The sweet sound of Koss' PortaPro headphones


— 11:47 PM on July 15, 2010

1984 seems so very long ago. That was the year Apple introduced its very first Macintosh computer with an iconic commercial featuring an unnamed heroine appropriately wearing short shorts. 3.5" floppy disks were all rage at the time, offering a then-generous 720 kilobytes of storage capacity. A ticket to see the very first Terminator cost about $2.50, which won't even get you a small popcorn these days. Moustaches were cool thanks to Magnum P.I., and Miami Vice made it fashionable to wear a pink T-shirt under your white sport coat. Indeed, it was a very different world back then.

While much has changed in the last 26 years, especially in the world of technology, Koss' PortaPro headphones have stubbornly stood the test of time. First introduced in 1984, the PortaPros are still on sale today with a design that has remained essentially unchanged. Koss has apparently sold quite a lot of 'em over the years, too—enough to inspire a special edition to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their initial release.

I actually remember using my father's old PortaPros long enough ago to have had them plugged into one of the original Sony Sports Walkmans. So, when I was contemplating a replacement for the surprisingly solid Zune ear buds that have followed my various MP3 players for the last several years now, the PortaPros were already on my radar. The headphones have a suggested retail price of $50, but they seem to be discounted perpetually to about $35. After a quick look at the alternatives in that price range, I was sold.

In the six months or so that I've had the PortaPros, they've accompanied me on several business trips, a two-week vacation in Thailand, and numerous little excursions that required musical accompaniment. In a word, they're awesome. It's no wonder that Koss hasn't messed with the formula in over a quarter century.

Thankfully, Koss' original design eschewed the neon and stone-washed styles of the era, which even desperate-to-be-ironic hipsters seem reluctant to bring back. The headphones are dressed in an understated mix of black, blue, and unpolished metal. While the aesthetic has some retro flavor, it doesn't feel dated, and I quite like the overall look.

The earmuffs are linked by a pair of metal bands that provide plenty of adjustment for a range of head sizes. Even my massive cranium, which has always required large-sized hats and helmets, is easily accommodated by the PortaPros. The curved metal bands have enough tension to hold the headphones securely on your head, and Koss provides three comfortZone settings that adjust the angle at which the spring-loaded speaker arms advance towards one's ears.

Speaking of comfort, the PortaPros have thick foam pads that cushion the headband's contact with one's temples. That, combined with fact that the headphones weigh a scant 60 grams, makes it incredibly easy to wear the things for hours on end without undue fatigue or neck strain. The earmuffs themselves have cushy foam caps, as well.

With a diameter of less than two inches, the speakers are small enough to leave plenty of breathing room around the ear. Larger headphones like Sennheiser's HD 555s tend to make my head sweat, but the PortaPros are light and airy enough not to interfere with noggin ventilation.

Another feature that no doubt contributes to the PortaPros' comfortable fit is the gimbaled hinge that anchors the speakers to the frame. This mounting mechanism has enough play to allow the speakers to sit perfectly flush with one's ears throughout the full range of adjustment allowed by the headband and comfortZone.

Speaking of anchors, each earmuff's foam cushion is tightly secured to the speaker by a ring of tiny plastic teeth. These little incisors ensure that the foam won't stretch or become prone to slipping off after extended use. Removing the cushions requires that one methodically frees the foam from each tooth, but it's a simple process that doesn't take more than a minute or two. Replacement ear cushions can be purchased separately for about $5.

The speakers themselves combine mylar diaphragms with neodymium rare-earth magnets. According to Koss, they have a 15-25,000 Hz frequency response and a 60-ohm impedance designed to deliver adequate volume even when used with low-power MP3 players.

To my ears, they sound fantastic. And I don't just mean fantastic for a set of $35 headphones. I mean really quite good overall.

Although the bass produced by the PortaPros is far from thundering, the orgasmic thumping of Tori Amos' Raspberry Swirl comes across with plenty of oompf. The industrial speed metal of KMDFM's A Drug Against War hits satisfyingly hard, as well. There's a surprising amount of range throughout the spectrum, with mids and high notes nicely balanced with deeper tones. Radiohead's Hunting Bears loses none of its haunting character when played back through the PortaPros, and Bono's falsetto comes through crystal clear in U2's Lemon.

The PortaPros easily sound better than my old Zune ear buds, although I must admit that they're not quite as crisp as my Sennheiser HD 555s, which also produce deeper bass. Of course, the Sennheisers do cost three times more. They're quite a bit larger and heavier, too, and they don't curl up into a ball like the PortaPros do.

Hinges allow the speakers to fold up into the headband for transport. A little hook holds the headphones together in this position, although there really isn't a good place to wrap the cord, which is a shame. The cord itself is only four feet long, so at least there isn't too much length to worry about.

Once collapsed, the PortaPros can easily be stored in the faux-leather carrying case that comes with the headphones. The little hook always seems to detach itself on the way in or out of the bag, but that doesn't make the headphones particularly difficult to stow or remove. And, even with the PortaPros inside, there's just enough room in the bag for a mini MP3 player like SanDisk's Sansa Clip+.

It might seem a little ridiculous to pair such a small MP3 player with a larger set of headphones, but that's the combo that provides most of my portable music these day. You'd be hard pressed to find a better-sounding duo for less than $70. I do, however, wish that the PortaPros folded flat. Even when folded up, the headphones still measure about 2" x 3.5" x 3.5", which is easy to stuff into a bag but not as cooperative with slim laptop sleeves.

Ultimately, though, that's my only complaint. Koss' PortaPros are easily the best portable headphones I've ever used, and at $35 online, they're incredibly good value for anyone seeking an affordable replacement for the stock ear buds that came with their MP3 player. I use the PortaPros with my laptop all the time, too, and I'm even contemplating getting a second set of ear socks to sacrifice to head sweat so I can take the headphones running and to the gym. Not bad for a 25-year-old design that, barring the replacement of the 3.5-mm analog audio jack, seems destined to endure for many years to come.

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