Grado Reference Series One Headphones

Years ago, I uncovered a piece of my father's secret soul. Hidden in the back of a closet was a treasure trove I'd give anything to possess today. It was my father's stash of mementos from his service in the Eighth Air Force during WWII: his A-2 leather and lamb's-wool flight jacket, a silk scarf with a detailed topographic map of his Theater of Operations imprinted on it, his "50 mission hat" (an Air Corps-lid with the shaping frame removed, carefully crumpled through the middle so that every mother's son would know he was no FNG), his ruptured duck, and, thrust in one pocket, his old headsets—a pair of Bakelite earpieces held together with a leather-covered steel strap. They were funky-looking cans, but to me, they spoke of all of the nobility and courage displayed by the boys who flew over Fortress Europe. I don't actually remember ever plugging them into anything, but I sure wore them for years in every fantasy situation, from plucky French underground guerrilla to Wes Phillips Space Raaaangerrr!

1996gradors1.jpgI still have the ruptured duck and the scarf. The bloody, mud-encrusted jacket was cut off me by Emergency Room personnel, who decided that I was delirious when I insisted that I could stand the pain as they removed my swollen, fractured arm from the sleeve—and who, no doubt, assumed my screams were caused by my arm being jostled. I don't have a clue what happened to the hat or the headset.

So it was like being reunited with an old, dear friend when I opened the wooden presentation box containing the Grado Reference Series One headphones. There was the same steel band covered in leather, connecting retro-looking mahogany canisters. The RS1s don't seem techno; they look like they belong to an earlier age.

À la recherche du temps perdu
In one sense, these headphones do belong to an earlier age. When I visited Grado in Brooklyn last year, I was shown the facility, which harkens back to a time when small operations like it regularly made the stuff we used. Grado ain't no three-acre automated factory, that's for sure. It's located in a residential neighborhood, in a brownstone that was once John Grado's grandfather's produce store. These days, it's filled with lathes, winding machines, drills...the machine tools that it takes to produce Grado's cartridges and headphones.

The building whispered to me of a century of hard work; to John Grado, it must scream. "I started with [my uncle] Joe when I was 12 years old, sweeping the floors." Joe is the Grado who made the name an audiophile staple, manufacturing high-quality (and frequently cheap) phono cartridges. He also developed two different, superb, albeit quite unusual, tonearms—one in the '60s and one in the mid '80s. Before selling the company to nephew John, Joe designed and marketed a highly regarded series of headphones, the Grado Signature Series. "It was a challenge for us, knowing Joe was going to discontinue the Signature headphones," said John Grado. "We wanted to show that we were capable of innovating and being creative—everything I do was influenced by him, but I designed all of our current line of 'phones."

These have been phenomenally well-received. The Grado SR60 redefined people's expectations in affordable headphones and were easily driven by the low-powered outputs of portable tape- and CD-players. The SR80, SR125, and SR325 have all garnered praise from the audiophiles who use them. JA seldom travels without his SR125s and I number several Grados among my personal references. But the Reference Series One headphones represent a departure for Grado, by dint of both materials choice—wood!—and pricing.

"The idea of using wood just came to me one night," explained John Grado. "We went through quite a few species of wood before finding this mahogany—which type, we'll just keep our secret for the moment. When you're building speakers, you're supposed to want a dense, really hard wood—well, that's not mahogany. But it works really well—I don't always spend a lot of time figuring out why something works; sometimes I'm just satisfied that it does. Maybe the mahogany has a lower resonant frequency, or maybe its resonance just doesn't emphasize something in my driver—I'm not saying it would work in all cases, but it seems to work well with our driver."

I wondered what else makes the RS1 different from the rest of the line. "We fine-tuned the driver," he responded. "We paint a formula on them to control resonance—we call it 'de-stressing'; in the RS1, we do it twice, and very, very precisely. We damp the chassis behind the magnet cover. We also put a perforated cap on the driver, which tunes it further. I don't really like the word 'tweak,' but every component of the RS1 is very carefully chosen and very precisely adjusted—by ear, of course. We design by listening, so these 'phones are a reflection of what we like, of what we hear." Indeed, nothing seems to be unintentional about the RS1: Grado's product literature makes much of the sonic effects of the width and thickness of the stainless-steel spring that connects the earpieces; the glue that bonds the spring to the earpiece assembly; the length of the height-adjustment rods; the rear-screen material; the type of wire and number of turns in the voice coil; the shape and thickness of the driver cap; and many other seemingly small, er, tweaks.

A perpetual feast of nectar'd sweets where no crude surfeit reigns
I'd been building a backlog of interesting headphone-related products to review, so I took the opportunity of my examination of the RS1s as an invitation to an orgy of 'phone and 'phone-related listening. My primary source was the Audio Research CD1 CD player, which played through the Audio Alchemy HPA v1.0, or the McCormack Micro Integrated Drive, or the Melos SHA-Gold. Kimber Kable KCAG connected the source to the headphone amps. Everything rested upon DH Cones and was plugged into an API Power Wedge 112. I used several pairs of headsets for comparison, including the Grado SR80 and SR125, Sennheiser HD-580 and '580 Jubilee.

