RS1 Reviews

Includes legacy models from the earliest days to the current version.

The Grado Reference Series One Headphones


I'm an audiophile; worst yet I'm a reviewer. It's my job to hear some of the most incredible audio gear on the face of the planet. So it isn't much of a surprise that I love the cutting-edge stuff!

I kept repeating thoughts like these in my mind like a mantra as I sauntered along, walking from Penn Station to Rockefeller Center one morning on my way to work. But as I did, I must have looked like the Cheshire Cat. My grin stretched from ear to ear. Deep in my shoulder bag was a RadioShack Optimus CD-3400 portable CD player: Hidden in it was a Motown disc (MCD08058) containing not one but two of Duane Eddy's greatest albums--Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel and $1,000,000 Worth of Twang. I was in heaven, bouncing along to the long-forgotten rhythms of "Cannonball," "Ramrod," "Three-thirty Blues," and a host of other favorites from my youth. The weather may have been dreadful and my workday had yet to begin, but I was at peace with the world.

I struggled through a day of endless meetings and voluminous memos. It was time to head home. With a lightened step and another foolish grin, I was joined by Booker T. and the MG's (The Best Of...,Atlantic 81281-2). So the commute was going to take and hour and a half--who cared? I was homeward bound with the Memphis Sound!

So why was everything so great that day? After all, I listen to my portable CD players (I have four) an average of three hours per day. The answer is that I was listening to the Grado Reference One headphones for the first time.

Okay, I've never used the Grados (or any headphones) in my reference system, nor have I listened to any audiophile-approved CDs or LPs on them. Yes, I'm sure any number of passersby have wondered aloud about the guy wearing these weird-looking headphones. But I have listened to a ton of music with the Grados and enjoyed every minute of it. It's rare that any audio product can come along and simply bowl me over. In this case, I yield. I just love these headphones! They have become my constant traveling companions. Thank you, John Grado--what's next?

Stereophile Vol.19 No.7

Sold out

The Grado RS1 Headphone


The Grado company is best known for it's phono cartridges, but for some years it has been making headphones. This is it's top model, priced in Canada at a steep $999, carved from mahogany, and packed in a gorgeous presentation case of the same wood. The Grado looks traditional, a refugee from a ship's radio room. Slip them on, however, and you'll see that they owe little to clunky old traditional phones. They are so light you hardly feel them, and they will fit most heads perfectly.

From the first notes of the St'lzel song, we knew the Grado was in a different category. The harpsichord sounded full, the left hand clearly audible for the first time. Karina Gauvin's voice was closer than with good loudspeakers, but the effect was delightfully natural. The rhythm was excellent, and Gauvin and harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour were a true duet. With other phones, Beaus´jour was merely accompanying.

West End Blues was glorious! Although the Grado has an open back (which of course let's sound leak into the room), there is no compromise on bass response. The string bass was constantly present, the peculiar honky-tonk piano timbre was clear, and the banjo never got confused with other instruments. And the coronet! It sang joyously, throwing off light as it were in brilliant sunshine.

It was thanks to this fine headphone that we could tell how good the Stravinsky recording really is. The different string sections were clearly separated, some dark, others positively luminous. Tympani was solid and clear. The bass growled convincingly. "Stravinsky would have liked this," commented Reine. We could even hear certain extraneous sounds, such as the movement of the musicians, which gave an eerily realistic feel to the disc. Exceptional!

The one complaint came from Gerald, who wished the RS1 had only one single cable, like most modern phones, instead of a wire coming from each phone.

The Grado RS1 is a suburb headphone, fully in line with it's premium price. With the closing of Stax phones, this headphone may well be the heir apparent.


When you think you've heard everything on a recording, then you are ready for these Grados. With their firm yet feather-light feel, the music was like a warm sunny day, when a slight haze suddenly drifts by. Voices became effortless, humanly round, and instruments stretched around me in a cascade of sparkling details with a wonderful accuracy of timbre. They handled every kind of music with warmth, transparency and coherence. They just sounded and felt so right.

-Albert Simon

Are appearances deceiving? Not always. The Grado RS1, is a perfect example -- it brings together beauty and excellence. But I shall let others speak for it's looks, because I have so much to say about this real-time source. First, the human voice emerges with warmth and depth, full of inflections and sensitivity. Instrumental timbres sound natural, attacks are precise, rhythm is preserved. The Grado has solid lows, which serve percussion well, and add incomparable richness!!! Details and subtleties are plentiful. Yet there is never any confusion in any of these elements. The sonic purity is overwhelming, without exaggerating.

Very simply, the RS1 doesn't alter the sound, for better or for poorer, it merely delivers what is on the disc, and too bad if the recording isn't up to it. Fortunately we chose good recordings, and I could feel the music "in" me. Or was it I who was "in" the music? Or had we become as one? Did this test just create a need? Another one? No matter -- needs like this harm no one.

