gear with more than a few bits of silver. 

However, Grado (or to give the Brooklyn family-run firm its full name, Grado Labs) released these particular headphones with an asking price of just $125 / £130 / AU$179, a fee which has since dropped to around about £90 in the UK (where I am) and frankly, they're worth every penny of this nominal fee. They're worth double that, in fact. 

Grado SR80x will make you open up about music

Grado SR80x held in a hand on white table

Look at those beautiful leaky open-back ear cups (Image credit: TechRadar)

The Grado SR80x were relased in May 2021 and are fashioned from the SR80, which Grado considers its first-ever pair of headphones – built on the Grado family kitchen table in 1991. “We wouldn’t be here today without it,” Grado literature states.

And they feel far more expensive that the price-tag that accompanies them. It's a brutalist, almost steampunk aesthetic too; their open-back nature is emphasized by distinctly honeycomb-like metal mesh on the ear cups – and sound simply leaks through these holes like water through a strainer. 

Audiophiles will tell you these otherwise simple headphones (don't expect noise-cancellation, although the passive isolation is actually quite good) are most suited to home use, but of course, for most of us headphones aren't for when you're at home alone. So I say use them at work anyway! As long as your work colleagues are a fairly understanding bunch, and you're prepared for the occasional judgement. 

These gorgeous headphones succeed the 2014-issue SR80e from the outgoing Prestige E Series, but Prestige X is now the company's entry-level headphone range, sitting below the Reference Series, with the SR80x the second-most wallet-friendly option in Grado's headphone offering after the SR60x. 

The long cable (the spec sheet tells me this is 1.8m) is a four-conductor, thick, braided jacket affair which also feels decidedly high-end. And the 4.4mm balanced connector can simply be pulled gently off to reveal an unbalanced 3.5mm jack underneath. Beautiful. 

I'm currently listening to The Crowing and Claudio Sanchez is singing about Ambelina (I don't know who this is or why they are mentioned. Answers on a postcard if you do). Everyone in my immediate vicinity can also hear it, but the clarity, detail, neutrality and crisp inflections of his voice are addictive to me alone. If you only have your laptop as a source device, use a portable DAC to level up the power and audio quality. 

I mean look, who needs office friends anyway… 

Becky Scarrott
Senior Audio Staff Writer

Becky is a senior staff writer at TechRadar (which she has been assured refers to expertise rather than age) focusing on all things audio. Before joining the team, she spent three years at What Hi-Fi? testing and reviewing everything from wallet-friendly wireless earbuds to huge high-end sound systems. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, Becky freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 22-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance starts with a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo and The Stage. When not writing, she can still be found throwing shapes in a dance studio, these days with varying degrees of success.