Koss UR20 Headphones Review

A budget mix of surprising greatness and muddy sound

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ou can find these headphones for around $17 online. That’s practically free as far as audio products are concerned. A price that low would normally be a huge red flag for me, but Koss has a good reputation for making solid budget headphones.

Their PortaPro is legendary for good reason, and they offer their famous Lifetime Warranty on all their products, the UR20 included, replacing your registered pair for the cost of shipping.

For $17, the Koss UR20 offers some of the same features you’d find on much more expensive products…and a problematic sound signature that’s too veiled for me to call good.

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OVERVIEW

First launched 20 years ago, in 1999, the Koss UR20 has an MSRP of $30. But you’ll usually find it priced around half that online. It’s a closed-back over-ear pair of headphones with a permanently attached 8 foot cable and both 3.5mm and 6.3mm connection options.

I was 15 when these first came out, and 15-year-old-me would have loved them without a second thought. I was subsisting on a diet of “studio” headphones I’d buy for $25 at my local Fred Meyer’s electronics section. Cheap models from the likes of Sony and Panasonic that offered good bass response and some isolation, too!

This Koss pair would have crushed those in a number of ways.

I’ve learned a lot about audio since then.

35-year-old-me almost skipped over the UR20 completely…until I watched Koss’s official promotional video.

Giant ear pads? Flexible metal headband tube things? A weird design that says “Koss.com” on the side? Goofy chiptune music?

All of this was enough to get me. It’s rare to see such a cheap pair boast about their build quality while also having the company’s web site printed on the side. In fact, this is the only case of that I can think of.

I was in.

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The original 1999 design was so much “cooler.”

SOUND QUALITY

Koss declares on their web site that these have “sound intensity and bass.”

That’s absolutely true.

The bass response is the best feature of the UR20’s sound signature. It’s well extended, going much deeper than the 30hz Koss claims in the specs. It’s smooth and accurate, without any real obvious humps throughout the whole range. It doesn’t even intrude into the midrange, a common problem on cheaper gear.

Unfortunately, the midrange is still where the sound goes south. The upper mids and lower treble are way too low, scooped out in classic bad v-shaped fashion. It’s easily noticeable whether you’re using music to test, or a sine wave sweep. Music often sounds like it’s coming out of two seashells clamped to your head, particularly with female vocals. Listening to test tones, my pair has big dips at 1.5khz and 3.5khz, with uneven response all throughout that range and beyond, and the result is a muddy mess.

The UR20 tries to make up for this by screaming at you with a wildly inconsistent treble that’s full of peaks and valleys before going away again above 10khz. Listening to test tones, my particular pair has a huge spike at around 7.5khz that’s piercing and bad. Instead of adding any detail back in, it just means that these will sound randomly sibilant, sparkly, and sharp on top of the mud.

They’re not entirely awful with regular audio material as opposed to test tones, and you can adjust to their unique…character, after a while. But if you come to them after listening to anything with a more accurate midrange and treble, these sound like they’ve got a thick blanket on top of the details.

Without the treble spikes, these might make good DJ headphones thanks to their smooth bass response, but as crafted, they’re just one or two steps above a mess.

Back when I didn’t know any better, this warm, hollow, inconsistent sound would have really done it for me. And over the couple days I spent listening to these, I did adjust to them…only for other headphones to shout at me with their detail and show me what I was missing the second I switched.

You can fix the sound issues these have with EQ. Start by pushing up that midrange and taking down the peak in the 7–8Khz region, and you’ll see how much detail you’ve been missing. I own a SoundblasterX G5, which has Creative’s “X-Fi Crystalizer” function, and I normally never use that. However, with the UR20 it greatly cut down on the mud and the blandness.

Thank goodness the 32ohm drivers here respond well to EQ. You won’t need any kind of special amp to power them, either.

Ideally, you shouldn’t have to spend time fixing your headphones, even $17 ones. I like to review products straight as they come out of the box, and not assume that everyone is an enthusiast who will fiddle with things. Stock, these aren’t completely broken. Their bass response is far better than it has any right to be, and everything else is much closer to what I expected from the nothing price.

Also…

Soundstage is surprisingly good? I don’t know how this is possible given the weird ragged response here, but maybe it has something to do with the massive ear cups. They work better than I expected with virtual surround algorithms, too. Isolation is also adequate, with more than enough passive sound blockage to make my local coffee shop a pleasant listening environment.

The Koss UR40 I reviewed recently has a much nicer sound to it, especially if you’re not a bass fanatic and you want female vocals to sound like vocals as opposed to weird hollow emanations.

Fortunately, the UR20 crushes it in every other department.

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COMFORT

Wow! This shouldn’t be this good!

