The sweet sound of Koss’ PortaPro headphones

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.

Comments closed
    • d0g_p00p
    • 9 years ago

    Also everyone if you want the PortaPro sound with a little more modern looks and current design the Sennheiser PX 100 are almost identical in sound. Also they fold flat like Geoff wished the PortaPros did. Just a FYI.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 9 years ago

      I’ve got the PX100s and they have decent SQ for their price just like the everyone says for the Portapros. The build quality is pretty solid. I’ve never heard the Portapros so I can’t compare directly but the Senns have some of the ‘Sennheiser house sound’ with deep bass and a ‘warm’ sound. They are a little unrefined in the treble with some graniness and lack of detail, plus they have some ‘congestion’ throughout the sound spectrum when things get busy, I’m not sure if that’s part of the Sennheiser ‘veil’ sound or just them being budget phones, but for only ~$30-40 they are fine.

      • barleyguy
      • 9 years ago

      I’m pretty sure the PortaPro and the original PX100 use the same drivers. The PX100 and HD485 use the same drivers as well. The HD485s are full size headphones.

      Also, there is a new version of the PX100 called the PX100-II that is a major improvement in accuracy over the original.

    • d0g_p00p
    • 9 years ago

    TechReport reviewing my favorite over the ear portable headphones? Oh no 😉 TR continues to impress me with the reviews and the geek knowledge. Most people don’t know about these headphones and when people ask about them they think I have a hand me down pair of cheap 80’s headphones, little do they know.

    Geoff, do you have the newer version with the straight straight 3.5-mm jack or the older version with the L shaped 3.5-mm jack? I am asking because the ergonomics are a bit different between the new and old set.

    • TravelMug
    • 9 years ago

    Amazing headphones. Had them for 5 years (the same pair) and last year the foam cover finally gave up. Should really get those replaced, the sound is great on these.

    • unmake
    • 9 years ago

    Amazon’s got them for $30 shipped at the moment.

    • albundy
    • 9 years ago

    so soooo hard to give up my Zune v2.0 ear buds (dont really own a Zune but the buds had great reviews so I picked up an OEM pair for $15). i replaced the ear tips with a double flanged version, thus removing the annoyance of them ever falling out.

    • ModernPrimitive
    • 9 years ago

    Havent listened to Koss cans in awhile. They have my respect for being around so long for sure. I don’t listened to headphones all that often but considering builing my own amp for fun to go with some beyerdynamic cans.

    • Ricardo Dawkins
    • 9 years ago

    AKG K26p here….

      • Kaleid
      • 9 years ago

      Prefer these ones as well although I’m not currently using them…

    • puppetworx
    • 9 years ago

    Can’t wait to plug these into my ZX Spectrum!

    I reckon you’d have to dress in 80’s neon in order to look halfway stylish with these on your noggin.

    Having read this I do want to seek a pair out though, check out what all the fuss is aboot.

    • BoBzeBuilder
    • 9 years ago

    Koss means p*ssy in my language. FYI.

    • Convert
    • 9 years ago

    If I ever see any of you wearing these in public I am going to give you a huge wedgie – possibly atomic in nature.

    • DeadOfKnight
    • 9 years ago

    This topic is totally relevant because some people like to use a desktop mic and use their headphones for everything, myself included. It also means I can use my 5.1 system too when it’s not disturbing anyone while also using my mic. Although my headphones are still better than these. I love my Ultrasone Ozmas. But I also paid a lot more for them.

    • WaltC
    • 9 years ago

    /[<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.< ]/ I think it should be mentioned at least in passing that the "sound" out of an '84 Mac wasn't particularly decent or useful, although it beat the speaker beeps favored by IBM at the time. A year or so later, the introduction of the Amiga with its 4-channel digital stereo sound output, at 8-bits /[<]§ So...while Koss may have been shipping headphones in 1984 they certainly weren't shipping them for computer and/or other digital playback devices, I wouldn't think (because there weren't any.) At that time we were still years away from even the first sound card made by Creative Labs: the Creative Music System in 1987. Then in 1988 came the Creative Game Blaster, but it wasn't until 1989 that Creative shipped the first Sound Blaster card, which if memory serves, was an 8-bit card utilizing "11 voices" and was mainly sort of a midi player. Even so it would be years before Sound Blaster developed enough to equal or exceed the Amiga's built in sound capability, a little chip fondly designated by Commodore as "Paula"--and I wish I knew the history on that naming...;) Since we were reminiscing I just thought I'd mention it.

      • barleyguy
      • 9 years ago

      Speaking of digital playback devices, 1984 is the year that CD players became available to the general public. So that does possibly count as digital playback. Also, cassette tape walkmans had the same 1/8″ headphone jack that portable headphones use today, so you can take a 1984 set of Portapros and plug them right into the headphone jack of your MP3 player.

