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Review: Grado RS1

post #1 of 35
Thread Starter 
Intro

So, the Grado RS1. I got this headphone primarily to review the Eddie Current EC/SS amp (still in progress, and will soon appear on the virtual pages of StereoMojo), but also to check it out and see what the Grado woodies were all about. Thought I would share my findings.

Equipment Used

Power cord: Signal Cable Silver Resolution Reference
Source: Arcam FMJ CD33
Interconnects: Signal Cable Silver Res Analog w/ Eichmann silver bullets
Amplifiers: Cayin HA-1A, Singlepower Square Wave, HeadAmp Gilmore Lite v2 w/ DPS, Eddie Current EC/SS
Empirical comparison headphones (previously owned or heard): Grado SR60, SR80, SR225, SR325i, HF-1

Headphone reference point: AKG K701 w/ Equinox

Evaluation CDs

Alison Krauss - Lonely Runs Both Ways
Alison Krauss & Robert Plant - Raising Sand
Julie London - Around Midnight
Massive Attack - Blue Lines
Nikolaus Harnoncourt - Dvorak Symphony No. 7
Porcupine Tree - Deadwing
Radiohead - OK Computer
Renee Fleming - Thais (Massenet, 1894)
The Crystal Method - Vegas (2007 Deluxe Edition)
Thievery Corporation - The Mirror Conspiracy
Thievery Corporation - The Outernational Sound

Obligatory Pics


(click for larger versions)

RS1 vs the other Grados

As many know, Grado has its house sound of spiked treble (the reason they do well with rock music, as it emphasizes the sound of guitar strings) and a forward upper mid-range - and this is found on the SR60, SR80, and SR325i. The SR225 and HF-1 are a bit different as they don't have the same treble spike and instead go for a more mid-range focused sound, yet don't stray too far from the Grado sound.

The good news is that the RS1 doesn't really sound like any of the models below it - it's one of the most balanced Grados I've heard, with a comfortably straighforward mid-range (not too much warmth there), close-to-flat & extended treble, and a good rounded bass component. Compared to the lower-end Grados, the RS1 also has the biggest soundstage - well, for a Grado at least. Like the other ones it too throws you on the stage with the band but unlike them it allows you to hear the spatials of a room and get an idea of how big it is, and it presents some depth too that can show where performers are located relative to each other.

Pads & Amps

The RS1 is definitely a finicky beast - never mind that you can tweak its sound between flat and bowl pads. On the subject of flats vs bowls, both have their trade-offs. The flats are more comfortable IMO, and they give more mid-range, but at the same time they add a kind of mid-bass bloat and can make it seem like the bass is "farting," which really isn't pleasant to listen to. It adds too much emphasis to the mid-bass that it's just un-balanced and distracting. Of course this is amp-dependent though and it can be somewhat rectified on certain amps - just don't use the Gilmore Lite, as it gave the most bass "fart" among the amps I used it with. Despite my preference for the flats, the bowls made the RS1 sound more balanced, and repeated listening on all the amps made it pretty obvious that they're probably tuned with the bowls - they gave the most consistent musical sound.

As Grados are known low-impedance headphones and hence dependent on current more than voltage, most of the amps I used it with were prime partners for it. However, despite an initial preference for the RS1 w/ flats on the Gilmore Lite, with the bowls I found it paired the worst with the Gilmore Lite - too much treble, not enough to the mid-bass and lower-mids - it really made the RS1 sound dazed and confused and lacking direction. So I recommend using flats with the RS1 on the Gilmore Lite.

Among the solid-states used, the Square Wave easily topped among the three for best pairing. Must be that discrete MOSFET-based design it has. With the Square Wave, the RS1 sounded the most direct and involving, with so much mid-bass and mid-range - gobs of it, in fact - that it felt like the amp was flinging pieces of acoustic bass and drum around. On Thievery Corporation's "Samba Tranquille" from The Mirror Conspiracy, the percussion even had the impact of a jackhammer - it was awesome to behold. And the track's double-bass was simply the most glorious between the three solid-states - deep, full, & highly prominent. The pairing gave a very intimate sense of space, bringing the performers close and breathy vocals & guitar even closer. The bass also went very deep with super-strong control, with the sound of an anchor in the abyss. To put it simply, the Square Wave and RS1 sounded made for each other - so much so that this combo earns a definite recommendation from me. The Square Wave is a great amp for the RS1!

I can't give any details on the RS1 with EC/SS at this time but I will say that this was a very fine combo too - very complementary sound. A different direction than the Square Wave. Much more info on this pairing will be given in my StereoMojo review.