The UR20 combines massive ear pads and a light weight into a fit that’s essentially perfect for my personal tastes. The ear pad openings are massive. They’re larger than 90 percent of the headphones I usually test, and the insides of the cups only barely touch my ears thanks to an angle at the back of the opening. Most folks will have plenty of ear clearance.

Rather than using cheap material inside the cups a la the UR40, the interior of the cup is coated in a soft foam, so on the off-chance your ears do graze the interiors, it still shouldn’t be a problem.

Every over-ear cushion should aspire to be this large.

The backs of the pads are sculpted a little bit to stick out more, which should help them to seal against your head better.

Padding isn’t memory foam, but it’s thicker and more plush than on the more-expensive UR40. The material over the foam is similar to that on the Sennheiser HD280 Pro. It looks like it’s going to have the cheap feel of lower quality leatherette, but it’s one notch smoother. It still builds up sweat over time, though, like all leatherette does.

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The headband pad is a solid piece of canvas with little bumps spaced out that have some padding inside. It does a good job of spreading the limited weight of the headphones across the whole width of my head.

Clamping force is a little light for my tastes, and I had to press a bit on the metal headband support rails to get clamp where I wanted it. If you’re having issues with bass response or fit, you might want to bend in the headband just a little.

They fit on my head best when nearly fully extended, so they should be good for most head sizes since my head is kinda big.

I have zero complaints about the fit of these. Their ratio of cheapness to comfort is light years beyond any other headphone I’ve ever tested.

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DESIGN/BUILD

Upon opening the box, I was bummed to see that at some point Koss updated these and removed the “.com” branding from the side of the cups, as well as the dot-matrix “UR20” text.

This current version is as subtle as a massive headphone can be, branding-wise, with Koss logos on the sides and small print that says UR20 inside the headband above the cups.

The plastic wings that hold onto the headband look and feel a bit thin, and the cups aren’t the most substantial I’ve ever held…but the whole thing feels better in the hands than its price suggests. And the headband itself is great.

It’s basically two pieces of thin wire surrounded by rubber. They’re wiggly and flexible, while also good at returning to their original shape. It bends just like the pair they show in that promo video. This makes them great for shoving into a bag, or bending to listen to only one cup for DJ use, and it makes the pads easier to clean off as well.

Aside from the bendy headband and a little cup swivel, there’s no rotation or folding features here, so you won’t want to wear them around your neck.

The cable has a decently thick sheathe over it, and isn’t as hard to manage as I was expecting at the price. It’s much nicer than the infamous thin cable on the PortaPro and the UR40.

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Only a couple of things let down the build here, and again, it’s hard to complain too much at this price. The adjustment sliders are a little mushy and imprecise, with a bad feeling during adjustment. And inside those adjustment channels resides a teeny tiny wire that then runs through the headband so both cups can have sound. That wire seems to be the most likely point of failure on the headphones.

Each ear cup is vented, presumably to help with bass response. However, if you look inside the vent, you’ll see some white foam in there, basically blocking the vent. That’s really strange. I wasn’t in the mood to rip these apart, but I bet you’d find some weird stuff inside if you went digging around.

I like the build and design of these much more than the UR40 I recently reviewed, and more than any other sub $40 headphones I’ve ever used. Yes, they’re big and a little ungainly, and yes, the plastic used isn’t the thickest or most robust. But you’re getting a flexible headband and a non-terrible cable, both things that aren’t guarantees on much more expensive products.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

The Koss UR20 has comfort that rivals any over-ear headphone out there, and build features (metal headband, sculpted cups, decent cable) that the industry has taught me not to expect from this price range. Looking just at those elements , I can see why Koss keeps making these 20 years after their launch.

Now if only they’d revisit the sound signature. The bass response is exceptional but everything else is muddy, peaky, and inconsistent. I adjusted to their sound after a day of listening, but the midrange remained hollow and lacking in detail, and it’s weird to hear sibilance shoot out over the top of that.

These still might be a better budget buy than the Koss UR40, depending on what you’re after. Those sound much better, yes, but fall short in almost every other way compared to this older model, and they’re more expensive.

If you’re looking for a headphone to fill up the computer lab you run, give to audio editing students for free as a test of their EQ abilities, or throw in a bag for portable work without worrying about it breaking, then the UR20 is an exemplary choice.

It’s also a great pair if you want to learn why upper midrange and treble are so important to sound quality, and why Audio-Technica focuses on those frequencies so much. If you end up liking this sound, you’ll know you like really warm headphones with peaky treble, and you’ll have only spent $17 to get there.

I love so much about these and was expecting a disaster. In spite of their muffled details, they’ve still won a place in my personal collection for those days when I just want bass and comfort and nothing else. It’s my new go-to “burner pair” recommendation, and I can’t get over how comfy they are.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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