Imagine that you’d lived your whole life without being able to see colour, then suddenly one day, life burst into a kaleidoscope of hues, flooding your senses. For a music lover, hearing music properly for the first time is equally as awesome and it’s thanks to the Grado RS2’s that I saw the light.
Before we get stuck in, I think it would be useful to chat through my relationship with music. From my earliest memories in the late of 80’s, I have fond childhood memories of being fascinated by my dad’s Pioneer hi-fi. With all the knobs and switches, the silver juggernaut standing about a half a meter high seemed like the cockpit of a musical fighter jet. I’m sure I was discouraged from tweaking all the knobs and flicking the switches, but this would only have fueled the fire. I tweaked all the knobs. I flicked all the switches. Rock and Roll.
The ground control to my major Tom aside, this contraption was my first introduction to music and to this day, some of the songs that filled the room because of it take me back to very happy childhood memories. The Walk of Life or Sultans of Swing by Dire Straights; Handle with Care and End of The Line by The Travelling Wilburys; Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes or Graceland by Paul Simon; Cocaine by Eric Clapton; I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty; Heart of Gold by Neil Young; the list goes on. My childhood wouldn’t be complete without them.
I was lucky enough to have an older brother, which meant that by the ripe old age of 7, I was already well acquainted with all things grunge. He copied tapes from his friends and I eagerly copied them in turn and spent my days educating myself on the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Placebo, Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. Now, I’m pretty sure that a 7 year old really shouldn’t be listening to Nine Inch Nails Closer, but I’ll be forever grateful that I got this chance. Trent Reznor is the man. Not too long after that I was cutting my teeth on everything from Green Day and The Offspring to Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, with a little bit of Alanis Morrisette thrown in for good measure.
Fast forward to the present day and I’ve meandered through pretty much every genre out there, from hip hop, all the way through to metal, electronic, house and jazz. Gangstarr and The Roots? I got you covered. Jimmy Hendrix and Killswitch Engage? Rock on. Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis? Jazztastic. Imogen Heap and Honne? Yep, there like an electronic, club dwelling bear. You get the gist. The noteworthy exception in this review will be classical. Don’t get me wrong, I know this is a sin and I do love a good cinematic score, but to me music is all about how a song makes me feel and classical music doesn’t make me feel very much at all.
So all said and done, I’d call myself the layman’s audiophile. I’m not going to get on my high horse and pretend to know more than I do but I also won’t bore you with long technical explanations. I’ve had a fair amount of experience with decent headphones and my day-to-day headphones are a set of Shure SE425’s, with some Bose Quiet Comfort headphones for travelling and last but not least, a pair of Astro A50’s for gaming. With all that out of the way, it’s probably time I get on to the review.
Who is Grado?
Grado is a boutique New York based headphone and record player cartridge company and they’ve been making headphones for a little over 15 years. They’ve been making record player cartridges since this 50’s, so they know their stuff. It’s a family owned and run business and everything is made by hand in their Brooklyn based factory. This is hardly surprising, given that they tend to use a lot of wood in their designs, which is a large part of what drew me to Grado in the first place. Their headphones range in cost from a cost effective $80 to a bank blowing $2500, but you get what you pay for, so I’d definitely be aiming high if you can afford it. John and co may look a bit serious, but lucky for us, they’re definitely serious when it comes to building some of the best headphones money can buy.
It’s time to talk RS2’s
They are part of Grado’s Reference Series, are open air designed and are one of their mid-range headphones at $500. They have the Grado look, with rustic charm and sound that’s like a precise, yet buttery slap to the face. Yep, that’s right. As if someone lathered their hand in butter, then used all of their cunning and skill to slap you on just the right spot, so that you’re rudely awakened, yet very happy that it happened.
The headphones are technically the little brother to the $700 RS1’s which are stylistically almost identical, but are a little bigger and offer more of the Grado magic. Both sets of headphones offer an open air design and they’re both made out of mahogany tone wood. Many acoustic guitars are made of mahogany tone wood, as it offers a strong, loud sound with great treble. Grado calls the RS1 the audiophile’s point of no return, but I feel like they’ve already got me hooked in with the RS2’s.
