Back To The Future Friday: The Koss PortaPro

Disclaimer: Koss sent Lieven a free sample of the PortaPro after I explained the intention of featuring it in the monthly “Back to the future” column. We bought another PortaPro for Nathan in a shop in Tokyo.

This is “Back To The Future Friday”, a monthly column where Headfonia shines light on the awesome past.

 

#5 Koss Porta Pro

The original Porta Pro hit shelves when I was ten or so. Maybe twelve. I had just got into headphones and had a wad of cash from my lawn mowing “business” burning a hole in my mind. I wanted headphones. No, I wanted Porta Pros. The thing is, I couldn’t quite afford them. Radio Shack had an RCA-branded imitation that said something like “Guaranteed to be as good as Koss Porta Pro”. I fell for it.

Woe is me.

It didn’t even deserve to be in the same paragraph.

By the time I buffed up my ego enough put out for a pair of portable phones, I had moved into the urbane world of earphones and two channel home audio. Of course, as a just-about-twenty-something that lived still with his parents, the speakers never got a chance to really throb. Enter Audio Technica’s newly minted Air Dynamic phones, which I picked up for about 200 bones whilst visiting Tokyo.

So, my first Koss Porta Pro landed in my hands in the late 90’s after I had already enjoyed a pretty awesome headphone. But it was the headphone I had wanted to start with- and was so much better than the imitation. And even next to my Audio Technica’s, it was in no way second tier.

I used the hell out of the Pros. My day job was general construction, and my generally steady hands got made the manager of painting. I had a white-man’s afro- tipped with Lookout Point 1646. While the Porta Pro was a great companion for the painter, it was not a good fro companion. Every day, it yanked away like fifteen of my curlies (later which I would discover were escaping of their own volition, and fast).

Painting is a tough job for an insomniac. Before strapping my ears with the Porta Pro’s bombastic bass, I had fallen asleep whilst working. After Porta Pro, and especially, given that that bass brings new meaning to the phrase rattle and hum, promotion wasn’t far away.

Here’s the skinny:

Looks

Little, if anything, has changed in the 25-odd years since Porta Pro debuted. Still it rocks the Comfort Zone dingus; still it rocks the swivelling cups, and the temple pads. Still it pulls out stray hairs.

From typeface to pad shape, it’s got this 1990s this-is-what-2030-will-look-like prophetic thing going on. Especially today, it will turn heads. Probably hipster heads. (I use the term to be cool. As a lad that has lived in Korea and Japan for the last five years, I have no idea what a hipster is; I just reckon that the Porta Pro would look good on one.)

The only thing I would change is Koss’s horrible advertising photography seen on the Porta Pro box. It does no justice to this classic. Honestly, most reviewers could do better. Koss: it’s time to hire me.

Cost

The pair I have now was graciously paid for by our overlords: Lieven and Mike. Sans the train ticket into Tokyo, it came to about 45$, post-tax. My first pair, purchased from the Audio Video 2000 on Highway 7 in Ontario, Canada, came to 88$, or like way more than I could afford at the time. Today, that 88$ is closer to 95$.

Either Japan is cheap, or Canada is (or was) damn expensive.

I love the Porta Pro, don’t get me wrong- but it’s not a headphone worth 88 bones. These things are plastic with a bit of bendy metal. They rock that 90’s sci-fi aesthetic, and come with a faux-felt tote bag. And no one, anywhere, should. 45$? I can live with that.

Upgradability

When I began lurking at Headfi in 2002 or 2004, it was popular to upgrade the Porta Pro’s cable with something that cost like 5x what the headphone did. And the results, say highly placebic customers? Awesome. Like totally way better. Worth like 200$ or more!

Whatever.

Koss Porta Pro looks, and performs its best in its native black. But just so you know, chances are pretty high that you will break your cable.

If pads wear out, changing isn’t too hard, and Koss have reams and reams of extra earphone pads. The short: use and enjoy. If something wears out, take advantage of Koss’s lifetime guarantee; or if you are in Japan, a single fracking year.

Comfort

As I mentioned above, if you’ve got curly hair, kinky hair, or a white-man’s afro, Porta Pro will take it out on you. Literally, I mean it will take out your hair. Otherwise, comfort is dependent completely on the shape of your head. Some find Porta Pro a bit tight. Some find it too round.

It’s not the world’s most comfortable headphone, but if you get to know it, you’ll find that it works. The temple pads are a nice addition, that both help you keep your hair, and anchor the phones on the bones above your ears.

If you’ve got a shrunken head, you’ll still be able to wear these phones. They can get really small. Extremely BIGGGGGG headed peeps, on the other hand, may find that the phones don’t reach all the way down to their ears.

A word to the wise: try before you buy.

