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.