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    Review | Rosson Audio Design RAD-0

    Any audiophile considering planar magnetic headphones in the past 10 years could scarcely avoid Audeze. While other competitors have begun giving Audeze a run for its money in recent years, no company has done more to define the top-of-the-line planar can market. As the company’s co-founder and CEO, mastering engineer Alex Rosson helped Audeze secure its place at the top of the planar pyramid. Rosson resigned from Audeze in 2015, going on to work with Alex Cavelli designing the Carbon headphone before joining Shinola as the Detroit company’s Audio Director.

     

    But the idea that Rosson “would not give up,” as he told me, was the headphone that became the RAD-0. Launched in 2019, the RAD-0 is the first headphone from the matter-of-factly named Rosson Audio Design. Like the previously reviewed ZMF Vérité, the RAD-0 is a “summit-fi” headphone with a one-of-a-kind flavor. But whereas natural variation in wood provides each ZMF headphone with its uniqueness, each RAD-0 is more self-consciously one-of-a-kind.

     

    The cups for each pair of RAD-0 are hand-cast Alumilite resin mixed with a variety of substances for color. “The great thing about using epoxy is the creative flexibility,” Rosson told me. “I have put everything from gold leaf, gems, various wood species, burls, to the old devil’s lettuce (a special client request). One of the Daft Punk guys even requested Moldavite. which is a type of rock formed from a meteor impact some 15 million years ago…. We [even] have been asked to mix in the remains of a loved one. That was interesting.”

     

    14-042020-01140.jpgAs a result, each RAD-0 is a work of art. My pair, number 148 (pictured in this review), is a cosmic swirl of blues, browns, and greens. The photos don’t do them justice. If the aforementioned Vérité recalled the Arts and Crafts movement, the RAD-0 suggests the retrofuturism and psychedelic art of the 1960s, when plastics were the rage.

     

    It’s inevitable that the RAD-0 will be compared to the offerings from Rosson’s former company. While no pair of Audeze cans is a visually striking as the RAD-0, fans of the LCD-2, -3, and -4 will recognize the broad outlines of the RAD-0, with its large round cups and deep, angled pads. With its $2,600 MSRP, the RAD-0 falls between the price of the LCD-3 ($1,945) and LCD-4 ($3,995). However, Rosson also sells B-Stock RAD-0 for $1,999 and is planning a wood cup version.

     

    Wherever we place the RAD-0 in Rosson’s former company’s line, the RAD-0 tops even the LCD-4 in build. I’ve always felt that the LCD-2, -3, and -4 were sturdy sets of cans, but the RAD-0 feels a cut above. Save for the Alumilite cups and the earpads, everything on the RAD-0 is metal, including the spring steel headband, which is covered in synthetic leather. While I’d strongly discourage anyone from tossing around a pair of headphones as beautiful and pricey as the RAD-0, it’s a headphone that seems like it can take a beating.

     

    The RAD-0 sports perhaps the best height slider I’ve ever encountered in a headphone. It provides smooth, continuous adjustment, yet seems sturdy enough to prevent drift over time. Most importantly, its continuous mechanism allows for more minute adjustments than the incremented rods on its LCD brethren.

     

    The angled earpads are a hybrid of fabric on the front and synthetic leather on the exterior and interior sides. Without looking it up, I would’ve guessed the leather was genuine, but the animal lover in me approves of the synthetic choice. Thanks to the breathable interior, the RAD-0’s pads allow enough air exchange to prevent the dreaded vacuum effect that happens with some snug-fitting over-ear headphones with all-leather pads. (I swapped my LCD-2 Classic’s pads for Dekoni’s Elite Velour to defeat that vacuum effect.) Unlike the LCD series, which requires using adhesive rings to replace pads, the RAD-0’s pads can be easily swapped, since they simply fit over a lip at the edge of the cup. Structurally, the RAD-0’s pads thread the needle of providing some cushion without totally collapsing under the RAD-0’s clamping pressure.

