“Heritage Matters” is the motto printed on every box that leaves the Brooklyn NY headquarters of renowned US headphone (and phono cartridge!) maker Grado Labs. One quick glance at any of their products is enough to tell you that “Heritage” is certainly a philosophy that runs deep through their company, which has been owned and operated by three generations of the Grado clan since they first opened their doors way back in 1953.
When you look at the way that Grado’s headphone models have developed over time, gradual is a word that comes to mind. While each successive series has included incremental improvements over the last, every Grado headphone series has stuck to a tried and proven formula of being a) open-backed, b) fitted with a non-detachable cable (barring the Grado GW100 Wireless Series Headphone, of course), c) equipped with traditional dynamic drivers, d) completely built by hand, and most interestingly, e) tuned by ear!
So when a company that has one foot firmly planted in the past brings out an updated headphone line-up, it’s certainly worth paying attention to see what they’ve done in order to breathe new life into their range of headphones, loved equally for their musical abilities as well as their distinctive artisanal design. Grado Labs announced in 2021 that their “e” series of headphones was being replaced by an all-new “x” series, beginning with the roll-out of their most affordable line of headphones, the “Prestige” series. And now, these have been joined by an overhauled pair of headphones that form their “Reference” series, arguably the most important benchmark in their headphone stables: the all-new RS1x and $749 Grado RS2x Reference Series Headphones - the latter being both the entry-point into the timber upper-echelon of the Grado headphone range as well as the subject of this review.
As a long-time Grado fan, having owned and reviewed many of their headphones over the years, the RS2e was my firm pick of the “e” series in terms of its value-to-performance ratio as well as its understated, old-school charm. You could say that I was more than curious to hear how Grado went about tweaking an already classic pair of headphones, so let’s take a look at what’s been changed in this remastering of their most affordable wooden “Reference” headphones.
Grado RS2x - what’s new?
The “Reference” series from Grado has long been synonymous with wooden construction, with one particular type being their go-to timber since day dot: mahogany. However, after a few years of dabbling with different wood varieties with the release of various limited-edition models, Grado decided to take a pass on mahogany this time around, instead opting to go with an unusual pairing of two very different types of wood. The RS2x features a “sandwich” type combination of solid maple for the outer and inner-most edges cups, and the same unique hemp-fibre composite for the inner part of the cups that was used in their “Hemp Headphones” (check out Stephen’s article Grado Hemp Limited Edition Headphones for an in-depth look at these).
Grado doesn’t choose their timber varieties by accident - maple and hemp have each been chosen for the sonic qualities that they impart, and Grado explains that they’ve gone with this approach due to its “warm and embracing tonal abilities”. The finish on the cups is excellent, and the transition from maple to hemp, back to maple is nigh-imperceptible. The RS2x is one classy-looking little pair of headphones, and have a real “heirloom” vibe to them.
The RS2x’s new aesthetic is a little more striking and eye-catching than the more traditional-looking RS2 models that preceded it, but it’s still 100% classic Grado - no doubt about it. Gone are the old engraved model designation and maker’s mark on the outer side of the cups - the RS2x appears to be emblazoned with laser-etched writing which firmly marks it as a member of the esteemed “Reference Series”.
The other “all-new” aspect of the RS2x’s design is the cable. Before you ask, yes, it’s still very firmly attached at the earcups. But, like its “x”-series Prestige stablemates it’s now been sheathed in black woven fabric, giving it a more premium and durable feel over the black plastic of the outgoing “e”-series. The 1.8-metre cable consists of no less than 8 conductor wires underneath to ensure a faithful transmission of audio signals and is terminated in a rugged 3.5mm single-ended jack for connection to a wide range of portable devices, plus an included 6.3mm adapter for home hifi use and pairing with a dedicated headphone amplifier.
The RS2x features the same classic Grado “furniture” that’s used on every model in their lineup: a pair of plastic gimbals that connect to the earcups that are joined to the headband via a pair of thin aluminium rods. It’s a very simple and lightweight design, and I’ve always found that it’s easily adjustable and works well - there’s nothing fussy going on here, (same as it’s always been). The headband is the same familiar lightly-padded black leather strap used on many of the other upper-tier Grado headphones, although this time around it’s sporting some new white stitching to mark out the RS2x as slightly different.
Under the hood is where the most important changes lie in the new RS2x. An all-new 44mm, 4th-Generation “X Driver” that’s been specially tuned for the new RS2x has been partnered with the two-timber earcups, working in tandem to create a sound that’s unique to this particular model. More powerful magnets motivate the reconfigured diaphragm in the RS2x’s dynamic drivers to create sound between a claimed 14 Hz and 28kHz in terms of frequency response, and each pair of drivers are tested to ensure they are matched to a tolerance no greater than .05 of a decibel before they leave the production line. Like all Grado headphones, the RS2x is both a low-impedance (38 ohms) and high-sensitivity (99.8 dB) design, making it easy to extract a good performance and easily reach loud volumes from low-powered sources including phones, laptops and portable devices.
