If you’re a fan of high-end headphones, then you probably have a fairly entrenched idea in your mind when the name “Grado” is mentioned: WW2 radio operator-style aesthetics, open-back design, and a pair of firmly connected bulky cables connected to each ear-cup. Having been around since 1953, three subsequent generations of the Grado family have stuck to a fairly tried-and-tested formula of creating hand-built, ear-tuned headphones that don’t tend to change all that much. So when they launched their first cable-free headphone back in 2018 - the GW100 - it was about as revolutionary as things go when it comes to products that come out of Grado’s Brooklyn NY factory.
And not only was the GW100 revolutionary in terms of being a Bluetooth and cable-free headphone from Grado (ok, you can still use a cable if you like), it was also something the world hadn’t really asked for up until that point: a wireless open-back headphone. When you think of “Bluetooth headphones”, most people would envisage something designed for portable use that keeps the outside world firmly outside. But then again, Grado Labs has never been one to follow mass-market trends. The GW100 has since been joined by a couple of wireless open-back competitors from HIFIMAN - namely the HIFIMAN ANANDA Bluetooth Planar Magnetic Headphones and HIFIMAN DEVA Pro Wireless Planar Magnetic Headphones, but Grado can certainly claim to be the first out the gates for this incredibly niche, but also incredibly fascinating style of headphone.
The third time’s the charm
Innovation moves much faster in the wireless world - just take a look at the incrementally-improved headphones that are released from the Sonys and Boses of the world just about every year or so. It’s pleasing to see that Grado has continued to evolve the GW100 to keep up with the latest Bluetooth technology and consumer demands with what is now its third iteration, the brand-new Grado GW100x Wireless Series Open Headphones which are available now for $469. The overall design hasn’t really changed that much since the launch of the original GW100, but underneath the skin there’s plenty that’s new - if you’ve been on the fence about diving into the world of wireless Grados, the new GW100x might be enough to tip your hand, because there’s some significant improvements made over the previous two generations that we’d better take a look at.
Like its naming convention implies, the new GW100x receives a brand-new pair of Grado’s “x”-series drivers. Grado hasn’t said explicitly whether these new 44-mm drivers are identical to those used in any of their wired headphones, but do say that they have been specifically tuned for the wireless implementation in the new GW100x, with “...a more powerful magnetic circuit, decreased effective mass, and a reconfigured diaphragm”. The GW100x drivers have an impedance of 38-ohms and a reasonably high sensitivity-rating of 99.8dB, which means that if you choose to use them in wired mode using the (supplied) 3.4mm cable they won’t need much by way of power.
The other main physical change over the original GW100 is the move away from a micro-USB charging cable, with the new GW100x (thankfully) adopting a more common USB-C connection. Speaking of charging, the GW100x has a markedly improved battery life thanks to its larger 850mAh battery - up to 46 hours (when played at +/- 50% volume) versus the somewhat lean 16 hours of the “OG” GW100. Being able to playback for almost two whole days’ worth of music/audio is a pretty compelling feature - if you’re planning on using your new GW100x sporadically, you might only need to give them a top-up once a week (which takes approximately 2 hours)!
Grado has made some changes under the hood as well when it comes to the GW100x’s wireless capabilities. It uses the far more modern Bluetooth 5.2 standard, and is compatible with the aptX Adaptive, AAC, and SBC wireless codecs. The GW100x now features multipoint pairing, meaning you can connect with two devices at once. So, if you’re watching a movie on your smart TV and don’t want to miss a phone call, you can manage both at once on the GW100x without even needing to take them off.
Grado GW100x unboxing and accessories
While the GW100x might be a little more radical than other Grado headphones in terms of its digital/wireless capabilities, it still very much receives the classic Grado treatment when it comes to packaging. The GW100x is shipped in the familiar white cardboard “pizza box” that houses pretty much every other Grado headphone, with the headphones themselves housed securely within cutout foam.
In terms of accessories, it’s a pretty minimal yet entirely appropriate affair: you receive a brief yet useful user manual, a USB-C charging cable (but no wall charger), and a one-metre 3.5mm to 3.5mm analogue cable should you wish to use the GW100x as a traditional wired headphone.
Seeing as they’re a little more “mobile”-oriented than your standard Grado headphone, in that you won’t need to lug around a source device and deal with a permanently attached cable, if you end up with a pair of GW100x you’re probably going to want to take them out and about with you. This being the case, you’re probably going to need to find yourself some kind of protective case for the GW100x. Despite being well put-together, the GW100x is a very lightweight pair of headphones, and you’re not going to want to subject them to abuse inside your carry-on luggage or work bag.