     

    The main issue I can see some wearers having with the RAD-0 comes down to that latter factor. The RAD-0 has a substantial amount of clamping force. Coming from an incredibly light-fitting pair of headphones like the Utopia or previously reviewed HD800S, it takes some getting used to. Thanks to the amount of cushion in the pads, I was able to wear my glasses with the RAD-0 without any pain. However, I’ve also purposely selected headphone-friendly glasses with flexible nylon frames. For listeners with larger heads — and, especially, larger heads and unforgiving glasses — some stretching might be necessary to lessen the RAD-0’s clamping.

     

    2-042020-01127.jpgThe other potential comfort concern is the RAD-0’s weight. Like the LCD series, the RAD-0 isn’t a light headphone. The RAD-0 weighs between 550 and 615 grams, depending on the composition of each pair’s cups. For comparison, my LCD-2 Classics, which are often seen as a heavy headphone, weigh 550 grams. While no listener will claim the RAD-0 disappears on their head, the RAD-0’s headband does a good job of cushioning and distributing the weight. I definitely prefer the RAD-0’s headband design to the original LCD headband, though I might give Audeze’s newer suspension headband the edge over the RAD-0’s. Properly positioned, I didn’t develop a hot spot on the top of my head when wearing the RAD-0. Positioning was a little more important than with my suspension headband LCD-2 Classic. However, the RAD-0’s moveable pads, unlike the LCD-2’s fixed pads, meant that the RAD-0’s pads could be rotated to accommodate precise positioning on the head and the ears.

     

    The RAD-0 comes in a sturdy Pelican-style hard travel case with interior foam cut to fit the RAD-0 precisely. The RAD-0 also ships with an 8-foot cable, which enters at the bottom of both ear cups, terminated in either an XLR or 3.5 mm plug. Most importantly, Rosson offers a transferrable lifetime warranty on the RAD-0’s drivers and a one-year warranty on the rest of the headphone (though it can be repaired outside that window).

     

    Now comes the most important question. How does the RAD-0 sound? In a word: fantastic. After months with the RAD-0, I can say without hesitation that it’s my favorite planar headphone bar none. It also stands up against my favorite top-of-the-line dynamic cans, including the Vérité and Focal Utopia.

     

    Let’s start with some measurements taken with my MiniDSP EARS rig, which holds its own against much pricier measurement setups. My EARS have been calibrated with a slightly modified version of Marv from SBAF’s compensation curve, where a perceptually flat frequency response is represented by a flat line.

     

    To provide a baseline measurement, let’s start by comparing the RAD-0 (red) against the Sennheiser HD-6XX (blue), Massdrop’s affordable (U.S. MSRP $220) version of the HD650, a near-universal reference can noted for its neutrality:

     

    HD6XX vs RAD0.jpg

     

     

     

    From the bass through the low mids, the HD-6XX and RAD-0 track each other well, with the RAD-0 looking somewhat flatter through the bass. Above the mids, we see some notable divergencies between 1 kHz and 6 kHz and again above 13 kHz. Interestingly, this is the same region where the Vérité open departed from the HD-6XX. As I noted in my Vérité review:

     

    Frequencies in the 1kHz to 5kHz range can be very important for giving electric guitars their bite and creating a sense of sharp attack for percussion. However, too much energy in this range can also make headphones fatiguing for some listeners by imparting a grating thinness to the sound. (Headphones really off in this range can also have a “honk”-y quality to them, something that doesn’t apply to any of the cans in this comparison.)

     

    The small differences between the HD-6XX and the RAD-0 in 8 kHz to 13 kHz area may cause the former to have slightly more “sparkle” and “air” than the latter. The contrasts above 13 kHz are probably less important, given most people’s hearing limitations. However, more energy there can potentially accentuate “air” and sense of space.

     

    While I don’t necessarily trust the EARS rig for absolute levels of distortion, one thing that’s abundantly clear in the measurements is that the RAD-0 has lower distortion than the HD-6XX pretty much across the board, but especially in the bass.