Grado RS2x - user experience
Like most Grado headphones, the RS2x ships in the standard Grado “pizza box” - a lightweight cardboard situation that houses the headphones securely in a foam cutout. I applaud Grado’s decision to avoid unnecessary cost and frills here - I’d much rather have the savings go into focusing on delivering sonic enjoyment above all else. The only accessory to speak of is a 6.3mm headphone jack - it’s a Spartan, refreshingly old-school experience that invites you to simply take them out of the box, plug them in, and start playing music without any fuss or ceremony.
It goes without saying that as an open-back design, the RS2x offers no isolation whatsoever (but you knew that already…right?). Wearing them is a completely open-air experience - they are one of the most open-sounding headphones I’ve come across, and you’ll be able to hear anything happening around you, providing you’re not listening too loudly. The same goes for sound going outward - if you have someone sitting close by, there’s a good chance they’ll get to know your listening preferences rather quickly.
With the introduction of their 4th Generation “X Drivers”, Grado Labs took a slightly different approach to the earpads that they pair with each model. While their three entry-level headphone models, the SR60x, SR80x and SR125x, continue to use the same “S Cush” pad (flat pads that cover the driver), the SR225x and SR325x featured a new “F Cush” pad which sits flush against the ear, but also has a cut-out section exposing the driver underneath. Rather than continuing this trend with the release of the “x” models in the Reference Series, both the RS1x and RS2x are equipped with the “L Cush” pads, a carry-over from previous generations. The “L Cush” pads have a cut-out that exposes the driver underneath, yet provide some cushioning around the ears as well, making them somewhat of an over-ear fit for this reviewer’s ears - although those of you with larger ears may find that they are more of an on-ear fit.
The RS2x weighs practically nothing - its minimalist, skeletal frame combined with the lightweight wooden construction makes for a featherweight weigh-in as far as full-sized audiophile headphones go. While the padding on the headband isn’t exactly thick, it’s more than ample given how little work it needs to actually do to defeat gravity. The RS2x’s clamping force is adequate enough to keep them affixed comfortably to your head without squeezing the life out of you, and since there’s just a simple steel band under the leather headband all it takes is a bend inward or outward to find a fit that suits you.
While the cable’s outer material is all-new, it still very much feels like a solid, substantial affair that’s best suited to stationary, home listening. It’s not quite so long and cumbersome that you can’t wear the RS2x around with you on the go while listening to a portable device - I tried it, and it’s definitely do-able - but it’s girthy enough that it will drag the delicate RS2x off your desk if your cable falls to the floor. Hey, at least it gives you confidence that it won’t get chewed-up and destroyed by the wheelies on your home office chair that’ll happily have your IEM cables for breakfast.
Listening to the Grado RS2x
“Reference” is an interesting label for a piece of audio equipment, and it’s also a phrase that’s bandied around quite a bit in audiophilia. “Reference”, in my books, is a term that denotes a reliable, truthful benchmark by which you can judge other things, meaning that you can settle in for a listening session that’s faithful to the source. Grado headphones, generally speaking, are rather coloured in that they have a particular “house sound” that’s exciting, aggressive and focuses on a crunchy, forward mid-range with a forthright, crystalline treble. A couple of their headphone they released recently I found to buck this trend slightly - namely the Hemp Headphone and the SR325x - with a more relaxed tuning, a generous dollop of mid-bass, and an overall more balanced tuning that I feel is more aimed towards the casual listener rather than the hardcore “Grado-phile”.
It only took a couple of bars’ worth of A Perfect Circles’ “Judith” to realise that the RS2x has an unashamedly classic, old-school Grado tuning. The chugging guitars attacked crisply, and the percussion hit with a real sense of electricity. There’s nothing relaxed nor laid-back about the RS2x, they constantly give you the sense that they are alive and brimming with energy and give you an immediate, urgent connection to whatever track it is that you’re listening to.
The RS2x’s voicing is tilted toward the upper registers, and they’re a pretty lean-sounding headphone with bass rolling away rather quickly below 80Hz. They also don’t have the same mid-bass warmth that gives the Hemp Headphone its signature relaxed, weighty character. That said, they do a pretty convincing job of conveying all the low-end goodness in Daft Punk’s “Something About Us”, dispatching the bass notes in a taut, punchy and overall fun sort of way. I wouldn’t say that the RS2x is an all-out master of all genres, but they simply shine when it comes to conveying the realism and nuances in live music - particularly when it comes to stringed instruments of the plucked, strummed and bowed variety. Eric Clapton’s guitar in his unplugged track “Old Love” is about as good as it gets - the RS2x practically puts you right there in Bray Studios, where his classic “MTV Unplugged” album was recorded.
