Joe Grado (1925–2015)

Hats off and heads down. Let Joe Grado's passing fill our collective hearts with enduring feelings of gratitude (for what Joe brought to the quality and character of the audio industry over six decades) and respect (for his myriad inventions and human fortitude that delivered musical joy and aural insights to countless listeners and audio professionals throughout the world).

Joe Grado was a mechanic, an engineer, an inventor (with scores of patents), an inveterate tinkerer, an artist, an operatic tenor, and an old-school American entrepreneur. Joe Grado and Saul Marantz can legitimately be called the Ben Franklin and George Washington of high-end American audio. Famously, Mr. Franklin invented bifocal glasses and demonstrated the true nature of electricity. Also famously, Joe Grado invented the stereophonic moving-coil cartridge and put countless people in touch with the real pleasures of listening to music with high-quality headphones.

Saul Marantz (aka George Washington) helped Joe Grado get his first job in audio, but very quickly the young Grado set out on his own. Joe founded Grado Labs in 1953. In 1955, he moved the operation into the storefront that was once his father's grocery store.

Joe Grado's Sicilian-born father was the kind of immigrant hero my father always proselytized about. My dad said European immigrants dreamed of coming to America, starting a business, working hard, and eventually, ending up with a modest building with their family name on the facade. Well, that is exactly what the Grado clan did. Except! 60 years later, Grado Labs is still in the same modest Brooklyn building (below) but out front, there has never been a 'Grado' sign of any kind—only just graffiti!

Joe and his wife started out building cartridges by hand on the kitchen table. Then Joe and his nephew John (who joined the company in 1965 and bought the company in 1990 when Joe retired) continued to build cartridges by hand. In 1977, Joe and John and their modest team of craftspeople were hand making 10,000 cartridges per week!

IIt should be noted that after building moving-coil cartridges during the early 1950s, Joe didn't chose to ride that invention for fame or profit. Instead, he rejected that technology and built his brand and reputation on the virtues and musicality of higher-output moving-iron designs.

While building his iconic business, Joe never lost touch with his love of art and his identity as an artist. He made paintings and, in May of 1981, Joe Grado made his debut as a dramatic tenor performing a program of all-Italian songs at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. Bravo Joe! Bravo!

Grado Labs started hand-making headphones in 1989. Over the course of the 1990s Grado headphones developed a reputation as natural-sounding, fun-loving, "rock-and-roll" headphones to be enjoyed, not just as professional recording tools or as "shush, the kids are asleep!" compromises—but as a full-satisfaction alternative to conventional loudspeakers. This was huge, and a major contribution to the powerful emergence of headphones in the youth and high-end audio markets of today.

I have bought countless Grado cartridges. And always used Grado headphones. Their original HP-1 "Professional Recording Monitor" 'phones were beyond beautiful, extremely expensive (at $595 in 1991) and today fetch as much on eBay as the most exotic new high-end models. It is impossible to say exactly how big Joe Grado’s influence was on the history of audio, but to me, he was a venerable giant.

Of course Joe's passing makes me sad—but even more, it makes me grateful for all the joy and inspiration his work and invention has given me.

Speaking for everyone at Stereophile, I offer our respectful and heartfelt condolences to the entire Grado family as well as the dedicated league of Grado workers, craft persons and family friends. Joe Grado was unquestionably of one audio's founding fathers and his passing marks the end of a glorious era. Thank you Joe—you shall not be forgotten.

BogdanR's picture

My SR125 pair is even more cherished now.
Everyone in my household has a pair of Grados.
Thank you Mr.Grado, may God rest your Soul!

dalethorn's picture

I managed to snag Amazon's last $23 copy of Mr. Grado's operatic CD, and also purchased "Solid Brass, Gershwin to Sousa" - the latter a binaural audiophile recording personally made by Grado. A sad day for the Grado family, but now a few music fans here will discover a 'new' musical artist.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Just to fill in the picture a bit, Joe also marketed the original Grado Laboratory arm, a wooden unipivot, at the same time as the early (and extinct mc cartridges) and it was long time popular match with the Thorens TD-124 and other TTs. For a very brief while, it was available with the unique Grado Laboratory belt-drive turntables which used multiple motors to drive the platter system that included an internal high-mass platter as well as the external one on which the disc was placed.