And finally, TUBES! Many here say the RS1 works best with tubes. Well that may be, but my tube amp didn't sound nearly as good with it as the Square Wave. I set the Cayin to Triode mode at the 6-32 Ohm setting, and while the pairing offered good rounded mids, there was no real obvious sonic advantage with tubes in place. I guess it takes a different kind of tube amp to make the RS1 shine.

RS1 On Its Own

For the purposes of time efficiency, I ended up listening to the RS1 with the Square Wave and EC/SS, which gave a good idea of its sound.

But before I praise the RS1, I want to say first that I had a hard time getting used to its sound and wrapping my head around what made it great. At a previous mini-meet and in the time I owned it, the RS1 confused me time and time again - I couldn't really tell what its key sonic advantage was. Some headphones make it obvious what they do well - upper-end AKGs (K501, K601, K701) do soundstage & female vocals, upper-end Senns (HD600, HD650) do tonal realism with body & authority, upper-end Sonys do detail (SA5000), and upper-end Audio-Technicas (AD2000, W5000, W11JPN, W100) have consistently fast attack. But the RS1, for a while I kept wondering and asking what its main advantage was, because every headphone has at least one strong aspect, right?

It wasn't until I'd spun Alison Krauss, Massive Attack, Radiohead, and Thievery Corporation I finally understood the RS1 advantage. What makes it transcend from being merely good to just plain GREAT?? Why is it $695, and is it worth it?!

Well, as far as I'm concerned the RS1 has one big deficiency, and that's soundstage. I really don't understand why Grado Labs would continue to stick its trademark small soundstage on its upper-end headphones, and that's part of what frustrated me. $695 for a headphone that still sounds closed-in (well, at least compared to the AKGs and ATs I've heard) is unacceptable to me. For me to feel the music, I really need to hear the ambient air. Not to say the RS1 can't convey it, because it does, but it's at such a minor level and far from preference.

That said, this isn't really a criticism of the RS1 - just consider this my really big beef with it. I'm sure there are lots of people who find the Grado trademark soundstage perfectly natural and preferable. I'm just not one of them, and honestly I expected more from a headphone that costs $695. That's near Audio-Technica W5000 territory, and way above AKG K701, Beyerdynamic DT880, Sennheiser HD650, and Sony MDR-SA5000. Now I've heard the W5000, I know what it does. And the RS1 at near the same price? Sorry, but it's just not worth that much IMO - it's certainly not transcendental enough to be priced above flagships from AKG, Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, and Sony, and as far as I'm concerned, the W5000 offers a lot more sonically.

But lest that take anything away from the RS1's status, and to answer the question of what makes it great, I found the RS1's take on things to be very interesting, and ultimately, very preferential. But with the right preference, and with the right amps, the RS1 opens up to offer a world unlike any other. What makes it great, you ask?

The RS1 absolutely decimates the competition when it comes to delivering an intact, integrated, & participatory musical experience. I've heard many headphones so far, and none come close to the RS1's sense of life and energy. This headphone swings. It grooves. It dances. It excites. It throws down. It's the freakin' life of the party and it makes you want to MOVE! There are headphones where you want to sit down, close your eyes, and listen - and most headphones are best heard that way. The RS1 is the anti-thesis of those kinds of headphones - this is one best heard NOT sitting down. It has an inner spark that makes it sound alive with a ghost-in-the-machine kind of effect - and with the right music, it makes you want to stand up and groove!

In other words, the RS1 effortlessly translates "life" in a way that makes it sound active and not passive as other headphones tend to do. It's nearly as participatory as its Grado brethren - still that great Grado sound, only without all that harshness. It sizzles and snaps better than any other Grado I've heard, with a quick attack and long full decay too. Superb decay in fact, as it's the first headphone that actually allowed me to hear violin vibrato.

Essentially, the RS1 is the near apex of the Grado sound, without the flaws of the lesser models. Active and engaging, it's simply the kind of headphone that does most of the listening for you - you don't have to create your own illusion, it does it for you.

Conclusion

The RS1 should be a great option for those who prefer an active listening experience - it's one of the ultimate headphones for that purpose. However, beyond that I found too many limitations with it. It's not detailed enough to be called detailed, its mid-range is too dependent on the amp (and isn't warm enough on a near-flat-response amp), its bass is too discontinuous and powerless for electronica, it doesn't give enough spatials, and it's overall too amp-dependent for its own good. I do not recommend it at its SRP. Tread with caution. Audition on a high-current amp first if possible.

