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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!