Grado iGi Earphones
(2.5 star rating)
When it comes to headphones, Grado Labs is easily one of the most respected names in the business. Over the last half-century, the family-owned, Brooklyn, NY-based company has built up a reputation for developing some of the best listening equipment in the world. Nearly every model in their vast range, from the $50 street-style iGrados to the $1700 PS1000, commands a following on the hi-fi scene.
But the market is changing. Thanks to companies like Etymotic Research and Ultimate Ears, in-ear earphones have been steadily gaining ground with casual listeners, music professionals, and audiophiles for the past decade. Grado was one of the last big-name manufacturers to succumb to the trend, releasing a line of in-ear earphones consisting of two models in 2009. The high-end Grado GR8 utilizes a new type of transducer dubbed a ‘moving armature’ and has garnered plenty of praise in the hi-fi community.
The model in review today, however, is the mid-range Grado iGi. Retailing at $89 and based around a traditional dynamic driver, the iGi falls right in the middle of a very competitive market segment. How does the first mid-range earphone from one of the world’s most beloved audiophile brands fare against the stiff competition? That’s what we’re here to find out today.
Packaging & Accessories
The packaging of the iGi is stylish and practical. The earphones come in a gold-colored magnetic-clasp box sealed inside a hard plastic outer shell. Opening up the packaging reveals a foam insert housing the earphones and tips. Removing the foam insert exposes a warranty card and short letter from the manufacturer.
In the box you will also find:
- Grado iGi earphones
- 2 pairs bi-flange silicone tips (in black and clear)
- 1 pair conical silicone tips
- 1 pair foam tips
- Warranty card
For the $89 retail price of the earphones pickings are rather slim. The biggest problem is the tips, none of which are well-suited for those with small ear canals. The exclusion of the usual S/M/L single-flange silicone tips is puzzling, to say the least. Of my 70+ in-ear earphones iGi are the only ones with a price tag above $30 that are missing small-size single flange tips. The package also lacks any sort of protective carrying case, a shirt clip, and any other pack-ins commonly included with earphones in the price range.
- Frequency response: 20 to 20,000 Hz
- Input sensitivity: 105 dB/mW
- Impedance: 24 Ohms
- Cable length: 51 inches (1.3 meters)
- Input connection: 3.5 mm gold-plated jack
|Box||Package Opened||Ear tips|
The Grado iGi utilizes generic straight-barrel housings quite common among budget earphones produced in China. Very similar shells are used by the Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds, VSonic R02ProII, and Lear Le01+, to name a few. The shells are completely plastic, with a rubber sheath covering the rear part of the earphones and metal mesh filters in the nozzles. From a practical standpoint, the earphones are well-thought-out, with long rubber strain reliefs on housing entry, a flexible 45-degree 3.5mm plug, and rubberized cabling. The cable is rather thin, however, and tangles very easily. The iGi are also missing a sliding cable cinch. On the upside, the white Left/Right markings are easily visible on the housings and the left-side strain relief features a small bump to make the earpieces identifiable by touch.
Fit & Comfort
Since the iGi are missing the usual slew of single-flange tips, they are not very friendly toward those with smaller ear canals. The conical tips are the closest thing to small single-flanges Grado chose to include with the iGi but getting a proper seal with them can be tricky. Aftermarket Sony Hybrid tips are highly recommended for anyone having trouble getting a seal with the stock selection. On the upside, the shells are large, light, and rubbery. They are comfortable when worn with proper tips and very easy to grip for insertion/removal. Wearing them over-the-ear is highly recommended but can be a bit tricky at first due to the long rubber strain reliefs. The thin and flexible cable compensates for this and maintaining a seal is generally quite easy.
Isolation and Microphonics
The iGi are ported, dynamic-driver earphones. Even with the long bi-flange tips isolation is quite mediocre due to the vents. During my commute the iGi pushed noise far enough into the background for me to enjoy my music at reasonable volumes but I did not get a sense of total isolation from my surroundings. If looking for an earphone specifically for subway or air travel, the iGi are less than ideal. Additionally, unlike most in-ear earphones, the vents of the iGi are located on the side of the housings rather than the front or the bottom. As a result, the Grados are particularly susceptible to wind noise in gusty conditions.
