APRIL 2002 | Modern Plastics
Making Headphones Proves A Sound Business Decision
Audiophiles are a demanding: lot.
They want to hear all the nuances of music accurately. So, most high-quality headphone makers meticulously measure the acoustic response of their products-but not Grado Labs. It makes headphones that simply sound good to its owner, John Grado. Luckily for the small, Brooklyn, NY, company, they sound good to hi-fi equipment reviewers and customers, as well. Grado says the performance of the headphones stems from attention to how their parts, including in-house-molded ABS components, work together.
Grado Labs began in 1953, when Joe Grado, John's uncle, started making phonograph cartridges at his home. In 1958, the company moved to its present location, a small building where the family had run a fruit stand.
John's stint at Grado Labs began when he was 12, doing odd jobs around the factory. He became a full-time employee 10 years later in 1975, took over day-to-day operations in 1978, and became the owner of the company in 1990.
After compact discs were introduced, sales of phonograph records and, consequently, cartridges rapidly declined. The company's output of cartridges fell from a peak of about 500,000/yr to only about 12,000 in 1990.
This spurred Grado to look for another niche in the audiophile equipment market and led him to headphones. They were considered secondrate components then, he explains, and so, sensing an opportunity, the company launched a line in the fall of 1991.
Sales now total around $5 million, with about half from outside the U.S. Headphones account for 80% of the business. The company made 45,000 pairs of headphones in 2001, and expects to substantially boost production this year. Sales of cartridges have recovered to about 60,000/yr and are holding steady. Some people - an admittedly small but growing number, Grado says - prefer the sound of records. The firm also has increased its market share in cartridges because other companies have stopped making them.
Today, Grado Labs has 17 employees. John Chaipis, vice president and chief engineer, has worked there since the 1950s. A watchmaker turned tooland-diemaker, Chaipis, 78, makes all of the company's tooling. He also fashions some of the mahogany components, such as headphone cups and cartridge bodies, used in the firm's premium "Reference" series. The lower-priced "Prestige" series of headphones and cartridges, which accounts for about 60% of overall sales, and which reviewers extol as outstanding values, employ ABS.
The company relies on a vintage 1-ton Van Dorn injection molding press. A dozen ABS parts, made on three sets of four-cavity tools, go into the headphones. For cartridges, the firm uses a single set of tooling to produce the dozen ABS components needed.
The firm molds a single grade of ABS. Switching materials could subtly alter acoustic response, notes Grado, who is very finicky about getting the sound he wants. That's why the company also winds its own coils and carefully matches the ones that go into each pair of Reference headphones.
Indeed, Grado spent a lot of time experimenting to achieve the sound. He tried around 30 different woods before settling on mahogany for the Reference headphone cups. Like his uncle before him, Grado says, he has "a good ear" and knows how to listen to music. When he finally gets the sound he wants, he doesn't see any need to validate his judgment with acoustic response curves and other data. They can't adequately measure the warmth and fullness of music anyway, he argues.
Grado has been gradually expanding the company's product line in recent years. An amplifier was introduced in the late 1990s to provide peak performance from the Reference headphones. Three high-end cartridges were added last year, and a couple of new products are under consideration. However, Grado, now 48, doesn't aspire to having his name on a vast range of audio components. The small size and personal nature of his company sound just fine to him.