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What we bought: An ode to the Koss KSC75, still the oddest and best-sounding headphones $20 can buy

They look like free airline headphones, but they're a budget go-to for listening at home.

Jeff Dunn/Engadget

I’ve reviewed consumer tech professionally for a little over a decade now, and in that time I’ve worn hundreds of headphones. I’ve tested reference pairs that cost as much as $4,000, played with tons of gaming headsets, and seen firsthand (first-ear?) as the industry has shifted toward wireless models with increasing computer-like functionality.

And yet, for people who really care about how their music sounds, the easiest recommendation I can give is still a 17-year-old pair of wired “clip-on” headphones that cost $20 and look like something you’d get for free on a flight in the ‘90s. I purchased my first pair of Koss KSC75s many years ago, but for my money, they remain the best-sounding audio thing you can buy for $20. In a market that regularly uses the power of #branding to get you to pay more for basic functionality, the KSC75 are an honest anomaly. They promise quality sound at a consumer-friendly price and nothing more, and they deliver on that.

A brief history lesson: The KSC75 arrived in 2005 as a more affordable follow-up to the Koss KSC35, a similar set of ear-clip-style headphones that launched in 1995 and cost $45. Wisconsin-based Koss has long held a reputation among audio enthusiasts for good value plays, specifically with a series of headphones all based around the same 60 ohm driver, which the company has produced for decades. The most well-known of these is probably the near-40-year-old Koss Porta Pro — which still holds up itself, but is pricier and a bit flimsier in design — though other retro-style pairs like the Sporta Pro and KPH30i are built around it as well. The KSC75 (and a few others) use a version of the driver coated in titanium, however; this, combined with their lightly-clamping fit and open-back design, gives the KSC75 their own sort of sound by comparison.

And that sound is great. The emphasis here is on the midrange, which largely comes off as balanced and natural. There’s a bit of extra brightness to the treble, but not so much that higher-frequency sounds are overly sharp. The open nature of the design lends everything a pleasing sense of space, and the various elements of a given track generally always sound like they’re in the right place. The design does mean there’s practically zero sub-bass, so you don’t get any of that feel-it-in-your-chest thump from lots of hip-hop or dance tracks, but the upper-bass range that is present has enough juice to keep most songs from sounding too thin.

The Koss KSC75 on-ear headphones.
Jeff Dunn/Engadget

All told, this is an agreeable sound, one that’s ideal for those looking to get into more critical listening. The KSC75 doesn’t go all-in on the bass like many popular headphones these days, and while it’s a pleasure with all types of music, it plays especially nice with folksy rock or richer recordings. Beyond that, its light weight and emphasis on the vocal range makes it a natural option for podcasts and audiobooks. When I’m not in a party chat, it’s also a fine choice for gaming, since its balanced tuning and wide soundstage are ideal for, say, accurately locating other players in an FPS like Overwatch or Halo.

Now, I don’t want to sound naïve. There’s a perfectly decent amount of detail here, but a good set of modern, higher-end headphones will still pick up more of a track’s nuances. And again, the utter lack of sub-bass should make it a no-go for bassheads.

Plus, since this design was something of an outlier even in 2005, it forgoes basically all of the conveniences of a modern headphone. There’s no microphone, no built-in controls, and no sweat resistance rating. Because the design is open, it blocks next to no outside noise, and everyone around you will hear whatever you’re listening to if you turn things up to even a moderate volume. None of this is ideal for travel or working out.

The KSC75’s clip-on shape is light and comfy to my ears, but it won’t be for everyone. (Lots of people buy these earpads from Japanese company Yaxi to heighten the comfort, but I wouldn’t say they’re necessary for most.) The build mostly consists of cheap silver plastic, and there are many stories of its non-detachable cable breaking over time. (Though Koss’ lifetime limited warranty effectively lets you replace them ad infinitum for $9 a pop.) These are also wired headphones in a world that is actively eradicating the headphone jack, so if you want to use them on the go, chances are you’ll need a dongle.

But that $20 price goes a long way. Saying the KSC75 is a great value is practically a meme among audio enthusiasts at this point — not in the “lol funny photo” sense, but in the “symbolic idea that spreads and embeds itself within a culture” way. Still, it’s true: the KSC75’s sound quality is practically unmatched in its price range and competitive with many headphones that cost $100 or more. They’ve gotten me through many hours of working from home. If all you want is an affordable headphone that helps you better savor your music, I bet you’ll enjoy them too.