Symphones V8 Drivers and Shipibo Audio Padded Leather Headbands, Wooden Cups, Aluminum Rod Blocks and Aluminum Gimbals for Grado Review

Symphones V8 Drivers and Shipibo Audio Padded Leather Headbands, Wooden Cups, Aluminum Rod Blocks and Aluminum Gimbals for Grado Review

Primary Reviewer: Trav Wilson

COMPANY:

Symphones and Shipibo Audio

COMPANY WEBSITE:

www.symphones.com

www.etsy.com/shop/ShipiboAudio

MODEL:

Symphones V8 drivers
Shipibo Audio Padded Handmade Leather Headbands, Wooden Cups, Aluminum Rod Blocks (Prototype) and Aluminum Gimbals (Prototype)

COST:

Symphones V8 Drivers: $90 USD

Handmade Grado Replacement Headband: $47 USD

Handmade Grado Replacement Headband Wide Comfort: $58 USD

Mahogany Cups: $80 USD

Aluminum Rod Blocks and Gimbals: Classic:  $87 USD.  Slim:  $99 USD.  Or $52 USD for Rod Blocks or Gimbals separate.

TYPE: Grado headphone accessories

 

Introduction to Grado Modifications

Let’s start this review with a discussion of major Grado mods. No other brand of headphone has such an active community of DIY tweakers, modifiers, designers and custom part manufacturers. The abundance of alternative parts and methodologies can, unfortunately, be quite overwhelming for the novice just getting started. Grados are where I began my love of high fidelity headphones, and the DIY modular nature and retro-cool looks still make them one of my favorite brands. From my experience, the modifications that result in the greatest transformations in sound can be listed (in order from most impact to least) as:

(Note I’m purposely overlooking cables as they fall outside the purview of this review and all testing was done with standardized high-quality copper Mogami cables.)

 

  • Driver replacement

Grado has changed their driver design over the years and while the same basic driver is used for multiple models, there are driver differences throughout the current lineup, including closer driver matching on higher-end models. Grado says the diaphragms are put through a special ‘de-stressing’ process in order to enhance detail reproduction at lower volumes. Grados are known for having a ‘house sound’ of warm harmonics, rich vocals, excellent dynamics, and lively highs. Although many models share drivers and or cup construction, there are noticeable performance improvements as you move up the line. The modular design, coupled with the relatively inexpensive Prestige series, has created an unparalleled foundation for the DIY modding community. This has become a business for some, and the manufacture and distribution of high quality replacement drivers, with their own unique sound characteristics, was born. One of the most well known, and greatly lauded, is the Symphones (previously Magnum) line of drivers, now on version 8. Replacing the driver with a non-Grado offering has the greatest change to the sound and defines the character of the headphone.

 

  • Ear pad shape and size

For clarity, stock Grado foam pads can be defined as:

S-Cushion (‘comfy’ or ‘flat’ pad) is stock on the Grado SR60, SR80, and SR125i.
L-Cushion (bowl) is stock on the SR225, SR325, RS1, and RS2.
G-Cushion (bagel or salad bowl) is stock on the GS1000 and PS1000.

Typically (depending on ear size) the S- and L-cushion pads are considered on-ear and the G-cushion pads are over-ear.

The size, shape, and material of the pad changes comfort, head interaction and the distance between driver and ear, impacting perceived soundstage, imaging, positioning, space, and volume. Basically, everything you hear. Supra-aural (on-ear) headphones typically are described as having a more forward, intimate, “close to the stage” sound. However, a downside to drivers being closer to the ear is that it can result in a more congested sound when reproducing complex music.

 

  • Driver modifications

Opening up (poking holes in) the fabric material covering the holes arranged around the rear circumference of the driver increases the quantity of bass that the driver delivers (although perhaps with a corresponding decrease in quality and control). Less is more in my opinion and tread carefully if considering venting your drivers.  The stock Grado line-up has changed over the years and throughout the different models, and varies from no holes to 4 vented holes in their drivers. Modding enthusiasts claim success with anything from 2 to 10 holes vented per driver.

Adding material to dampen resonances to the rear of the metal center of the driver (anything from Dynamat to Blu-Tack or Sugru) is a safe (and a light-handed) tweak.