There was, also, a still later Grado Signature Laboratory arm which was also well-received.

bdiament's picture

I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Grado when I worked at Atlantic Studios and he came up one day to work with one of my mastering heroes, George Piros. I'd been using one of his phono cartridges in my system at home and was thrilled to meet him in person.

What a great experience it was for me, a young audiophile who had been a pro engineer for less than a decade at the time, to be in George's mastering room with two of my audio heroes. It will always remain one of my greatest audio memories.

Sincerest condolences to the Grado family and to the larger family of audio enthusiasts who have benefited from Mr. Grado's work.

Best regards,
Barry Diament

Tom D. Collins's picture

I recently purchases a Grado ME+ mono cart for a very un-audiophile price partly from the review of same by H. Reicart. I really love the cart. and it was probably one of Joe's designs. Thanks Mr. Grado.

olc's picture

Here's how I remember Joe Grado. In the 70s I got a Grado cartridge that had a problem so I called the phone number for the company. A nice lady answered to phone and when I explained I needed to talk to someone about my issue, she told me that Joe was at the grocery store but could call me back when he returned. He did.

dalethorn's picture

Apparently this was the first Amazon review....

Robert Deutsch's picture

At one of the Stereophile shows--it may have been ten years ago--there was an event scheduled of Joe Grado singing. I went to it with great anticipation, but unfortunately Mr. Grado was vocally indisposed, and did not sing. However, he played a recording of his singing, and I was blown away by it. He sounded like the real thing: a world-class dramatic tenor. If circumstances had been different, and he had decided to pursue a career in opera, I'm sure he would have been very successful.
I was going to order the CD you refer to from Amazon, but the only available copy now sells for $195. Perhaps you could post an excerpt on YouTube--I'm sure Joe wouldn't mind.

dalethorn's picture

Youtube paste-up:

dalethorn's picture

My post with the youtube link wouldn't post here after 2 tries with my MBP Retina, so I tried with the iPad and it posted OK. The Capcha's were clear enough, so it couldn't have been that.

A note about the sound: I ripped the CD to bit-perfect WAV files with Foobar 2000 and also with Windows Media Player, and those as well as the CD seem strained with some distortion on dynamic peaks in the voice. Still, I thought it was clean enough for a full appreciation of the voice.

Robert Deutsch's picture

He sounds great! Thanks for posting this.

dalethorn's picture

It turned out to be an interesting little exercise. After it posted, I did a youtube search for Vesti la Giubba, and commenced listening to the different artists performing it. Some were new discoveries for me (Roberto Alagna), and some were, umm, amazing in a way (Michael Bolton).

Robert Deutsch's picture

I have to hand it to Michael Bolton for giving it the old college try, even if he doesn't have the voice or the technique for this material. (He's not as bad as Paul Potts in the rehearsal footage on YouTube.) I think the best renditions are by Mario del Monaco, Richard Tucker, Mario Lanza, Jonas Kaufmann (and Caruso, of course). Joe Grado is in this league.

dalethorn's picture

I do tend to favor the Caruso colors mostly, however, while I was disappointed in the Domingo clip I watched, I was very favorably impressed with one of the Pavarotti performances. He's just so big .... and the voice seems like it would go on forever. Ironic that BBC Music picked Domingo as their greatest recorded tenor, passing even Caruso. Another of those British slights? I dunno.

Edit: This has probably gone on too long already, but for anyone who needs a good laugh….

mhardy6647's picture

An incredible man who brought so much to the hifi hobby. I first heard a Grado cartridge ca. 1977 and bought my first (an F-1+, which I still have) shortly thereafter.

As implied in the news item above, Joe Grado was perhaps the last of the great (postwar) hifi pioneers. His death marks the end of an era.