American Classic: Grado is homegrown in Brooklyn

For 65 years, the Grado family has been building industry-leading phono cartridges and headphones by hand in their Brooklyn HQ. Below we speak to father John Grado and son Jonathan about the roles of family, quality, and community in perfecting the “Grado sound.”

The Journal: Grado has deep roots in Brooklyn. Where did it all start?
Jonathan: My family ran Grado’s Fruit in Brooklyn Sunset Park neighbourhood from 1918 to 1952. My great uncle Joseph was a watchmaker at Tiffany’s but he also was an opera singer with a passion for music. He began making turntable cartridges on his kitchen table, and when Grado Fruit was closing, he bought the space from his siblings and moved cartridge production over there. By the mid-1980s, Grado was producing 10,000 cartridges a week.

 

Why the switch to headphones?
John: I worked with my uncle at Grado, first sweeping floors in 1965, then running day-to-day operations in the 1980s. The cartridge business started to die down and my uncle wanted to retire, 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.

 

Grado’s headphones have been called “The finest electricity-to-sound transducer in the world.” How do you ensure that kind of quality?
John: After each pair is built, 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. Next I listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Night in Tunisia.” 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. To check the higher 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.

Sure, we’d be able to build faster if we didn’t do it by hand, and it’d be cheaper if we moved everything completely 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. We wouldn’t want to adopt some new technology that might change the sound we’ve worked on for so long.

 

What are some of the cool limited-edition headphones you’ve made?
Jonathan: Bushmills Whiskey asked us to make headphones out of white oak, the wood used in their barrels. They even sent their spokesperson at the time – actor Elijah Wood – out to Grado to make a behind-the-scenes video. It turns out Elijah is a huge music geek and a super nice guy.

We also made the first headphones to be made from a Brooklyn tree. A maple tree went down during Hurricane Sandy and we turned it into almost a thousand wooden headphones, which sold out in two weeks.

 

What’s it like working together in a family business?
Jonathan: We’re often asked if we argue or disagree a lot, but we really don’t. When I first started, I wanted to change a bunch of things but I realised they were just changes for the sake for change. 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.

 

Given you are such a heritage brand, how easy is it to stay true to your values while also keeping up with modern technology, especially in your industry where things change fast?
Jonathan: Our headphones are all hand built here in Brooklyn. We source everything as close to us as possible. We can’t make foam ourselves but we get that and metal from Long Island, and the leather we get from Pennsylvania. One night, my dad woke up with the idea for wooden headphones and went downstairs to carve a pair. He had a friend living in upstate New York who had inherited a bunch of wood making equipment and he’s been doing our headphones ever since.

 

What does the future hold for Grado?
Jonathan: In the next 10 to 20 years we see Grado, and the family for that matter, continuing to do what we love. We know what we’re good at and will adapt when we need to, even though it might not be overnight. We’ll continue to try our best to keep everything that we can local and put the sound first. It’s what we’ve been doing since 1953 and there’s no reason to change now.

By Amanda McCorquodale

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