Koss Porta Pro and KPH30i or How My Hi-Fi Journey Ended With $20 Headphones

Posted on 9/29/2020

My hi-fi journey began about ten years ago, right around the time that Beats by Dre began to swell in popularity. At that point in my life I couldn't really comprehend spending $300 on headphones; that was more than I had spent on my whole iPod. I didn't have the money for it and my parents certainly weren't going to buy them for me. All for the better, perhaps, as I later learned that the first generation of Beats by Dre were basically a mediocre budget headphone stuffed with cheap metal to increase the weight and then marked up $285 on the back of relentless advertising and celebrity endorsements. But the existence of Beats by Dre did bring some attention to the world of hi-fi audio to my high school, and a few pairs of headphones that really lived up to the hype.

A close friend of mine asserted that his headphones--a mere $80--sounded better than another classmate's Beats by Dre. They were the Grado SR-60i. Hand-built in Brooklyn, the SR-60i is well-known in the audio community and is for many the gateway drug to the audiophile world. Immediately a believer, I bought myself a pair and enjoyed my time on what I incorrectly believed to be the summit of music-listening bliss. As Grados caught on at my high school, my wealthier and more invested classmates one-upped the SR-60i's and purchased headphones from the $100 SR-80 all the way up to the Beats-equaling (in price) Alessandro MS-2. I listened to them all and convinced myself the more expensive headphones sounded better.

After my sophomore year in college I took a software development internship for the summer, and finding myself with real spending money for the first time, I purchased a pair of Grado SR-325e's. With an aluminum construction and a cable that rivaled a garden hose in thickness and unwieldiness, they were heavy, uncomfortable, and shrill to the ear. I added some bass with an easy modification to balance the sound a bit, and proudly wore my impractical headphones for another two years.

I bought my final and most expensive pair of Grados in August of 2016, finally fully employed but still living with my parents. Grado had begun releasing headphones in its Grado Heritage line, a series of limited-edition headphones that shared drivers and tuning with Grado's much-praised premium Reference Series headphones. Built from a Brooklyn-sourced maple tree, the Grado GH-1 headphones set me back $420 used, and I loved them. They sounded the way I wanted them to sound right out the box: wide, rich, full, and detailed.

A year and a half ago, my college roommate messaged me with an offer from Massdrop--she would refer me, I would accept, and then we would both get a $10 credit to put towards a pair of Koss Porta Pros. The discount brought the grand total to $28. I had never owned a pair of Porta Pros up to that point, but I had listened to them a fair amount of times and blindly recommended them to friends who asked for sub-$50 headphone recommendations. When I got them, I was immediately impressed by fun and engaging sound, and they provided enough detail so that I didn't feel like I was missing anything from the Grados. But what really struck me was how easy they were to live with: small, light, comfortable, reasonably durable. I wasn't conscious of it them but I am now--I had never worn my Grados around the office; they were just too cumbersome. On a day when I chose to listen to the Porta Pros, I barely took them off my head.

And just a few days ago, I received my Massdrop Koss KPH30i. I love them for the way they take up the mantle from the Porta Pro and take it even further. They're even cheaper ($20), even lighter, and even more under-the-radar, yet they fill your head with music and pull the corners of your mouth up into a grin when they remind you again and again just how fun your favorite songs are to listen to.

And that's where I am. The Grados are shelved, like Woody from Toy Story 2 with a torn arm. I will probably hang on to them for now, as they were a limited run, but after ten years of buying bigger and more expensive equipment, I've finally realized that listening to music should not be about the headphones. It should be about enjoying the music, and Koss Porta Pro and KPH30i deliver music listening enjoyment like no other headphone.