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Grado Labs RS2e – The ‘Little’ Reference Grado doesn’t play 2nd fiddle…

Pros – 

  • Energetic, lively mid-forward tone is an instrument-lover’s delight
  • Feather-light construction
  • Timeless, old-world mahogany + leather design
  • Value-pick of the Grado range

Cons – 

  • Spartan packaging and presentation
  • Heavy, cumbersome, non-detachable cable
  • Long-term comfort on stock L-Cush pads

“I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.” – Ron Burgundy


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One of the most basic tests I ask myself when reviewing a pair of headphones is this: “Will this set of cans make me want to enjoy music as often as possible?”. Sure, it can be fun to approach HiFi from a measurement, gear and science point-of-view, but at the end of the day if it doesn’t transport you somewhere else and make you forget you have something perched on-top of your head, then there’s something missing in my books.

There’s a few different ‘philosophies’ that can help achieve maximum music enjoyment, for me at least. Let’s start with the Sennheiser HD650, for example. It’s a pretty unremarkable piece of design – a utilitarian, grey, plastic-affair with all the artistic-flair of a late-90’s microwave. But, when fed well-recorded and amplified music, it delivers a syrup-y, emotional musical experience in spades – it’s most definitely a case of function > form, but it makes you want to listen more, and it makes it a difficult proposition to want to take them off your head…despite the plastic aesthetic and the need to connect to a relatively high-powered source to have the pleasure of listening.

Next, there’s sheer convenience and form-factor. Can I be anywhere, anytime, and simply fire-up any tune I want in a matter of seconds? Cue my Aventho Wireless, from Beyerdynamic (for example). They’ll never win a head-to-head with any other full-size set of audiophile cans, but they’ll stow themselves inconspicuously in my work-bag, and I can have them hooked-up to my smartphone via AptX Bluetooth in seconds, streaming any tune that pops into my head that I just have to hear that instant via Tidal, Google Play, or locally-stored files.

So there’s sound a) sound quality, b) convenience, and that leaves c) – something else a little more intangible that can make headphone listening a little bit more of a…ceremony. An experience that’s a bit more considered, and memorable. You’ll probably hear the same arguments thrown around by those who cling to vinyl as a format despite the cost and inconvenience. Or those who enjoy the reward and pleasure in restoring and driving a vintage car – it just makes you want to enjoy your hobby more, rather than it being something that gets you from “A to B”.

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Cutting to the chase, I went and bought myself a pair of Grado Labs RS2e’s. Now, I already own several capable pairs of headphones – some much more expensive, and some more ‘technically’ adept. But there’s something about the combination of mahogany, leather, and more than a bit of the Grado family’s philosophy in the end-product that make listening feel remarkable.

So why did I choose the RS2e? There’s more than a few headphones to pick from in the Grado Labs range, starting with the relatively simple plastic-affair that is the $119AUD SR60e that opens the ‘Prestige’ series; and ending with the polished chrome of the $3,499AUD PS2000e from the ‘Professional’ series. Every set of Grado cans is hand-made in their Brooklyn NY factory, and I suspect not a great deal has changed around there technology-wise since they started building several decades ago. And it’s the hand-crafted charm of the wooden ‘Reference’ series that sits in the middle of the Grado range that for me, sums them up best. Carved out of single pieces of Mahogany, the cups of the RS1e and RS2e look like they could equally live on your mantlepiece, in addition to the top of your noggin.

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Halfway through the production run of this current run of ‘Reference’ series, Grado swapped-out the black leather headband for a light tan-coloured one, and when I saw pictures of them online, I knew I had to audition them. And when I finally had the chance to pick them up, articulate the wooden cups on the gimbals, admire the unique colourations of those particular pieces of mahogany, and smell the leather of the headband, it was a ‘done deal’.

Now, I’m not writing this article from the perspective of a massive Grado-phile, getting into the minutiae of the nuances and differences between the different models – there’s plenty of deep, dark forum posts elsewhere online that get into all that. I’m writing this more for someone who likes the idea of listening to music with more intent, and getting the most out of their experience with it – and is wondering about different approaches to audiophile headphones.

