It’s time to go Back to the USSR, because (naturally) today we’re listening to The White Headphones on the album they were inspired by. On vinyl, I have a 1978 pressing from ‘The Beatles Collection’ golden box set; and I also have the 2009 stereo remaster in 16/44.1 FLAC. Right away, you understand that The White Headphone is bass-light – there’s no getting around the fact that it doesn’t have much by way of quantity in the lowest octaves. For that reason, The White Headphone is certainly not a master of all genres. If you’re an EDM or Hip Hop fan, you’ll probably find that they’re lacking in visceral feel and tonal heft. But then again, if you’re an EDM or Hip Hop fan you’re probably looking elsewhere, anyway. While The White Headphone is never going to give you chest-thumping, dynamic waves of low-end, instead they have a rather lovely texture when it comes to a believable reproduction of instrumental bass – in particular, bass guitar. Paul’s bassline and Ringo’s kick-drum in ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ is taut, fast and enjoyable.
The White Headphone excels at acoustic guitar, playing them back with utmost transparency and super-realistic texture. It also does vocals bloody nicely too, combining these together nicely on ‘Rocky Racoon’ for an incredibly intimate performance that reveals all buzzes, noises and harmonics on Paul’s fretboard. What’s great about The White Headphone is the feeling it gives you while you’re listening. It both looks and sounds like it’s tuned for 1968, and as a result, it tends to transport you away to another place when you use it to listen to records that are masterfully-mastered in analogue. To me, this is exactly what good audio is supposed to do.
The treble department is super-forward and is the dominant feature of The White Headphone’s overall timbre. Those looking for an even, smooth and laid-back voicing will find them thin-sounding, and probably a little fatiguing. I’m generally pretty ok with hotter tunings and I can say that in this case that I find it pretty refined and tasteful, despite its very lean tilt. There’s no hint of sibilance or grating in the cymbals, solo guitar, and tambourine parts in ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’; but ‘Helter Skelter’ does get a little hard going, but then again it’s a pretty bonkers song (just ask Charlie Manson).
One thing The White Headphone does very well is space, and air. Like other G-Cush enabled Grado models it has genuinely great width and staging and it has terrific separation between instrumental parts as well as a great sense of centre image in ‘Cry Baby Cry’. Switching-out the ‘salad-bowls’ for L-Cush and Sennheiser 414 ‘yellow’ pads does increase perceived bass impact, as well as adding some more body in the lower mid-range, but it does come at the expense of the feeling of ‘vastness’ that the G-Cush helps to deliver. They’re definitely tuned for the larger bowl pads, and I’d recommend keeping them paired that way.
Listening side to side on the twin outputs of my CMA600i amplifier, The White Headphone’s maple stablemate has a richer, more linear midrange and overall warmer signature than The White Headphone. The White Headphone, by comparison, has a slight scoop in the lower mid-range that accentuates its upper treble and makes it sound ever so slightly ‘squawky’ compared to the GH1. The GH1, however, doesn’t have quite the same sense of air and emphasis in the ‘brilliance’ range, making it feel like it has less attack and bite in vocals and instruments.
The metal/mahogany hybrid PS500e has noticeably more bass heft than The White Headphone and a thicker overall tonal mass, which makes for an overall more toe-tapping rendition of ‘Dear Prudence’ than The White Headphone. The White Headphone, however, pulls away from the PS500e in the sound stage and imaging stakes in ‘Wild Honey Pie’. Tonally, The White Headphone delivers a more nuanced, detailed sound whereas the PS500e delivers an overall darker, more smoothed-out performance.
I really dig the idea concept of The White Headphone – a single-minded tribute to a piece of music that defined a point in time, and one that clearly inspired the Grado family. It’s easy to forget that the people behind the engineering are also music fans first and foremost. It’s fun to know that they create their products to help make the music they love sound awesome for themselves first, as well as their customers.
In terms of sound, The White Headphone is classic Grado Labs, yet has enough of a twist in the treble to give it its own particular characteristics. If you’re a lover of acoustic music, classic rock, or anything requiring clarity, transparency and energy, you’ll probably get a buzz out of these. They’re inspired by the sounds of the 60’s, and they’re well suited for pairing with the genres that ruled the airwaves back then. If you’re looking for a thumping bass-line or if you’re after a laid-back, relaxing listen, then you best look elsewhere.
The White Headphone is positioned at an interesting place in the Grado line-up, offering many of the features and sonic characteristics of the Statement series at a lower price point. In terms of looks, well, there’s nothing quite like it – they’re definitely one for the collector. If you like the cosmetic vibe of The White Headphone, or if you suffer from a mild case of Beatlemania, then you might just be swayed to nab them over the other ‘same-same’ models in the Grado line-up. Add them to your Birthday list.