HomeThe BestThe Best Headphones for Classical Music [In Depth Guide]
May 15, 2016
The Best Headphones for Classical Music [In Depth Guide]
9/16/19. Replaced 400i with updated Sundara. Added K240 to Budget Open Back. Added K712 to Open Back Top Tier. Added PM3 to Planar Magnetics. Replaced 600/650 with 6XX. Added HD599 to Mid-Tier Open Back. Added Table of Contents.
9/17/19. Grammar, spelling cleanup.
8/3/20. InnerFidelity and Tyll’s graphs all re-direct to Stereophile now, as the site is no longer in operation.
1/25/21. Article/link cleanup.
3,241-word post, approx. 8 min. read
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Hi friend and Welcome!
This is part 2 in a 7 part series on Genre, which takes a nostalgic look at some of my personal experiences with various types of music, games, and pop culture over the years. Check out the others if you would like! Suggestions for how to improve? Contact me or leave a comment below!
Ah, Classical music. Some say it’s only for snobs. I would tend to disagree. If you listen to classical music there’s a chance you’re a bit of a unique specimen. Perhaps a bit introspective, very intelligent, logical, etc. Maybe what I just said is complete bollocks and anyone can enjoy it. Lol. Who knows, but right now I’m listening to Moonlight Sonata (Piano Sonata no. 14 “Quasi Una Fantasia”) from none other than the Beethoven. I love the names that they gave to some of these songs by the way.
I’ve just recently gotten into Classical more, and one artist that has stood out to me so far is most definitely Claude Debussy. There’s something about his compositions that really takes me back and makes me feel a bit nostalgic.
In my hometown, we have what is known as The Classical Station 89.7, which actually extends its reach to quite a few cities including my hometown of Raleigh, NC, as well as a bunch of other places including New Bern, NC, Bassett Forks, VA, Buxton, NC (Outer Banks), Waynesville, NC (Frog Level), Foxfire Village, Aberdeen, Fayetteville, and many more.
I listen to Classical Music pretty much non-stop daily when I’m in the studio working, as it’s become a staple in helping me to concentrate and stay motivated.
Because of this, I’ve become quite familiar and pretty well versed with an array of different artists including, but not limited to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy (a personal favorite), Antonio Vivaldi, Franz Schubert, Giuseppe Verdi, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Antonín Dvořák, Joseph Haydn, Edvard Grieg (another favorite), and many others!
I also love how the announcers pronounce these names, as many of them have really cool accents and/or annunciations. I find myself walking around my apt. attempting to emulate their voices as I announce the next artist & song in my underwear. 😛
If there’s one thing I can tell you about Classical, it’s that it is very picky about which headphones will sound good (even more so than Jazz I would say). Some of the other genres in this series are easy to make good recommendations for; Classical is not one of those genres.
We’ll get into why, but first, let’s discuss some considerations.
There are a few things that need to be addressed in determining “the best.”
Budget. What are you looking to spend?
Comfort. Generally speaking, classical compositions are pretty lengthy. You will want to make sure your new buddy can be worn for long periods of time without discomfort.
Are you looking for the absolute best? This is highly subjective, but I’ve done quite a bit of research on the matter; there are a few models that do come up quite often when people discuss the best.
Portable vs. Studio. Do you want to be able to plug and play into a portable device, or use your headphones in a home studio environment? The headphones in this article have some of both. You aren’t really going to want to wear open-back headphones in public, as they leak sound and disturb others.
Do you know about the benefits of a good Soundstage?What is Soundstage? Detail also plays a big role here as well. Given that the instrumentation in Classical music is very subtle and delicate, you’re going to want to hear all the intricacies of the composition.
Within my research, I tried to narrow down the options according to the criteria above. I frequently came across the following headphones, and have experience with many of them as well. I will try and categorize them according to price, type (Open Back vs. Closed Back), and tier. (Open vs. Closed Back).
Flat, neutral response. None of the frequencies are over-hyped or overpower each other. There are some exceptions on this list, but I think for the most part they still work. No headphone is perfect!
Lean bass. The bass isn’t in your face and knows its place. We’ll mostly look at bass responses that are more rolled off and subdued.
Good clarity and mid-range. You want to be able to hear all of those juicy details!
Great Soundstage. You want to feel immersed in the music while enjoying the benefits of an open sound.
It becomes fairly tricky recommending a headphone for Classical because these criteria have to be met. There’s not much room to deviate outside of the given parameters as we may with other genres. While I would consider Jazz a fairly delicate genre to recommend a headphone for, Classical is even more so. Its sounds are extremely subtle, and any headphones with too much emphasis on a particular frequency kind of ruin the experience (at least for me it has).
I find myself turning my nose up at headphones I otherwise enjoy with other genres! Very tricky indeed.
That said, I can forgive a little brightness here and there, as well as some mid-range shout. As long as I’m still enjoying the headphone overall, I can’t complain too much.
