There are very few headphone companies in the audiophile sphere that share the long heritage of Grado headphones. The Brooklyn-based brand has been around since the beginning, producing turntable cartridges, accessories and perhaps most importantly to this piece, open back headphones. It’s quite an unusually wide stable of products, but the personal audio market has been moving along steadily for the family business. For better or for worse, the old school Grado way of doing things has been a large part of the DNA of all products designed by the group. The newer exceptions being a run of in-ears, the bluetooth enabled GW100 and a pair of true wireless earphones.
The subject of this review is however, something that taps into the deep roots of Grado, known predominantly for their wood/plastic/metal open-back headphones. As part of the Reference Series, the RS2x is the newest update to wood-backed offerings before things launch into the more luxury range provided by the Statement Series. Much has been updated into the “x” generation, including the new x series drivers and a hemp-infused maple hybrid housing. Grado had previously released a limited run “420” headphone to much acclaim, so it may come as no surprise that the newest RS2 incorporates some of that sweet hemp mojo into the mix, literally. Like the rest of Grado’s headphones, the RS2x is an open back “open air” design that offers up a lot of ventilation to the sonics. This element is perhaps one of the most open in the market, and provides plenty of off-the-head psychoacoustics and also a high cooling factor for hot ears. The only trade off really, is that there isn’t much room left for isolation. Outside bleed from the Grado RS2x is fairly prominent, but a non-issue for anyone listening at home or a private space.
Fit and finish of the headphone is tight for the $500 range of audiophile headphones. One of the more Grado-like things is the easily replaceable (and updateable) earpads. The RS2x ships with the foam L cushions which sit very light on the head. Compared to much of the bulk found in this price range, the new Grado is as easy on the head as it is on the ears. The suspension system tends to put an emphasis on the top section of the earcup, but caliper pressure is right where I prefer it and doesn’t slip off the head with any sort of sudden movement. There is still a slight vintage feel to the design, and the headphone looks right at home sitting next to any fine mid century furniture or a tumbler filled with 3 fingers of small batch whiskey. The headband is covered with nice leather material with contrast stitching, a solid upgrade from the plastic variant I had on my first pair of Grado SR80’s years ago. You can’t remove the soldered-on cable (easily, anyways), but you can custom order your pair from Grado’s 4OurEar’s website with an XLR termination – if that is more your speed. The included cable is also sheathed in a durable weave pattern, another upgrade from your typical rubberlike coating found in headphones like the Sennheiser HD600/650 group.
Perhaps one of the most impressive feats of the Grado RS2x is its uncanny ability to give you an “out of the head” experience. The extra open back design leads to an extra open sound, where instruments and backing vocals are wide and further out than many headphones on the market. This openness is accompanied by a slight emphasis in the treble, but doesn’t come off as annoying or intrusive in any way. The detailed treble also leads to amazing spatial cues, allowing for not only a definitive sense of air and breathe, but also dimensionality and instrument placement. Listening to Fire In The Sky from Anderson .Paak off of the Shang-Chi and the Legend Of The Ten Rings Soundtrack, it was easy to pick out a lightly strummed guitar from the center mix, along with more urethral textures that dance around throughout the song – it was almost enough to make one forget how horrible the bass drum sample sound was, no that’s not your speaker slightly distorting – its in the recording. The tinkle of piano and the ever-so-elegant painting of orchestra sounds pull in the rest of the slack (along with killer chill vibes fo the songwriting). The drivers manage to handle the more complex passages well, and don’t muddy up the waters in their sonic delivery of subtle tones. Compared to our reference Audeze LCD-5 headphone, the Grado RS2x had a little less mid bass, but with a solid sub bass presentation. This is a sound that I often find myself falling in love with. Some of my favorite IEMs by Jerry Harvey also pulled off a similar trick just as well. A great foundation that thumps, pushing for greater clarity in the low region without adding too much, or leaving out any of the fun. Generous portions of mid bass can no doubt appeal to bassheads, but for a more constructed approach, building up from a sub floor provides an extra interesting listen for some musical choices. Even though the album might be a little long in the tooth for some, I still find myself drawn to Billie Eilish’s When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? for more bass evaluations. Finneas O’Connell’s production of the album has deep roots in the electronic sounds of Logic Pro X Plug Ins, and the bass region does well to articulate not only the idea and feel of the song, but also curvature of frequency response in this area. Of course the drop near the end of Bad Guy will test the extremities of your speakers, but in the Grado RS2x, they managed to pull a similar high end feel and they dipped way down into the depths of what would normally be jaw rattling frequencies. There is a tidy and neat characteristic here that lacks all the looseness or out-of-control whooly lambast of lesser, over-bassed cans. That over-bassed effect is good for a shock perhaps, but nothing you might want to consume for a main course day in and day out.
Overall, the big air and space of the Grado RS2x is likely the leading characteristic that sticks out from the evaluation. A hard technique to master in a world of drivers that often strive for the low hanging fruit of intimacy and detail. That’s not to say the RS2x isn’t either of those things, but rather it excels at that bigger test of realism of one’s day to day listening experience. Real music very rarely is a 2” whisper in your ear, a slight downfall of the personal audio category some might say. But the subtle course correction from the RS2x brings a fun, big picture to the party. Vocals also appear concise, and focused with the rest of the spectrum.
The Grado RS2x doesn’t deviate too far from the Grado house sound or looks. It’s a vintage feel that is slightly less aggressive than some of the company’s other models. Credit could be due to the new driver or wood choice, but the entire scene makes for a fairly desirable canvas in the lineup. If you also like to tweak and tinker, the cup design allows for plenty of opportunity to easily swap out the earpads for other options. It offers an extended hand to all Grado fans looking to move up the line from ultra high value, entry level models. Like the rest of high end audio, diminishing returns are found as you set your gaze upward, but plenty of fun and listenability still await your hard earned dollars. If you are a fan of the Grado sound, you owe it to yourself to hear the R2x. It’s one of the best takes I’ve ever heard on the subject.
More info: Grado RS2x