Cover image for the hi-hat cymbals buyer's guide

The Best Hi-Hat Cymbals for Beginners and Experts Alike

Whether you're playing jazz, rock, or straight up technical death metal, every drummer needs a hi-hat that's got solid consistency, great response, and brilliant power. After putting a dozen cymbals head-to head, comparing materials, sizes, audio recordings, and more, we personally think the Zildjian A Custom Mastersounds are the best hi-hat cymbals out there. If you want ultimate quality and performance, these are the pinnacle of hi-hat pairings. However, we know not everyone wants to shell out several hundred bucks on a pair of cymbals, which is why we also think the Meinl HCS Cymbals deserve an honorable shout for their impressive bang for your buck. Article Summary

Every drummer has their own personal style, and in most cases, that style determines how they setup their drum set. Certain kits will be better suited towards rock, whereas others will be better suited for jazz, and so on. With that said, hi-hats have been and will probably always be an integral part of any modern drum kit, no matter what genre of music you prefer. Whether you’re playing jazz, rock, or straight up technical death metal, you simply need a solid hi-hat setup.

Just like any other type of cymbal, there are a number of factors to account for when choosing a good pair of hi-hats. The size of the cymbals, the shape, the material, and even the hammering process can all play a role in how a particular hi-hat sounds. On top of that, it’s also important to have a proper hi-hat stand as this can also affect how you play your hi-hat (for those who are new to drumming, most stands are adjustable, allowing you to change both the range and angle at which the cymbals hit to produce different unique sounds).

We decided to put some cymbals to the test to see who makes the best hi-hats out there. On a basic level, we compared things like materials, size, and shape to come up with a small list of around a dozen pairs of quality cymbals. From there, we talked to members in several online communities to get their opinions, and also listened to high-quality recordings of each cymbal played with different tempos and genres. After hours of comparing notes, we’ve settled on three hi-hats which are worth every penny. Whether you’re a beginner looking for your first set of hi-hats, or you’re a vet drummer looking for a new pair to replace some old ones that you’ve already banged up, one of the models below should suit your drum set beautifully.

Product image of the Zildjian cymbals
Product image of the Sabian cymbals
Product image of the Meinl cymbals
Zildjian A Custom Mastersound
Sabian AAX X-Plosion
Meinl HCS
Rating

4.9/5

4.9/5

4.7/5
Material
80/20 copper/tin alloy with traces of silver
80/20 copper/tin alloy with traces of silver
Brass alloy
Weight
Medium
Top: Medium
Bottom: Medium-Heavy
Medium
Finish
Brilliant
Traditional
Traditional
Available Sizes
13", 14", 15"
14", 16"
13", 14"

The best hi-hat cymbals overall

Zildjian is one of those companies that is leading the pack in their trade, and that trade is cymbal making. Zildjian cymbals have been regarded as some of the very best for quite a long time now, and their A Custom Mastersounds hold a practically legendary status in the drumming community. These are pro-level hi-hats designed for serious stage work and recording, but even if you don’t do any of that and you just jam out in your spare room at home, these are the go-to choice if you want the best hi-hat cymbals out there.

Hammered out using a completely new rotary hammering process, Zildjian was able to pattern a series of fine grooves into the A Custom cymbals which are almost perfectly symmetrical. They use a premium 80/20 copper/tin alloy blend, and to top it all off, they’ve applied a sweet brilliant finish, making these some of the best looking hi hats on the market. With that said, looks don’t sell cymbals, so let’s talk performance.

Zildjian’s original A Custom hi-hats were always known for their great response, balanced projection and overall sharp sound. To create the new A Custom Mastersound series, Zildjian altered the original A Custom’s by adding a little bit of silver into their mix. That addition of silver, even though in trace amounts, had a very positive effect on the performance of the cymbals, adding even more of an accent at the high end of the frequency range and infusing them with lots of piercing power. Now, that is what happens when you play them closed. The moment you open them up, you will experience the spectrum of overtones which are hard to compare with any other type of hi-hat available (old school or new school, for that matter).

Zildjian offers these hi-hats in three different sizes. You have the 13″ version, a 14″ version, and a mighty 15″ set. We have found that a 14″ set brings the perfect balance of performance, volume, and power. However, depending on what kind of music you play, a 13″ or a 15″ might be a bit more attractive to you.

