As the Airmotiv GR1 headphones land in my lap I realize that I’ve been spoiled rotten. Lately it’s been headphones from the likes of Audeze and Focal, brands of which nearly define the best-of-the-best offerings in the head-fi space and have called the top of my head home. Different as these two brands are, both are more alike in the sense that they perform best when attached to reference level equipment, with mission critical DACs and amplifiers selected for specific tuning tendencies that best suit the preferences of both headphone and listener.
Words and Photos by Eric Franklin Shook
Still, the headphone landscape is vast, and I was on the hunt for something different. I was in search of something more affordable, more amplifier friendly, and something more pleasantly colorful in its presentation. Something I could recommend to those looking for headphones with pizzazz and refinement wrapped up into one smartly designed package. And, I think, I found such a beast.
I say “beast”, because the Airmotiv GR1 ($299 USD) headphones from Emotiva fit that rugged hyperbolic description. “Beasts” not just in their robust build quality, but also when it comes to their crowd pleasing tuning, friendly market price, and choice of exotic driver materials.
Build of the Airmotiv GR1
In a word, superb. Right out of the box one takes note of the solid metal construction throughout, taking eye and hand to the sharply defined edges on the branded aluminum grill that graces the outward facing portion of the ear cup, and the smooth wood grained contours that make the overall design undoubtedly modern.
Included with the Airmotiv GR1 is a carrying case and a two meter cloth-covered cable which itself is super soft, flexible, and kink-free. Honestly, it’s one of the best lightweight cables I’ve ever used with a headphone at any price point. Internally it’s multi-stranded OFC (oxygen free copper) wiring, attaching to the ear cup with clearly labeled 2.5mm connectors.
This makes swapping out to balanced or upgraded cables easy, but as noted before, it would be hard to pull me away from the one included with the GR1 package. The carrying case is form molded and leather-clad (though it may be vegan leather) and creates a most compact travel companion for such a full sized headphone. Before I forget, a 3.5mm to ¼” TRS adaptor is included.
Speaking of vegan leather, that indeed is what the contoured ear pads are made of with the Airmotiv GR1. These replaceable ear pads are right-and-left specific, filled with memory foam for comfort and reliability, and also mounted to the ear cup with their own rigid internal ring that assures a more solid fit and stable wear.
Graphene in the Airmotiv GR1
Graphene is carbon. That’s it, but that’s also not it.
It’s carbon as you and I know it, but with all of its atoms reconstructed into an unnatural man-made structure that exhibits equally unnatural (and useful) properties; in the case of headphone drivers, graphene provides a more solid performing pistonic motion and more efficient electro-physical load for the amplifiers driving it. Graphene is a wonder-material with several high-strength applications, of which there was no time wasted before head-fi (and hi-fi) manufacturers started designing their best drivers around it.
The Airmotiv GR1 utilizes Graphene as a reinforcement structure to their drivers, combining it with varying poly-based materials, to create a polycarbonate cone that is exceedingly low-mass, exceptionally rigid, and nearly distortion free when driven at insane listening levels.
Sound of the Airmotiv GR1
I’ll start with the “open-backness” of the Airmotiv GR1. Emotiva calls this “semi-aperiodic loading” and I like it.
Semi-aperiodic loading is more along the lines of semi-open-back in the way it opens up the sound internally and how it isolates the listener from sounds externally. It’s not the most open sound that can be found, such as those from Grado or HEDD, but in the case of the easy to drive GR1 that’s not a bad thing.
I found the forgiving isolation and the slightly less open-back sound of the Airmotiv GR1 to be the perfect blend of beginner-audiophile sound and privacy (both incoming and outgoing). This should make for an easy transition with buyers who are not yet accustomed to (or wanting) a fully-open-back headphone design and all that comes with it.
The tuning of the Airmotiv GR1 on two of the DAC/amplifier combinations I had on hand presented itself as surprisingly warm and thick sounding, but still with exceptional distortion control thanks to the graphene-reinforced drivers. I was not as thrilled about this tuning with either the iFi micro iDSD Signature or the Schiit Modi/Magni, as I felt that some level upper detail was overwhelmed and masked by the lower frequencies.
At most points with the iFi micro iDSD Signature I found the detail of the Airmotiv GR1 to be a little too far recessed and clouded over by the overall warmth in the bass region, leaving me in wanting for a little more sparkle at the top and some extra clarity in the upper-mids. The Schiit Modi/Magni combination did well to bring things more into balance than the iFi micro iDSD Signature (odd considering the iFi is all around better), but still not perfect enough to garner my full attention.
However, when switching over to sources like smartphones and handheld gaming devices like the Nintendo Switch, I was pleasantly surprised at how much the sound of the Airmotiv GR1 fell right into a perfect balance. This was definitely the “ah-ha!” moment that urged me to further test the GR1 on as many smartphones and non-audiophile devices as I could get my hands on.
A late comer to me in the DAC/amp category proved itself a pleasant but still unlikely pairing. The Rhodium from Periodic Audio, though designed to work with high-quality earbuds did a smashingly fine job of powering the Airmotiv GR1 fully and delivering all of the musical goodness intact. Yes, a sub-$50 USB powered DAC/amp became the best dance partner of the night, when snuggled up to the somewhat syrupy GR1 headphones. Go figure.
There’s a part of me that wants to theorize that this headphone was voiced specifically for smartphones, entry level DAPs, and portable gaming devices, because—in the end—the Airmotiv GR1 really did shine when attached to those types of audio components.
Conclusion – Airmotiv GR1
The Emotiva Airmotiv GR1 are a true joy, and a great starting place for a budding headphone hobbyist. Combining its efficiency with sound quality is what makes it a surefire winner for most buyers. The GR1 also boasts its exceptional comfort, snug fit (a preference for myself), sturdy construction, and state-of-the-art materials like graphene-poly drivers, at an affordable price.
The Airmotiv GR1’s crowd pleasing tuning with great comfort and build are all here, and should be part of the package at this price. What sets this headphone apart from the pack is how well it works with everyday devices like smartphones, laptops, and entry level media players. Normally we’re on the hunt for great amplification to pair with over-the-ear headphones, and in this case it’s not always necessary. One can achieve great action with the GR1 right out of the box.
These easy to love attributes of smart design and tight execution, at a friendly price, make the Emotiva Airmotiv GR1 a painless recommendation for those looking to add better sound to existing mobile devices such as smartphones or mobile gaming devices, or for those beginning that journey down a righteous path of spirited head-fi listening.
Emotiva Airmotiv GR 1 Specs
- iFi micro iDSD Signature (DAC/amp)
- Schiit Modi and Magni (DAC/amp)
- Periodic Audio Rhodium (DAC/amp)
- Nintendo Switch (portable gaming device)
- Various Apple and Android Smartphones
- Apple iPod Classic