While I listened to a wide range of music during the audition period, I'm going to focus my comments on two songs: "Rasd al-dhil Bashraf Sammai," from this month's "Recording of the Month," by the Eduardo Paniagua group, and "Third Uncle," from Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy), remastered and Super-Bit-Mapped on Virgin's Eno Box II (Virgin 3 V23Z 39114 3-CD set)MDULMDNM. The Paniagua track (the whole disc, in fact) is a very special pairing of performer and recording. I received an advance copy a few months ago and just can't get enough of it—I've been playing it constantly. "Rasd..." is a killer track: The first 100 seconds are solo oud—the oud is an Arabian/Moorish instrument loosely related to the European lute—vigorously strummed, which is then submerged under one honking big frame drum (snared, or hung with rattles) and a smaller clay drum. The final two minutes have an end-blown flute, rebec, and tambourines joining in cacophonously—all in a wonderfully reverberant acoustic. Dynamics, complex overtones, lots of timbral color, oodles of low-level detail—this one has them all.

"Third Uncle" is a straight-up rock'n'roll rave: a stuttering bass-line that's joined by walls of screaming guitar distortion, chanted vocals, and athletic drumming. As I remarked to my wife after listening to MoFi's remastering of Sonic Youth's Goo, "Is there anything louder than an intellectual with a big amp?"

"One with a Marshall stack!" Joan riposted. Can't rightly argue with that logic—and "Third Uncle" sounds like Phil Manzanera is playing through the biggest stack you've ever seen, er, heard.

Citius, Altius, Fortius
The Reference Series Ones sound clean and dynamic. They portray music as an active art form, in that the tune really moves along through these cans. They have an immediate sense of warmth, detail, and dynamic va-va-va Voom that is well-nigh irresistible.

Through the Grados, the Paniagua track had incredible impact. The drums sounded huge and RIGHT THERE!, while the oud floated, warmly sustained by the weight of the air in the reverberant space. Eno's "Third Uncle" sounded massive and irrefutable, as if cops could break into crack-houses with it. Kablam! and they'd be in the living room.

But listening to those same songs with the $450 Sennheiser HD-580 Jubilee revealed a few details that the Grados, as enjoyable as they are, obscured. The Paniagua Group's immense drum lost a lot of shuddering impact with the Jubilees, but hidden in all of the massive sound was telling minutiae, such as the rattles strung snarelike across the drum's membrane. The Grado, looser in the bottom octaves, emphasized that sense of slam, which, attractive as it was, did not truly reveal all that was on the recording.

Similarly, the attack transient on the oud, sounded spectacularly vivid through the Grados, but the rapid decay of the string tone lacked particulars. The Sennheisers did not have that same level of excitement on the attack, but they did bring out a lot of gut-string warmth and room-informed decay.

The Sennheisers clearly revealed the analog origins of "Third Uncle" by passing through tape hiss undiminished. It was barely audible through the Grados.

Spatial-recreation, such as it is when using headphones, is also not the RS1s' strong point. I might be tempted to ascribe that to the supra-aural nature of the beast—the transducer sits right on the ear—except for one thing: The Grado SR80s and '125s, also supra-aural, both sound more spacious than the RS1. I'm no engineer, so take my conjecture with a grain of salt, but I have to wonder if—in their careful "de-stressing" of the transducer—Grado doesn't actually over-damp the diaphragm. This would explain the loss of spatial and ambient information and the blurring (obscuring, actually) of low-level detail.

Just one more thing, I'm your prototypical glasses-wearing geek, and I found the spring-steel headband intensely uncomfortable if I wore the headphones for any length of time. The band pressed the earpieces against my ears, where they dug into my glasses frames, which in turn clamped the nose-pads on my spectacles firmly into my nose. If you can follow that logic, you will understand me when I say that wearing the RS1s for prolonged periods made my ears and nose hurt.

Glancing over the above, I realize that I haven't sufficiently given the Reference Series Ones their due. I enjoyed listening to them because of the excitement and musical momentum they brought me. Despite some discomfort, I found them fun—and I do believe that that's what this music stuff is all about. But seven hundred clams is a lot of moolah, and Grado himself has set a very high standard with his more-affordable headphones—one that I wonder if he has truly surpassed with the RS1s. Personally, I find the SR125s more extended and less colored (and have been told that the SR325s are even better). On the other hand, I have some very savvy audiophile friends who are just ecstatic in their praise of the RS1s (see Jack English's Sidebar to this review). If you value headphone listening enough to consider buying a reference dynamic, then you should audition the RS1s. But listen carefully and for a long time.

Grado Laboratories
4614 Seventh Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11220
(718) 435-5340