Grado's open-back wireless headphones make no sense, but here's why I like them anyway

Open back headphones: Grado GW100x
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

We’ve just reviewed a pair of Grado GW100x headphones and given them the full five stars. Now, that in itself may not appear strange at first. We tend to like what Grado does with its range of exclusively open-back on-ear designs and are even prone to giving the company’s products the odd award.

The difference this time is that the GW100x are open-back and wireless. At £249 / $275 / AU$440 they compete in a market where there are brilliant products from industry titans such as Sony, Bose and Sennheiser. All these rivals sing from the same spec sheet, in that they are wireless, noise-cancelling headphones with slick apps that allow the user to fine-tune the performance to taste. Also, they are all closed-back designs. Every headphone (Grado apart) in this wireless space is closed back, and that makes perfect sense for products of this type.

Wireless over-ear headphones: Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless

Sennheiser's excellent Momentum 4 wireless headphones offer a closed-back design and ANC. (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

These kinds of headphones are mostly used when people are out and about. A closed design by its very nature offers a certain amount of isolation for the listener. Add noise-cancelling to the mix and you have a product that can make the rumble of a train or a bus fade into the background. Such headphones also allow the user to sit right next to another person and play the music loudly without annoying anyone. So, when Grado delivered the original GW100 and subsequent GW100x to the market, we didn’t know what to make of them at first.

The open design does what Grado’s open designs always do, and that is to leak sound like a sieve. They offer no form of isolation from the environment; noise around you intrudes on the experience. Even if noise cancelling were on the menu – and to be clear, it certainly isn’t – commuting with these new Grado headphones would be as restful as a double espresso.

Sit next to anyone using a pair, and even if they are not listening at high levels, you will still be able to hear every note, but in an annoyingly thin and tizzy way that is likely to drive you nuts. Is there an app to customise things? Nope.

Yet, despite all these shortcomings, I can’t help but really like these Grados. They may not be ideal for the situations in which most wireless headphones are, but there are safety benefits to walking around and being totally aware of your environment. That open design is great for not heating up your ears over an extended listening session, as well as avoiding all the structural resonances that are part and parcel of closed-back designs.

Open back headphones: Grado GW100x

The GW100x open-backs are ideal for desktop use. (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

I can see a use for these headphones when you're in a quiet space (especially at home) and the priority is great quality sound coupled with the freedom to move around without cables. You’ll have to make sure you are not around other people, but there are many times that it’s just nice to sit down in a peaceful spot in the house, garden or local park and just listen – to music, to a podcast, to whatever.

Listening, or perhaps more accurately sound quality, is where these Grados rack up the points against all the usual suspects. That open design gives a wonderfully spacious presentation that’s a world away from the slightly claustrophobic feel of the alternatives. 

Just as importantly, these wireless headphones retain the hugely entertaining character we’ve come to love from the brand. We know some find Grado’s traditional sound a little bright and aggressive, but we haven’t found this an issue provided the source component is suitably talented. Given that, these headphones have a delivery full of verve and agility. Dynamics are punchy and detail levels are high. Most of all, these headphones are fun, and that counts for a lot in a market where most tune their products to sound safe rather than interesting.

So, the GW100x aren’t for everyone or even for every occasion. And there probably isn't enough room in the wireless world for more than one pair of this ilk. But given the right set of circumstances, nothing else at this level does better than these Grados.


Closed-back vs open-back headphones: which one is best for you?

Read our Grado GW100x review

John Grado: humble beginnings, why headphones, and finally going wireless

Ketan Bharadia
Technical Editor

Ketan Bharadia is the Technical Editor of What Hi-Fi? He's been been reviewing hi-fi, TV and home cinema equipment for over two decades, and over that time has covered thousands of products. Ketan works across the What Hi-Fi? brand including the website and magazine. His background is based in electronic and mechanical engineering.