      Speaking of sound cards of that era, the most popular sound card in the mid to late 80’s wasn’t by Creative, it was by Ad Lib. And it was, as you’d guess, primarily a MIDI music card. All of the DOS Sound Blaster drivers were Ad Lib compatible.

      Professional sound cards for radio stations existed by the late 80’s as well. The major market stations had already started moving to storing music tracks on hard drives and playing them back through a sound card, kinda like a really primitive version of iTunes.

    • SonicSilicon
    • 9 years ago

    I’ve been using MDR-A35 fold-ups for a few years. It’s rather good sound, especially given they’re essentially buds-on-a-band. They are hardly perfect, but take minuscule space when folded. I think the trade-off is worth it.

    And, no, I’ve never tried a pair of Porta Pro headphones, but I’ve never liked essentially wearing earmuffs in summer.

    • yaler
    • 9 years ago

    I’ve had PortaPros for about 5-6 years now, and they were my gateway drug to better and better headphones.

    I’ve had them replaced 2 times now – both because I’ve been an idiot and yanked out the wires one way or another. Otherwise they are extremely durable – I don’t know what you guys do to these things. I can recommend them 100%.

    The aesthetic is amazing, while not exactly sexy – but who doesn’t like originality in the look of a well engineered product?

    For those interested I stepped up to a Grado SR80, and then got into Stax when the opportunity for a cheap set from Japan presented itself – I haven’t looked back, but still use the Pros at the gym! Awesome bass!

    • kvndoom
    • 9 years ago

    Koss PRO4/AA- the original “noise canceling” headphones! 🙂 I bought 3 pairs back in the 1990’s, one of which I’ve misplaced. The other 2 were 40th anniversary editions, which I bought just to keep. But those things are bulletproof… and they are still manufactured even today.

    However, they can’t beat the open-air spaciousness of my Sennheisers, so even though they sound great, I never use them.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 9 years ago

    The best part about Koss headphones is their lifetime warranty. For more audiophile-y people their products can be good or bad, depending upon taste, but the ability to get replacements forever is awesome. I have a pair of ancient TNT-something phones (20-odd years old or so) that I contacted Koss about stating they’ve started to come undone a little bit – pleather pads cracking and coming unglued etc. They told me just to mail them back and they’ll replace it with a current model.

    • Dysthymia
    • 9 years ago

    I remember these from my childhood; I always liked them. But when I got a pair several months ago they quit working. Also the little plastic cap over the wires where they attach to the speakers came off on one ear. I sent them in (it costs $5 per pair) for my lifetime warranty replacement, and bought another pair. I got my replacements back, and apparently they just replaced the wires connecting to the speakers on the headphones… the light blue plastic cap is still missing on one of the speakers and you can see the bare wires going from the black insulator to the solder leads. WTF? Meanwhile the second pair I bought has stopped working.

    I agree with the spirit of this article, that these are generally very good headphones for the price. But after my experience I think I may be done with them for good.

    • Kurotetsu
    • 9 years ago

    I still use a pair of Koss KSC-75s for mobile listening, which I THINK use the same speakers as the PortaPros.

      • sage920
      • 9 years ago

      Yes they do, but unlike the PortaPros the KSC75s have a titanium-coated diaphragm which gives them those slightly-more-sparkly highs than the PortaPros. This effect is further exaggerated by the fact that the clip design of the KSC75s keeps the speakers slightly farther away from your ears than the headband design of the PortaPros. Other than that, they more or less sound the same.

      I’ve owned both, and I used to attach the KSC75s to the PortaPro headband (as they both have the same-sized locking mechanisms) to get slightly brighter highs (but mainly to not have to deal with those horribly annoying KSC75 clips).

        • Kurotetsu
        • 9 years ago

        I actually prefer the earclips to headbands now. The earclips don’t put any pressure on my temples unlike alot of headbands.

    • PinkCow
    • 9 years ago

    Ah, the trusty Porta Pro. Also my choice for mobile listening, currently feeding from a Sansa Fuze 8GiB. They don’t last forever, but I’m just on my second pair (bought 2008) since 2001, so I didn’t even bother sending the old pair in. Guess I’ll stay with them as long as Koss doesn’t discontinue this gem.

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 9 years ago

    3.25? Do you mean 5.25 or 3.5?

    • Voldenuit
    • 9 years ago

    While I love Koss’ sound, I’ve never had a pair that lasted me longer than 6 months. Yes, I know they have some funky warranty (lifetime?), but living in Australia at the time, I could never find the time and effort to mail them in and wait however many weeks/months it would take when /[

    • blitzy
    • 9 years ago

    ive tried the porta pros and one thing i didn’t like was the tendency for my hair to get caught in the curved metal bands, and my hair is not very long. Apart from that they’re pretty good

    • Fighterpilot
    • 9 years ago

    Seems a little redundant having to buy one set of headphones for listening and another with boom mic to talk.
    Surely a multimedia version with both is a better idea?
    Creative’s Arena headset is currently the best /[<]§

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