I’d imagine that people either love or hate how Grado’s look as they’re striking and have a real retro vibe going on. They’re not all gleaming metal, soft brushed plastic and rounded edges that you might find elsewhere. I’m a big fan of both leather and wood as materials, but more importantly, the looks made me feel nostalgic about my childhood, so I was definitely taken with them the moment that I saw them. They look like they were designed in the 80’s and while I know that my dad definitely didn’t have a pair of Grado’s lying around, these wouldn’t have looked out of place sitting atop his lumbering Pioneer hi-fi.
Out of all the components, the wooden chambers steal the show, with a lovely grain and sheen added by the curing process. The rest of the headphones are no slouch either, with the leather headband and the inner workings visible through the grate adding character. Whether or not you like the look of the Grado’s, will largely depend on your own style and whether or not the retro styling appeals to you. There is a small part of me that feels like I could be a helicopter pilot when I’m wearing these, and I can almost hear the Airwolf theme song fire up in my head when I put them on, but that’s just part of their charm.
The headphones have an industrial look, the they’re well made and don’t look scruffy in any way, but I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
The industrial look and feel to them that makes them look a little rough around the edges. The upside of this is that these headphones are durable and will age gracefully. I’ve had these for over a year now and they’ve given me no issues at all. If I end up having kids, I feel like these will be to them what the big hi-fi had been to me and they’ll be hanging on their stand, still going strong, whether that’s in 10, 20, or even 50 years.
This is in part due to the durable construction and materials used, but also due to the fact that John has coated the internal connectors with Rhodium, which protects them. High end sound equipment often uses gold for this task, but it has durability issues. Rhodium is one of the rarest and most expensive metals, so it’s great that Grado have used it to make sure that these headphones will stand the test of time.
When it comes to the individual components, they’ve used solid pieces of wood for the chambers and they’ve done a great job sanding them and curing them, with no rough edges in sight. The engraving is also top notch. The plastic and metal components are solid and look like they’re going to last. Initially I was worried that the height sliders might lose grip, but they’re very grippy a year on. I’m not sure how they’ve done that, but I’m very happy with it given I was a skeptic when I first got them. The foam ear pads aren’t going to change anyone’s life, but they do their job and are easily replaceable. Last but not least is the cable, which is thick and seems very durable. It’s not replaceable, so if it breaks or you have a loose connection, you’re in for a bad time, but I’ve had ample bad experiences with detachable cables because of the connectors, so I’m fine with it.
The only thing I’d pick at is that there’s marks where they’ve glued the front of the chamber closed. This really is nitpicking though, as the only time you’d ever see this is when you change the foam ear pads and I bought these headphones partly for that industrial charm.
If there’s one thing I wish I could change about the Grado’s, it would be to make them more comfortable to wear. When I first got mine, I was torn between how great they sounded and how much they hurt my ears. I have a pretty large head (which is par for the course when you’re practically a giant) and that meant the headphones clamped to the side of my head. As the ear pads sit on the ear rather than around them, this left my ears pretty sore after anything more than 30 minutes of listening.
After some research, I followed advice online and stretched the headband a bit and washed the foam pads in soapy water to loosen them up. This definitely helped a lot and made them much more comfortable, but still aren’t massively comfortable when compared to my Astro’s.
I also bought a pair of the foam pads that Grado use on their top end headphones, which you can see in the photos below. These sit around the ear as opposed to on the ear so they’re much more comfortable for longer listening sessions, but the downside of this is that these headphones sound at their best with the drivers as close to your ears as you can get them. With these pads, it moves them slightly away, so you get a bit more sound stage, but lose the punchy base and mids that make these headphones shine.
Overall, the headphones are light, so if I use the comfy pads, they’re better and I can wear them for a few hours. If only I could wear them for hours on end with the on ear pads… John, it surely won’t be the first time you’ve heard this, but please give us an over ear version!
Before I get into the performance of the headphones, I need to speak about the setup I’m running. If you’re new to high end audio, you may not know that you should be using a headphone amplifier and/or good digital-to-analogue converter to get the best out of your headphones. Certain headphones require more power to operate and the amplifier takes care of that. Truth be told, these headphones don’t really need an amplifier, but the second and arguably more important job the amplifier and converter performs is to improve the quality of what you’re listening to.
