Apparently in Brooklyn, headphones grow on trees.
Jonathan Grado leads the way down into the basement of an old row house in Sunset Park. Owned by his family since 1918, the house is no longer a house – it’s production for Grado Labs, hand-building headphones and phono cartridges since 1953.
In the basement, Jonathan introduces his dad, John Grado, who oversees operations. They point out the machines that create the tiny, technical parts of their headphones and turntable cartridges. Some machines are homemade out of parts like kitchen wall laminate and light switches, built custom to this process.
“The bigger the machine, the smaller the thing it makes,” Jonathan explains.
Jonathan and his family used to live here, with headphone production occupying the lower levels. They’ve since moved, and the house has been fully taken over by the business of sound. Every floor is a different stage of headphone or cartridge production. On the 2nd floor, a few technicians are peering through microscopes and tipping styluses with diamond. Yeah, diamond.
On the 3rd floor is headphone assembly and storage. Jonathan picks up a two-toned wooden pair of headphones, explaining that the first prototype of these was made from a tree that fell down in the neighborhood. A Brooklyn maple. Grado makes several series of headphones out of different materials like mahogany, maple, and metal. Wood gets a smoother, deeper resonance, while metal headphones produce a crisper sound.
There’s one room of the house that still looks like a house – the listening room. With a plush carpet and comfy chairs, the room is made for appreciating the deep quality of the sound. And coming through prototype speakers that Jonathan’s dad designed and built, the sound quality is beyond good. The music sounds like butter.
In this row house on a quiet street in Brooklyn, an innovative, sound-loving family has ridden the waves of the music industry for more than six decades. Founded by Jonathan’s great-uncle Joseph, Grado Labs made 10,000 cartridges a week at the height of turntable use. With the rise of tapes and then CDs, production dropped to 12,000 a year, prompting Jonathan’s father to introduce Grado’s first line of headphones in 1990. Headphones are what Grado is most known for these days, but what about the recent vinyl renaissance? It shows – the Grados made 75,000 cartridges last year.
Jonathan handles Grado’s marketing, social media, and customer service. His photography is stellar, and it tells the story of his family’s headphones from their inception in a basement, through their life as a music lover’s most important accessory, all the way to the tops of mountains. Everything about Grado, from their headphones to their marketing, is family-run and family-made right here in Brooklyn.
Back out on the street in the sunlight, looking at the outside of Grado Labs, there’s nothing to identify it as a hand-crafted headphone factory. It’s just a house. Unless you were looking for it, unless you were listening for it, you would never know it was there.