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Grado RS-1 Headphones Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2000
ImageHeadphones are not a particularly glamorous product and are often overlooked by many consumers. For years, I have paid practically no attention to headphones or headphone amplifiers. I didn’t know what I was missing but, after experiencing the best in headphones, I doubt I will ever be without a pair of good headphones again.

I spent time listening to two top-of-the-line dynamic headphones, the Grado RS-1s and the Sennheiser HD-600’s. There are some more exotic designs, including electrostatic headphones costing upwards of $10,000, but these represent the top-of-the-line dynamic headphones from two well-respected companies.

I turned to Tyll at Headroom, a company specializing in headphones and headphone accessories, to get started on this article. I received a quick lesson not only in headphones but also in headphone amplifiers. I used Headroom’s "Maxed Out Home" headphone amplifier, as well as a Grado Reference headphone amplifier, in my testing. The Headroom amplifier has special circuitry that provides amazing imaging through a pair of headphones. Anyone interested in headphones would do well to explore the offerings of Headroom, as they make a wide variety of headphone-related products and are resellers for other brands as well. Grado RS-1
The Grado RS-1 represents the top-of-the-line Grado headphone and retails for $695. The body of the Grado’s earpiece is unique, as it is made of mahogany. The particular type of mahogany and the refining process for it are John Grado’s secrets, but he claims they were carefully selected to produce the finest in sound reproduction. The headband is leather, with minimal padding. A 15-foot extension cable and mini-plug adapter are now shipping with the Grado RS-1's. Owners of older RS-1's can order these, along with new and more comfortable earpads from Grado. The RS-1's were not incredibly comfortable out of the box. Some minor bending of the head band helped significantly resulting in a much more comfortable fit. The majority of my listening was done through the Grado Reference Headphone amplifier ($350). The Grado amplifier, with its wooden chassis, is the size of a small paperback novel and powered by two nine-volt batteries. The battery power supply eliminates all of the problems associated with cleaning up AC power. I briefly listened to the RS-1's through the headphone outputs of my B&K Reference 20 and Pioneer Elite PDR-19RW, as well as the Headroom "Maxed Out Home" headphone amplifier.

The Music
"Stunningly clear" and "extremely dynamic" are the terms that first came to mind as I listened to the RS-1's when connected to the Grado amp. I listened mainly to the same material that I had used to check out the HD-600's. The biggest and most immediately noticeable difference was the apparent position of the listener. With the RS-1's, I was no longer sitting in the audience, I was on stage and the musicians were right there with me. The sense of immediacy was sensational. The one comment repeated by everyone who listened to the RS-1's was that it was just like being there live, not a bad commentary at all. The saxophones on "Time Out" came to life with crystal- clear detail. My only complaint with regards to the RS-1 / Grado amplifier set-up was also noticeable on this track. Occasionally, Mulligan’s baritone saxophone appeared to be coming from the headphone earpiece and not the soundstage that was created in and around my head. This sensation was also noticeable on Robbie Robertson’s "Broken Arrow" off of his eponymously titled album (Mobile Fidelity). I listened to the same tracks through the RS-1's and the Headroom amplifier; the processing in the Headroom amplifier cured the problem, albeit at the cost of the slightest loss of detail. Listening to Doug MacLeod’s You Can’t Take My Blues (XRCD), I felt as though he was right in front of me and was strongly reminded of the time I was actually in the front row of a MacLeod show in a small venue. Throughout all of my listening, the RS-1’s remained consistently clear and dynamic, in a manner similar to Wilson speakers, while retaining all of the detail of high quality electrostatics.

The Downsides of the RS-1's and HD-600's
The RS-1's were generally less comfortable than the HD-600's, with some listeners finding them actively uncomfortable. This demonstrates the importance of trying on any pair of headphones before purchasing them. The RS-1's also had the occasional "glitch" in imaging. I spent a lot of time listening to the passages where I noticed this and the best explanation I can come up with is that it is caused by the extreme detail and position in the soundstage of the "offending" instrument. It was intermittent problem, but it was very apparent, given the otherwise impeccable audio performance. The HD-600's weak point was only noticeable when these headphones were compared to the RS-1's. The RS-1's were clearly more detailed and dynamic. After listening to the RS-1’s, the HD-600's were still enjoyable, but lacked that last bit of quickness and detail. They just didn’t sound as "live" as the RS-1's.

Each set of headphones, like normal speakers, have their own characteristics. Both the RS-1’s and the HD-600’s produce amazing sound, are more accurate than most speakers and capable of producing soundstaging and imaging I never thought possible from a set of headphones. Listeners who prefer a more laid-back, forgiving yet still accurate sound will likely prefer the Sennheiser HD-600's. Those who want every last bit of detail, along with an up-front presentation, will probably prefer the sound of the Grado RS-1's. The Sennheiser’s were universally praised for their comfort, whereas the Grado’s got mixed marks in that area.

Every audiophile should own a pair of high-end headphones. There is no speaker that I have heard that comes close to offering the degree of realism provided by the above-mentioned headphones at a similar price. I know a thousand bucks or more for a headphone and headphone amplifier may sound ridiculous at first, but I would be extremely surprised if you could get a speaker and amplifier sounding this good at any price close to that.

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