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CD Buying Guide

Classical CD Buying Guide

Buying classical music recordings is more complicated than buying popular music. Here are some pointers on where to shop and how to choose recordings.

Where to Buy Classical Music

Most record stores only have a small corner devoted to classical music, which means that you will often be frustrated if you're looking for a particular piece or recording. However, there are currently two major online retailers of classical CDs: ArkivMusic and Between them you will always be able to find the music you're looking for at a reasonable price.

We recommend ArkivMusic as a first choice for buying classical music CDs. ArkivMusic has the largest selection of classical CDs of any online music store, and their web site is very easy to use. If you want books, DVDs, or electronics with your CDs, you can do it all at, which also has a large selection of classical music and features customer reviews of many of their CDs.

Here's a comparison of the two major online classical music stores, rated in four different categories. The shaded box indicates the best retailer for a given category.

Enormous selection, including many imports. Large selection, especially from the major labels.
CDs usually sell for around list price; full-price CDs (over $15) are usually cheaper than at Amazon. CDs usually sell for around list price; many are 10-15% off. Shipping is free on orders of $25 or more.
Ease of Use
Unique "drill-down" interface makes searching a breeze. Search engine usually returns what you're looking for, but irrelevant results will be interspersed.
CD Reviews
Many CDs are reviewed by professional writers from Gramophone magazine or Most CDs are reviewed by customers, some in great depth. "Star" system allows you to tell at a glance whether other people liked the CD.
ArkivMusic's selection and ease of use make it stand out above the others, and its pricing is competitive with Amazon's. Amazon wins hands-down on popularity and name-recognition, but its shortcomings in ease of use make it a second choice.

= best in group

Factors to Consider When Buying Classical Music CDs

Most classical works have dozens or hundreds of recordings; your choice of CD will be influenced by a variety of factors, including price, quality of the performance, and what other works are on the CD. We attempt to demystify the classical CD-buying process, sending you well on your way to building your own collection.

Your first impulse may be to buy the cheapest available recording of the work you want. This will be adequate for a little while, but as you gain experience you will realize that the cheap CD isn't very good; you will long for something better, and the money you originally spent will be wasted. With shrewd shopping, you can get recordings that offer high quality and low price. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Performers and Conductor: There are thousands of different performers and everyone has his or her own taste, so we wouldn't dream of recommending specific performers or conductors in general. However, if you find an artist or ensemble that particularly moves you, chances are that you'll enjoy other recordings featuring the same artist.
  • Record Label: Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, London/Decca, Philips, RCA, and Sony/CBS are the major classical music labels today. These six labels maintain a consistently high standard across the board, and it's unlikely you'll go wrong choosing a recording from one of these companies. Other high-quality labels with more limited catalogues include Bis, Chandos, Harmonia Mundi, Hyperion, and Virgin Classics. Naxos is a popular label with an enormous catalogue that often has very good recordings at very low prices. However, some Naxos CDs are only mediocre, and it's hard to know which is which. Avoid $2 to $4 CDs on labels such as Excelsior, Laserlight, Point Classics, and Vienna Masters -- these labels use no-name performers and their engineers are not as technically proficient as those of the major recording companies.
  • Coupling: Most classical music CDs contain more than 60 minutes of music, which means that if the piece you're looking for is only a half hour, there will be one or more "filler" pieces on the CD. Make sure that you consider the CD as a whole, since you will probably listen to the filler pieces as often as the main work. Choose filler works that could stand on their own; the best choice is another important work by the same composer or a similar work by another major composer. Avoid obscure filler pieces that claim some tangential relation to the principal work.
  • Reviews: If possible, seek out reviews of various recordings before you buy. Our site makes the decision easy by recommending a single recording for each piece. If you want to strike out on your own, our Books page offers four different guidebooks that compile classical CD reviews. customer reviews can also be useful, but the writers' level of expertise tends to vary widely.
  • Price: Classical CDs can be grouped into three categories based on price: Full-price ($16-$20), Mid-price ($11-15), and Bargain ($10 and under, including "two-for-one" sets). The major labels have released many of their greatest recordings at mid-price, so building your CD collection doesn't have to be a budget-breaking proposition. You should only have to pay full price for a particularly special performance or a more obscure piece. Box sets can be particularly good deals. Avoid CDs on no-name labels for under $5 -- these generally feature poor performances and bad sound quality.

Price is obviously an important aspect of your decision, but it's not the only factor. With a little thought and research, you can get a recording you'll be happy with for years to come.

View our Top 10 Classical Music CD recommendations

Read about how to start a Classical Music CD Collection