-Reine Lessard

The Grado RS1 phone is light, comfy, and a joy to hear. Even you-know-who's electrostatic headphone didn't seem as natural to me any of the times I've heard it. I wish it didn't cost so much, but frankly, that's about the end of my wish list.

-Gerard Rejskind


Grado RS1 Headphones

by Ken Kessler

Nepotism sucks. As a rule, that is. We can all name at least one or two companies which have been flushed right down the toilet by the prodigal son, and those of us who wax nostalgic about firms which survive past the originator's retirement just hate it when the founder's successors turn into the destroyer of his legacy. So it is with great relish that I can report that Grado is positively flourishing under the aegis of son John. And what has been the device with which John has re-affirmed Grado's greatness? Headphones.

Yes, headphones, and not just the stunning little bargains like the SR60, SR80 and SR125. John was prescient enough to recognize, at least three or four years back, that the high-end community was rediscovering headphones, for whatever reasons: apartment dwelling precluding the enjoyment of maximum SPLs; the (possibly coincidental) arrival of terrific headphone amplifiers from Headroom, Krell, Earmax and others; the simple realization that headphones sound wonderful if you can get past the in-the-head anomalies. Indeed, there's probably no single type of component which delivers as much bang for the buck as headphones. But Grado's weapon isn't the $69 wonder. The real killer happens to cost a serious $695.

This, of course, is pocket change to your typical Stax headphone owner, who'd probably spend more than that just for an energizer. But the Grado is a dynamic headphone, and most of us tend to think '$75' or so when it's something powered by a headphone socket. Then again, readers who actually recall older headphone models will remember that the current Grado RS-1 Reference Series headphone was preceded by equally expensive dynamics from the same family. And then there was that incredible wooden Sony a few years back...

I mention this because the Grado RS-1's most distinctive features are the wooden ear cups. But unlike the Sony's veritable furniture, the wooden bits on the Grado look just like arboreal facsimiles of the company's non-organic models. What wonders are worked by a gorgeous, honey-colored trace of Mother Nature!

There's not a lot else to tell you about the RS-1 because John Grado is not the most voluble of men. His East Coast origins have been subsumed by caution, so all we're allowed to know about the RS-1 is that it uses dynamic transducers in an open-air configuration, the cups being open-backed. The frequency response is stated as "12Hz - 30KHz" (about which I will not comment since my CD players cut off at 20Hz), 1mV delivers 96dB's worth of SPLs and the nominal impedance is 32 ohms.

Other niceties which allude to its exclusivity are the driver matching to 0.05dB (yes, point-oh-five), vented diaphragms and something called "UHPLC" copper for the voice coils and connection cord. Think up your own meanings for the acronym. What's important is that the RS-1 is so comfortable that you'll soon forget you're wearing a pair. What you'll never forget is sound that's so smooth, coherent and palpable that you might even think about forswearing speakers, except for multi-listener sessions.

I know, I know: it's pretty hard to get worked up about headphones, and not just because they're mildly anti-social. The reality is that none of us can even remember the last time we heard a truly bad pair, not counting bogus brands and the ones that come free with personal hi-fis. Honestly: can you say, with hand on heart that any of the headphones you've tried from "proper" brands like AKG, Beyer, Sennheiser, Audio-technics, Jecklin, Koss, ad infinitum have actually been so bad that you couldn't live with them? I thought not. So you decide according to whatever other considerations might sway you: fit, weight, styling, even country of origin. And there's nothing wrong with that as long as we're talking about headphones costing under $200. To go past that point, well, you need a reason.

Grado has seen to it that you have one. It's the kind of listening experience that earns the accolade 'memorable'. Now I don't want you to think that, historically-speaking, we're talking about something as earth-shattering as the original Quad ESL, the Decca Gold or your first orgasm. The Grado RS-1 ain't that good. But the first time I heard an RS-1 prototype through a Headroom amplifier, with a signal feed straight from the CD player, in the midst of a crowded room at a hi-fi show, I knew that I was in the presence -- in being the operative word -- of something which would soon possess a devoted following.

It came down to two things, not counting a price way below that of my own personal reference headphones, the Stax SR-Omega-plus-tube-energizer. The first was a clearly discernible out-of-the-head sensation, given that no headphone I can name can provide a completely out-of-the-head experience without the aid of something like binaural processing to push things outward. But the Grado spread enough of the sound beyond the outer edges of one's ears that you could be forgiven for thinking that Grado has cloned the Stax method of sonic presentation, only in a dynamic driver context.