Gear mentioned in this thread:

post #2 of 35
I stepped on mine.
post #3 of 35
Asr, thanks for great review! I'm actually torn between RS1 and RS2 from new series. Could anybody enlighten me about the differences between them? Please don't analyze the build and technical aspect but sonic impressions only. Some people prefer RS2 to RS1, others say RS1 is better. I'm confused.
post #4 of 35
Isn't RS-2 supposed to be a step down from RS-1?
And omg they're so beautiful, makes me want to cry, also makes me strangle my wallet for insufficient funds D:
post #5 of 35
Beautiful review ASR. I think your review was very objective and your points on the RS-1 were very agreeable. I have auditioned a small amount of headphones in the past and just started getting back to head-fi again. The funny thing is that the RS-1 was the only sound I could not get out of my head and just recently purchased a semi-vintage pair (hopefully this pair has more smoothed highs). My take this time around is to try to keep the low end and midrange intact while smoothing out the highs. The flats seem to work best for me but I think it's very dependent on the amp used. I could do bowls or flats depending on what tube amp I go with in the future.
post #6 of 35
Quote:
Originally Posted by Asr View Post
It's not detailed enough to be called detailed
I agree with much of your review from an objective standpoint (good job, Asr), and, of course, preference will have a lot to do with your liking of a headphone (I've heard what you've listed and find the RS-1 wins, for me personally)...but I'm having trouble with this statement. I'm not sure if it's somethign in my setup or not, but the RS-1 is one of the most detailed I've heard (and I don't mean treble emphasis...I actually think the RS-1 has rather tame treble in my setup).

I haven't had a chance to really listen to the RS-1 on any other setup than mine, though, so it could be something as simple as that. Again, good job on the review, Asr!
post #7 of 35
Another great review thread for the RS1. Well done Asr!
post #8 of 35
Quote:
The RS1 absolutely decimates the competition when it comes to delivering an intact, integrated, & participatory musical experience. I've heard many headphones so far, and none come close to the RS1's sense of life and energy. This headphone swings. It grooves. It dances. It excites. It throws down. It's the freakin' life of the party and it makes you want to MOVE! There are headphones where you want to sit down, close your eyes, and listen - and most headphones are best heard that way. The RS1 is the anti-thesis of those kinds of headphones - this is one best heard NOT sitting down. It has an inner spark that makes it sound alive with a ghost-in-the-machine kind of effect - and with the right music, it makes you want to stand up and groove!

In other words, the RS1 effortlessly translates "life" in a way that makes it sound active and not passive as other headphones tend to do. It's nearly as participatory as its Grado brethren - still that great Grado sound, only without all that harshness. It sizzles and snaps better than any other Grado I've heard, with a quick attack and long full decay too. Superb decay in fact, as it's the first headphone that actually allowed me to hear violin vibrato.
aka, rs-1's have PRAT (pace rhythm and timing). PRAT is what grados are all about, not spiked treble as you mention at the beginning of your review.

I would disagree that rs-1's have "close-to-flat & extended treble". Listen to some hp1000's or ps-1's and you might come to a different conclusion. :P

Biggie.
post #9 of 35
Asr,
nice write up. btw, you have excellent taste in music.

PACE
post #10 of 35
I feel that the RS1 is a far superior phone than the RS2 is.
post #11 of 35
nah, can't stand that highs in RS1, i'm better off with RS2
hmm.. the warmness..
post #12 of 35
Nice review Steve. I agree with just about everything, across the board. Except that I find RS-1 treble gently rolled off, above about 11khz.

IMHO it takes a pretty high end source and amp to get the tail ends of notes to clean/dry up, and resolve some of that detail you noted. The RS1 is not for everyone, your review pretty much nails why.
post #13 of 35
Nice review, and I agree with your conclusions. I auditioned the RS-1 against the MS-2 and found the MS-2 improves on several areas of the RS-1's weakness, including deep bass power and midrange detail. Oddly, I prefered the MS-2 over the much more expensive RS-1.
post #14 of 35
Nice review. I've thought about getting the rs1, but two things came up. First, the soundstage issue. I'm part of the group that thinks electronica is best served in a nice soundstage, and I knew my dt880 would beat the rs1 there. Second, comfort. Again, I knew my dt880 would beat the rs1 there, so all in all, upgradetitus was held back for another day

Thanks for the review
post #15 of 35
ASR, nice review. Just one question. I have some nice phones,some nice sources and some nice cables. Yet I feel the Grado's,soundstage not withstanding, are the most resolute of all. I do not quite understand how you feel these Grados are not "detailed" relative to other good phones.
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