With that in mind, here’s what I came up with:
Best Open Back/Semi-Open
Entry Level & Mid-Tier
AKG K240. What makes this headphone perhaps a bit better than the two below is that it’s tamer in the treble and sounds more relaxing over longer listening sessions (something very important with this genre). Everything about the headphone represents pure transparency. You’ll appreciate the rolled-off bass here as it never gets in the way, as well as the fantastic Imaging and Soundstage. Be prepared to start hearing way more than you intended! Learn more:AKG K240 Studio Review!
Philips SHP9500. This is currently my favorite budget open back, and it’s shocking how good it is. For Classical, it adds a bit of zest but not to worry; the overall sound is pretty balanced for the most part. It’s got a fantastic mid-range and overall stunning clarity. The soundstage is above average here as well, despite what some audiophile snobs will tell you. Do be aware that they have a tendency to become a bit bright at times. Just know that this is a minor caveat, and for the price, you’re paying it is forgivable. Learn more:Philips SHP9500 Review!!
Grado SR60e. Handmade by Grado Labs in Brooklyn, NY, this is a great introduction to a headphone for Classical. It’s magnificently detailed and open, with fantastic Soundstage and detail retrieval. Be prepared to have a semi out of your head feeling more often than not. The headphone resolves very well and mostly sounds pretty natural outside of that 2k bump. Because these use the S cushions, they are a bit more comfortable than Grado models using the L’s. Still, they have a tendency to become irritating after a while. Learn more:Grado SR60e Review!
How about a step up?
Sennheiser HD 599. Called the Audiophile Gateway Drug by Metal571, The 599 is the update and successor to the venerable HD598, a favorite of mine and all-around fantastic headphones. Perhaps one of the most comfortable you’ll ever wear, it’s light and perfect for long Classical listening sessions. The sound you ask? Mellower than Cheech and Chong, homie! This is a very warm, open, and detailed affair with great Soundstage and phenomenal detail retrieval. Why is it great for Classical? Because it’s meant to be listened to at quieter volumes and provides loads of subtle detail. In fact, I wouldn’t try and push these headphones too hard, as you’ll start to get a bit of harmonic distortion. No worries though, I don’t expect you to be blasting Mozart at ear-piercing levels. 😛 Learn more:Sennheiser HD 598 vs. HD 599
Beyerdynamic DT880. The DT880 has a flat response, with plenty of detail retrieval and a bump at 2k. The treble is on the bright side which will add some nice sparkle to Classical recordings while still remaining mostly neutral. Check out Tyll’s graph!
AKG K702. The K702 improved upon the unnaturally wide Soundstage of the 701, as well as the too lean bass response. This time around both is a bit better, as this headphone does wonderful with Classical. It’s got a flat signature, a rolled-off bass, and just enough brightness in the treble to remain lively.
AKG K612. Another great AKG model, this one flies under the radar a lot. I hadn’t heard much about it but when I started doing research, people really swear by it for Classical. Great for gaming as well and similar to the options above. The sound signature is a bit more relaxed than a K702, with less overall excitement in favor of a smoother response.
Audio Technica ATH AD900x. Great mid-range, detail retrieval, and a nice open Soundstage. This is not a headphone I particularly like for other genres as it’s a bit dull for my tastes. For Classical? It works perfectly because it’s so dead flat and doesn’t really place too much emphasis on any one frequency. You’re able to hear everything and when I say everything, I mean it. FPS Gamers swear by this one due to its ability to pick out even the most subtle of details. Learn more:Audio Technica ATH AD900x Review!
Best closed back
Beyerdynamic DT660. I largely ignored these when people would mention them, but they kept popping up over and over so I had to include them. A lot of people love these specifically for Jazz/Classical and not much else. In fact, most of the Amazon reviews explicitly state say that they are perfect for these genres. Just be aware that the build quality isn’t quite where it should be, and they won’t work as well for too much else. Because they are so flat and neutral, the wow factor won’t be there, and the treble does roll off. That said, because of this you’ll be able to listen for longer periods of time without fatigue. Check out this Head-Fi post about the 660’s and Classical music.
AKG K550. This is a great example of a closed headphone that sounds open and airy. Great for Classical. The sound has plenty of room to breathe, and the bass isn’t overpowering. It also has an immense amount of detail and clarity. Demoing this headphone was quite a shock to me because I expected it to sound a certain way and it didn’t. A great all-purpose option and a real treat to listen to! Learn more:AKG K550 Review!
Let’s take a look at some in the Top Tier…
Best Open Back
Mid-Tier to Top tier
AKG K712. I think the 712 picks up right where the 612/702 left off, providing a fantastic Soundstage and a great treble presentation. There’s plenty of air here as well, allowing you to really get a sense of how the instruments sound in their most raw form. This could be our overall top pick.
