Before there was Beats. Before there was Bose. Before there was Skullcandy, Sennheiser and Shure, there was Koss.
It’s sad when a company that invents a category, watches while others take their ideas, adapt them in a way that’s a better fit with the culture and run away with it. That’s essentially what has happened to Koss over the past decade. In 1958 John Koss invented the “Stereophone” as he dubbed it, and it wasn’t long before Koss was the undisputed king of headphones in the United States. They were revered by audiophiles for their pristine sound quality. But that was in the era of the hifi and component stereos.
When the market moved from vinyl to CDs, from the den to the street, Koss didn’t move quickly enough to maintain their hold on their high fidelity positioning, allowing competitors out-innovate and out-market them for the ears of the American public.
If you know Koss at all, you probably know them for two products: the Porta Pro on-ear headphones and their Pro4AA full-sized headphones. Both are excellent products, but dated. The Pro4AA’s were introduced in 1970 and though they sound terrific when plugged into a component stereo system, they are about as relevant to today’s on-the-go music listener as a 24-track two-inch tape recorder is to an audio technician.
The products they have introduced over the past decade, with the exception of some very highly rated noise canceling headphones, have mostly been focused on the mid- to low-end of the market. Thus neither the tonal nor the material quality were of the standard you’d expect from a class-leading brand.
Well, after spending a a lot of time with a whole slew of new headphones from Koss, it appears that they’re tired of letting upstarts take the market they created away from them.
If you follow me on social media or this site, you know I travel. A lot. Between airports, airplanes, noisy hotel rooms, walking and working in coffee shops in towns across the country, headphones are a necessity. I’ve used everything from the cheap earbuds that come with the iPhone to higher quality in ear-headphones and full-size phones, both corded and bluetooth.
The New Look of Koss
There are really three facets to a great pair of headphones: sound quality, comfort and design. To be a truly great headphone, you have to excel across all three dimensions. How does Koss fare based on these criteria?
Koss sent me one of each of their four new headphone sets to test: the full-size, over-the-ear SP540, the compact on-ear SP330, Bluetooth enabled over-the-ear BT540i, and the studio quality Pro4S full-size headphones. Koss also sent me their new Bluetooth remote speaker, the BTS1.
Let’s start with the easiest attribute to review, the design. On the whole, this range is a huge step up for Koss. The products are classically handsome and use high quality materials. The ear cups are wrapped in soft leather and the surfaces are metal and rubberized plastic that feel solid and well built. The most obvious design feature on the SP series is the D-profile (my inner 13 year-old keeps wanting to call it a D-Cup). Not only does this add a distinctive look to the phones, but according to Koss engineers it also helps create a more effective acoustic seal.
This design and material selection also aids in the wearability and comfort of the new Koss cans. I recently traveled to Texas to drive the new BMW X6 M and 228i Convertible and wore the SP540 headphones for the entire two-hour and 45-minute flight. In addition to providing me with great sound and much needed isolation from the roaring jets, whining child, and overly talkative couple in the seat in front of me, they were extremely comfortable for the duration.
The Koss SP540 headphones are light for their size. They also feature asymmetrical foam, that gradually increases in density toward the bottom and back of the ear cup. This balances the pressure around the ear, which means they create a tight seal and you can wear them for hours on end. The headband also uses memory foam covered by breathable cloth so you barely notice it as you’re wearing them.
The SP330 headphones are made from the same high quality components, but feature a smaller, lighter, on-ear design. They are even more comfortable but do not provide as much isolation from other noise as the full-size model.
The Pro4S Studio headphones also feature the D-profile design, but are made to withstand the rigors of studio work and be worn all day by audio professionals. The ear cups are all aluminum with the same memory foam padding and soft protein leather as the SP series.
My final test phones were the BT540i wireless headphones. Due to the bluetooth electronics and batteries, they are both larger and heavier than the SP540s. They also feature leather and memory foam in the ear cups and a breathable headband. The trade off is worth it though, thanks to the convenience of up to 8-hours of wireless operation. The pairing interface is a simple one-button operation and is incredibly intuitive. It only took me a few seconds to pair these cans with my iPhone and MacBook. The other benefit is range. I was able to wear them throughout my house without losing connectivity with my computer.
So the new Koss headphones look good and they’re comfortable, but how do they sound?
Very nice, thank you.
While each set has a slightly different sound profile, they all provide excellent dynamic range and a true expression of the sound the artist intended. Some headphones favor one end of the sound spectrum over the other, most noticeably Beats which I find to be too heavy on the bass. Koss headphones are very balanced and neutral allowing you to equalize the sound to your personal tastes through your device.
I listen to a very eclectic mix of music, from classic rock to jazz, hip hop, prog rock and a little classical. And I predominantly access my music through either an iPhone or MacBook. On both devices the sound was crisp, clear and powerful. Even at high volume settings there is no discernible distortion. For my money, of the family the Pro4S Studio headphones provide the best sound, but all are top notch and compare favorably to any premium headphone brand.
In addition to great sound, each set of headphones comes with a compact protective case that fits easily into a briefcase or carry-on bag. They also feature detachable audio cables, which makes storing them easier.
The fifth product I tested was the BTS1 Bluetooth speaker. This is a handy little portable speaker that can connect wirelessly to any bluetooth enabled mobile device. The design is simple, clean and elegant. As balanced and true as the headphones are, however, the BTS1 provides very little low end drive. So while it is louder than the built-in speakers on my MacBook, it doesn’t sound that much better.
Meatloaf once famously sang that “two out of three ain’t bad.” I’m happy to report that Koss has an even higher batting average with its new line up of products. Priced from $129 for the SP330 to $199 for the BT540i, if you’re in the market for new headphones, I can highly recommend the Koss SP line along with the Pro4S and BT540i headphones.
More information on the products and where to buy them is available on Koss.com.