Editor’s Note: Both the Ortofon e-Q8 and Grado GR10e were personal purchases by shotgunshane.
There’s nothing quite like a loud, stadium filling, uproarious rock anthem. Growing up in the 70’s and coming of age in the 80’s, I regarded rock as a staple, if not a way of life: AC/DC, Van Halen, Kiss, Journey, Bad Company, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bon Jovi, and the list goes on and on…
Oh, how I miss the age of the arena rock star, but I digress! Having grown up in the era of guitar-driven rock, metal, glam and southern rawk — I always pay close attention to distortion guitar tone, crunch, and bite when evaluating in-ears and headphones.
To my dismay, many in-ears take a relaxing and laid-back approach to music reproduction. The phones will often be described as having a ‘scoop’ in the upper mid-range and/or recessed lower treble, making for a ’fatigue free’ presentation. Unfortunately, this fatigue-free approach leads to uninspiring and smoothed-over distortion guitars, effectively neutering the testosterone-filled library of rock music at my disposal.
Where is the attack? The penetrating leading edge of power chords? The soaring air of a dueling axes?
Enter the single armature e-Q8 and GR10e — quite possibly the best two choices for IEMs in universal form to quench my lust for guitar driven rock.
Design, Functionality and Accessories: Ortofon e-Q8
Ortofon’s e-Q8 seems to be a Japan-only release but can be purchased from specialty importers like Musica Acoustics, which will also provide warranty coverage. The current going rate is close to $350 (link).
Ortofon describes its single moving armature as a ‘pure silver-coil drum’. Impedance is listed at a significantly low 12 Ω at 1 kHz, but independent measurements have shown impedance dipping as low as 8 Ω in bass, making the e-Q8 fairly difficult to drive properly if not supplied with enough current.
Surprisingly, the iPhone 5s drives the E-Q8 better than the venerable Astell&Kern AK240, which struggled to drive the E-Q8 properly, losing significant bass presence and texture. Adding a less than 1 Ω output impedance portable amplifier further improves bass response, making it quite linear, full, and extended.
Ortofon only offers the e-Q8 in a silver and white color scheme. The housings are an elegant silver with white rubber strain reliefs. The shape and design is quite functional and comfortable, if a bit on the larger side. The cable, unfortunately, is also white, which is worrisome when it comes to dirt and grunge.
Above the Y split is a thin-ish, rubbery finish and below the Y-split is a textile type sleeving terminated in a white, right angle plug. The cable is missing a neck cinch above the Y-split, once again making me question why any in-ear monitor is ever made without cinch. To compensate, I simply twist the left and right sides a couple of times, which usually does the trick, in lieu of the simplest, but more important in-ear design cues often overlooked.
The e-Q8 can be worn down or over the ear; I choose over the ear for more secure fit and minimal microphonics.
Along with a nice looking silver carrying case, replacement filters and changing tool, are the fabulous Ortofon tips. These are absolutely my favorite tips to try on all universal in-ears; they far exceed most other brands’ in the combination of comfort and sound quality. The e-Q8 comes with three pairs – small, medium, and large. Between the shape of the housings and suppleness of the tips, the e-Q8 is one of the more comfortable universals out there.
Design, Functionality and Accessories: Grado GR10e
The Grado in-ear housings are possibly the most comfortable housing my ears have been blessed to use.
The Grado GR10e also uses a single moving armature, just not one of the ‘pure silver coil drum’ variety (both Ortofon and Grado use the same OEM, Yashima Electric, for their in-ears). However, the GR10e is much easier to drive in comparison to the e-Q8. Its rated impedance is more in line with the industry average at 32 Ω, making it more suitable to use across a wider range of DAPs. Regardless of current requirements, both get plenty loud with the average smartphone.
The Grado in-ear housings are possibly the most comfortable housing my ears have been blessed to use. They are absolutely tiny and completely disappear in the ear. Unfortunately, this means they can also be difficult to remove without accidentally pulling on the cable itself. And the strain relief isn’t exactly inspiring, so I’d advise caution on removal technique.