Sound

Today, Porta Pro plays nice with the general (and inexplicable) respect for the 1990s. So, you could buy it for the style. But back when it was just another ugly phone from the 1990’s, there was only one real reason to get it. And that reason was its sound.

Porta Pro is a thick, powerful sounding headphone. It boasts decent midrange details and punchy, but slightly muted highs. But let’s be honest: Porta Pro is all about the bass. Like I said, bass is so strong that it can rattle the plastic manifold that holds the drivers into the yolks. Boom tizz, boom tizz!

Looking back, I should have had Koss look at my first pair. The pair Mike and L-Dog supplied doesn’t rattle like my first pair did. Bass is just as crazy, which is just fine. What’s great is that if you get perfect fit, there’s no mud, just power. But I’ve found fit to be a bit of an issue.

Surprisingly, Porta Pro can cast a pretty open sound stage, but only in one direction. They’re not particularly wide-sounding, but the Z space is pretty long, and easily able to place singers and instruments in different spaces.

Bass is well textured, but not as nuanced as are your other HiFi headphones. Enjoyment is found through impact.

Another thing to note is that the Porta Pro is open. Sound leaks in. Sound leaks out. In the inexplicably quiet Japanese commuter trains, you’d get lynched for listening to music through a Porta Pro. The bad news is that once you get out of the train, from 5AM to like 1AM, the regular Japanese city is so damn loud and obnoxious, you’ll have to kill your eardrums just to hear the music coming from these awesome phones.

Build Quality

There are two types of Porta Pro owners: ones that have broken their pair, and ones that will. If you keep them in their carry tote and keep care with the cable, you may be able to stem off the will for a long time. But be prepared to dish out eventually.

That, or get handy with a soldering iron. The cable will be the first thing to go. On the flip side, I’ve never seen a Porta Pro with a broken plug, but it’s not that hard to imagine.

Advice for buying one

Do it. Today, Porta Pro can be had for chump change. It is every bit as good as it was when grunge was cool. And that won’t change anytime soon. Every headphone fan should own a pair. I’m on my second now, and looking to start a club.

How’s about joining me?

Where do we go from here?

Koss, having kept the basic Porta Pro as is for over two decades, are god-like. The world has changed. It now costs 2,00$ to play air hockey. Meanwhile, Porta Pro, has gone down in price.

I hope I can say the same for the Porta Pro in another fifteen years. Because, when it hits forty, I’ll be facing down fifty. And that will be cause for celebration.

Curious what Lieven has to say about the PortaPro? Read it on the next page after the click!

Back To The Future Friday: The Koss PortaPro
3.6 (72.86%) 14 votes

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

33 Comments

  • Reply October 31, 2014

    George Lai

    Having read previously about this icon, I bought it last year. I hated it mainly for the discomfort. I threw it away – into the Salvation Army donation bin.

    • Reply November 1, 2014

      dalethorn

      A long time ago in a land far away, I bought approximately 50 different Koss headphones, including the ESP-9. I cut my teeth in cable repair fixing most of those headphones. The biggest problem I had was the subtle (or sometimes not subtle) ringing and other distortions caused by poorly mounted drivers and other parts, which I wasn’t able to fix.

      • Reply November 4, 2014

        ohm image

        Pictures or it didn’t happen!

        • Reply November 4, 2014

          dalethorn

          It happened all right. I could write a book, with names and dates. If you’d like to do an interview I’m listening.

          • Reply November 7, 2014

            ohm image

            OHM AIR: Dale Thorn and the horrible Porta Pro. I like it.

            • Reply November 7, 2014

              dalethorn

              I never had a Porta Pro, but I had several Pro4AA’s, an ESP9, and a dozen or so of the HV (High Velocity) series introduced around 1980, so quite a bit of experience with Koss. What was disheartening was to learn that even though the PortaPro was well received, offering good sound for the price, and even though Koss has offered very generous warranty replacements, the fact remains that their reliability isn’t good, and going through all processes necessary to secure a replacement is rather expensive, unless time means nothing to you. Yesterday, my Beyer T51p failed with a loose connection on the right earcup at the strain relief, and getting that taken care of cost about 3 hours total – valuable hours since I have other things I need to do. That T51p was very gently cared for, the wires were never snagged or yanked, and I got about 2 months use out of it in the 11 months I had it, due to working with many other headphones.

              • Reply November 7, 2014

                Michael Dowling

                I’m not sure I get your point, Dale. Are you saying that Beyerdynamic are no more reliable than Koss? Regardless, the slightly negative vibe here towards the Portapro cannot dampen my enthusiasm for it. Though I’ve moved on to more expensive and arguably better sounding cans I still love the sound of the Portapro. It’s a truly fun headphone.

