The best over-ear headphones for listening to classical music at home
What do cables do in headphones? Which frequency sound quality should headphones be? What is the best pair of headphones you can buy under £50? BBC Music Magazine's audio expert Chris Haslam answers all your questions and more, and offers recommendations of the best over-ear headphones on the market today
What do you need to know before buying a pair of over-ear headphones?
Before buying a pair of headphones, check the cable length. For a comfortable reach from hi-fi to armchair, you’ll need three metres to avoid feeling stretched. Some 1.2m cables sound great, but you’ll need to be very close or be using a portable media player.
Typically, 20-20,000 Hz represents the range of audio frequencies headphones can reproduce, with the lowest figure being the bass and the highest the treble. If you like rumbling bass, look for the lowest Hz.
Regardless of how hi-res a streaming file might be, if you’re plugging headphones into a smartphone or computer, the music will sound better through a dedicated headphone amp (try AudioQuest, Chord or Audiolab) with a separate DAC (digital analogue converter). Look out for analogue inputs too, so you can plug traditional sources for an instant audio boost.
BBC Music Magazine Best Buy: Best all-round over-ear headphones for classical music
Audeze LCD-1 £399
With a plush black executive finish, folding design and luxury case, Audeze’s most affordable headphone look like an alternative to Bose. With a huge 90mm planar magnetic driver behind each earpad and an open backed design, however, they manage to offer so much more for your ears.
Handmade in Southern California, the large drivers deliver a rich bass performance and immaculate level of detail that’s further enhanced by a strikingly wide stereo imaging. In practice this means, when listening to Elgar’s Romance Op. 62 (from The Lyrical Bassoon on the 2L label), that piano, bassoon and orchestra are crystal clear in the audio mix but alongside an astonishing amount of room, allowing the sound to breathe. Given the relative small size – and comparative cost – of the headphones, that’s very impressive.
Being open-backed, they leak plenty of sound so are best enjoyed at home – but since they fold down small and only weigh 250g, they could be a great travel companion for anyone listening from the comfort of a hotel room. audeze.com
Best value over-ear headphones on the market
AKG K92 £35
These handsome closed-back headphones aren’t new, but having listened to countless pairs, I’ve yet to find a better value option for home listening. They’re light (200g) and comfortable and the 40mm drivers work exceptionally hard to produce a smooth performance across all frequencies. In a blind listening you’ll almost certainly mistake them for a pair costing twice as much. amazon.co.uk
Best investment over-ear headphone purchase
Grado GS3000e £1,795
Pour yourself a drink, find the most comfortable chair in the house, press play and prepare for a soundstage so vivid you’ll doubt you actually put the headphones on your head. The level of detail will leave you breathless.
Given the price and competition, I’ve got issues with the less-than-luxury build quality, open design and short, clunky cable, but for 50mm drivers they’re surprisingly light and the large foam earcups never overheated, even after countless hours of enjoyable use. grado.com
Chris Haslam is a freelance consumer technology journalist, specialising in tech, audio, lifestyle, health and interiors. He is the monthly audio columnist for BBC Music Magazine, rounding up the best audio equipment on the market for classical music lovers. He is also a contributing editor for Wired UK.