Secondly, I was bowled over by the sheer clarity the Grado possessed, an utterly naked, translucent, uncolored sound neither clinical, hygienic, nor hyper-detailed. It possess a "non-sound" betraying no character that could sully the notes, and the bass extension and control set new standards for open backed dynamic headphones. The contrast with Staxes, and the reason why I want to be buried wearing a pair of the Japanese electrostatics, is one of temperature. The Staxes possess -- or add, if you prefer -- a touch of warmth to the vocals which makes the experience all the more convincing for me. Call me a perv, but I just love the sensation of someone breathing in my ear, and that's what I get with the Staxes. With the Grados, I always picture John Grado telling me what's what. Which isn't as odd as you'd think, since John Grado is no shrinking violet. I'm sure he won't blush if I say that the RS-1 is a masterpiece!

Up Close And Personal Grado's RS1 Headphone And RA1 Headphone Amp Put You Front Row Center

By Phil Gold

There are many companies making dedicated headphones amps, and many that sell headphones. Meet John Grado of family-owned Grado Labs. He would like to cover both bases for you, and we like what we hear. John is the nephew of Joseph Grado, credited with the invention of the stereo moving coil cartridge, who founded the company way back in 1953. All Grado cartridges and headphones are hand made in the New York factory; including the carved mahogany reference series headphones that John has developed. The RS1 and its baby brother the RS2 sit between the range topping GS1000 Statement series and the less expensive Prestige series headphones.

Common to all Grado headphones is an open back design featuring a vented diaphragm with a large air chamber for extended bass response. The diaphragm is made from a low mass polymer mated to the compliance of the suspension to optimize the low frequency resonance. The voice coils are wound from ultra-pure, long crystal oxygen-free copper, which is also used in the seven foot connecting cable. Very high power neodymium magnets are used for high efficiency. As a bonus the RS1 comes with a high quality 15 foot extension cable and a converter for connection to an iPod. It's also nice to know that the ear cushions are user-replaceable.

The RS1 is efficient enough to mate well with an iPod, but for the best sound you should use a headphone amp, such as the companion Grado RA1. This small wooden box is powered by two 9v batteries, good for up to 40 hours of listening. Grado also offers an AC powered version. For those headphones with higher impedance and lower sensitivity, a high gain version, the RA1-HG fits the bill. We used the battery-powered version for our test, alongside the reference Graham Sleek Solo (US $950).

The specs reveal a very wide bandwidth device, response extending from 12 Hz to 30 KHz with very tight driver matching, while the low weight of 9 ounces contribute to user comfort. I find the Grados much more comfortable than the vice-like grip of the Sennheiser HD 650.

Synergy is always a key to getting the best performance, and there is a lesson to be learned here. The RA1 and RS1 are made for each other, and even though the inexpensive RA1 is not in the same class as the Graham Sleek Solo, it provides the better mate for the RS1. It doesn't reach quite the same level of definition in bass or match the speed of response of the Solo, but it does provide realistic image size. The Solo spreads the image so wide with the RS1 as to leave something of a hole in the middle, despite pairing very well with some other fine 'phones. So for our testing we will compare the RA1/RS1 combination to the Solo/AKG.

The Grado combination is punchy and warm, bringing you close to the music even at relatively low listening levels. There is a lot of kick in the bass and warmth in the midband, which will suit cool digital sources a lot better than some more analytical 'phones like Stax electrostatics.

The Grados work very well together, presenting a realistic sound stage with strong dynamics and as much volume as you should safely consume. Grand opera comes through with real presence and the full weight and beauty of the voices is there to enjoy. Give it some aggressive music, like Benny Green's jazz trio and you get visceral excitement, really strong bass and all enveloping swing. With the AKG K1000/Solo pairing music is much more clearly defined up top, smoother and more pleasant, but you don't get the full force of the bass energy and without that the music loses its passion.

It soon becomes clear that the Grados act like a magnifying glass to the recording. Give them a top quality disc and you get magnificent, detailed and full-bodied music, totally captivating. It's like sitting in the front row. Feed it with less than perfect material and you see all the flaws in living color. This is not a forgiving combination.

Instrumental or vocal, electric or acoustic, is very satisfying through the Grados. The image is stable and well located, giving a convincing image size. Haydn's quartets emerge particularly well on these 'phones, perhaps because the mahogany frames preserve the rich sound of the wooden instruments. When the cello grunts you feel it, and when the violin soars, rich harmonics abound. When it comes to the vocals, there's meat on the bones, while the AKG K1000 can sometimes sound quite lean and miss the artist's passion.

The RA1 offers excellent value for money, and does a fine job powering phones from Sennheiser, Shure and Ultimate Ears. It does especially well with Grado 'phones and does not embarrass itself next to state of the art components. The RS1 is at its best with instrumental, vocal and small-scale groups, particularly if you like your music up front and personal. The Grados are clearly a music lover's component, trading a little accuracy and detail for warmth, presence and tonal color – a trade most tube lovers would make any day. Try them on for comfort and sound, you'll not be disappointed.

