A while back a reader of this blog (landroni) asked for a review of some affordable Grado headphones. It took 6 months to get around to this review, but here it is, a review of the Alessandro MS-1, the lowest entry point into the Grado universe. In some ways, Alessandro headphones are to Grado a bit like Skodas are to Volkswagens – they’re essentially all made by the same people, but there are some noticeable differences and the Alessandros tend to be slightly cheaper, but that doesn’t mean they’re worse.
I have the MS-1i headphone which is a revision of the original Alessandro MS-1. I’ve never heard the original so I’m just going to review these on their own merits of which there are plenty, not the least of which is the price of admission. At a retail price in Australia of about $139 the MS-1 is extremely hard to match for sheer enjoyment on a budget, but it is probably not an all-genre headphone so it’s important to understand where the MS-1’s strengths lie. Read on to learn more.
- Weight: 198g
- Impedance: 32 ohms
- Sensitivity: 100dB
- Driver: Dynamic
- Frequency response: 20 – 22,000 kHz
- Cable: 2.1m, dual entry, ending in a 3.5mm plug
Design & Build
All Grado headphones have a certain simplicity to their design. They all use a version of the same headband, attachment block and metal slider assembly which is simple and effective, but not very pretty. The plastic cups are attached to the metal sliders (2-3mm thick metal rods) that run through the plastic attachment blocks and allow the cups to slide up / down and also to rotate 360 degrees. The attachment blocks have a slot that receives metal tabs on the end of the headbands metal core and the headband itself is wrapped in faux leather with no real padding.
Yes, it’s pretty rough and ready, but it works and I guess it keeps the price down, but these aren’t headphones you’ll be buying for their aesthetic appeal.
The MS-1s are supplied with flat foam pads which were modified by the person I bought these MS-1s from. The mod involves cutting a small hole in the centre of the foam pad to allow more treble to reach your ears so straight away there are some easy ways to tweak the sound of these ‘phones should you choose and that will hopefully explain the roughness of the hole when you see it in the pictures.
Other than the simple design and basic foam pads, the MS-1s have a really nice cable that’s thick, but not too heavy and can be reterminated for balanced use thanks to its dual-entry design (a separate cable to each cup).
The foam pads keep the MS-1s fairly comfortable on your ears, but extended listening and the lack of a padded headband mean that those like me who have little to no hair on their heads may find extended sessions a little uncomfortable just from the presence of the band against your head. The MS-1s are light enough to exert little pressure, but just the presence can be tiring to the scalp after a reasonable time (2+ hours or so).
The earpads also play a role in the comfort of the MS-1s. With the modified flat foam pads I have, the MS-1s can be a little uncomfortable on the edges of my ears after an hour or two, but it’s nothing major and a short break or even just repositioning the ‘phones fixes it up straight away.
One really nice thing about the MS-1s is they can be driven equally well from a phone, a DAP, a PC, or a fully-fledged desktop setup. I often grab my MS-1s to use when watching videos / movies on my tablet or phone because they’re not fussy – they just give good sound no matter what you connect them to. Their 32 ohm impedance and 100 dB sensitivity makes them highly versatile and easy to drive so they’re a gem in that sense.
There’s really not much more to say about the look or feel of these – they’re light, they’re basic, they’re essentially comfortable and they play well with anything, but let’s look at how do they sound…
The Grado house sound is known for a nice mid-bass kick and forward, sometimes aggressive treble. The Alessandro music series (models with MS in the name) offer a slightly smoother approach and I think they’ve nailed the balance between Grado energy and musical enjoyment.
The MS-1s have a little bit of a kick in the mid-bass, but nothing too major. Overall their bass feels quite neutral, but with a slight lift to bring that extra punch. To my ears the bass emphasis is just right – it doesn’t dominate the sound, but it brings life and energy that’ll have you really enjoying your music and tapping your foot.
Adding a bass boost or a lift via EQ shows that the MS-1s can handle bass and deliver good depth, but they’re not bassy EDM headphones so much as rock and blues headphones. That’s also not to limit them to those genres as they play really well with just about everything – the point is that they’re not bass monsters for those who love deep, thumping beats.
The quality of the bass is equally well done for such a well-priced headphone. While not the last word in bass fidelity, the bass from the MS-1s is tight and punchy enough to be really enjoyable and never leave you feeling like you’re missing anything. No, I think the Alessandro crew got the bass perfectly right for a well-balanced, highly enjoyable budget headphone that lets you thoroughly enjoy any music you choose to put through it.
The mids from the Alessandros follow suit with the typical Grado sound just slightly pulled back. There is a slight emphasis in the upper mids / lower treble area, but not enough to throw the balance off, just enough to bring some bite and edge to guitars and the like. Once again, the tuning of the Grados and Alessandros is all about engaging, energetic music and the mids are exactly that. They’re not creamy and smooth like some phones, but that doesn’t make them unenjoyable or harsh in any way. The MS-1s offer a mid-range which is both energetic and engaging while still very easy to listen to. Guitars have bite, drums have texture and vocals are clear and present.
For some people, the Grado treble is just too much of a good thing and I probably sit in that camp with some of their models, however the slightly tamed treble from the MS-1s means there is no such trouble here. To my ears, the treble rolls off just a little compared to the mid-range lift I discussed above, but there’s no lack of clarity and no sense of veil, it’s just that the treble is a little bit more polite than you might expect from the house of Grado.
Cymbals and percussion still have some shimmer and sparkle about them, but it’s actually hard to get the MS-1s sounding sibilant, even with less-than-average recordings. These are just such an easy-to-enjoy headphone. Of course, the slightly laidback treble may leave some detail freaks looking for more, but if you just want a well-balanced, engaging listen then the MS-1s have the perfect amount of treble in my opinion.
Staging & Imaging
The MS-1s throw a nice soundstage, but nothing epic. The sound is all clearly placed between the ears with a slight forward extension up into the space behind your forehead. The stage doesn’t really feel expansive and there’s a bit of a triangular effect where very little sound comes from the 45 degree angles, but the overall picture is coherent and enjoyable nonetheless.
In terms of imaging and spacing within the stage, the MS-1s aren’t going to wow you with their space and clarity of image, but they also shouldn’t disappoint at the price. Everything is accurately placed and sounds are separated appropriately, but there’s not a lot of space around sounds and the impression is that everything is happening in quite a small space so the instruments and vocalists may sound like there’ll all coming from a pretty small stage and standing in a row all shoulder-to-shoulder.
Remembering that these are a sub-$150 headphone, there is absolutely nothing to complain about with the staging from the MS-1s. Sure, compared to (good) headphones worth $300+ they’re not really going to compete, but they will easily compete with a lot of average and over-priced headphones out there even up to twice the price of the MS-1s. Because the soundstage is nicely coherent, there’s no sense of anything lacking or missing in their overall presentation – I’m describing and discussing them from a perspective where price isn’t considered, but once you include price in the equation there’s absolutely nothing to fault.
I bought the MS-1s a while ago now and I own multiple more expensive, arguably better engineered headphones and yet I reach for the MS-1s time and time again when I need a quick and easy option that’s enjoyable from any source with any music. I particularly like them for listening sessions on the lounge or in bed with my favourite portable rig at the time. As an entry into audiophile headphone territory the MS-1s are hard to beat because they provide a nice level of fidelity with a really enjoyable sense of fun and engagement. If you’re a fan of wide-ranging genres or you focus on rock, blues, country, punk, and other guitar-based genres you can’t go wrong with a pair of MS-1s in your collection. Go get some!