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!