                • Reply November 7, 2014

                  dalethorn

                  There is no need to discuss a ‘point’ about a brand that’s noted for their failure rate. Nor is there any argument about your enjoyment of the Porta pro, so enjoy and don’t worry. As to the T51p, the wires going into the earcups are way too thin and fragile for a $300 headphone.

                  • Reply November 7, 2014

                    Michael Dowling

                    Sorry, Dale – I was honestly just not sure what you meant!

                    • November 7, 2014

                      dalethorn

                      I’ve been involved with production quality and QC theory since the Deming days (typically under Six Sigma now), and many of the companies I’ve worked with, such as Firestone/Bridgestone, Hewlett-Packard et al, have struggled to define a break point of sorts where merchandise returned for repair or replacement incurs a greater burden on profits than efforts to improve quality and reliability up front, or vice-versa. Corporations that have opted for lower quality and more frequent repairs or replacement, proving the viability of their method to the corporate directors, do indeed exist as profitable entities, but in doing so they shift the burden of dealing with the frustrations of replacement to their customers. Those corporations have devised methods of managing repair or replacements that are highly automated and relatively cheap for themselves, but for customers whose time is limited and valuable, it’s costly and very annoying. BTW, I ordered a DT990 Manufaktur 2 days ago, so I feel confident in the Beyerdynamic products.

                    • November 8, 2014

                      Michael Dowling

                      Thanks for clarifying, Dale. It’s certainly an interesting issue. What we would consider consumables now I would imagine is markedly different from 20 years ago. I just spent a lot of time keeping my old Saab on the road. No one is making the parts anymore which means an otherwise functional vehicle would be scrapped for the sake of a headlight… Still The ear buds which came with my ipod breaking and then the process of looking for a decent replacement was the thing that made me take a good look at what was going on with headphones…
                      Thanks again, looking forward to hearing about the 990!

                    • November 10, 2014

                      ohm image

                      DT990 Manufaktur… nice. I have the DT880/600 Manufaktur (but stock) from 2006. Looking forward to hearing from you.

                    • November 10, 2014

                      dalethorn

                      Got mine from Massdrop for $269 – not all of their bargains are really bargains, and while they deny being grey-market, they kinda are. But they’ve been pretty reliable so far, so good. I wish they had a better set of choices in the Manufakturs like Beyer does on the Beyer main site, but for $269 I’m not complaining. Maybe next time I’ll get a DT880 from the Beyer site with some of the color customizations they offer.

    • Reply November 4, 2014

      ohm image

      Comfort isn’t high, but if everything is right, it is a great phone. Unless you have hair.

    • Reply July 15, 2015

      trisul

      Interesting, I also bought them and I completely forget that I am wearing them. Obviously, each head is a story for itself.

      • Reply July 15, 2015

        dalethorn

        Please report back in a couple of months about how the headphone is holding up.

        • Reply July 15, 2015

          trisul

          I’ve had it for two years now, last week I managed to snip one of the wires. Folding is a bit messy, otherwise everything as before.

          • Reply July 16, 2015

            dalethorn

            That does seem to be the average experience, that users are very satisfied with the Porta Pro.

            • Reply July 16, 2015

              trisul

              Yes, I bought the model with the microphone, so I also use it on the phone. A good portable all-rounder for that price, which is not high. I got a few friends to buy one too, but I haven’t had any enthusiastic responses, but no criticism either. So, it seems a safe bet, my own attempts to improve on it by trying others, even slightly more expensive one where not a success.

  • Reply November 7, 2014

    Michael Dowling

    I’m not sure I get your point, Dale. Are you saying that Beyerdynamic are no more reliable than Koss? Regardless, the slightly negative vibe here towards the Portapro cannot dampen my enthusiasm for it. Though I’ve moved on to more expensive and arguably better sounding cans I still love the sound of the Portapro. It’s a truly fun headphone.

    • Reply November 7, 2014

      dalethorn

      There’s no need to discuss ‘point’ about a brand that’s noted for their failure rate. Nor is there any argument about your enjoyment of the PortaPro, so enjoy and don’t worry. As to the T51p, the wires going into the earcups are way too thin and fragile for a $300 headphone.

      • Reply November 10, 2014

        ohm image

        While I didn’t break my T51p, I understand what you’re saying about the cables. That said, I think they are pretty well reinforced, though it’s certainly not perfection. It’s not the thickness of the cables that matters as much as it is the cable’s ability to stave off breakage pressure.

        Certain thin-cabled phones are wonderfully robust: Audio Technica ES10 and 11 (which use the same cables as those found in the might CK10). But they are very, very well thought-out cables with excellent coatings. Still, they are thin.

        When first I purchased them I was certain that I would break the cables. After now 4 years or longer with the ES10 and many drops and gravity snags (all violent), they work as well as the day I purchased them.

        But their cable, while thin, is excellent.