The Ultimate Headphone?

By Gavin Isaacs

Since my review of the Grado SR60, I have been a fan of them. In fact they have followed me on more than one holiday. Even when I'm not traveling I listen to them often. It is almost like I need a weekly fix. But I have not plugged them in for a rather long time. You see there is something better-so much better that I am at a loss to express how remarkable a musical transducer they are.

I am referring to the Grado RS-1, Reference Headphones.

Grado usually do not offer lavish packaging-the exception being the RS-1, which accompanied by a wooden box which immediately alerts the senses that something special lies inside.

And inside the RS-1s which would look like the top of the Prestige series range, the SR325's, if not for the wooden enclosure that is substituted for the metal frame which encases the 325. Sonic improvement requires these changes.

Wood enclosures are a rare sight on headphones, although they have been used previously by other manufacturers-also on their reference headphones. The RS-1 follows the same retro styling as the Prestige series, including utilizing the same design for the headband. Finished in suede, rather than the usual leather, you either will enjoy the way it sits on your head or you won't.

Grado are not too enthusiastic about discussing the secrets that lie within the RS-1, although Audio Imports, the local distributor, informs me that Grado advise that the RS-1 utilizes the SR325 as its floorplan, but has improved upon it.

I'll say it's been improved, In fact the RS-1 puts headphone performance into a new perspective-it highlights the brilliance of music, while retaining a musical naturalness that only a handful of truly reference loudspeakers could ever hope to get a handle on.

Seeing that little technical data is available on the RS-1, let me highlight some of the data I do have available. The RS-1 is an open air dynamic transducer, with a frequency response rated as low as 18Hz. It utilizes a copper voice coil, as well as a copper cord which are comprised of ultra high purity long crystal oxygen-free copper.

This is said to offer the clearest transmission and lowest coloration possible. Smoother, cleaner and more dynamic sound is also suppose to be a direct benefit. Each headphone driver is pair matched for exact imaging.

Using the RS-1s comes with only two provisos. One is that they require a good headphone amplifier to drive them to peak performance. The other is that you enjoy your music. Listening sessions included trying every headphone jack around. Not surprisingly the only real solution was the Audio Alchemy HPA 1 headphone amplifier.

The RS-1s allow the listener to enjoy a truly spectacular musical experience.

There are no buts, or ifs or maybes. The RS-1s are true reference stuff. The only other headphones that I have heard that offer this kind of performance cost several thousand dollars and are electrostatic in design.

Open air performance sets the groundwork for the Grado's. Soundstage imaging is huge, well out of ear, and very dimensional. Layers of detail and perspective combine to allow a comprehensive see-through image that takes on a very real and invigorating appeal. Imagery moves well into the realm of "reach out and touch it". Listening to sade's Stronger Than Pride, I was immediately reminded of the Sonus Faber Guarneris, imagery was that good.

Lots of body and presence are integrated throughout the frequency range, with rhythmically defined and powerful bass lines providing performance well below 20Hz. Midrange liquidity is very good, with a learner neutral overall balance . One is immediately aware that the Grado's have very little sonic signature, rather being capable of reproducing each piece of music as honest as possible.

The RS-1s are special.

They join their sibling SR60s in being able to offer something so stunning that the price becomes irrelevant. These are not headphones for first time buyers, but if you want the best dynamic headphone I have yet to hear, the Grado Reference RS-1's are right up there.


A Great Set A' Cans

Home Theater Magazine: Grado's new flagship headphones are major woodies.

By Corey Greenberg

I know what you're thinking: "Headphones? In a home theater magazine?" I know this because our own CEO, Bill Curtis, was thinking it, too. First he thought it, and then he blurted it in front of some people who turned and laughed at me in hopes of a raise or something. I learned later that one guy got a cool grand for laughing at me and he paid off his credit card, the lucky duck!

But scooby-snack-begging Wizard Of Oz flying monkeys aside, headphones are as popular as ever. And the state of the art has jolted forward something fierce in the past few years, making it possible to buy a set of cans for under $100 that absolutely kill the best and most expensive phones of just five years ago. If you can't/won't spend more than $100 on a pair of headphones, go buy Grado's great $69 SR60 and don't bother reading any further. But if you want to hear the most startling clean, musically accurate, highest-fi headphones money can buy, Grado's got a new toy you'll want to clutch to your breast and never let go of - the $695 Reference RS-1.