Microphonics, or cord contact noise, are also present in the cable. Though not particularly bothersome, they are still best avoided by wearing the Grados over-the-ear when moving about. The regretful lack of a cable cinch and shirt clip, both of which would make cord-up wear easier, betrays a lack of experience with in-ear earphones on Grado’s part.
|All Accessories||Overhead Closeup|
Testing was done in two parts. The first part, the ‘everyday use’ test, was done using choice test tracks from a wide array of genres in mp3 format encoded at 128-320 kbps. A Sandisk Sansa Fuze, my testing player of choice due to the transparency of the sound it produces, was used for this portion. The second ‘critical listening’ part was done at home using a similar selection of tracks in lossless (FLAC or WMA) formats and my optical-fed iBasso D10 digital-to-analog converter (DAC) as a source. A more high-end source than a portable audio player, the iBasso ensures that I don’t attribute the limitations of the Sansa Fuze or mp3 rips to the earphones. Naturally, no equalizer settings were used for either test.
Since I first heard the SR60 several years ago, I’ve been hooked on the Grado house sound and my collection has contained at least one Grado headphone. Much of my listening, however, is done on the move – an application for which open-back Grados are particularly unsuited. Naturally, when the Grado earphones were announced excitement took over. The Grado sound? In an in-ear package? I’ll take two!
The excitement persisted right up until I’d finished extracting the iGi from packaging and put them in my ears. All that was left were two words: harshness and sibilance. Sibilance is the exaggeration of ‘S’ sounds in vocals due to spikes in the lower treble response where the sound usually falls (between 5 and 10kHz depending on the vocalist and recording). Harshness refers to unpleasantly rough sound caused by peaks in the upper midrange, usually in the 3-5kHz range. It is not rare for brand new earphones to be slightly harsh or sibilant, but the iGi were unbearable. Disappointed, I let the earphones break in, checking in on them periodically, first for 100 hours, then 150, then 200. My final impressions were recorded once I was quite sure that the earphones were no longer improving.
After significant break-in, the iGi became bearable enough to evaluate. Over time the bass opened up in quantity and the midrange softened. Starting with the bass, the iGi seem to be pursuing the Grado house sound. The bass response is tight and quick, with little rumble but plenty of impact. Low end extension is good but the way in which the iGi present decay results in an emphasis on mid- and upper bass. The bass transitions into the lower midrange with no bleed and the lower mids are quite smooth and natural. Clarity and detail are both good across the range and the iGi manage to reproduce a sense of space, something many in-ears struggle with. The soundstage boasts impressive width and mediocre depth, resulting in a spacious but poorly separated sound.
The upper midrange is where it all starts to go wrong, however. Despite the significant break-in time, the iGi are still overly harsh and quite sibilant to my ears. I will admit that I have a very low tolerance for such phenomena - even the generally well-liked Klipsch Image S4 lack treble refinement to my ears. Tolerance aside, however, the iGi simply lack smoothness. There are several very noticeable spikes in the frequency response, which negatively affect the reproduction of certain instruments and vocals. The upper-midrange spikes can cause the crack of snare drums to sound very sharp. Uneven treble around 10kHz causes cymbals on some tracks to be downright piercing. All of this is even more puzzling considering that the promotional materials for the earphones claim an “ultra-smooth top end”, the exact opposite of what I hear.
All in all the iGi are poorly suited for rock and metal, genres usually considered to be the calling card of Grado products. They actually sound best with trance and electronica – vocal-light genres with minimal natural harmonics that benefit greatly from the tight bass, overall clarity, and extended upper treble that the earphones deliver. It should also be said that the innate flaws of the iGi wreak havoc when combined with low bitrate tracks. Even if you aren’t too serious about audio, 128kbps mp3s are an absolute no-no with these earphones. Lastly, the iGi are surprisingly sensitive when it comes to source matching. They hiss noticeably with ‘unclean’ sources such as my laptop’s headphone jack and my desktop amplifier, so pairing them with anything but a portable player is precarious business.
Grado iGi In-Ear Earphones
The Grado iGi are the company’s first attempt at a sub-$100 earphone. As such, they are a promising, albeit far from flawless, attempt at recreating the house sound in earphone form. Taking the iGi at face value, however, it is difficult to justify the $90 price tag. The earphones are merely adequate when it comes to build quality, comfort, isolation, and microphonics and fail to make up for the mediocrity with sound. Sound quality, the eternal centerpiece of the Grado philosophy, should be where the iGi fare best against the competition. And indeed they compete quite well if not for the lack of control in the upper midrange and lower treble. Clarity, detail, and bass control are all well above average for the price. I just wish I could enjoy them for more than an hour before listening fatigue settles in.
Pros: Good bass control, spacious and detailed sound.
Cons: Generic design, tangle-prone cabling, poor tip selection, mediocre isolation, harshness and sibilance in the upper mids/lower treble.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5