The GR10e is a revision, not a completely new product. The biggest difference between the GR10e and the previous ‘non-e’ generation GR10, besides the aesthetic change from a silver ring and nozzle color to bronze ring and nozzle color, is the implementation of a pinhole vent located on the underside of the housing near the strain relief. The vent seems to be where the ‘e’ derives its increased bass presence and extension. (Editor’s Addendum: Some of the later ‘non-e’ models, circa 2014, quietly have had the pinhole vent modification, though it’s unclear whether the unannounced change is a functional one.)
Unlike the e-Q8, the Grado’s cable is all-black and does have the useful neck cinch. However, the Grado cable is pretty stiff and springy, making it somewhat troublesome when storing. I often had to spend time untangling it before each usage. The GR10e cable is similarly a little on the thin side and terminated in a straight plug, rather than the right angle of the e-Q8. Both in-ears’ plugs should easily fit most smartphone cases.
Accessories and packaging are sparse and plain with the GR10e. Grado supplies the same great Ortofon tips (or should we say Grado tips, in this case), as well as replacement filters and a changing tool, but conspicuously there is no carrying case included. I find it surprising that a $399 in-ear doesn’t come with a carrying case.
However, quibbles with the springy cable and missing carrying case aside, the GR10e is the most comfortable in-ear experience I’ve had.
Sound – Ortofon E-Q8 vs Grado GR10e
Where is the attack? The penetrating leading edge of power chords? The soaring air of a dueling axes?
A quick, down and dirty summary of each:
The e-Q8 could be described as being relatively flat in frequency response. Its bass is linear when properly driven and mids are flat to slightly forward in upper midrange, with downward sloping, smooth treble. On the other hand, I would describe the GR10e as being very slightly V-shaped with slightly up-tipped bass and treble sparkle.
The bass of the GR10e is warmer, slightly bloomier, with softer edges next to the tighter, more taught bass of the e-Q8. Both have very good texture, but the GR10e‘s more boosted bass pushes texturing more to the front.
Neither should be considered bass forward presentations and are closer to neutral quantities than not. If driven from less than 1 Ω amplification with good current reserves, the e-Q8 bass is fabulously textured and linear. The GR10e is friendlier to more varying sources and maintains its fun, slightly boosted bass presentation.
While the GR10e’s upper midrange is slightly behind the bass and treble, it still packs a lot of distortion guitar crunch and bite that Grado is known for. By direct comparison, the e-Q8’s upper midrange is slightly forward in presentation, so distortion guitars have even more energy, raising the bar a notch or two above the GR10e.
When it comes to vocals, the e-Q8 present them with effortless transparency; female vocals seem to soar with raw emotion. GR10e‘s vocals are more laid back, full-bodied, with a hint of smoothness. The fuller lower midrange of the GR10e lends itself to a more intimate vocal performance.
The GR10e treble has a lot of sparkle and shimmer with occasional resonance and grain, along with extended decay. The e-Q8 treble, while having similar extension and overall presence, has less sparkle, less decay and comes across being more smoother and more refined, if a bit more laid-back in comparison. Treble with both have realistic weight, with the GR10e having just a bit more weight, while the e-Q8 treble possesses more of a sense of air and space around treble notes.
The GR10e staging is much more intimate in width than the e-Q8, which sounds a lot more open and airy, yet at the same time much more upfront than the GR10e. The e-Q8 is quite a head-filling experience, more so than many multi-BA based in-ears. Both have better than average height, but the e-Q8 edges out the GR10e in this dimension. The GR10e makes up for it by having a little better overall depth and putting a little more distance from the performance.
Grado GR10e vs. GR8e
As the GR10e’s little brother, the GR8e comes across as a less intimate, less refined, but no less capable rocker. Its edgy, but airier presentation is the epitome of raucous fun.
GR10e has a bit more deep bass emphasis and subsequently more rumble over the GR8e, which in comparison has a harder edged mid-bass punch for more a more contrasty bottom end. The GR10e’s greater emphasis on deep bass gives it a bit better low bass texture but at times can sound a bit bloomy in comparison. In contrast, the GR8e’s slightly leaner bass seems better balanced with the rest of spectrum, although it too is somewhat boosted. The GR8e as a consequence has less warmth throughout and a leaner overall note.