Me, I love headphones, and use mine all the time. When I'm on the clock and got my hifi reviewer's fez on, I take advantage of the higher resolution of headphone listening to double-check the sound of components I review. But mostly, I use them for listening to tunes on the go, up in an airplane, or late at night when others have long since conked out. Good headphones are a godsend when it comes to immersing yourself in music in your own private bubble, and that'll be just as true a hundred years from now, unless they come up with some kind of sonic suppository that vibrates the coccyx in order to transmit sound through full-body bone conduction. I love that word, coccyx. I use it whenever it's appropriate, such as: "Lord don't make me wear those tight pants again -- my coccyx is killing me."

I think a lot of people dis headphone listening because they've never heard a really good pair of headphones. Hey, I don't blame them one bit -- headphones pretty much sucked till they came into their own in the early 90s. I grew up on big sweaty ear-cuppin' Koss phones and yellow open-air Sennheisers back in the 70s and 80s, and they turned me off of the headphone trip till the early 90s when all of a sudden the magic Grados appeared to take over as kings of the headphone castle.

Which brings me to Grado's new flagship headphones, the $695 Reference RS-1s. Yeah, I know, seven hundred clams for a pair of headphones seems more than a little crazy. Sure it does. But like everything else in life, there's got to be a Best in every category, and these new Grados are it -- they're far and away the best sounding headphones I've heard to date, and significantly better than my choice for 2nd - best (Grado's older $495 HP-2s, which I've owned and used as a reference listening tool for the past five years). The RS-1 represents Grado's all out effort at improving the state of the headphone art even further than they already have, and I can tell you that they've succeeded mightily.

Right off the bat, the first thing you notice about the RS-1 is that its earcups enclosures are made of solid mahogany chucks. Check this against the plastic and/or metal construction found on every other pair of headphones out there, including Grado's other models down the food chain. Grado hand-crafts the RS-1's earcups themselves in their Brooklyn, NY factory, curing the wood between production steps to improve the mahogany's inherently non-resonant nature.

Now, all speaker cabinets vibrate to some degree, but a resonating headphone earcup sitting directly on your ear is much more audibly degrading to the sound than when you're sitting across the room from a conventional loudspeaker. Grado's previous Reference Series phones like the HP-2 featured a special non-resonant metal construction to reduce these resonances to a level far below that of other headphones, but Grado claims that the RS-1's cured wooden earcups are not only less resonant than their previous designs, but the residual resonance they do have is more harmonically natural than the metallic ringing effects of metal earcups. So the sound you hear is smother, cleaner, and more like the sound of real life.

Grado spares no effort to reduce headphone distortion to below audibility. As with all of Grado's headphones, the RS-1's have a vented diaphragm that incorporates a large air chamber to lower the distortion of the driver and extend bass response. The driver itself is made of low mass polymer, carefully formed with a diamond-pattern surround to broaden and reduce diaphragm resonances.

Even the wiring inside the RS-1 gets the royal treatment. The RS-1 features voice-coils wound from ultra-high purity, oxygen free copper -- Grado claims their use of ultra-high conductivity copper in both the speaker voice coils and all of the headphone wiring results in lower coloration than the typical low-grade copper wiring found in most headphones (some of which even use steel wiring, which distorts the signal). Special high power neodymium magnets in the drivers provide higher efficiency and better sound, which makes the Grados easier to drive to satisfying levels from most portable CD players. And finally, for perfect stereo imaging, Grado hand-matches each pair of headphone drivers for exact response.

I spent alot of time listening to the Grados plugged into my Sony PRD-150 portable CD-ROM player and various airline arm-wrests while traveling, but most of my serious listening was done with the RS-1s plugged into a McCormack Micro Headphone Drive headphone amplifier. I fed the McCormack stereo CD audio from a Theta Data III digital transport and Gen. V D/A, and LP sound from an analog setup consisting of a Rega 3 turntable/Sumiko SHO cartridge/McCormack Micro Phono Drive phono stage. Using the McCormack headphone amp, I also compared the sound of the RS-1s to Grado's previous flagship, the $495 HP-2s I bought five years ago.

Accustomed as I've grown to the incredible clarity and neutrality of the HP-2s I've used as my longtime reference, I was honestly taken aback by how much better I liked the new RS-1s. The now - discontinued HP-2 was and still is worthy of reference quality status, but the RS-1 is just a much, much better sounding pair of headphones. They're even lighter and more comfortable to wear for long period of time, too.

In direct comparison with the older HP-2, the RS-1s sound more extended in the highs, with a brighter, more open sound. In fact, the HP-2s sound kind of dull in comparison--they always sounded just the slightest bit dark in the upper octaves, but they're so clean they bowl you over anyway. Well, the RS-1s are even cleaner, and they sound as if they're flat out to frequencies only dogs and those adorable Olsen twins can hear. And the RS-1's midrange is just absolutely, utterly transparent, without a trace of coloration that I can blame on the phones. I could easily hear the differences between interconnect cables used to hitch the McCormack headphone amp to my signal sources, microphone colorations on vocals, even "inaudible" analog tape edits that never show up when you're listening over loudspeakers, or other headphone for that matter. Those hardcore midrange nuts who hold up the original Quad electrostatics as having the best midrange of all time better not ever give a listen to these Grados if they want to keep their faith intact.