Sennheiser HD6XX. The 6XX finds that perfect balance between the too-forward mid-range on the 600, and the sometimes too relaxed sounding 650. Do keep in mind Soundstage though. It’s not going to be particularly wide with either, as they both have a more narrow image. Still, the instrument separation is great, and they hit on all other marks: The bass is rolled off and out of the way, the mid-range has zest and detail, and the treble is nice and relaxed. Check out my Shootout:Sennheiser HD 600 vs. HD 6XX [Definitive Guide]
Sennheiser HD 800/800S. Just know ahead of time that the HD800’s will only excel with proper amplification. The Best Headphone Amp For The Sennheiser HD 800. With the right one paired they truly shine, but have been accused of being too harsh in the treble. This is odd considering their younger brothers (600 & 650) had the opposite problem according to some. The good news is that Sennheiser listened to user feedback and tamed the treble with the inclusion of the new HD800S.
Sony MDR Z1R. This is an absolutely stunning headphone, in both price, weight, and pure musical bliss. Size-wise, you may think that these weigh a lot, but they are relatively light and feel supremely comfortable on your melon. The sound is similar to a K550, in that, it feels more like an open back rather than a closed one. The overall signature is stunning and incredibly natural to the point where absolutely nothing is forced, but they still somehow sound immensely grand and spacious. It’s hard to explain, but these are perfect for Classical because of their calm demeanor. They’re like a warm breeze on a Summer Day in Greece. Learn more:Sony MDR Z1R Review!
Grado GS1000e. This headphone is astounding in terms of detail retrieval and crispness, quite possibly being the most open sound I’ve ever heard. Bass is there, but it’s not overwhelming. Some would call it light, but I prefer to think of it as lean. It’s going to thump when called on, but you definitely won’t feel it. This is a headphone that grows on you due to its more textured, detailed, and articulate approach – a sound only appreciated over time and a great choice for Classical. Learn more:Grado GS1000e Review!!
What about Planars?
Planar Magnetic Offerings
This list wouldn’t be complete without some planar magnetic headphones. 🙂
Oppo PM-3. My oh my, what a headphone. This is perhaps the flattest sounding on the list, which probably makes it just about the best recommendation I can give. Unfortunately, Oppo has discontinued their line, but I still urge you to try and find one for a good price. I can’t overstate how great these sounded when I got a chance to demo them. In fact, I went so far as to Photoshop a Hippopotamus over top of a bright pink and red background with the words “THE LOVE AFFAIR” plastered above. I called it the Oppo-Potamus. Yeah, I got a bit carried away. In reading reviews, a lot of people claim these can be somewhat dull sounding and I can’t really argue with that, but: I love them so much. They get really stellar marks everywhere you look. Learn more:Oppo PM3 Headphone Review: Love Affair? Holy smokes Batman, look at that graph! It makes Audeze treble look bright!
The HIFIMAN Sundara. Like the 6XX in relation to the 600/650, the Sundara improved upon the issues present in both the 400i and 400S. The 400S was crisp but sounded grainier by contrast, and the 400i had the opposite problem of sometimes sounding overly gooey/syrupy. The Sundara combines the best of both of those headphones to deliver a sound that’s still fairly relaxed, but supremely detailed and technically superior to most other dynamic headphones. There’s something about a HIFIMAN that just sounds more resolving. The transient response is incredible; the attack, sustain, and decay, in particular, are all so spot on. Side by side, you’ll start to notice a clear difference between a capable dynamic and a more than capable planar magnetic like the Sundara. The differences are definitely noticeable. For Classical it works because it’s never trying too hard to impress you. Everything knows its place wonderfully well. Learn more:The Best HiFiMan Headphones [Definitive Guide]
Audeze LCD-3. One of the most naturally transparent cans you will ever come across, this beast has an incredibly textured bass with an overall flat frequency response. If you’re wondering what music truly sounds like, this is one of the headphones to try. Learn more:Audeze LCD-3 Review!
My goal for this was to keep it simple and concise, outlining the headphones that I have tried as well as some that I have thoroughly researched.
I think that’s important because it allows me to make good recommendations that aren’t based solely on my limited experience.
That said, what’s my final word and recommendation?
If I had to choose one headphone on this list for Classical Music, I’d probably go with the AKG K712. It combines all the qualities we need:
It’s got a rolled-off bass that doesn’t get in the way of the instruments but still isn’t too lean.
It’s got a near-perfect mid-range, with just the right amount of clarity and emphasis around 2k. Check Tyll’s graph!
It’s got a nice wide Soundstage, with plenty of depth and spacing so as not to sound muddy, claustrophobic, or boxed in.
It’s supremely comfortable and will stay on your head for a long time without discomfort. The hammock-style headband needs no adjustment, and the headphone is light and won’t dig into the top of your skull.
There’s simply nothing more we could ask for in a great Classical headphone.
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.