     

    Given the frequency response similarities relative to the HD-6XX noted above, let’s take a look at the RAD-0 (red) against the Vérité open (brown):

     

    VeriteOpen vs RAD0.jpg

     

     

     

    These two track each other well. We see some slight-but-important differences between 2 kHz and 4 kHz and again above 14 kHz. But overall I’d characterize these as very similar headphones in terms of frequency response.

     

    Now let’s take compare the RAD-0 (red) against the Focal Utopia (grey):

     

    Uptopa vs RAD0.jpg

     

     

     

    Wow. While it’s clear that overall the Utopia is a brighter headphone than the RAD-0, it’s interesting how closely the RAD-0 tracks the Utopia above 1 kHz. While the two move in opposite directions in the 8 kHz to 10 kHz area, for the most part they move in sync, with the RAD-0 just being slightly darker turned.

     

    Finally, let’s put the RAD-0 (red) against the LCD-2 Classic (yellow):

     

    LCD2Classic vs RAD0.jpg

     

     

     

    Despite the RAD-0’s warm title, it’s not as dark as the LCD-2 Classic, which comes in below the RAD-0 throughout the 1 kHz to 8 kHz range.

     

    Taken together, the measurements tell us that the RAD-0 is a neutral headphone with a slight warm tilt and low distortion.

     

    Subjectively, how does it stack up against some of the cans mentioned above?1

     

    For my first audition track, I choose the 24-bit version of “Not,” the six-minute epic from Big Thief’s 2019 release Two Hands, available on Qobuz. Two Hands was recorded mostly live in the studio with minimal overdubs and presents a stark and naturalistic sonic picture.

    Pitting the RAD-0 against the Vérité open, one is immediately struck by the quality of both drivers, even if each had clear relative strengths. As discussed in the Vérité review, its Beryllium-coated PEN driver is ultra-responsive, offering lighting quick transients with smooth, natural decay. The RAD-0 isn’t embarrassed in this company. Like the best planar drivers, it offers snappy transients without sacrificing low-end weight. As I’ll discuss later, I was particularly impressed with the RAD-0’s smoothness, something I don’t usually associate with planars.

     

    I next took note of how the two cans projected the soundstage. I found that the Vérité slightly bested the RAD-0 on width, which I attributed at least in part to the distance of each driver from the ear. The Vérité’s upper treble energy created a greater sense of “air” and space, too, which helped the Vérité best the RAD-0 on sounstage depth as well as width.

     

    Beyond soundstage, the most consistent sonic differences I encountered throughout “Not” seemed attributable to the RAD-0’s bump in the 3 to 5 kHz upper treble/“presence” region. The former means that the RAD-0 tends to provide electric guitars with more bite and allows for easier discernment of string articulation. Combined with the RAD-0’s low bass distortion, this sonic characteristic meant that I could more easily follow the nuances of Max Oleartchik’s clacking bassline throughout “Not” with the RAD-0 than with the Vérité open.

     

    Turning to specific moments in “Not,” both the RAD-0 and the Vérité do an excellent job of showcasing the rasp in Lenker’s voice at moments like the 1:05 mark, when the first chorus kick in. Both cans also allow the listener to separate drummer James Krivchenia’s backing vocals from singer/songwriter/guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s lead. However, the RAD-0 highlights Lenker’s rasp slightly better, while Vérité more clearly separates Krivchenia’s voice from Lenker’s thanks to the Vérité’s greater sense of space. Keeping with that theme, when what sounds like a tack piano enters the right channel around the 1:50, it has greater sparkle through the RAD-0 but better depth on the Vérité. When everything drops out but Lenker’s vocal, Oleartchik’s drums, and Krivchenia’s bass at the 2:10 mark, the RAD-0 better showcases visceral thump of the drums and rebounds of the skins, while the Vérité excels in framing the nuances in Lender’s vocals and elevating them above the instrumental bed. When Lenker unleashes a Neil Young-esque guitar solo at 3:20, the amp’s reverb is clearer through the Vérité, while its distortion has more bite through the RAD-0.