 

  • Cup material

There are two equally strong and opposite points of view regarding cup material and the impact on sound reproduction (although aren’t there always two passionately differing viewpoints when discussing any hi-fi audio tweak?). The first camp I shall call ‘inert’ group, and they claim that the cups are too solid to vibrate or change the flavor of the sound, regardless of cup material (wood, plastic, metal, etc.). Basically, they assert that if the exact design of cup (shape, thickness etc.) is duplicated, the material used will not make a difference in the perceived sound, that there is simply not enough vibration to create any reverb or interaction with the music reproduction.

Note that it is (more or less) universally accepted that changing the dimension, geometry or driver position in the cup will yield an evident and perceptible (positive or negative) difference in what the user hears.

The second camp is the “tone wood” supporter. Much like a musical instrument, a particular material is selected for its interaction with the driver, in an effort to find a positive synergy, where the final sound produced is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Resonance and reflection of materials are believed to affect the timbre of the music reproduction.

As with most audio tweaks, I believe the difference is noticeable but subtle. As per my list above, I find cup changes to be one of the subtlest of the perceptible Grado sound modifications. This isn’t to say that a change to well made wooden cups isn’t worthwhile. Regardless of the impact on the sound, aesthetically the humble Grado can be transformed into a work of art.

In 1996, John Grado discussed why he started using mahogany for the cups on the Grado Reference Series One headphone. “The idea of using wood just came to me one night,” explained John Grado. “We went through quite a few species of wood before finding this mahogany—which type, we’ll just keep our secret for the moment. When you’re building speakers, you’re supposed to want a dense, really hard wood—well, that’s not mahogany. But it works really well—I don’t always spend a lot of time figuring out why something works; sometimes I’m just satisfied that it does. Maybe the mahogany has a lower resonant frequency, or maybe its resonance just doesn’t emphasize something in my driver—I’m not saying it would work in all cases, but it seems to work well with our driver.”

So what species of wood sounds the best? Common cup materials include cherry, cocobolo, ebony, limba, mahogany, maple, oak, padauk, rosewood, and walnut. Users report anything from improved bass, midrange or treble. Some report changes in soundstage and imaging. Typically reports are positive, although some feel that there are perceptible decreases in the treble with particular woods.  Please take all this as a second-hand impression as I have not had the opportunity to try all these cup types (and certainly not in a controlled test environment) and I personally feel the differences are quite subtle between what I have tried. After changing to wooden cups, the users often report a more woody, earthy, warmer tone. Aluminum or metal cups are often described as bright, tinny, cold or sibilant. Notice anything about those descriptive terms for the sound? They seem to be descriptions of the material itself; perhaps the eyes of the user are impacting what they hear? I digress.

 

Symphones V8 Drivers

I’ll let Rhydon Rayment introduce his company and philosophy: “Since 2010 Symphones has done more than refine an old tradition: we’ve started a new one. By fusing dynamic design with the vivid DIY culture we work to enable a new movement of designer artisans. Symphones empowers DIY builders through our dedication to making the highest quality headphone drivers. To achieve optimal results, our products undergo years of design, testing, and verification, making each driver worth your patience and skill.”

“At Symphones we make headphone drivers by hand using carefully selected materials from local suppliers in Ontario, Canada. Detail is our passion and it’s no secret that even the adhesives used in our drivers are formulated in-house to our exact specification. We want to give our builders the smoothest, most dynamic and pure sound to showcase their designs. Most of all, we want to expand people’s musical tastes and prove that the best headphones don’t always come mass produced.”

The V8 is (unsurprisingly) the 8th revision of the popular “Magnum” driver series.   Gone is the Grado house sound of the Prestige series, and a more refined, natural and smooth sound signature rivaling far more expensive headphones is achieved.

Throughout the revisions, the Symphones’ line-up retained the easy to drive, low (32 Ohm) impedance of Grados, which makes them very portable device friendly and do not require a dedicated amplifier. Symphones’ drivers are known for improved soundstage, clarity, and detail compared to stock drivers. They have better extension on both the high and low frequencies, with the bass hump a little lower in the range. In a (very brief) summary, the V1 driver was similar to the 325is, with some peaks in the midrange and treble with tight bass but rolled off sub bass. The V2-V3 drivers were less bright and peaky, with forward midrange and strong mid-bass with rolled off deep bass making them excel with acoustic music. The V4 was very well liked and often described as more neutral. V5-V6 drivers also featured aluminum sleeves and a livelier treble, flatter impedance curve and greater, resolving bass. The V6 extended a bit further in highs and lows and had a bit of a mid-bass hump (more V-shaped frequency curve) resulting in a fun sound signature, if not especially neutral. The V7 drivers sounded very different than stock Grados with deeper bass and a forward midrange, balanced with an extended high end.