Grado GW100x build and design
At a first glance, the GW100x is extremely reminiscent of the entry-level models in Grado’s “Prestige” series headphones - the SR60x, SR80x, and SR125x, sharing the same basic layout, material and configuration. The GW100x, in its simplest form, is a lightweight pair of open-backed headphones made from round plastic cups and a simple synthetic-covered padded headband, which are joined together via simple plastic gimbals and height-adjustable metal rods.
What separates the GW100x from (nearly all) other wireless headphones is its fully open-back design. The rear of each cup features a vented plastic cover which allows air to freely flow inward, and outward. The benefit (as you no doubt already know) of open-back headphones is that sound waves aren’t reflected inside the back of the cups, creating a more spacious and realistic-sounding presentation. The obvious draw-backs (which, may not be a draw-backs at all, depending on your circumstances and preferences) of this design is that you’ll have no isolation from the outside world whatsoever. Nada. Wearing the GW100x is almost like wearing no headphones at all - you’ll hear absolutely everything going on around you.
The other feature of open-back headphones is that sound will (naturally) leak outside of the cups. Now, on most open-back headphones, including all Grado headphones, anyone in your immediate vicinity will be able to hear what you’re listening to…which is not always something that your neighbours will enjoy. Grado went to lengths to engineer the GW100x to reduce the amount of sound leakage from the cups, and they claim they’ve been able to mitigate leakage by up to 60%. A quick test of this on the couch next to my wife proved that my music was still very much audible, but by a far lower degree than any other open-backed headphone that I have on-hand at home.
The GW100’s are made from a simple but nice-feeling matte black plastic, which helps them to achieve their extraordinarily low weight (as full-sized headphones go). The gimbal system is a little different to other Grado cans - rather than being freely rotating, they only rotate 100 degrees or so. The GW100x can lie “flat” to make storing and transporting them a little easier, yet stop swivelling a little past the perpendicular position on your ears. I imagine this was done to prevent the twisting of the single cable that joins the ear-cups together, which travels through small holes in each gimbal and underneath the GW100x’s headband. Despite the limited articulation of the GW100x’s gimbals, there’s plenty of adjustment room in every direction and I think they ought to be a pretty comfortable fit for just about any size/shape head.
Like all Grado headphones, the GW100x features easily-removable foam ear cushions. In this case the designation for the pads is known as the “WS Cushion”, and is actually shaped a little differently to other Grado pads. The driver side of each ear-cup features a plastic “lip” that makes them wider than other Grados, and so you won’t be able to swap-out the stock cushions for other versions (at least for now). The pads themselves rest completely flat against your ear and cover the entire driver face, making them necessarily an “on-ear” headphone. Out of the box, the GW100x has a little more clamp-force than what I’ve come to expect from Grado headphones - no doubt done to keep them secure should you choose to get a little more active with them when listening al fresco. I did find for the first couple of days that the GW100x created a little pressure and soreness on the outside of my ears, but this did go away after a couple of days of listening as the clamp-force became gradually relaxed, but still left them nice and secure on the top of my head. The headband is only lightly padded, but it’s more than ample seeing as the pads themselves take care of the weight distribution and grip on your head.
All Grado headphones (save some of the larger metal ones like the PS1000e/PS2000e) are bantam-weight as headphones go, but it’s the lack of a permanently-attached captive cable that makes the GW100x feel even more lightweight. I was able to freely move my head around while I was wearing them, and at times I genuinely forgot that I was wearing them at all due to their open-air design and lack of heft.
Grado GW100x user experience
Being (primarily) a wireless headphone, the GW100x is equipped with a simple, yet entirely effective series of on-board controls on the bottom of the left ear-cup. The GW100x is powered-on/off via a long press of the power button, which creates a friendly musical tone plus a female voice telling you that the power is either on or off. The power button also manages play/pause with a quick press, and also answers/hangs-ups phone calls. Oh yeah - being a wireless headphone, the GW100x will happily work as a multimedia productivity tool when it comes to phone/video calls thanks to its in-built microphone, which worked great according to people on the other end of the line. In fact, I really enjoy the GW100x for phone calls, because its open-air design means that you can actually hear your own voice naturally and you don’t end up shouting like you would with a pair of closed-back noise-cancelling headphones. There’s even facilities to use your smartphone’s smart assistant, which can be summoned via a double-press of the power button.