     

    Comparing the Vérité open and the RAD-0, it’s clear that both are special headphones. Given my dynamic-headphone predilection, what I find especially notable about the RAD-0 is the absence of the treble grain that I associate even with many of the best planar drivers, such as the “Fazor”-equipped cans in Audeze’s line. I complimented Rosson on this, and he explained:

     

    Thank you for noticing. Absolutely, my ears do not like treble that gets tiring after a few minutes and exaggerates to catch your attention. I like those “creamy” highs that are easy for your ears to process. While our driver is well capable of reproducing more prevalent high frequencies, we tame them quite a bit. We spent more time than you can imagine optimizing our material and processes. Including diaphragm tensioning, optimizing temperature during tensioning, circuit layout, material selection, Earpad cavity, grill design, and dampening. Most of all it is just pig-headed determination to present what we find the most natural and neutral sound signature. 

     

    Indeed, I consider the Vérité to offer world-class treble when it comes to both resolution and smoothness. The fact that the RAD-0 stayed in the game against it speaks volumes about the quality of the RAD-0’s planar driver.

     

    16-042020-01144.jpgGiven the price difference, it’s perhaps not fair to put the LCD-2 Classic against the RAD-0. But I felt compelled to see how my favorite cans from Rosson’s former company stacked up against the RAD-0. Pulling up “Not” again, the LCD-2’s treble roll-off was immediately apparent. Everything sounded comparatively veiled through the LCD-2. Less string articulation. More muted electric guitars. Much less sense of air. Etc. Despite the LCD-2’s treble rolloff, its upper-register came across as rougher. Krivchenia’s hi-hat sounds, for example, exhibit more of an artificial tsk-tsk-tsk quality through the LCD-2 Classic than through the RAD-0. While MSRP doesn’t always correlate with quality, and while the LCD-2 Classic is a great set of headphones for the price, the LCD-2 Classic is just outclassed in the company of the RAD-0.

     

    At the other end of the price spectrum, the $4,000 U.S. MSRP of Focal Utopia provides another formidable challenger for the RAD-0. As the measurements suggest, the RAD-0 is more tonally similar to the Utopia than to the Vérité, though the Utopia is consistently brighter sounding than the RAD-0. Returning to Big Thief’s “Not,” it’s clear that the RAD-0 outdoes the Utopia on both bass impact and clarity. As with the Vérité comparison, the sound of Oleartchik bass, including moments where its strings smack the frets, is clearer and easier to separate from the overall mix with the RAD-0 than with the Utopia. The aforenoted rasp in Lenker’s voice near the one-minute mark is now somewhat clearer, if just barely, through the RAD-0 than the Utopia. The separation advantage of Oleartchik’s backing vocals from Lenker’s lead vocals also now shifts to the RAD-0. Nonetheless, the Utopia is better able to capture the overall ambience of the studio. Both the tack piano and Lenker’s guitar solo sound drier through the RAD-0 and wetter through the Utopia. Each capture the bite of the distortion on Lenker’s guitar, though perhaps the Utopia retains a miniscule edge.

     

    For my next comparison track, I turned to “Do What You Like” from the 2016 SHM-SACD of Blind Faith’s self-titled album. Pitting the RAD-0 against both the Vérité and Utopia, many of the same differences noted above were apparent. Even more than on “Not,” the depth difference between the cans was obvious. Throughout “Do What You Like,” but especially during Ginger Baker’s drum solo, instruments sound closer mic’d through the RAD-0 and more reverberant through both the Vérité and the Utopia. Depending on the track — even the individual instrument within a track — this tradeoff between space and immediacy could create either more clarity or less (as anyone who’s attempted to EQ their way to a more revealing listen can attest). Baker’s drum assault could be at times almost wince-inducing on the bright-leaning Utopia. It came across as somewhat more manageable and tamer through both the Vérité and the RAD-0, with the Vérité imparting more of a sense of the studio space and the RAD-0 placing Baker’s floor tom closer to the ear. Steve Winwood’s vocals had more of a mouth sound through the Utopia and more of a throaty quality through the Vérité. The RAD-0 sounded more like the Utopia, only with a bit of the high end rolled off. Turning to Ric Grech’s bass, the RAD-0 offered the cleanest presentation, rendering it sharply without the Utopia’s brightness. The Vérité meanwhile put forward a slightly rounder image of Grech’s bass without sacrificing much detail in the process.

