It is extremely difficult to find a pair of headphones that can play classical music well!
Here's the deal:
Classical music is not like most other music.
With the large focus on voices, clarity, and instrumental separation, the best headphones for classical music must satisfy a couple of specific criteria.
We cover all of these criteria in detail below, as well as our top three candidates.
Quick Comparison: Top 3 Headphones for Classical Music
Last updated: April 3, 2016
- April 3, 2016: Sennheiser HD 650 takes the lead.
- March 31, 2016: Updated the top three list and added list of criteria.
- January 16, 2016: Replaced Shure SRH440 with AKG K712.
- September 3, 2015: Removed Shure SRH940 from the top choices.
What to Look For
As I touched upon in the introduction, there are certain criteria that headphones for classical music must satisfy. The most important features are:
- Accurate soundstage
- Open-back design
Don't worry if you don't understand what that means right now. I'll cover all of it in detail.
Why Neutrality Is Best for Classical Music
Classical music, more than any other type of music, is composed of thousands of micro sounds such as a violin bow striking the string.
It is this complex combination of tiny sounds (invoking huge emotions) that makes classical music.
What does that have to do with headphone neutrality?
Neutrality basically means that you will hear the headphones as if you were listening to a set of speakers with a flat frequency response in a room.
Let me explain:
When you play music through a set of speakers, the sound waves bounce of the walls, chairs, and lamps until they reach your ears. This is what we are used to. How well the sound actually sounds when it reaches your ears is based largely on two things: the frequency response of the speakers and the acoustics of the room.
As you know, headphones don't have that much room to work with.
Engineers, being smart people, have then designed headphones to alter the frequencies to reproduce this experience.
This is why you won't see flat frequency charts for headphones. Neutrality refers to the headphones' ability to reproduce this realistic experience.
There's an additional complication:
Our ears are different.
The engineers I mentioned above are designing headphones with frequencies that will sound realistic when bouncing around inside the ear canals. This is one of the reasons we don't like the same headphones. They literally don't sound the same to us.
Why is this important for classical music?
Like I mentioned above, classical music is composed of such a high level of micro sounds and room experiences, and taking away anything will decrease the quality of the music.
Choose a Pair with an Accurate Soundstage and Dramatically Improve Your Experience
If you've ever heard an orchestra play in a concert hall, you know how important soundstage is.
What is soundstage exactly?
It simply refers to the headphones' ability to recreate the spacious experience you get in the concert hall.
If they can accurately recreate the soundstage, then you can hear the violins sitting slightly to the left and the flutes sitting to the right.
Instead of having all of the instruments packed into a tiny box, the experience will be rather similar to the one in the concert hall — spacious creamy goodness.
Why an Open-backed Design is the Way to Go
Over-ear headphones come in three main categories: open-backed, closed-backed, and semi-open.
This refers to the design of the cups themselves. A closed-back cup will be sealed on the back, while an open-backed cup will be open.
If you've heard anything about headphone cups at all, then you might have heard that a closed-back is better for noise isolation. This is true. And for this exact reasons, they're often recommended for people who travel a lot.
But here's the deal:
It is very difficult to get a pair of closed-back headphones to reproduce the desired orchestral soundstage.
That's why I always recommend going with an open-backed pair.
Keep in mind, though:
If you're mostly going to be listening in loud environments, like trafficked areas, then you might want to go with a closed-back (or semi-open), even though it doesn't provide the optimal experience.
The simple reason:
You won't be able to hear anything with an open-back in noisy environments.
The Often Overlooked Feature: Comfort
When people are looking for headphones for classical music, they tend to overlook comfort.
They get all carried away by 'flat frequency response', 'neutrality', and 'soundstage'.
But the fact of the matter is:
If the headphones aren't comfortable to wear, then they're worthless.
Another aspect of classical music is that the songs are usually quite long. Therefore, to get the best experience, comfort should not be overlooked.
In the End: It's a Personal Choice
I've been rambling on about soundstage, comfort, and neutrality, but the fact of the matter is that choosing a pair of headphones is a very personal matter.
Every individual will hear and experience music (and headphones) slightly differently. Because of this, headphones that I find to be perfect for classical music might not be so in your eyes (or ears).
This is why I recommend going to a headphone store and actually listening to a couple of headphones before buying.
Nevertheless, I have gathered my top three choices below. They satisfy most of the criteria we've talked about and are, in my opinion, the best headphones for classical music.
The 3 Best Headphones for Classical Music
Sennheiser HD 650
There are a couple of factors that play a role here:
First of all, the soundstage of the HD 650 is absolutely fantastic. We talked about how important a good soundstage is to classical music, and the HD 650 does not fall short here.
Second, the sound is unbelievable. They can reproduce everything to the smallest detail. I've yet to find a track that I like that they can't play above all expectations.
So where do they fall short?
They're (very) expensive. In fact, they're at the price range where I would not be recommending them if they weren't so darn good.
- Great soundstage
- Top sound quality
- Quite heavy
- Requires amplifier
If you want to read more about them, then I recommend Dave's review on Headfonia.com.
Sennheiser HD 598
In fact, they've got a wider soundstage than the HD 650, but it isn't as accurate.
Where does it shine?
That's right. Where the HD 650 falls short, the HD 598 triumphs. They provide such a good value for the price they're asking for them.
Another benefit is that they don't require an amplifier to play well. Do they benefit from one? Yes, they do. But it isn't necessary.
- Wide soundstage
- Top sound quality
- Doesn't require amplifier (but can benefit from one)
- Not quite as accurate soundstage as the HD 650
For more information about them, I recommend Tim's review on PCMag.com.
Beyerdynamic DT-880 PRO
While the sound quality is fantastic, the semi-open design means that the soundstage becomes a bit narrower than the HD 650 and 598.
In fact, I'd say that you should only get the DT-880 if you absolutely don't want to get a Sennheiser model, or if you want to be able to listen to a lot of other types of music as well.
The Sennheisers can definitely handle most types of music, but the DT-880 is slightly better for the more bass driven genres.
- Top sound quality
- More bass
- Not as wide soundstage
- Requires amplifier
For more information on them, I recommend Steve's review on CNET.com.
As I touched upon in the introduction, finding a pair of headphones that can play classical music well is no simple task.
I've done my best to choose my top three contenders, and given some criteria that you should look for in the best headphones for classical music.
Whether you choose to go with one of the three above or something completely different is up to you. I'd recommend that you go to a local store and try these headphones (and others) out before you make a purchase, as this is the only way to know exactly what you're getting.
Over to you
What are your favorite headphones to use for classical music?