Two simple volume rockers manage volume up and down when given a short press, and will advance tracks forward and backward respectively via a long press of either. Below the volume buttons is a single 3.5mm female jack for plugging in the GW100x as a simple pair of wired headphones. Unlike some modern headphones, the GW100x doesn’t need to be charged or powered on to use them passively, and will actually switch off entirely if the cable is inserted. What’s great about this, is that you can have yourself a great pair of passive Grados without needing to have permanently-attached cables - simply add any old 3.5mm aux cable, and you can plug them into your phone, laptop, DAP, or even your fancy headphone amp and use them to your heart’s content like a traditional pair of headphones.
The GW100x’s USB-C charging port is tucked away underneath a removable rubber cover, which you simply pop out when you need to give them a charge. When I first took them out of the box, my review pair had 80% of charge in them (according to my Pixel), and it took me the best part of a week’s worth of sporadic listening to get this level below 50%. I didn’t have the time nor inclination to give them a proper battery torture-test, but I reckon Grado’s claim of a 46 hours of listening time off a full charge isn’t far off the mark.
Grado rates the GW100x’s effective wireless distance from the source transmission at 10 metres, but I can confirm that this is a definite understatement - with my Pixel phone left at once of the green at my lawn bowls club, I was able to enjoy a few tunes while I rolled across the entire green (some 30+ metres away from my phone) without a single dropout or stutter. The GW100x is ready to pair right out of the box the moment you turn it on - the female assistant voice inside will tell you that it's ready for “pairing”. Simply hit “GW100x” on the list of visible Bluetooth devices on your source device, and you’re good to go. With my phone’s Bluetooth turned off, I then connected the GW100x to my Astell&Kern SE200 DAP (which confirmed that it was using an “aptX HD” connection) to enjoy listening to the 500Gb or so’s worth of lossless music that I have stored on there. I switched the Bluetooth on my Pixel back on, and voila - I was indeed connected to both simultaneously.
I could understand why you might scratch your head and ask yourself why, and when you might need a pair of wireless open-back headphones, and I get it. But I can unequivocally say that the GW100x immediately become perhaps the most useful pair of headphones that I’ve ever had in my collection - let me explain why. There’s the fact that they sound great, for starters (which I’ll elaborate on later), but other things being equal I’ll nearly always opt for an open-back pair of headphones over a closed-back one. Up until now I’ve never really thought about the practicalities of a pair of portable open-back headphones, but in daily use the GW100x proved to be an extremely versatile and thoroughly enjoyable pair of cans to live with.
I tend to do most of my listening sitting down in front of a screen at my desk, and for the most part this usually means being tethered to a headphone amplifier and DAC via a physical cable. Having a proper pair of audiophile headphone on my head, minus the cable, means that you have the freedom to stand up, walk around, and not have to worry about having them yanked off your head. And thanks to their great range, I was able to walk around every inch of my home without having one single dropout - now that is pretty awesome. And when the inevitable phone call would happen during a listening session I wouldn’t have to turn off my music and take them off - you simply hit the power button and start talking.
The other great aspect of open-back headphones is that they offer you a degree of “situational awareness” while wearing them. Expecting a knock at the door from a courier company? Have your other half calling out to you from another room? No problem at all if you’re listening via the GW100x. Sure, they won’t block out the noise of a jackhammer next door, but I genuinely find their benefits actually outweigh their negatives and I find that I have far more use for the GW100x than I would with a pair of closed-back noise-cancelling headphones.
The use cases for the GW100x don’t end at the front door - I also wore them while out walking and exercising outside the house. Their open-air nature gives you a degree of connection with the outside world, which is something that I don’t always want to block out. It was nice to be able to enjoy an album or two while out on a walk while still being able to hear the chirp of birds and waves crashing up against the beach. It also goes without saying that they’re far safer than IEMs or ANC headphones when it comes to crossing the road!
I also think that the GW100x could be a contender for being the ultimate office headphones. You can jump between enjoying playlists, answering phone calls, and hopping on Zoom calls, and if someone comes past your desk, all you’d need to do is pause your audio and have a conversation - all without having to take them off your head. And unless someone is sitting immediately next to you, there’s little chance of anyone else having to listen-in on what you’re listening to.