The RS-1 also beat out the older Grados in the low end, with deeper extension and better definition through the bass range. Basslines jumped out of the mix with much more power than the older phones, and bounced along with an agile, firm grip on the bottom end. Most open-air phones sound really thin and wimpy, but not the RS-1s -- few conventional loudspeakers at any price can claim such powerfully extended, undistorted bass response. more than a few times, I found myself marvelling at a really bitchin" baseline on a CD or record I've listened to dozens of times without really hearing them. Even on the MCA -- remastered Jimi Hendrix Axis: Bold As Love CD, I heard cool little bass riffs and funky embellishments I never really noticed before, even on the HP-2s, and I've been listening to this record since I was knee-high to an Olsen twin!

If you're willing to go to the mat and give these cans a good dedicated headphone amp like the McCormack Micro Headphone Drive, I can honestly say that there is no better sounding headphone on the market at any price than the Grado RS-1. Owners of exotic electrostatic phones and other high-dollar dynamics may sputter, but I've heard'em all, and these Grados beat everything else hands down. even if you never, ever plan to spend $695 on a pair of headphones, you owe it to your continuing education as a high fidelity consumer to hear just how insanely great a pair of headphones can sound.

Home Theater Magazine

Grado RS1 Headphones
By: Eric Broyles

It is probably the best headphone ever developed. It cost 1/5 the price of a Stax Omega 7 and can stand toe to toe with it all day long in sound quality. The first time I put on a set of Stax omega 7, I thought mankind had finally achieved the epitome in headphone development. But sure enough, a small company out of Brooklyn New York by the name of Grado Labs proved the world wrong. The first time I put on and listened to a set of Grado RS1 headphones, I thought I had finally gone to heaven. It was better than being in the land of milk of honey. The sound and tonal quality of the music is just completely indescribable. If left this listener completely speechless. The clarity and resonating warm tones from these mystical cans truly cater to the palate of ones ears. Talk about being at a live concert. It is like having the concert come to you at home when you put a set of RS1s on.

Grado RS1 Headphones

By John Borwick

When Goldring Products announced in February 1995 that it was taking on the UK distribution of Grado headphones and pickup cartridges, the headphone line-up comprised five models costing between 89-95 and 299.95. These received favorable press notices-see for example our reviews of the SR60 (89.95) in June 1995 and SR125 (149.95) in February 1996.

Now enters the first of a Reference Series, the RS1 which at 695.00 represents a serious bid for the high end market. Other headphone manufacturers have followed this same route, launching frighteningly expensive" flagship" models while continuing to put most of their effort into (and reap most of their rewards from) the more basic designs; think of Sennheiser and Sony.

However, while the prestige models are usually electrostatic types with expensive styling and components and due attention given to luxury wearing comfort, the Grado RS1 makes few concessions. It is a conventional moving-coil (dynamic) type and retains much of the old-fashioned look we described in our earlier Grado reviews.

The circular earpieces are a little unusual, being extra deep and made of a special mahogany. This results in a larger than usual air chamber and gives a clue to an important design feature; the fine tuning and damping of the enclosure to assist in bass extension which is free of serious resonances. The low -mass polymer diaphragm also goes through a two-coating, or 'de-stressing' and fine tuning, process and is vented through a perforated cap at the front and a metal grille on the 'open air' back.

Plain black foam earpads 80mm in diameter make a soft but not particularly luxurious cushion against the outer ears (i,e. they are supra-aural) without providing much insulation from external sounds. A circular gimbal stirrup rotates in the horizontal plane and also tilts vertically through a limited angle. The headband again looks on the plain side but is perfectly serviceable with its flat springy metal inner band wrapped in leather and padded on the inside. With an overall weight of 255g the RS1 is lighter than most heavyweights and can be worn for long periods with very little discomfort.

Both the voice-coil and the connecting cord are made of UHPLC (ultra-high purity, long crystal) oxygen-free copper wire. The magnets are of neodymium for high power and better control. Sensitivity is a relatively high 96dB SPL for 1mV input and the drivers are pair matched to within 0.5dB. The cable is rubber covered and two metres long with molded stereo jack plug at one end and a division at the other to feed the L/R earpieces. Though, as I have said, there are few cosmetic touches in this design, the RS1 is supplied in a handsome wooden case with molded foam interior which will guarantee safe transportation and grace any room or studio.