While the SR325x ups the ante in terms of treble energy and extension over the Hemp Headphone, the RS2x provides an absolute masterclass in dexterity and micro-detail that I simply haven’t heard in a Grado headphone to date. It just resolves things so quickly and has a real sense of depth in addition to its believably-wide soundstage. I’m used to Grados sounding energetic and occasionally brash, but this combination of maple, hemp, and the new X Drivers sounds genuinely classy - reference even, for lack of a better word. Not only is the forward upper midrange and upper treble front-and-centre, but the way in which the RS2x deals with fast transients and is able to deal with complex, multi-tracked passages of music is both technically impressive and immensely enjoyable. The RS2x’s technicalities are further improved thanks to its incredibly organic tone, which sound as though the maple/hemp driver housings are imparting a harmonic resonance that makes the slightly lingering decay of piano and saxophone notes in Bob Reynold’s “Quartet” feel a step-up over the more dense tone and less nuanced soundstage of the (still very impressive) SR325x.
The RS2x ate up everything I threw at it (save perhaps, some very bass-heavy electronica and hip hop), and it rewarded with foot-tapping enjoyment in spades. Classic rock is the RS2x’s jam. From Jimi Hendrix to The Allman Brothers (and everything in between), the younger sibling in the “Reference Series” took every older recording and re-breathed new life into them. Classical-music lovers will get a real kick out of the dynamic drama and the “air” that the RS2x creates around individually-distinct parts. The new Deutsche Grammophon recording of “The Berlin Concert” with John Williams conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker is an exceptional recording, and the RS2x does it more than justice. “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” evokes all the fun and thrills of watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for the first time all over again.
Grado RS2x - Powering and source equipment
The great thing about the RS2x, like basically all Grado headphones, is that they’ll perform brilliantly on just about anything. Plug them into your phone (if it has a headphone jack), a laptop, or even the headphone jack in your stereo receiver and you’re off to the races. The RS2x shone on the brilliant Astell&Kern A&futura SE200 Digital Audio Player, needing only to be turned up to “45” (out of 150 volume increments) for an enjoyable listen through Thom Yorke’s “Anima” album streamed via Qobuz. You certainly won’t feel as if you’re “missing out” on much if you plan on pairing the RS2x with a modestly-powered portable device, that’s for sure.
The burlier Astell&Kern ACRO CA1000 Desktop Amplifier & DAC, with a full 15 volts of output available in “Super” mode is much more of a “desktop” device by virtue of its bulkier design and form factor. The CA1000 lent the RS2x a dose more authority and tonal mass when played in “High” mode, which I felt gave the best playable volume range.
The RS2x does reward the listener when paired with a discrete headphone amplifier, and it was a brilliant pairing with the excellent “Funk” headphone (and speaker!) amplifier from Burson Audio. With headroom a-plenty thanks to having 3 Watts of all Class-A power on tap, the Funk gripped those new 44mm drivers with plenty of sure-footed authority and added a fraction more warmth and 3-dimensionality to the RS2x’s sound compared to the aforementioned battery-powered devices. See Stephen’s review for more on the Burson Audio Funk Headphone & Speaker Amplifier if this sounds like something you might be interested in adding to your desktop.
Swapping earpads with Grado headphones is a cinch, being able to simply slip on and off the inside edge of the driver cups. Swapping earpads also gives you markedly different listening experiences on the RS2x, giving you the ability to impart different sonic “tweaks” on its voicing. The “F Cush” earpads from the SR325x bring the driver physically closer to your ear, but also make the RS2x feel a lot more “intimate” as a result. The RS2x’s sense of air in the upper register takes a step back, and conversely, they receive an injection of added mid-bass shove.
Switching over the to larger “G cush”, which is fitted to the higher-tier “Statement” and “Professional”-series Grado headphones turns the RS2x into a genuine over-ear headphone, moving the driver further away from your ear than the stock L Cush pads and sitting comfortably around your ears. The RS2x is a degree more comfortable with these larger pads fitted, but their sound is even more markedly changed. The RS2x’s forthright mid-range - the star of the show - becomes somewhat recessed, making the lower bass and treble regions feel more pronounced by comparison for a more “V-shaped” signature. The G Cush pads make the RS2x feel like a substantially wider-sounding pair of headphones, and while I did miss their signature intimacy, it does present you with an option to add another dimension to their sound if you feel like changing things up. All in all, I agree wholeheartedly that the stock L Cush pads that are paired with the RS2x are the right choice, and they were definitely tuned with them in mind.
Grado RS2x - final thoughts
While it may be the junior sibling in the new evolution of the Grado “Reference” series, the RS2x is anything but “entry-level” when it comes to providing a first-rate audiophile experience. From the aesthetics of the new maple/hemp hybrid construction to the technically adept yet entirely musical voicing of the new drivers, the RS2x presents an attainable yet noticeable step up in the Grado Labs headphone family.
What makes a pair of Grado headphones feel different to every other option on the market is the emotion that you get from them. From the moment you lift them out of the box you feel immediately connected to the place they come from, and the philosophy of the family who makes them - you can even see the hand-written serial number on the drivers! When many things in this world are getting more complicated and feeling ever more mass-produced and commoditised, a headphone like the RS2x can make the most analogue experience of all - listening to music - a delight that simply winds back the clock and makes the rest of the world drift away.