Listening to the Grado GW100x
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the GW100x is probably the best-tuned and most balanced-sounding headphone in the Grado line-up - and that’s saying something, because I’m a card-carrying Grado-phile. Sure, they don’t have the raw detail retrieval capabilities of the wooden Reference or Statement-series headphones, but I think that top-to-bottom they’ll have far more immediate appeal to those who’ve not encountered Grados in the past, or have found them to be too playful in the upper mids and treble. And I suspect that the GW100x’s tuning is assisted with a dollop of digital signal processing (DSP) underneath the hood, because there’s a noticeable difference between listening to them in wireless and wired modes.
I’ll talk about their wireless performance first-up, because that’s the primary intent behind the GW100x, and how most users will enjoy using them. If you’re comparing them to any other pair of wireless headphone on the market, the GW100x is streets ahead in terms of immersion and enjoyment, and that’s simply by virtue of the fact that they’re open-backed headphones. As good as the Focal Bathys is in terms of its technical abilities plus its noise-cancelling smarts, I’d reach for the GW100x every time. Why? Because when listening to a well-produced album like The Smile’s A Light for Attracting Attention there’s simply more space between notes, more upper air, and it’s an altogether more speaker-like presentation. Now I know I’m describing the benefits of open-back headphones and the characteristics of most Grado headphones here more generally, but to have this in an affordable, lightweight and wireless device is nothing short of revelatory.
From the first bars of Audioslave’s Show Me How To Live, it’s clear that the GW100x is most certainly a Grado - it has a lively and airy presentation that definitely on the leaner side when it comes to bass slam and rumble (with noticeably less bass heft than the SR325x and Hemp Headphones), but has all the mid-range excitement and treble sparkle that you’d expect to find in one of Brooklyn’s finest. However, it’s a slightly tamer sound when listening to the GW100x wirelessly - there’s less upper mid-range urgency and treble “shout” than what you’d find from an SR80x. Instead, it’s a more linear and even-handed presentation that just so happens to make the GW100x eminently listenable, and a great all-rounder that I suspect will become many people’s favourite Grado.
The GW100x has all the hallmark Grado characteristics when it comes to delivering dynamic punch and out-and-out excitement. Listening to System Of A Down’s famously brash Chop Suey!, the GW100x delivers chugging electric guitar energy by the bucket-load, and while not as strident or airy in the treble department compared to Grados of yore, there’s still plenty of crisp bite in cymbal and snare hits - these are a killer pair of rock ‘n roll headphones.
Plug in the GW100x into a decent source - whether it’s a DAP, dongle, or discrete headphone amplifier, and the GW100x will deliver a performance that will pretty much match any pair of Grado headphones short of the aluminium-bodied SR325x in terms of technicalities and tuning. Voicing-wise, it’s probably closest to the SR80x, which still stand out for me as being a bona fide hifi bargain. Add the wireless capabilities of the GW100x into the mix, and that makes it a bona fide wireless hifi bargain. Compared to playing it in wireless mode, there’s a little more bass heft and weight in The Good in Goodbye, from the latest Smashing Pumpkin’s album ATUM. There’s also a degree more upper mids/lower treble energy when it comes to the forwardness of Billy Corgan’s signature snarl, and there’s also more extension and definition in the highest octave. That may be partially due to the fact that I was using a quality DAC and amp in the form of Schiit’s Bifrost 2 and Jotunheim 2, and therefore not limiting myself in terms of the information that can be relayed via aptX Bluetooth, but the GW100x has a noticeable difference in terms of resolving ability as well having as a more classic “Grado” voicing when you plug it in. I’m not talking worlds apart here, mind you. Other things being equal, I’d prefer its sound quality when paired with a great external source, but things aren’t equal when you factor in the freedom of using them wirelessly. I’d use them wirelessly any day of the week by virtue of the fact that you’re free of wires altogether, plus their DSP-assisted voicing just so happens to sound excellent.
As a punter, I’ve personally been close to jumping on a pair of GW100s over the past couple of years, but the battery life, micro-USB and Bluetooth codecs were probably the things that prevented me from doing so. The new additions that the GW100x brings to the table, as far as I’m concerned, have nearly perfected the original concept - a pair of affordable, lightweight, and wireless open-back headphones.
I get to experience all sorts of great headphones in my role as an audio reviewer, but the GW100x is the sort of headphone that I reckon that will simply make you want to listen to music more often, no matter where you are. And for that reason, I reckon they can easily make an incremental improvement to any headphone collection. In terms of their well-balanced and exciting sound, simple yet bullet-proof user experience, plus their incredible versatility, I reckon the GW100x is a stone-cold hifi bargain and represents awesome value for money. I can’t wait to see where Grado goes next with their wireless technology.