        The T51p is also in a hard situation. It is meant to be a portable headphone. I uses a decent, albeit suboptimal cable. I’ve not heard of widespread breakage, but as with you, the groups I hang with are silly nerd groups that tend to baby everything they use.

        I do not.

        I’d love for the Porta Pro to have the same cable as is found on the ES10, thought it probably costs more than the headphone does.

        • Reply November 10, 2014

          dalethorn

          I have had thin cables that have held up well – the ATH ESW9a for example. So I presume the problem with the T51p was a combination of poor attachment/soldering and poor-quality strain reliefs, which don’t actually relieve anything based on close inspection. The DT1350 is much better made.

          • Reply November 10, 2014

            ohm image

            I can’t remember if the ESW9 use the same cable as the ES10 (the ESW11 do). That cable is awesome. I tried the new DT51p only a little while so I haven’t the on-hand experience you do.

            Thanks again for the update.

  • Reply March 30, 2015

    Nicolas Chupick

    It’s been a while and the PortaPro is completely outclassed now. The JVC S400 is simply superior: better sound (you still get that warm sound and thick bass but the vocals sound noticeably better), better comfort, better isolation, thicker cable & similar compact folding . Moreover, if you stick some blu-tak at the back of the drivers you can even out the treble and tighten up the bass. Sadly, it looks blocky and plasticy and cheap. The PortaPro just has unbeatable style.

    • Reply March 31, 2015

      dalethorn

      I looked up the JVC – reviews said that isolation is very low because the earpads don’t seal – the earcups just don’t rotate enough. The S400 looks really good with the red trim (Japanese import).

      • Reply March 31, 2015

        Nicolas Chupick

        This could be true (especially with more expensive headphones), but the bar is set pretty low with the portapro. I actually didn’t mind the pads at all on the S400. But the headband is definitely on the small side like the Philips M1.

        • Reply March 31, 2015

          dalethorn

          Thanks – I put it on my Amazon list, to follow some others that are on the way. If I get this it would be my first JVC.

  • Reply March 31, 2015

    dalethorn

    PortaPro just popped up on Massdrop for $31 USD.

    • Reply March 31, 2015

      Headfonia_L.

      I saw but that’s not a special deal is it?

      • Reply March 31, 2015

        dalethorn

        I don’t know the usual price if there is one, but I have gotten deals from Massdrop – the $1500 AKG K812 for $1079, the TH900 for $1100. Today I got the Edifier H850 for $39, and that’s really amazing. Massdrop is safe to buy from I think, but for most products they’re not an “authorized dealer”.

  • Reply November 17, 2015

    Alexa Scott

    I received a pair
    of Koss UR-20s as a gift years ago and loved them so naturally I looked to Koss
    again when replacing my portable/on-the-go headphones. I figured they were
    good, especially considering that the design seems unchanged since the 1980s
    (which has to mean something), but I also figured that this was one of those
    things that was just too good to be true. However, these are bar-none the most
    amazing headphones I have ever put on my head. Listening to some of my favorite
    songs for the first time was one of those ‘wow’ moments where you realize you
    have found something that changes your expectations completely. The bar will be
    raised the instant you hear the bass response and incredible acoustic qualities
    of these light, comfortable headphones. I don’t know what I’m impressed with
    the most: the amazing bass, the excellent stereo division, or how loud they can
    get! These things are just as amazing as most of the reviews show them to be
    and then a lot more… I was worried about the eighties styling, but in person
    they don’t look bad at all. I hate headphones that scream for attention, but
    these don’t look like that when you have them on and I have already been
    wearing them in public (something I didn’t think I would do after only seeing
    the picture of them online). And even if they’re a bit outdated in appearance,
    the design is so functional you won’t even give looks a second thought after
    you put them on. I can’t say enough good things about these PortaPros! They’re
    simply amazing. These are the first headphones (or speakers) I’ve had that
    sound absolutely awesome without adjusting the equalizer or pumping up the
    bass. They sound good on everything from R&B to Country and everything
    in-between. I’ve been especially impressed that they pull the bass and highs
    out of a song without getting that shrill, tinny treble that plagues so many
    headphones. If there ever was a question about the quality of Koss stereophones
    in my mind, these PortaPros have put it to rest and made me into a lifetime
    customer! Take what other reviewers have said about these headphones, believe
    them, and then multiply it by 100. Some more technic details here
    http://topchoice.best/main-review/best-headphones

  • Reply March 10, 2017

    Anthony

    Hi,

    I have used Porta Pro for 20 years and more. Some lasted less than a year, others lasted 2 or more years. They sound better to my ear than $500 headphones and I paid usually about $50 but had in the early days paid as much as $120 in Sydney Australia.

    I find them very comfortable and wear them when working out. No slippage at all.

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