Having been favorably impressed by the sound of other Grado headphones costing about a fifth of the price, I determined to set very exacting standards for my tests on the RS1. Technically they performed supremely well. The claimed frequency response of 12Hz-30kHz is unusually wide and would need an elaborate dummy ear set-up to confirm it. However, I was able to check the response well out to 20kHz and below 50Hz which showed gentle roll-off curves at each end. The high sensitivity is a bonus and, combined with a sensibly low impedance of 32 ohms, enables sound levels to be set as high as anyone could wish with very low distortion. In his accompanying leaflet, designer John Grado warns against listening at too loud level for long periods, which "could seriously impair your hearing". I second that and would also say that headphones in this class already provide enough inner detail at natural listening levels to satisfy the most clinical ears, and overdriving the ears is more likely to scramble the sound than enhance it.

First impressions were of surprising degree of warmth in the sound and a handling of bass and spatial elements that was more like listening to loudspeakers than headphones. This was a good start and encouraged me to play through a wider selection of 'test pieces' and favorite music than I normally do - and to continue listening to longer extracts.

Chamber music gave special pleasure with well-defined separation of the parts and a heightened feeling of intimacy. The Takacs Quartet's recording of the Rorodin Second and Smetana First String Quartets (Decca 452 239-27/96) was made in a German church with lively acoustics and sounded marginally over-reverberant on speakers. The RS1 headphones placed me ideally in a favored 'seat' with only the foreshortening of front-to-back perspectives (a feature of all headphone reproduction of stereo material) as a negative aspect.

EMI's best selling CD of opera ducts and arias sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghui (EMI CDC5 56117-26/96) also benefited from this sharp separation of detail combined with firm bass. The splendid recording was made in Air's Lyndhurst studio in North London(formerly a church) and produced high realism and a pleasing balance on the orchestra as well as the voices. In some choral and orchestral works, also piano. I was aware of over-enthusiasm in that otherwise blameless reproduction of bass and, to be hyper-critical, slight shading of extreme treble which affected the resolution at low levels, something that the Grado SR125, for example, handled very well. Nonetheless, and despite that rather high price (695 in the U.S.A.) I would urge any serious headphone listener to audition this Grado RS1 model; it could make many friends.

The Grado Reference Series RS-1 Headphones
Reviewed by Dick Olsher


Grado Labs, an iconic name in the annals of American audio, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003. John Grado, the nephew of founder Joseph Grado, has been at the helm since 1990 of what has steadfastly remained a family business. Its early years coincide with the Golden Age of audio. My copy of the 1959 Hi-Fi Buyer's Guide already lists five Grado products including a stereo phono cartridge with a frequency response of 10 to 35,000 Hz per channel at a huge (for its day) price tag of $49.50. Since then the Grado name became synonymous with cost effectiveness and musicality in two specific niche markets: phono cartridges and headphones. Who hasn't owned a Grado phono cartridge sometimes in their audio life? And the affordable SR60 and SR80 phones have turned out to be a commercial hit. My current phono system incorporates the Grado Reference cartridge. And for the record, I've lived with a pair of the SR80 phones for many years.

So why focus now on the RS1, a product that has already been the subject of numerous reviews and accolades? For me it represents a personal listening progression, following in the footsteps of the SR80 to see just how far its sound could be improved upon. The improvement in materials is most obvious: ear pads are thicker, and most notably, the transducer chambers are crafted from selected mahogany which undergoes a complex curing process. A low-mass polymer diaphragm is coupled to a high-purity, long-crystal copper voice coil. The diaphragm mass and compliance are tuned to minimize resonances within the audible bandwidth and provide for an extended bass response. A common thread is the application of powerful neodymium magnets for increased efficiency and low weight. Each pair of transducers is said to be matched to 0.05 dB. Overall weight is a mere nine ounces. The RS1 rests comfortably against the ear, but in common with the SR80 I could not generate sufficient tension in the headband to couple the pads to my ears with the level of tightness I prefer.

Technical Stuff

Materials do make a difference. I am reminded of a paper authored some 25 years ago by Ingo Titze, then chairman of the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center at the University of Iowa that examined the human vocal tract from a materials science perspective. He argued (in slightly paraphrased form) that "the human larynx is made of materials that vary considerably with time, temperature, and biochemical composition, … and even fails to obey Hooke's law; the stress-strain curves of vocal fold tissue being quite nonlinear." He felt that given these facts, "the larynx as a musical instrument would appear to be in the class of a plastic ukulele with rubber strings, and control of such an instrument to maintain accurate pitch and consistent quality would seem to be a formidable problem." Acoustic transducers certainly do not suffer from such limitations. In particular, headphones have always enjoyed an advantage over loudspeakers in terms of linearity and greatly reduced distortion levels. The fact that they sit on or over the ear makes for greatly reduced drive requirements. A fraction of a watt is sufficient to drive many phones to excruciating sound pressure levels. In fact, John Grado warns against extended listening at very loud levels, which "could seriously impair your hearing".

