Photo by: Robert Williams
Grado Labs is one of the oldest family owned companies in the audio industry and is famous for their remarkable headphone and phono cartridge designs. Sometime back, we reviewed Grado's entry level SR60 headphones from their Prestige line up. Despite being the entry model, the SR60 headphones managed to impress us with its amazing performance and value. This time around, we're going to take a look at a model much higher up in Grado's headphone line from the Reference Series - the Grado RS2 headphones. The newest edition to the Grado family, the RS2 is the little brother of the top of the line RS1, regarded by many as one of the best headphones in the world. According to Grado, the characteristics of the RS2 remain the same as its distinguished big brother, maintaining an overall sound that is pure Grado. Let's find out how it performs!
The Grado RS2s shares the same packaging with the other Grado headphones. While the packaging might not be anything fancy to look at, the beautiful mahogany earpieces are definitely an eye catcher. Out of the box, the Grado RS2 headphones have an unmistakable sense of class. With the stylish mahogany earpieces and unique retro styling, the RS2 is certainly one of the most beautiful headphones we've ever seen. Although their retro styling might not suggest so, the RS2s actually feel very solid and well built. Grado includes a very simple bundle of some documentation but offers no accompanying accessories such as a storage bag for the headphones.
The Grado RS2s, just like all other Grado headphones are based on the open air design principle. While some argue that open-air designs tend to leak sound out to the surroundings, I believe the sonic advantages offered by such a design outweighs such problems. All the headphones in Grado's Prestige Series feature plastic earpieces except for the SR-325s, which have aluminum earpieces, but unique to Grado's Reference Series are the handcrafted mahogany earpieces made using an intricate curing process. The earpieces on the RS2s are very beautiful and they look amazing as under different lighting conditions and viewing angles, you can see the beautiful grain of the mahogany. Both the RS1 and RS2 headphones are almost exactly alike, making use of the same drivers, UHPLC (Ultra-high purity, long crystal) copper voice coil wire and connecting cord. They differ however, in terms of size of the wooden air chamber (earpiece) and the mounting ring used to secure the earpieces to the headband. The earpieces and air chamber of the RS2s are almost if not identical in size to that of the SR-325s.
As we mentioned earlier, the voice coils and connecting cord on the RS2s are made out of UHPLC (Ultra-high purity, long crystal) copper that is found only on the higher end models. According to Grado, the copper is slowly drawn through the die in extremely small increments and is annealed following each drawing operation and this enables the cable to provide the clearest transmission and lowest coloration possible. The sound of UHPLC copper is smoother, cleaner and more dynamic. Good cables and wiring can make a great difference in sound quality and it's great to see that Grado is taking all the necessary steps to ensure that the RS2s are as good as they can be, out of the box. We've seen a few high end headphones coming from the factory with cheap connecting cables and many tend to spend a couple of hundred extra to get better after market cords for their headphones. All Grado headphones use high power neodymium magnets to provide maximum efficiency and better sound. From the SR225 onwards, Grado matches their drivers to .05dB for better imaging and soundstaging. Technical refinements for Grado drivers include improved diaphragm and voice coil design for increased bass response and a larger perceived sound stage. A unique process to "de-stress" the diaphragm results in enhanced inner detail and an increased ability to control driver resonance virtually eliminates distortion.
Comparison - RS2 and SR60
To better illustrate the enhancements in the RS2, check out the pictures below. The Grado RS2 has a rear metal screen, which offers more airflow to the transducers than the plastic screen found on the SR60. The bigger air chamber in the RS2 is also clearly illustrated, being almost two times bigger than the SR60. You can also clearly see the beautiful grain of the mahogany in the RS2 earpiece!
The RS2s arrived straight from the factory so I gave it about 50 hours worth of break in time before I proceeded with the listening tests but to be honest, the difference in sound quality was already apparent between the RS2 and SR60, out of the box. With Steve Vai's The Ultra Zone loaded in, it was immediately clear why Grado headphones have always been my top choice for rock music - the are just so enjoyable to listen to! The bass response on the RS2 was excellent, bass was deep, punchy and very well controlled - I could not muddy up the bass no mater how hard I tried. While there are many high-end headphones out there that can match the amount of bass produced by the RS2; I have never heard better control and detail in the lower register than on the RS2.
If you think the wooden transducer housings were intended to be purely cosmetic, think again. If there was an area the RS2 differed most from the other Grados I've heard, it's definitely the midrange. While the midrange on the SR60s can tend to get a little edgy at times, the midrange on the RS2 was very lush, warm and full-bodied. In fact, the midrange reminded me of how a top-notch tube based hi-fi setup would sound like. Vocals from Holly Cole and Norah Jones came through with astonishing clarity and emotion and there was absolutely no hint of sibilance in the vocals. Completing the spectrum is a well-balanced top end, something, which is quite tricky to achieve. The RS2 in my opinion is much better in the upper register than the Sennheiser HD 600 that sounded too held back with little attack.
The RS2 also had top-notch soundstaging; instruments were clearly defined with excellent separation. In Dream Theater's Scenes from a memory for example, there is a great deal of instrument work layered on top of each other and it was easy to pick the instruments apart from each other on the RS2. Detail wise, the RS2s were equally impressive - on good recordings, you can even hear the air around the instruments giving the listener an illusion of being on stage with the performers. The level of detail was very close but not quite as good as the Westone UM2s, but bear in mind that the Westones are in ear designs and the fact that they have good sound isolation helps tremendously. I would give the Westones top rating for the level of detail but the RS2 wins the trophy for refinement as everything sounded more integrated and refined through the RS2s.
Another feature I really like about Grado headphones in general is how easy they are to drive. This is no exception with the Reference Series, you can easily use the RS2 with an iPod, portable CD player, CD player but you'll get best results with a high quality headphone amplifier such as Grado's own RA1.
The Grado RS2 manages to combine stunning good looks with top-notch sound quality - everything one would expect from a top of the line reference product. Grado fans will absolutely love the RS2; it had a sound characteristic that was undeniably Grado - exciting, energetic and enjoyable, with a magical touch that made music come to life. The Grado RS2s are fantastic headphones and gets our top recommendation!
- Excellent sound quality
- Very enjoyable to listen to
- Beautiful mahogany ear cups
- Solid headphone cable and connector
- Good support
Wooden air chamber
UHPLC copper voice coil wire
HPLC copper connecting cord
What does the i stand for in the new RS2i from Grado? Improved, that's what! The RS2i is the little brother of the RS1i. The RS2i has an upgraded driver and the new 8 conductor cable design. The characteristics of the RS2i remain the same as its distinguished big brother, with the new species of hand crafted mahogany, but with a smaller wooden air chamber. Although a miniature version of the RS1i, the RS2i still maintains an overall sound that is pure Grado, warm harmonic color, full bodied vocals, excellent dynamics and ultra smooth top end. These truly are audiophiles dream.