The GR10e’s thicker note extends up into the lower midrange, giving vocals a fuller, warmer and smoother sound; However, the GR10e does take a small dip to the upper mids, right before its lower treble peak. This dip gives the overall feeling of a very slight V-shaped response but vocals do not feel recessed, rather just ever so slightly behind the fuller bass response. Even with the dip in upper mids, the GR10e still maintain Grado levels of distortion guitar crunch and bite.
Whereas the GR8’s midrange seems even further back than it is on the GR10e, it feels more linear overall from lower to upper midrange, lending it more of an U-shaped signature. With more balance between lower and upper mids, the GR8e, while sounding leaner to its sibling, has greater attack with distortion guitars; snares have a crisper, harder snap. Overall, it sounds a good bit edgier and less refined.
Treble on the GR8e sounds brighter than the GR10e, while extension seems pretty similar between the two models. Both have similarly placed peaks, but the peak is slightly lower in the GR8e. Also both models display a bit of treble resonance around this peak that extends decay a little longer than normal, thus decreasing articulation somewhat. The resonance seems broader and more exaggerated in the GR8e. Neither treble presentation should be considered analytical, if perhaps a little forward with the GR8e, which again sounds less refined and edgier in comparison.
When it comes to soundstage, or head stage, neither is exactly big. Both Grado models present enveloping, but intimate staging properties. Both excel at depth with the edge to the GR10e, and both are a little above average in height. The GR8e, with its leaner note and brighter treble, seems a little wider and further away than the more intimate and personal GR10e. Both are quite capable of projecting a believable image within their independent stages.
Ortofon e-Q8 vs. e-Q5
Ortofon’s previous flagship’s overall sound embodies a quick and airy note that is on the moderately thin side, especially compared to the e-Q8. Clarity, with a slight analytical edge, is the primary descriptor that comes to mind.
Due to the thinner midrange of the e-Q5, its mid bass is much more obvious, lending to a more present bass line and punch. However, the e-Q8 sounds more linear, more even, with better extension and much better rumble in bass. Bass textures on both are fantastic, but the e-Q8 kicks are tighter and more realistic sounding.
The e-Q8 note is thicker; vocals are more forward and richer in tone and depth. The more forward upper midrange of the e-Q8 lends to better separation of the various components of the drum kit; snares are tighter, crisper. Acoustic guitars are more forward in the mix and make up more of the driving force of song versus the e-Q5, where the bass guitar is more prominent.
Voices are more nuanced on the e-Q8; the grit and emotion is more obvious, leading to a more engaging vocal performance. On songs with soaring guitars, while the e-Q5 sounds wonderfully airy with the sparkling crescendo of cymbals, the e-Q8’s fuller and more forward guitars really do a better job of pulling you into the groove of the song. The chug of distortion guitars have more bite, more crunch and just give you more of the in-your-face drive of a rock anthem.
The e-Q5 cymbals are more present with more sparkle, and while e-Q8 cymbals are a good bit further back in the presentation, cymbal timbre is noticeably better. The e-Q5’s more present treble sounds thinner and tinnier in comparison, albeit airier and more open sounding. If a recording has ringing treble and/or sibilance, the e-Q5 can make those passages a little uncomfortable, pushing to my limits. In contrast, the e-Q8 is much easier to listen to in those same passages; however, it is ultimately a little too forgiving of harshly recorded treble. Both models err away from accuracy but in different directions.
The e-Q5 sounds overall wider and airier, as well as giving a bit more distance from the performance. In contrast, the e-Q8 sounds much more upfront and overall taller and denser with a more head-filling experience.
Both Ortofon and Grado have succeeded in creating a couple of generations of simple, yet elegantly designed universals that are some of, if not the most comfortable universals around. Sticking with the single moving armature approach, both companies have shown that their next generation models remain not only competitive, but in top of class, in this ever-changing and growing in-ear market.
While having two distinctly different approaches in overall frequency response, both the e-Q8 and GR10e certainly excel at presenting distortion rock guitars and do the rock anthem justice in my book. I give them two devil horned fingers raised high!