Ears to the Ground: We Chat to Grado Labs

With three generations of expertise up their sleeves, the Grado family are masters of adaptability – making headphones that didn’t just survive as technology evolved, but set the benchmark for a quality, American made product. We spoke to John and Jonathan Grado for their take on how to stay ahead of the curve in a constantly changing market.

How has Grado’s design process evolved with technology? From when Grado Labs originally started to now, what design features have been retained or changed?

We might be in the minority, but Grado still uses the same machines that we’ve had since the 1950s. On top of that, those were built in the 1940s and we bought them secondhand. It’s a nice example of how timeless a well built machine can be (as long as we tighten a bolt every once in a while). Since the headphones are hand-built, the machines we use focus on molding and carving. Our one new machine though has made molding go a lot faster. So while our design process has stayed the same for over six decades, new technology has helped us mold faster. When it reaches the point of human hands though, we figure that process won’t be changing anytime soon.

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Around pricing: how do you determine what the design priorities are with such a high-caliber product?

Pricing is not our first design priority, sound is. We first design for a product that is represented in the highest standards of the Grado signature sound. Once that has been achieved, we then take our 62 years of manufacturing experience and work the technology into the different price categories. We have products at all price points, entry level to top of the line prices, but each product needs to be conceived a value, price and sound wise, at its particular price point when compared to others in that category.

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How do you source material for your product, and what do you look for?

The relationship we have with our sourcing partners is built on trust. When they say “We can do this” and “We can have that by this time”, you need to believe that they can do it. There’s a level of quality that they need to be able to keep. At the same time though, it’s not like one mistake and you cut all ties. We’ve had our sourcing partners for decades, from Upstate New York to Long Island, you’ll never grow a relationship with them if you jump around. Of course there’s a point where it’s smart to move on, but everyone has an off day sometimes.

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What’s your outlook on the future of audio design and hand-made design incorporated with technology?

We feel the future of handmade audio products is very positive. There will always be end-users who are looking for quality products that are well thought out and where sound is the ultimate goal. With social media, it’s easier for small companies to get their brand out to the public, and it’s with the small companies that the quality audio products will stand up. Something to keep in mind though is that there needs to be an actual passion for what you’re hand building. We’ve been doing it since 1953. Some might start hand building just to be able to say “hand built”, but doing it just to do it might lead to a dip in quality.

What advice would you give to aspiring designers who want to create an enduring, timeless product?

Evaluate your field of expertise, look for a product that you feel you can develop that can stand out. Don’t be concerned about taking over the world, make a quality product that will get noticed. I’d suggest either an entry level product that outdoes all others in that level or a cost object that can’t be touched. Stay away from the middle of the market – that’s where you’ll get lost among the others.

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