     

    Throughout my months of listening to the RAD-0, I kept coming back to the fact that it’s now the top-of-the-line planar headphone to beat, surpassing both Audeze’s offerings and the previously reviewed Ether 2.2 Even as someone who tends to prefer dynamic cans, I can comfortably put it in my top-three headphones (four if we’re counting the Vérité closed and open separately).

     

    Does it top either the Utopia or the Vérité? That’s a harder question, one that probably doesn’t have a definitive answer. Going into this review, I rated the Vérité(s) as my favorite headphone, with the Utopia coming in second.

     

    As a handmade-in-the-U.S. boutique headphone, the RAD-0 has more obvious commonalities with the Vérité than with the Utopia. The Vérité’s U.S. MSRP of $2,499 (plus discounted B-Stock models) is also much closer to Rosson’s sticker price than either is to the Utopia’s lofty asking fee. Even if one isn’t inherently inclined to support smaller U.S. companies, the cost difference between the Utopia and the other two cans is huge. Likewise, the RAD-0 and the Vérité both sport more generous warranties, seem much more solidly built, and come with better accessories than the Utopia. From a value standpoint, it seems obvious to me that both the Vérité and the RAD-0 are better choices for most audiophiles than the Utopia.

     

    In terms of style, I’d also place the Vérité and RAD-0 above the Utopia. I’d be hard pressed to say whether I think the Vérité or the RAD-0 is the most stylish. Each is stunning, and I could see people preferring one to the other depending on personal taste.

     

    When it comes to comfort, the ranking is harder. Owing to its light weight, the Utopia might be easiest for long listening sessions. However, I think the Vérité has the most comfortable headband and the RAD-0 has the best height adjustment mechanism. The RAD-0 is the heaviest of the three, outweighing the Vérité open by about 100 grams and the Utopia by about 50 grams. The RAD-0 also has the greatest clamping force. However, that clamping force helps keep the headphones stable (something that can be an issue with light-clamp headphones like the Utopia). As discussed above, I found the RAD-0’s pads to be among the most comfortable I’ve ever encountered. Ultimately, one’s ranking of these top-of-the-line cans’ comfort will depend on personal factors, including head size and tolerance for weight and clamping.

     

    Finally, on the key issue of sound, it’s all about personal preference and trade-offs. The Utopia, Vérité, and RAD-0 all deserve to be called both neutral and resolving. I don’t think the RAD-0 dethroned the Vérité in my personal ranking, but I could easily see some listers preferring the RAD-0. It’s overall a slightly more forgiving set of headphones than the Vérité, even as its additional energy in the 3 to 5 kHz region gives some instruments more bite. The RAD-0’s slightly more relaxed treble comes at the expense of soundstage depth and a smidge of high-end detail. However, the RAD-0 also has the cleanest bass of the three headphones. Where does that leave the Utopia? It remains the most starkly resolving of the three, but it’s also the most fatiguing, and its treble can, at times, tilt towards the unnatural. Given that the RAD-0 has a very similar frequency response to the Utopia in terms of overall balance (except with the 1 kHz-plus region slightly turned down), I found myself reaching for the RAD-0 when I wanted a Utopia-like sound — reserving the Utopia for those comparatively rare occasions when I needed to do the most critical of listening.

     

    What’s the ultimate takeaway? The RAD-0 is (literally) a work of art, built like a tank, comes with excellent accessories, and includes a generous warranty and responsive customer service. Most importantly, it sounds fantastic, besting all of its planar rivals and ranking among the top two or three best headphones available today 3. If I were talking to a friend who wanted to buy a “summit-fi” headphone, I’d tell them to focus their decision on the Vérité and RAD-0, picking whichever strikes their fancy. Factoring price, build, and warranty, it’s really hard to advise looking outside of those two superb cans.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    1. While I tried all of the headphones under review with various combinations of equipment, most of the critical, level-matched listening done here was done through a Forssell MDAC-2a fed with an Audiophilleo1 and a Monolith by Monoprice THX AAA Balanced Headphone Amplifier.