I’m using the Woo WA7 Fireflies (it’s so good it deserves it’s own full review), which is a fantastic USB tube amplifier with a built in converter. That’s a lot of buzzwords, but it basically means that I’m giving my headphones the best chance to take the digital music and get it as close to how it was supposed to sound when it was recorded. Speaking of music, the quality of your music is the last piece of the puzzle. You need to use great quality music and I use TIDAL’s high quality streaming to listen to 1411kbps quality music, which is almost 5 times the quality of what Spotify offers.
Simply put, these headphones are excellent. They’re pure A-Grado. They have a frequency response range of 14-28000hz which is above the standard 20-20000hz. The low frequencies of bass can be felt more than they can be heard, and the both booming base and low rumble sound great on these headphones. Solid, but not overpowering like you might find on a pair of Beats. The mids are definitely the highlight for these headphones, as they’re strong and clear, without being overpowering. To me, the RS2’s offer a fairly balanced listening experience that make you feel like you’re standing on the stage, which is very Grado… a sound you’ll only understand if you try a pair.
The sound stage and clarity on these headphones, which basically means how well you’re able to detect individual instruments, as well as ‘feel’ where they are spatially, is great. Arguably, not as good as some more expensive over ear headphones, but still very good and miles ahead of any of my other headphones. Listening to Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek is like having waves of reverb wash over you only to bounce off imaginary walls and trickle back into hearing. Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye assaults your senses with instruments from all angles and each instrument is crystal clear.
I’d say that the RS2’s and Grado’s in general were probably crafted with guitar and drums in mind, but that doesn’t mean they’re a one trick pony. They’ve handled everything I’ve thrown at them with the same impeccable response. Rock classics like AC/DC’s Back in Black; Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love; or Wolfmother’s Joker and the Thief roar into existence. Synth heavy and vocal driven pieces like Frank Ocean’s Forest Gump or Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam overload your senses with walls of sound and crystal clear vocals. Soft acoustic pieces like Yiruma’s River Flows in You prompt you to close your eyes and drift away to aural nirvana.
One important thing to keep in mind before buying these headphones is their open air design, which means they let a lot of sound in and out. On the down side, this means that you can’t really use them in an open space, like your living room or in public, without annoying everyone around you. On the plus side, I feel the open design lets the music breathe and meld into the world around you. Norah Jones sounds like she’s singing over your shoulder in Come Away With Me as her voice melts into the background. I often have to be careful about how loud I crank these headphones up because I constantly want to turn up the volume to hear more detail and more Grado magic. First world problems…
Last but definitely not least, I wouldn’t be much of gaming blog worth my salt if I didn’t talk about how the Grado’s perform in games. In short, pretty damn well. If I compare them to my Astro A50’s, the Grado’s put in a good fight. The Grado’s sound much more clear and ‘in your face’ than the A50’s and this makes me feel much more immersed in what I’m playing. I hadn’t tried them in Destiny before doing this review and I was blown away by how immersive it was playing the game on the Grado’s, especially when it comes to surround sound. I was easily able to pick out direction and estimated distance of the sound, which I wasn’t expecting. On the down side, they have less bass than the A50’s and the real deal breaker is that they are a lot less comfortable than the A50’s. I tend to play games for hours on end, so need to use more comfortable headphones. That said, for a short immersive bit of gaming, say on something sound driven, like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I’ll be going Grado’s all the way.
Value for money and alternatives
High fidelity audio equipment is far from cheap, so the perception of value for money will really depend on how much joy your new acquisition brings you. For me, then $500 is well worth the investment. The joy of listening to a song you love and think you know, only to realise you really don’t never gets old. Add to that the joy of watching someone else go through this process and seeing them go from, “how will I feign excitement” to holy shit, “play this song and this song”… Priceless.
These are obviously not the only high fidelity headphones in the world and their arch nemesis is the Sennheiser HD650. They’re almost identically priced and both have open air design, so you’ll find that which you prefer is largely down to personal preference. On the sound front, the Grado’s have their signature beefy mids and trademark sound, whereas the HD650’s have a bit more bass and are a bit more balanced overall. This means that the HD650’s are probably a bit better suited to classical music, wheras the Grado’s are better for rock.
One thing that the HD650’s have very much in their favour is comfort. They sit over hear as opposed to on ear and there’s just no two ways about it, the HD650’s are much more comfortable. The downside? To me, they don’t look, or sound like the Grado’s, and that’s a dealbreaker.