The Grado Reference Series RS1 is a high-end open-back circumaural headphone designed with a mahogany housing and a 50mm driver. It is priced at $695.

Disclaimer: The Grado Reference Series RS1 was sent to us in exchange for our honest opinion. Thank you to Grado and 4ourears USA for giving us this opportunity.

You can read more about other Grado products reviewed on Headfonics here.

Note, this review follows our new scoring guidelines for 2020 which you can read up on here. 

Slide here to add your score on the gear!6 Votes

Three odd years ago these marvelous cans were considered the cream of the crop from Brooklyn-based audiophile headphone house Grado Labs.

Even on their very own website, Grado stated that these are the top of the range masterpiece of the Grado collection. But thanks to a marketing term we call product diversification, it was only a matter of time until the arena churned out four-digit cans from various headphone brands.

Before the world knew it, the mahogany-clad RS1 was relegated to a third-place position, behind the bigger GS1000 and hybrid PS1000.

But I could not pass up an opportunity to own a pair of these headphones. I started with what most people initially get as a starter Grado headphone–the SR80 (now the SR80i), and just like everyone else, stood witness to a revelation that is full, frontal, and aggressive.

Then a chance came to procure one of the Grado unicorns, the HF2, and I bit it harder than an infant getting its first shot.

Sound Impressions

I thought my journey would end with the HF2s. I mean, they had struck a good balance between the most often mentioned downside to the Grado house signature: forward midrange and tight yet weak bass impact.

The HF2s had low frequencies in spades at the price of the high-end extension. Add to that the fact that I’ve read reviews of the RS1 signature being too fatiguing, though in a different way than the top of the line Prestige Series SR325 (now SR325is).

Yet once again the gates of headphone heaven (or was it hell?) opened up and bestowed upon me the Grado Labs RS1, and it is indeed a sight to behold. At the time of the release of this iteration of RS1, Grado had just decided to remove the ubiquitous button native to all RS1s, but kept the square rods, only to be changed to circular ones in the next version.

The dark stain of the wood cups say very little about how they sound, however the nature of the material (mahogany from trees grown in Brooklyn) gives clues to an “organic” sounding pair of transducers. The surprisingly lightweight of these headphones tend to make first-time listeners downplay the imminent shock of their lives.


Grado Reference Series RS1

Cured mahogany from Brooklyn trees

The King Midas of Headphones, save for one important genre

The Grado RS1 was the pinnacle of the entire Grado family, and I still believe it is. The two models that succeeded the RS1 played with a new element that turned out to be a waterloo, and that’s the extended soundstage.

Stepping back, the top Reference Series headphone has a wide enough soundstage to accurately picture yourself inside a stadium good for 100,000 people and more, yet you’re standing right in the middle of it all. On the stage.

It does so many genres justice. Guitars, whether acoustic or electric, sound delectable enough to elicit a spine-tingling sensation. Drums are sensational, with every single strike being accounted for and melting into one complete rock experience.

The RS1 can do rock, jazz, vocals, pop, metal, electronic… It’s all mesmerizingly realistic and upfront that you will not doubt one bit that you’re in the performance itself. But it too has one flaw, and that is classical/chamber music.

Something is missing from the feeling of being enveloped not only by the instruments but by the room itself; sometimes it’s much better to be sitting in the back, and not front and center.

Grado Reference Series RS1


Regardless of what you listen to and where you listen out of, the RS1s perform the simplest of tasks: sprinkling the best chocolate on top of your music and making it sound awesome. Aside from the most luscious midrange I have ever heard, it possesses the deepest low-frequency response and the ability to sparkle high enough never to miss a single beat.

With regards to presentation, it harkens to the forward and aggressive sound of the Prestige Series but is so refined and crystal clear that identifying instruments in a particular performance is a cinch. Now I really know why they’re so light: that’s because when you eventually involuntarily bob your head to the music, they don’t easily fall off.


The RS1 was not without a fair share of competitors, or otherwise known as “sidekicks” especially in most headphone collector’s dry boxes.

Sennheiser had its HD650, which was the ultimate in dark yet encompassing and intimate sound. It can be considered the RS1’s opposite. AKG had the K701, hailed as the most natural and thus accurate sounding headphone.

Compared to the RS1 though, the AKG was rendered boring, overly sibilant, and exceedingly detailed.


Grado Reference Series RS1


Our Verdict

There are many headphones that claim to be of reference quality and expounding on that, there are many interpretations of what “reference” truly means.

For some, it may mean being true to the sound that came straight from the sound engineer that did the final recording. Others may define it as lush, palpable, and realistic. Still many more call reference as the benchmark in doing comparisons.

