Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Grado Labs' headphones are perennial audiophile favorites, with support running all the way to its budget line. We've reviewed some of those "entry level" models here at CNET--including the $69 SR80s, and the $150 --so we were curious about how Grado's top-of-the-line Reference Series models would sound. Donning a set of RS-2s, we felt right at home--the $500 (list price) headphone feels much like the more affordable models while exponentially improving the sound. The RS-2s are essentially the same as Grado's flagship RS-1 headphones, except there is a smaller wooden air chamber and a slightly narrower range of frequency response.
The low-end Grados are mostly made of plastic and metal, so the first things you notice about the RS-2s are their mahogany wood ear cups, their machined metal parts, and their real leather headband. The handcrafted wood parts are said to be specially cured over many production steps in an effort to perfect the "Grado sound." The left and right drivers are matched to extremely high tolerances. Also crucial to the sound are the ultra-high-purity, long-crystal (UHPLC) oxygen-free copper cables and high-power neodymium magnets. The seven-foot-long double-sided cable terminates in a gold-plated 1/4-inch plug. It's also worth noting that the RS-2s carry an impedance rating of 32 ohms--far more efficient than the 120 ohms to 300 ohms of competing high-end headphones. That extra efficiency allows the RS-2 to work with your iPod, but the Grados still won't play all that loud and might not cut it with wimpier MP3 players. They're best suited to plug into an A/V receiver or other home stereo equipment.
Flightplan, a thriller starring Jodie Foster, sounded spectacular over the Grado RS-2s. We not only felt every tremor and shudder of the gigantic plane, we heard even the most subtle details, such as the ice cubes rattling the passengers' plastic beverage cups. The combination of an engrossing film and an impressive set of headphones made it feel as though the RS-2s disappeared and the sound seemed to be coming from far outside the actual confines of the headphones.
By comparison, the ($550) have a lot more bass, but they're boomier than the RS-2s. The RS-2s certainly aren't lacking in deep bass, but they're tighter and firmer, with significantly better pitch-defined bass than the 650s. Led Zeppelin's Presence CD rocked out over the RS-2s but felt (comparatively) just a little blah on the HD 650s. With the RS-2s, the sound wraps itself around your head and puts you in the room with the musicians. The music's dynamic punch and speed have the quality of live sound.
The Grado RS-2's big foam ear pads aren't as soft or comfortable as those of other high-end headphones we've tested, such as the , the , and the . This is partially because the foam is relatively stiff and applies more pressure on your ears. We also noted that the cable is stiffer and bulkier than average. At the end of the day, though, the RS-2s' big-hearted sound won us over. It's more vivid than that of other high-quality headphones--bass is reach- and touch-realistic, midrange is clear and true, and treble livelier than any other headphones we've tried. We never tired of the RS-2s' sound, but if its price is out of reach, go ahead and audition the Grado SR325s ($300), a close sonic cousin to the RS-2s.