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Having said that, I’ll just briefly say that I preferred the sound of the RS2e to the RS1e, and the fact that it’s $250AUD cheaper was very nice indeed. I’ll spend that $250 on music, a night out with friends, or good beer (and just about anything else) any day of the week, over worrying about whether or not I’m listening to a ‘better’ set of cans.

So, getting to the point I was starting to make – I listen to music a LOT (at least 5 + albums a day), but I’m listening to music every possible chance I can get with these cans – I just love getting these headphones out of their box, and firing-up tunes that immediately put a smile on my face. They look beautiful and sound exciting.

 

Packaging and presentation

Grado headphones are ubiquitously well-known for their spartan packaging, affectionately (or non-affectionately…) known as the ‘Pizza Box’. It’s a cardboard box with a foam insert, and in terms of accessories, there’s a 3.5mm > 6.3mm stereo adapter. That’s it.

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Some headphones come with luxurious, protective and considerate boxing and accessories (my ZMF Eikon Pelican case is perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum…), but Grado has obstinately chosen to stick with this minimalist approach. Would more comprehensive packaging drive-up costs? Absolutely. Would I prefer a better case? Absolutely. Would I prefer a manufacturer focus on giving the best product, at the best price? Absolutely. So in that case, you’re looking at an after-market case if you’re planning on taking your Grados anywhere.

 

Build, comfort, live-ability

Lift them out of the box, and the first thing you notice is that they’re almost impossibly light. Weighing next-to-nothing, they’re not going to give you any fatigue in the slightest, versus, say, the Audeze LCD range, ZMF, etc. The beautifully carved, engraved and stained mahogany cups are the only real thing that say ‘premium’ about the RS2e’s – aside from a leather headband, the simple plastic gimbal, rod-block and swivel mechanism comes straight from the SR60e. It’s a minimalist build-approach but manages to work just fine on my head. Clamp-force is perfect but easily adjustable by simply bending the thin metal band that sits sandwiched between the two layers of leather in the headband.

And then there’s the cable.

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I’m not the first person to talk about the Grado cable, and I won’t be the last. Starting at the earcups, there’re two permanently attached plastic-coated wires that join together in a pretty hefty plastic Y-splitter about 12 inches below, which then form into a cable that’s at least as thick and non-pliable as a kettle power-cord. It literally feels like it weighs more than the headphones themselves. It’s about 4 feet in length total, terminating in a 3.5mm cord. To me, it’s a bit of a compromise in every regard: it’s not quite long enough for proper home HiFi listening, and too cumbersome for more transportable listening. The fact that they’ve gone with a 3.5mm connector is a ‘nod’ to the sign-of-the-times that more people are looking for more convenient, mobile listening, but given it’s a completely open-back design, it’s certainly not going to be the best public transport option. Looking at it ‘glass-half-full’, it’s certainly not going to break or strain in a hurry. One can surmise that the Grado family have opted for quality-first, over compromise. Sure, it’d be great if there were detachable 2.5/3.5mm connectors at each ear cup (which is one of the first things that many do in the Grado aftermarket/DIY field), but you also can’t help but think this would make the RS2e’s feel a little bit less…Grado-y.

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Besides having to wrangle the cable every now and again, wearing them is a breeze thanks to their light construction. The stock L-Cushions sit just around my (admittedly smallish) ears, and I’m able to wear them for several hours before getting slight pressure on my ears. My fiancé can’t last that long – she’s able to manage an hour at best before having to take a break. Swap-out to the G-Cush that comes standard on the GS1000/2000e and PS1000/2000e, and comfort is improved several-fold. Being far wider in circumference, that fully envelope the ear and distribute the weight even more evenly. There’s some sonic trade-off, which I’ll touch on later.

 

Driving + amplification 

At 99.8 dB sensitivity (SPL 1mW) and 32 ohms impedance, the RS2e’s are easily driven by just-about-anything. They’re not at all picky about source or amplification, meaning that you’re not faced with having to invest in exorbitantly powerful, expensive, or specced equipment to get the most out of them.

