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How to choose the right headphones for listening to classical music

BBC Music Magazine's audio expert Chris Haslam introduces us to the different types of headphones and what might work best for listening to classical music in high-quality audio

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Headphones from Philips, Grado, JBL, AKG and Sennheiser can range in price from £69 to £1,800. They’re all great headphones, but it can be difficult to choose a new pair from the hundreds now available.

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Of course, some headphones sound better than others, which is where considered reviews help, but with in-ear, on-ear, over-ear, true-wireless, Active Noise Cancelling, sports and open-backed options to consider, how do you make the most of your money?

Regardless of budget, think about what you need your headphones to do. Are they for home listening, commuting, sitting at your desk, working out, walking the dog or all the above?

Which is more important – sound quality or wireless convenience?

Even at under £50 you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the features available, but at this price the best-sounding headphones remain wired.

Great wired budget headphones

SoundMagic’s E11C in-ear buds cost under £40 but are sensational.

Great wireless budget headphones

Sony’s WI-C300 (£43) not only sound good but are wireless, too – handy if your smartphone no longer has a headphone jack. For sound quality reasons, however, I’d avoid noise-cancelling and true-wireless designs at this price.

At the £50-£250 level the choice is baffling, but it’s worth seeking out a brand’s eBay store for reconditioned pairs or look for last year’s ‘top’ model, as many brands get rid of old stock to make room for new products. The same can be said for in-store demonstration units and bright colours, which are often discounted early. Wireless Active Noise Cancelling is tempting, especially if you travel regularly, but for home listening the added electronics will impact on sound quality.

That said, spend over £250 and you can now find some phenomenally good designs from Bowers & Wilkins, Bose and Sony. If the time has come to invest in a serious pair of headphones for home listening (from £350 to £3,000-plus) – and no, you won’t regret it – I recommend Focal, Audeze, Grado and Beyerdynamic that use their own driver technology, have handmade components and detachable cables, and use robust materials.

Recommended open-backed headphones:

Grado’s GS3000e model (£1,795, gradolabs.com)

To enjoy music to the full, headphones need high-quality recordings – MP3 tracks will sound awful and will benefit from a hi-res digital audio player, headphone amp or DAC. But the most important thing is how they sound to you, and I’d recommend trying a selection at a specialist hi-fi retailer or, if you’re unable to travel, take advantage of at-home trial services.

Recommended budget headphones

Final E500
£20

This Japanese brand make some of the best – and pricey – headphones, but they also use their audiophile experience to create designs like this, boasting impressively clear and balanced sound for just £20. hifiheadphones.co.uk

Recommended closed-back headphones

Focal Celestee
£999

Made in France using sumptuous materials, these closed-back headphones ooze sophistication and have sound quality to match, with electrifying detail and timing. One listen and you’ll understand where the money was spent. focal.com

Recommended wireless, noise cancelling headphones

Sony WH1000XM4
£335

My current favourite wireless headphones, these are light and comfortable, have brilliant Active Noise Cancelling, a 30- hour battery and sound wonderful.

A budget alternative…

Sony WH-1000XM3
£218

If your budget is smaller, Sony’s previous model WH-1000XM3 are almost as good. sony.co.uk

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