- 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.
- 2/11/22. Article makeover/refresh.
- 4/13/22. Budget category addition.
3,314-word post, approx. 8 min. read
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!
- The Best Headphones for Jazz
- The Best Headphones for Classical (This article)
- The Best Headphones for Rock
- The Best Headphones for Metal
- The Best Headphones for Pop
- The Best Headphones for Hip-Hop
- The Best Headphones For Folk (Coming Soon!)
The best headphones for Classical? Good question! There are a few things to take into consideration before diving in headfirst. Before we get into things, grab a snack, sit back and relax because…
I’m Here to Help!!
Table of Contents
Click to navigate the article!
Entry Level: Open Back
Mid Tier: Open Back & Other Options
Top-Tier Closed & Open
Recommendation & Final Word
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 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.
There are a few things that need to be addressed in determining “the best.”
- Budget. What are you looking to spend?
- Comfort. Generally speaking, many 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 and tried many headphones; 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). Related: Closed back vs. Open Back Headphones.
- Flat, neutral response. None of the frequencies are over-hyped or overpowering 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, but a bass response with a bit more meat can also be ideal depending on how it’s done.
- 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.
It seems strange to say this, but the 9600 could be the best headphone on this list for Classical, at least in the budget category.
Truth be told, I don’t particularly like or recommend these headphones. In fact, I actually sold them some months back. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think they sound terrible or anything, but I found myself not using them at all and they ended up collecting dust in my studio so it made sense to let someone else have a go.
That said, their sound signature is a near-perfect match for Classical.
Why do you ask?
Some years ago I read somewhere that Classical music actually needs more bass emphasis and it wasn’t until I tried these that I understood why.
It really helps to mitigate the pitfalls of the genre – namely the volatile nature of the instruments and how everything can go from quiet as a mouse to Oh-My-God-a-symphony-is-playing-in-my-room-and-I’m-gonna-die.
In addition to that, the somewhat pushed-back mids actually help its case even further, as said symphony from above’s instruments don’t feel like someone’s vigorously rubbing sandpaper on your ears.
Finally, the treble on the 9600 is subdued (for the most part), so you’re not getting that sizzle/bite like you would with other headphones.
This really could be a match made in heaven.
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!
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.
Handmade by Grado Labs in Brooklyn NY, this is a great introduction to a headphone for Classical. Even despite how much I trash Grado in general, I do like the 60e as it’s cheap and does a lot of things right.
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 variety. Still, they have a tendency to become irritating after a while.
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 though I genuinely believe the 560S improved on that issue present in older models like the HD598.
No worries though, I don’t expect you to be blasting Mozart at ear-piercing levels.
One thing that makes these perhaps the best overall for Classical is that they have a subtle bass shelf which I had read long ago is important for the genre.
It wasn’t until I actually experienced it for myself did it make complete sense. A lot of people will tell you the bass response has to be lean, but a bit of extra low end actually gives the compositions some meat and makes them sound fuller and more complete.
The K702 improved upon the unnaturally wide Soundstage of the 701, as well as the too lean bass response though it’s probably not a huge difference if we’re being honest. From graphs, you can see the K702 has slightly more extension, but by and large, the sound of both is just about the same.
That said, 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.
This would be a good step up from a 60e because it’s more comfortable, has better Soundstage, and the bump at 2kHz isn’t overdone like your mom’s meatloaf.
In fact, the K702, along with the HD560S and the next option I’m about to discuss are probably 3 of the best you can go with for Classical music.
The 400se is likely the best all-around headphone in the mid-fi category, and like the 702, has an almost ruler flat sound signature with a bit of extra zest in the treble.
The catch is that HIFIMAN didn’t overdo it this time. Past models saw a hissy, sometimes overly bright top end that became annoying after a while and/or needed EQ.
The 400se finally fixes that and while bright-ish, it falls more in line with bright neutral and still sounds wonderful – i.e. there’s still sparkle but it never feels over the top.
The 6XX finds that perfect balance between the too-forward mid-range on the 600, and the sometimes too relaxed sounding 650. In my opinion. This has been the subject of much debate, but I’m sticking to my guns until I give all 3 another listen.
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.
The 6XX would be great for long listening sessions as its sound signature is never really going to get out of line even despite the volatile nature of Classical music.
Some other options
- 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!
- 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 660s 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!
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.
The Ananda picks up where the 400se left off and provides an even more open, crisp sound with plenty of fantastic instrument separation and excellent bass response.
If you’re looking for a true step-up from mid-fi but don’t want to mortgage away your kidney in the process, the Ananda is a perfect solution and also happens to sound great with Classical music.
Is this the best headphone money can buy?
In terms of the headphones I’ve heard, I’d have to say yes.
Everything about it is perfect, hence its name. Not only is it tuned better than 99% of headphones, but everything is heard with startling clarity and it provides the most detail I’ve heard in a headphone to date.
In addition to working well with any genre, the Utopia has unmatched realism and instrument timbre that must be heard to believe.
Every time I go back to this one thinking it’s not going to sound as good as I initially thought, it ends up sounding better.
Yup, that’s right you heard me correctly!
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.
In truth, you really can’t go wrong with any of these, but if I had to choose one headphone on this list that won’t break the bank and sounds the most balanced, I’d probably go with the HD560S. It combines all the qualities we need:
- It has a perfectly tuned sound signature and just the right amount of bass shelf for that extra meat we discussed earlier.
- It’s got a near-perfect mid-range, with just the right amount of clarity and emphasis around the presence region.
- It’s got a crisp, bright-neutral treble that never gets out of line or sounds Sibilant. What does Sibilant mean?
- It’s got a nice wide Soundstage (but not too wide), 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 headphone is light and won’t dig into the top of your skull, and quite easily makes my most comfortable headphones of all time article.
There’s simply nothing more we could ask for in a great Classical headphone.
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you now have a better idea of what The Best Headphones for Classical Music are.
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Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!
Which of these headphones are you most likely to purchase? Does the HD560S sound like the best option? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…
All the best and God bless,