By virtue of leaking sound into the ears, headphones bypass the route followed by an external sound source. Shadowing effects of the head and external ear produce Left-Right time delays and cross-talk differences that allow the auditory system to project an external soundfield by analyzing the incoming sound stream. This so called head-related transfer function is missing in action during headphone listening with the result that sound is typically localized inside the head. The auditory system literally has no clues as to where the sound is coming from and defaults localization to the space between your ears. Of course, I'm describing the sensation associated with listening to ordinary stereo program material on headphones. Binaural recordings produced with microphones embedded in one's own ears or in an artificial head can produce a spectacular your-are-there sensation when played back over most headphones. But since binaural recordings are rare, headphone aficionados have to cope with ordinary stereo.

Sonic Performance

The RS1 was driven by the Antique Sound Lab MG-32DT amplifier for all critical listening tests. Not surprisingly, the ASL's low-impedance setting worked best, considering the RS1's nominal impedance of 32 Ohms. The ASL is currently my favorite cost-effective headphone amplifier and its tube qualities nicely complemented the RS1's strong sonic attributes.

Let's start with imaging and soundstage presentation. There's no way an ordinary (non binaural) stereo recording can sound totally natural through headphones. Fortunately, Grado Labs headphones cope better than most designs with the soundstaging issue. A feature common to all Grado headphones is the vented or open-air rear chamber. I have already mentioned its role in minimizing resonances and extending bass response, however, it also plays a crucial role in expanding the perceived soundstage somewhat outside the head. It seems to me that the sound leaking out of the open back provides a cross talk signal to the opposing ear, thereby broadening the apparent soundstage width and depth perspectives. Some headphone makers have offered electronic boxes with a blend control to allow cross feeding of the L-R channels toward mono in order to reduce in-head localization. It would appear that the Grado designs use acoustic means to accomplish such a result, thereby reducing the artificiality of the headphone experience. For me, the Grado headphone presentation is much more natural and conducive to extended listening relative to a conventional design such as the Sennheiser HD600. I find the latter's strong inside the head impression to be simply annoying. On the other hand, the HD600 managed to more tightly focus image outlines; the RS1 sounding a bit more diffuse. Overall, the RS1's ability to dish out an organic soundstage proved to be the deciding factor in my long-term musical enjoyment.

Overall distortion levels were quite low, and in this respect the RS1 easily exceeded the performance of the SR80. In other words, the RS1 was considerably smoother sounding and on this basis alone justified the price differential. In terms of tonal balance, it would be fair to say that neutrality is nudged aside in favor of verve – or what John Grado refers to as the FUN factor in music. I am referring to the intrinsic energy and enthusiasm of the original performance. This the RS1 displayed in spades. Dynamic nuances were unfolded with speed and conviction. There was mucho charisma in the midrange, which was voiced on the lively side of reality, assisted by a slight upper midrange-presence region emphasis. The combined effect was to catapult musical lines forward. The warmth region, closely associated with the upper bass range (160 to 320 Hz), was full and slightly lush sounding, very much in line with vintage tube sound. With a robust warmth region and midrange for a foundation, harmonic colors were convincingly fleshed out. The midbass (80 to 160 Hz), however, only managed to sound middleweight instead of heavyweight. Note that squeezing the ear pads against my head greatly improved the bass balance. Of course, head size is a major variable; for me, however, a tighter head band would have been most helpful.

The treble range was well extended and transients were free of resonances. Despite the perceived presence region accent, there was no obtrusive brightness or glare to interfere with soprano voice or violin overtones. There was a high level of coherence about the sound. It's easy to forget that most headphones are fullrange transducers without intermediate crossover networks. I think that much of the appeal of phones over loudspeakers has to do with their full range presentation which contributes to a heightened sense of immediacy. Granted, taking the room out of the equation is also a major factor. It is by now well known that over half the sound energy at a listening seat in an average domestic environment is due to room reflections. That's one reason recording engineers rely on headphones as much as they do during a session, for the added clarity phones afford, though most actually prefer to balance and EQ a multi-track project using studio monitors.

Bottom Line

If you're looking for headphones to enjoy the music with, the Grado RS1 adds up to a resounding no-brainer recommendation. Some refer to it as foot tapping, or pace and rhythm; I prefer the term kinetic energy. Whichever term resonates with you, be aware that the RS1 brings all of the above to the musical table. Its brand of infectious enthusiasm, yet smooth and organic presentation, defines the essence of the Grado sound. Let it be known far and wide – I'm proud to be a Grado customer!