Unchanged for almost 35 years, the cult classic Koss Porta Pros are a master class in functional design.
When it comes to Koss Porta Pro headphones, there are two types of people: Those who understand that their design is timeless, and those who don’t.
A few years back, when he saw my wife wearing a pair, my brother-in-law made it clear he was the first kind of person. Curling his upper lip in disdain, he pointed at the ‘80s-style headphones on her head, and with apparent generosity offered: “You know, I can buy you a pair of Apple earbuds or something if you need better headphones.” For those of us who have been initiated into the Porta Pro cult, like me and my wife, this proposition is inherently a bad deal, equivalent to having a friend pluck the sumptuous scotch egg off your plate and replace it with a ping-pong ball covered in shit.
The reason well-meaning people make the mistake of dismissing the Porta Pros is because of their old-school aesthetic, which some assume indicates poor sound. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once people start wearing a pair of Porta Pros, it’s usually hard for them to stop. Sure, there are better sounding headphones, and more comfortable headphones, and lighter headphones, and more portable headphones, and cheaper headphones, but on the Venn diagram of all five criteria, the Koss Porta Pros sit dead center, like a bull’s-eye.
Think of them as the fashionable anti-fashion headphones — a design virtually untouched since 1984, frozen in time long enough for their Walkman-era looks to become hip again. Which is what makes the Koss Porta Pros worthy of a closer assessment, not just as a great pair of headphones but as a design artifact.
Although many people have never heard of it, the Milwaukee-based Koss Corporation created the modern consumer headphone space. Originally started in 1953 as a company renting televisions to hospitals, Koss invented the first pair of “stereophones,” the SP-3, as an accessory for a portable record player they were designing. Before Koss got in the picture, the only headphones available to consumers were crystal-based sets meant for home radio operators. They were wholly unsuitable for listening to music, but Koss changed all that, launching a consumer audio category that has since been occupied by the likes of Apple, Sony, Sennheiser, Philips, and Bowers & Wilkins, among others.
The design that eventually evolved into the Koss Porta Pros was a response to the first portable cassette player, the Sony Walkman. “When the Walkman came out, it came with this cheap pair of lightweight headphones, which sounded just awful,” Michael J. Koss, Chairman and CEO of Koss Corporation, tells me. “So we immediately launched our own headphones, called the Koss Sound Partners (KSPs), which folded up into a little case and sounded a lot better.” They shipped alongside a pocket AM/FM radio, but a few years later, Koss stripped the KSPs out into their own product, called the Porta Pros, while improving them in a few key ways.
First, they deployed a pair of new transducers, or speakers, which delivered unparalleled sound for their weight and cost: big, warm, and accurate. Those transducers are still used in Koss products today. But they also improved the headphones’ ergonomics, and in so doing, created the Porta Pros’ distinctive look.
If you want decent sound from a pair of headphones, you can’t place the transducers too far from the eardrum, so the cups tend to be designed to clamp tightly over your ears. It’s part of what makes over-the-ear headphones so uncomfortable to wear for long periods. To this day, most headphone designers tend to compensate by putting big foam cushions on the ear cups, but with the Porta Pros, Koss came up with a more elegant solution: small foam pads that distribute the weight of the headphones to the temporal bone, making the ear cups themselves feel like they are floating just above the ear.
It’s a testament to the success of this design that it lives on to this day. Over the last five years, Koss has released slight updates of the Porta Pros — the latest update, released last month, replaces the tethered 3.5-millimeter audio cable with an around-the-neck Bluetooth loop — but the core design is fundamentally unchanged. And that alone is remarkable. In the world of consumer tech, there aren’t many designs that stay relevant for 35 years. Despite their status as classics, Porta Pros remain one of the best deals in tech: $49.99, the same MSRP as they had in 1984.
The Porta Pros look just like they did in 1984, because to change their design is to change their form and function.
Steve Jobs, who never quite nailed headphone design in his lifetime, has a famous quote: “[Design is] not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” I’d argue the Koss Porta Pros, which are about as anti-Jobsian in aesthetic as it’s possible to get, are a perfect design to illustrate that quote, because the reason the Koss Porta Pros are timeless is because their look and feel are direct results of how the headphones work. With a few exceptions, some new color paths, the addition of an in-line mic, or Lightning, or Bluetooth in some models, the Porta Pros look just like they did in 1984, because to change their design is to change their form and function.
According to Michael Koss, that’s why the Porta Pros are selling as well as they ever have, despite the product’s throwback looks. Even in an Apple world, where consumers have become more sophisticated about industrial design, the Koss Porta Pros have their place. “People who love design respect unapologetic function,” he says. “Such designs — like the Leica M3, or anything designed by Dieter Ram — have archetypal value.” The Porta Pros may not have a lot of “gingerbread” on them, he says — in other words, they may not have the afunctional flourish, aesthetic, or flair of a pair of Beats — but the core design is immortal, because you simply cannot design a better performing, more comfortable, more portable pair of headphones for the same price. Or if you can, no one has managed to do so.
If I sound like a die-hard, it’s because I am. As far as I’m concerned, the Porta Pros should be in the Cooper Hewitt. Nor am I the only one. Online and off, the headphones’ fan base is a loud and vocal one. Because to own a pair of Porta Pros is, in a significant way, to join a secret club, not just of audiophiles but design lovers. Which is why, when you wear a pair of Koss Porta-Pros in public, you won’t just get incredulous looks from people who don’t understand their design heritage. You’ll get, almost without fail, nods of respect, from audiophiles who know timeless design when they see it.