In Rhydon’s words, the “V8 encompasses improvements related to the diaphragm and its motion, damping of resonances, and bass refinements. Sound lovers will note improvements to the upper, mid, and lower registers, both in resolution and control. Drivers are matched to the tightest tolerance of +/- 0.1db.”

In back to back, A-B testing, the V8 is a noticeable improvement over the V7. It is smoother, more balanced and exhibits greater control. The V7 driver could get a bit loose with deep bass tracks and this is essentially resolved with the V8. The midrange steps back a little (compared to the V7’s forwardness) and the overall sound presentation is more balanced and refined. These can be described as having the smoothness of the Sennheiser HD650’s paired with the clarity of a Beyerdynamic DT880.   Note: my favorite headphone pairing is a modified Bottlehead Crack and HD650 – so this is high praise indeed. Prior to this proper amplification combination, I found the HD650’s a bit lifeless or (forgive me) “veiled” for my tastes. The V8 sounds more like this perfect combo, without lugging around the tube amp.

The Symphones V8 sound quality is extraordinarily sweet, clear and neutral. Music comes across in a very transparent manner, with oh-so-smooth midrange and controlled, accurate and deep bass. Vocals are natural in presentation, with no noticeable frequency peaks or rough edges. The texture of complex passages remains clear, separated and detailed with superb imaging. Soundstage is very good for an on-ear headphone, if not quite as wide as the best (albeit much more expensive) headphones – although this may simply be a limiting factor of the supra-aural nature of the Grado design.

 

Shipibo Audio Padded Leather Headbands, Wooden Cups, Aluminum Rod Blocks, and Aluminum Gimbals

Industrial art is thriving right now. In the technology world, Apple’s unqualified successful metal and glass marvels have designs that harken back to the silver-faced stereo gear of the 1970’s. When placed side by side with black plastic alternatives, it’s easy to see what most people will reach for first. Using materials with greater intrinsic value (than plain black plastic) adds worth, and builds emotion and passion for an otherwise utilitarian product. Przemysław (Przem) Nyczaj and Michal Czok (the partnership behind Shibibo Audio) are artists of industrial design, merging traditional elements like wood and metal, and crafting beauty through simplicity, material choice, and design. All Shipibo Audio’s products are 100% made in and shipped from the EU, and the vast majority of their materials are sourced locally.

Shipibo Audio included two headbands for review, one padded slightly thicker than the other (the wide comfort model). Both exhibit top-notch construction, made out of black leather, and are equally attractive and comfortable. They are fabricated from genuine calfskin leather with soft memory foam padding for added comfort. They are sewn together by hand using strong, semi-waxed polyester thread. In Przem’s own words, he addressed the common comfort complaint with Grados, “…because of my sensitive head I couldn’t stand Grado’s stock headbands – especially the new, plastic ones. So I learned how to sew, found comfortable foams and created my padded, leather headbands that to this day I sew and craft entirely by hand – even the foam is cut manually, as well as leather and everything else that’s inside. Then I “met” PS1000e, and it was one of the most uncomfortable headphone experiences I ever had and I realized that what I make isn’t enough – that gave the birth to my wide comfort headbands that are wider, thicker and softer than anything else on the market right now. They might look like an overkill, but a lot of people with sensitive heads like mine greatly appreciate them, as they allow them to enjoy heavier Grado for hours without feelings of pain and discomfort.” The thinner band is ideal for custom builds with feather-light wooden cups (or the traditional Grado plastic) while the thicker band is an excellent match with the heavier metal-bodied SR325.   Especially if you are using the appallingly cheap vinyl headband included on the SR225 and below, replacing it with a Shipibo Audio band is an immense upgrade.