The RS1, though, is a reference in its own right. Why? Because it makes any kind of beautiful music sound even more beautiful. That alone is a talent very few headphones have. It’s not picky at all, and as such a lot of people will grow fond of the sound these mahogany masterpieces make.

Grado Reference Series RS1 Specifications

  • Transducer type: dynamic
  • Operating principle: open air
  • Frequency response: 12-30
  • SPL 1mV: 98
  • Normal Impedance: 32ohms
  • Driver matched db: .05

12 Responses

  1. Zaafiel

    Between Grados and Audio-Technica, their difference in midrange emphasis is probably 1kHz. The Grado “bite” is around 2-4kHz and the AT at around 500-1kHz.

    But speaking of forwardness, the Grados push the midrange in your face a lot more than the lows and highs. Actually when I think about it, they are similar but Audio-Technicas are more balanced and airy (AD2000) than Grados because the latter sound like the voice, guitar, or violin takes center stage and hogs the spotlight while the rest of the band is pushed back a bit.

  2. Zaafiel

    It’s a resounding yes, Nliyan25. That is, of course, if you’re going to listen in a fairly
    quiet place. Otherwise the deeper low frequency notes from the AD2000
    would be drowned out in the ambient noise. What the ES7 has over the
    AD2000 is a fatter midbass and more coherent sound due to it being a
    closed-back headphone.

    The AD2000 is very much like the RS1: open-backed, lush-sounding, and
    easy to drive. So again, unless you’re going to use it on the go, pick
    the AD2000 over the ES7.

    • Nliyan25

      Thanks Zaafiel. One last question: would you say the stock AD2000(without amping or anything) sounds brighter than the ES7? I think the ES7 are just slightly brighter than I would like on some songs–but on most songs, they are perfect.

      • Zaafiel

        That’s interesting. If you think the ES7 is already slightly brighter than you would prefer, the AD2000 will definitely sound like the sun! The open design will give you the initial impression that it is brighter but when it settles down (assuming you got a brand new pair) the natural liquid response will creep in. Oh and then you mentioned unamped… The ES7 is far more flexible unamped than the AD2000 which really needs one to sound right (read: decent bass, dynamic range).

  3. Nliyan25

    How would you compare the RS1 to the AD2000–I have listened to music with the ATH ES7 since 2 years ago and I love them, but now, I am considering either getting the AD2000 or the RS1. I don’t know which one to pick!

    • Tom de Vera

      I’ve also had the ATH-ES7 for about two years before selling them due to upgraditis. Both the AD2000 and the RS1 are a radical stretch above the ES7 sound.

      If you go the AD2000 route be prepared to be rewarded with a much generous soundstage, highly agile frequency response meaning much shorter bass decay and detailed mids and highs. Comfort wise, you really cannot go wrong with the Air Series of Audio-Technica (The ES7 is under the Earsuit Series). Replacing the ear pads will come eventually after about two years with regular use.

      The RS1 is simply put, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The lightness and frail build quality gives you no clue of the sonic performance it unwaveringly delivers. You lose the warm bass of the ES7 but the midrange will attack you with full force and only two things can happen from here: you will either become addicted to the sweet, extremely liquid sound or become turned off by the fatiguing nature that all Grados exhibit.

      I don’t own an AD2000 though. These RS1s in my possession were ca. 2007. It is a transition model where the rods are still square but there is no longer any button. This version is still slightly warmer than the succeeding models that are a tad brighter. If you can get your hands on a 2007 version I think the transition from an ES7 would be easier.

      • Nliyan25

        Thanks for the response.

        So, do you feel the AD2000 offer a more full-sounding experience than the ES7?

      • Nliyan25

        Also, whereas on the ES7/other Audio Technica phones the mids are forward, would you say on the Grado, the highs lows and mids are all forward? This is just what I heard so I don’t know if this is true.

  4. Anonymous

     Love both the review and the pictures. Amazing work my friend. :)

  5. Michael John Barroso Esteban

     one of my dream phones =/ wish I could own a pair someday. Great review there bro Joma :) 

  6. Anonymous

    The RS1(i) is the sweet spot in the Grado range once you get over the sr80i starter obsession. Going beyond the RS1 gives you much more complex offerings such as the G series and the P series which are not really as rock orientated as the RS1. I have to admit that not having a Grado in my collection is consuming my thoughts more and more each day.

  7. Kali Kot

    Very nice and insightful review.

    It does do the RS1’s justice :)

    I call the RS1’s MAGICAL after the first time listening to it. I just couldnt get it out of my mind!


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