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I’ll happily use them plugged directly into my Samsung Galaxy S9+, but given I have decent equipment at work (Audioquest Dragonfly Black); home (Emotiva BasX A100) and on-the-go (Chord Mojo + Poly), I tend to power to RS2e’s with them to get the most out of my source material. One match I quite enjoy is with my NAD C356BEE integrated stereo receiver which I have my vinyl chain plugged into, and also with my NAD D3020 digital hybrid amp, which is set-up in my bedroom (playing Tidal via Chromecast Audio into the optical-in).

Long story short, they’ll easily pair with almost any source, without worrying about whether you’re “missing out” on anything.

 

Sound quality

reference
ˈrɛf(ə)r(ə)ns/
“the use of a source of information in order to ascertain something.”

The RS2e’s are not a neutral, ‘reference’ pair of headphones (despite their moniker), nor are they a bass-heavy set of cans. Their voicing is definitely coloured towards the Grado ‘house sound’ – forward and energetic mids; clear, dry ‘spicey’ highs; and taut, articulate bass that rolls-off quickly, and is more ‘musical’ than ‘slam’. They’ll tell you the truth alright, but it’ll be a very enthusiastic version of the truth.

If you’re a Grado-lover (like I am), then you’ll appreciate the immediacy and intimacy in the mids – acoustic guitars and male voices, in particular, are incredibly lifelike. I’ve never heard a more enjoyable version of Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling into Place” (from “In Rainbows”) than through the RS2e’s.

Grado’s are swiftly-recommended for rock music, and with good reason – they make it ‘come alive’. Their speed (ability to move from one distinct note to the next while dealing with the decay from the former) is remarkable, and that mid-forward focus makes snares and distorted guitars have incredible attack. “Hummer” (from “Siamese Dream) by The Smashing Pumpkins is a treat on the Grados, with several layers of guitar tracked over one another, which the RS2e’s present with an energetic snarl.

And then there’s Jazz – these present the most realistic saxophone and live jazz sound I’ve ever heard. John Coltrane’s “Like Someone in Love” (from “Lush Life”), sounds liquid, and right in front of you.

Switching-out the L-Cush to the G-Cush, and they become an altogether different pair of headphones. That 1-5K mid peak takes a back seat, becoming almost laid-back – John Coltrane takes three steps backwards, but the soundscape ‘opens-up’. The RS2e’s don’t have a very wide soundstage (more of an intimate ‘head-stage’), but the G-Cush give it a more ‘atmospheric effect’. The sub-bass impact becomes increased, and the highs are cooled slightly by around 2-3dB according to my ears. While the G-Cush seems to take-away what makes the RS2e ‘special’, it is remarkable that you have an almost altogether different set of headphones on your hands when you pad-roll. For me, I’ll stick to the L-Cush for more detail-oriented and energetic music; but for more relaxed sessions, gaming and hip-hop I’ll pop-on the G-Cush.

Yes, I did say gaming in that last sentence. I’m sure the last thing the Grado family expected was for their handmade audiophile headphones to be used in online First Person Shooters, but for me, their light weight and excellent imaging make for a great set of gaming cans!

 

Final thoughts

At the $650-mark (Australian), they’re up against some pretty serious competition from other manufacturers, as well as Grado’s cheaper offerings as well. I’ve owned most of the Sennheiser HD series, almost every type of Beyerdynamic and several Audeze as well. And I’ve traded, sold, or passed-on most of them with little emotion. Yet I think these little RS2e’s are somehow going to end-up getting passed-down to my kids, or grandkids (if I can bring myself to let go of them!). Not only are they a detailed and energetic listen, but they’re a work of craftsmanship, and steeped in tradition. And sometimes, it’s the feeling as much as the statistics that count. They’re not perfect, but sometimes ‘perfect’ can get a little boring.

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At this price, for what they deliver sonically and visually, I think they’re a steal. When you start thinking about ‘cost per wear’, in a couple of years time, we’re talking about a buck a day. And in 10 years time, we’re talking about 17c a day. But enjoying your favourite music, day-in, day-out, well that’s something else altogether. I think the folks at MasterCard had a word for it…?

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