The Shipibo Audio mahogany wooden cups are gorgeous. Full Stop. If you have ever considered wooden cups for your Grados, look no further. They have a smooth, silky semi-gloss finish, that is a pleasure to both look at and to touch. In Przem’s words, they “…are hand turned and polished on the outside, and then finished with oil wax. That enhances the visibility of the wood grain and gives them a rich color with a subtle iridescence effect. We like to try different woods – we made cups from mahogany, zebrano, rosewood, walnut, padauk, bubinga, bog oak, and few more.” The insides of the cups are precisely CNC milled and the drivers fit perfectly in the grooves. I assembled the drivers with a couple wraps of double-sided tape, making them snug and secure, yet easily changed if desired. Of note, the plain black, square-holed grills are glued in place, however, didn’t stand up to a few unsupervised seconds with my 3-year old. Using a small hex key and Gorilla Glue I was able to fairly easily pull and fasten the grill back in place. The cups come pre-drilled with holes (sized as per the individual customer’s request upon ordering) for cables, which I enlarged to 1/4” for 2.5mm sockets upon assembly.

Perhaps most excitingly, Shipibo Audio included prototype versions of aluminum gimbals and rod blocks. Although Przem made it very clear that the production versions will be much improved, I have absolutely no reservations about the fit, finish, utility or design of the prototypes. They unquestionably made the functional beautiful. These eliminate the common complaint of free turning cups that lose your preferred position while annoyingly twisting the cables. They work great, aren’t noticeably heavier than stock, look amazing and fix all my complaints with the Grado units. In other words: perfect.  Przem tells me that most of the next batch of aluminum parts (gimbals and rod blocks) will be treated with plasma electrolytic oxide coatings for high hardness, wear resistance, and corrosion resistance.  If the final versions will be even better than these prototypes… sign me up!

“Rodblocks first. We have regular ones, and slim ones. Regulars have a shape very close to stock, plastic rodblocks, while slim ones are much more condensed and their size is reduced to a minimum to reduce their weight. Both are made from a single block of aluminum and fitted with 3 screws – one screw to firmly mount the headband to them and two pressure screws to control the tightness and smoothness of the rod movement – so the user can customize them to their needs, i.e. this allows to lock the gimbals completely in one position that fits the user best… Also pressure screws have been tipped with rubber to allow smoother rod movement and to prevent it from scratching… We also plan to include spare screws and rubber tips in the package in case they get lost somehow.”

“Gimbals are a similar story – we also have two types, regulars, and slim ones with tabs. Regulars again resemble the original Grado plastic rodblocks, while slims are a design that’s popular among the community. Both are fitted with a threaded rod with a glued cap on top and two screws for mounting and holding the cup in place… Screws we use are headless so once the cups are mounted, they won’t stick out – we find that solution more comfortable and aesthetic, also similar to pressure screws in rodblocks, in gimbals you can also control the tightness of cup movement.”

“Both rodblocks and gimbals are designed and manufactured to last you a lifetime, they are durable, fully serviceable, allow easy mounting and unmounting, and also allow the user to control how their headphones behave in terms of cups and headband movement, so they make user’s headphones more comfortable. They do weight a bit more than stock plastic parts, but I believe the benefits are well worth the extra weight.”

The final assembly has elicited many admiring comments of “stunning”, “classy” and “beautiful”. Perhaps the most unique compliment was that it “…looks like something Philip Glass would wear.” I’m not sure if this is a comment on minimalism, art or coolness, but it is a great compliment.

 

Conclusion

Shipibo Audio has produced products that are an unqualified success, making beauty a priority; they have infused art into supremely functional objects. Married to the superb sounding Symphones V8 drivers, you have a wearable work of art, with a refined sound quality to rival or better any of Grado’s best. Add the satisfaction of DIY, the unique hand-built style, improved comfort, and durability and it just keeps getting better and better. Factor in the relative bargain cost when comparing them with higher end headphones (which the quality of sound certainly compares favourably) and I can only give these my highest recommendation.

I huge thank you to Rhydon Rayment of Symphones and Przem Nyczaj of Shipibo Audio for providing the products covered in this review.

This DIY headphone build is not simply function and utility. It is the very definition of luxury. A Toyota will get you to your destination. It is reliable, forgettable and just like everyone else; it works well but is a generic, soulless experience. However, a Rolls Royce will do it with style, grace and the envy of everyone who sees and hears it. Don’t you owe yourself a little luxury in your life?