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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:

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