GRADO REFERENCE SERIES RS1E HEADPHONES $939
We know people who almost swoon at the mention of Grado, such cachet is carried by these upmarket designs which are still “handmade in Brooklyn”, as was noted on the packaging that came with the $939 RS1e, part of the company’s Reference Series. Despite being up at that level, this packaging is distinctly basic — no snazzy wooden box here, not even a carrycase. So is all your money going straight into a high-quality product?.
As our picture shows, these are open-design headphones with handcrafted mahogany headshells and earpieces that “utilise an intricate curing process that optimises the tonal quality”, says Grado. The RS1e weighs only about 250g, but the fit is unusual, with the driver grilles resting right up against your ears — this was not uncomfortable, just different to the space of padded headphones. The two 50mm dynamic drivers themselves are carefully component-matched to within an utterly inaudible 0.05dB.
As is Grado’s way, these are absolutely not bass monsters — opposed to what has become the standard these days of a bump in the upper bass. We tend to prefer a flat sound, yet even we found the Grados sounding not exactly bass light but certainly lean. Once up to around 60-70Hz, however, the Grados provide a very tight and realistic upper bass, and then comes the highlight of the RS1e — its extraordinary midrange. The detail rendered by this revealing nature is remarkable, especially on recordings that are naturally smooth and can benefit from the insights on offer. We had never noticed a strange treatment of the lead keyboard line at the start of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Going Home’, for example, and one of our complexity testers, kd lang’s ‘The Air That I Breathe’, had every detail deliciously separated without the crescendo choruses biting our ears off, which is usually the price of such clarity.
On the other hand, recordings already high on mids and lean on bass can emerge pushy if played too loud — Led Zeppelin’s ‘Houses of the Holy’ is one such, and the new 24-96 remaster of ‘The Song Remains The Same’ was fine at moderate volume but when cranked (and we do like to crank on occasion) the multitracked guitars were forward enough to over-jangle our ears.
We were aware that these are headphones expected to run in over time, and Grado specifically warns against doing this in one long process. We kept them around for several months, but their forward nature didn’t temper much with time. What did happen, very suddenly, was that the Grados changed one day from being a headphone that hadn’t quite convinced us into a headphone that sounded lovely with almost everything; we were held rapt for one long late-night listening session. The bass was still far from pumping, but was certainly on display, and lightning fast. The opening kettle drums on Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ overture (DG, LA Phil) had depth and impact, with the open Grados providing great open ambience for the strings; indeed the Grados proved adept at classical music generally, and sweet jazz too. The 3LAU remix of Jessie J’s ‘Bang Bang’, on the other hand, drove along with in-your-brain fizzy synth and stop-on-a-sixpence kick drums, but without the size of sound dance fans might crave. In general, the louder they played, the better they sounded, and their low distortion levels allowed this with all but thrashy tunes.
We’re not sure if we learned to love the Grado RS1e, or if they popped into focus suddenly after sufficient play time. Honest delivery and a blisteringly revealing midrange are their strengths, and they are absolutely not bass monsters. Be sure, then, if you audition these fine ’phones, that you listen for a good long time to get used to their delivery, and also check in advance that they are fully run-in! JF More info: www.busisoft.com.au