    2. I no longer had the Ether 2 on hand for this review. But considering that the Vérité and the Utopia bested it handily, I wasn’t concerned about coming to this conclusion. Likewise, I’ve also auditioned Audeze’s highest-end offerings, and (as Audiohile Style reviewers have found) didn’t come away impressed.

    3. The only asterisk to be placed here is that I have not heard the rapturously reviewed RAAL SR1a. However, as $3,200 ribbon headphones that require either an interface-plus-power-amp setup or a dedicated amp, I see the SR1a as a unique set of headphones existing in a separate category from traditional dynamic or planar cans.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    About the Author

    jm.pngJosh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.



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    Another good review 👍🙂 As you have the MiniDSP EARS measurement rig did you try creating an EQ filter for correcting the minor flaws you observed with the headphones in question? It would be very interesting to know how successfully that would work.

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    The strides and growth of the high end headphone market are amazing--5 or 10 set-ups in the $5-10K range (including amp) are now competitive with speaker-amp set-ups that are 5-10X their price.  Not saying the experience is identical, but that there are pluses and minuses that make them worthy alternatives.

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    these are outstanding headphones from Alex Rosson. I found these to excel at tone and timbre, they were easy to listen to for hours without fatigue and melt into the music. My nitpick is comfort if you have a larger head (I do) and the wiring of the cable which is unique and makes it difficult to use cables you already own. 

    These to me are the equal of the utopia but they both excel at different things 

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    On 2/26/2021 at 7:01 AM, blue2 said:

    Another good review 👍🙂 As you have the MiniDSP EARS measurement rig did you try creating an EQ filter for correcting the minor flaws you observed with the headphones in question? It would be very interesting to know how successfully that would work.

     

    I haven't done that, but it's mainly because I tend to seek out headphones that sound good without EQ. My preference is to have as little processing as possible, particularly in the digital domain. However, I'd expect that they'd take EQ well given the Rosson's low distortion.

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    Sounds like a great pair of cans for the right headshape. But, if I understand you right, the wrong choice for a hammerhead like myself, since I feel discomfort already at the clamp I experience from Sennheiser HD-650 (test listened at local hi-fi shop, so no bending to accomodate; just the default clamp). 

     

    Well, back to my desert wandering, wondering which planars to buy. Strike Rosson, check Empyrean, LCD4, 1266 ... others?

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    1 hour ago, Solan said:

    Sounds like a great pair of cans for the right headshape. But, if I understand you right, the wrong choice for a hammerhead like myself, since I feel discomfort already at the clamp I experience from Sennheiser HD-650 (test listened at local hi-fi shop, so no bending to accomodate; just the default clamp). 

     

    Well, back to my desert wandering, wondering which planars to buy. Strike Rosson, check Empyrean, LCD4, 1266 ... others?

    I haven't met a pair of headphones I felt were comfortable until... Beyerdynamic Amirons. Worth checking out. Sound great as well. I got mine on a Black Friday half price deal, but would worth the full price imo for the comfort alone. 

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    On 3/29/2021 at 8:57 AM, Solan said:

    Sounds like a great pair of cans for the right headshape. But, if I understand you right, the wrong choice for a hammerhead like myself, since I feel discomfort already at the clamp I experience from Sennheiser HD-650 (test listened at local hi-fi shop, so no bending to accomodate; just the default clamp). 

     

    Well, back to my desert wandering, wondering which planars to buy. Strike Rosson, check Empyrean, LCD4, 1266 ... others?

     

    If clamping force is the main issue, then I'd definitely look at ZMF cans. They all have spring steel headbands that can be adjusted by hand to accommodate different head sizes and shapes, and Zach, the founder of ZMF, has detailed YouTube videos on how to bend their headbands.

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