The story of Grado Labs begins in the early 1950s, when master watchmaker Joseph Grado discovered his real passion: hi-fi audio equipment. He left his job at Tiffany & Company to devote himself to this new trade, and launched his first line of phono cartridges in 1953. Initially, he crafted each cartridge at the kitchen table of his Brooklyn home, but he quickly expanded by taking over his father’s grocery around the corner–in the same building where Grado is based to this day.
Over the next thirty years, Joseph acquired 48 patents for his designs, making him responsible for more innovations in the phono cartridge industry than any other individual. Word spread about his quality audio craftsmanship, and the company grew considerably in this time. By the early 1980s, Grado had taken over the entire block and was producing over 10,000 cartridges per week.
However, by the end of the decade, business was on the decline and Joseph considered closing the company’s doors. Enter his nephew John, who had begun his career at Grado by sweeping the factory floors, and eventually had taken over the majority of business operations. John had ambitions to broaden the company’s offerings, beginning with a new line of headphones. He bought Grado Labs from his uncle in 1990.
While living with his family on the top floor for the building, John and his wife hand built the first series of Grado headphones. Since then, he has created over 25 models, each known for its classic design and unparalleled sound quality.
Most recently, John’s son Jonathan is the third generation of Grados to officially join the company. Jonathan grew up on the top floor of the building and knows the business inside and out, but he also brings new ideas to the table–such as a recent push into the in-ear headphone market. He’s behind the launch of the 2014 e-series, incorporating internal improvements in sound quality, including a new distortion-reducing cable and updated housings.
Jonathan has also established a strong social media presence, resulting in Grado being named one of the Top 8 Most Social Small Businesses in America. Again and again, Grado has shown that it can adapt to the times while staying true to its Brooklyn family traditions.
We recently spoke with Jonathan Grado, who is officially the company’s VP of Marketing. Jonathan does all of the social media, content creation, customer service, design, photography, and “a whole bunch of other fun stuff.”
Did you always imagine yourself joining the family business?
Not once did my family ever force me into the business, so I never thought I would join Grado. Growing up I was really embarrassed about what my parents did. Who’s family made headphones? I felt out of place Career Day after Career Day, being the only one with headphones on. Only by college did I really start to realize how amazing it all is.
What about it do you enjoy the most?
After I started the Facebook and Twitter pages midway through college, I found a true passion for it. I loved talking to Grado fans, which I had never done before. Connecting with people who use Grado is my favorite part of being with the company.
Who are your favorite makers?
There are these chairs that have become a staple in the Grado Listening Room. Only in the past few years did I realize that they’re Eames chairs. I’ve only grown to appreciate their design and the story behind them more and more. I know it’s just a chair, but it’s a really nice chair.
What’s next for Grado?
We just turned sixty-two years old, so that’s sixty-two years to perfect our sound. We haven’t advertised since 1964 though, so now my main focus is to get the word out that we exist while working with a $0 ad budget. Social media has been really important to us, since we’ve always relied on word-of-mouth. Our latest social endeavors have been Instagram and emails. Yeah, emails. We sent our first email ever last month with the release of our new GR10e and GR8e in-ears. We don’t come out with new products every week though, so we’re going to focus our emails on great stories and really nice photography. Plus you’ll get a little something on your birthday if you put that in when you join the newsletter.
With Instagram, it’s a whole new community to be a part of and I’m really excited about that. With this new focus on photography, I have some fun series planned. Outside of social, we have a few interesting projects in the works that we’ve been looking forward to for awhile. Some make so much sense that we’re happy to have a way to make it happen, and other projects are a marriage of two things that don’t normally go together but we made it work. Hopefully everyone will be able to see this is 2015.
Where did the idea come from to make wooden headphones?
When I was three or four, my dad had an idea in the middle of the night to make a headphone out of wood. He went downstairs, carved some wood, and made our first pair. It turned out that they sounded pretty great. We have a family friend in upstate New York whose father was the first wooden pen manufacturer, and he had left a bunch of wood working machines to his son. John asked him if he could use the machines to carve our wooden housings; fast forward twenty years and he now has a wood business where Grado is his only client.
In June 2014, the e Series was released, our newest series of headphones. This time we decided to cure the wood in a new way, which added a shine to the mahogany, and most importantly created a fuller sound. The GS1000e, RS2e, and RS1e, are our three wooden/mahogany headphones.
What’s the story behind the GS1000e headphones?
When the GS1000e was in the prototyping stage I remember my dad, John Grado, coming home and putting the first versions of them on at the dinner table. They were huge. They looked like a coconut cut in half, swapped, and put on your ears. Or like two salad bowls if we’re getting scientific about it. That pair ended up evolving into the GS1000e we all know and love now.
Who is your ideal customer (for the GS1000e)?
This higher-end mahogany headphone is the most full and warm bodied Grado that we make. We’ve seen the GS1000e used especially by producers, engineers, and audiophiles.
Every pair of Grado headphones is handmade in the family’s Brooklyn factory. Many parts are sourced from the immediate region, including wood from Upstate New York, leather from New Jersey, and foam from Long Island. Grado employs 18 people, who all work in the same building where the original cartridges were made. The following photo series is by Jorge Quinteros.