The Zildjian A Custom Mastersounds simply sound wholesome and well-rounded, suitable for just about any genre of music. Their snappy response makes them especially great for rock and metal where you need to cut that mix with power. Overall, their balance and power, price, and overall performance is what won our pick as the best hi-hat cymbals. It just doesn’t get better than this.

A top-tier hi-hat with a different sound

Speaking of 14″ plates of joy, Sabian’s AAX X-Plosions are some of the longest running champions in the hi-hat category, making them our second choice next to Zildjian. The type of balance Sabian went with for this pair is a bit different compared to the A Custom Mastersounds we just talked about, and it’s hard to say which one of these two hi-hat sets is better. To be honest, it wouldn’t even be a fair comparison considering how different their balance is. Let’s just say that both are pretty unique in their own way, which we’ll try to explain below to help you decide which are the best hi-hats for you.

The manufacturing process of Sabian’s higher end cymbals reads like an epic tale of magic. They forge their alloys in a foundry, using an old family recipe that has been serving them well for all these years. AAX X-Plosion hi-hats feature an 80/20 copper/tin ratio, also with traces of silver just like the Zildjian hi-hats. The hammering, lathing, and aging of these cymbals take time, precision work and a whole lot of effort. The result is a nearly perfectly balanced set of 14″ bangers that are hard to match.

The reason for this can be found in the way Sabian’s AAX X-Plosion hi-hats are shaped. They intentionally went with a heavier, extruded bell that is rolled out in a medium weight top. To counter this, the bottom cymbal is a medium-heavy plate that anchors those closed hits like concrete. The result of using their B20 Bronze alloy – combined with a rather distinctive manufacturing process – is a pure harmony of metal. When played in open position, these hi-hats offer a whole lot of range, razor sharp sparkle, and projection – all of which is very controllable, by the way. These hi-hats won’t run away from you. On the contrary, the fidelity is impressive. When you play them closed, you get a pretty tight response that is easily articulated and driven in any direction you need it to go. In simple terms: a pro’s dream.

Figuring out which model to put in the first place, Zildjian or this Sabian, was a tough decision. We went with Zildjian’s 14″ set because it is still a bit more neutral and definitely a loser to a vanilla set. The Sabian AAX X-Plosions are somewhat unique, which may or may not be attractive to a large number of drummers. In reality, these cymbals aren’t in a vertical hierarchy, but rather a horizontal one. We’d recommend weighing the pros and cons of each for your particular playing style in order to figure out which would work better for you.

The best bang for your buck

Our third pick comes from Meinl, another big player in the cymbal market. However, the pair we’ve chosen, their HCS Hi-Hats, are not their flagship hi-hats far from it, in fact. These hi-hats represent Meinl’s entry-level line, making them an awesome choice for beginners or just people who don’t feel like shelling out $300+ on the Zildjian or Sabian cymbals above. Quality is quality regardless of skill level and cost, and these definitely bring some serious value to the table especially with their impressively low price tag.

As you can probably figure out on your own, there is nothing flashy nor radical about these hi hats. Meinl’s HCS series is known for offering a solid core performance at a pretty attractive price. What really makes them worth the money is how durable they are. Meinl used one of their standard alloys for this purpose, putting more emphasis on durability than sound (although don’t let that note fool you, these still sound fairly great). The profile of these hi hats is as standard as it comes, meaning that you can expect a pretty consistent response and predictable behavior all around.

In terms of tone, things aren’t that different. When played in open position, Meinl’s HCS hi-hats will give you that driving, lush sound. There isn’t too much sparkle due to the alloy being mostly brass, however you can still pierce through a rather thick mix. In closed position, these hi-hats are fantastic. With more than enough projection, they are perfectly capable of pushing a rhythm with no one being any wiser.

The level of abuse these Meinl hi-hats are capable of taking is borderline impressive. If you are just starting out, and are afraid of learning your cymbal attack skills on a pricey set, these are the way to go. Most of your mistakes will be forgiven, and these will last you a long time given that you pay attention to your hits. As your skill starts going up, you will find that HCS series hi-hats are more than capable of keeping up with you. Even though a 14″ version is available, we feel that the 13″ set is a bit better and easier to control.

At the end of the day, Meinl’s HCS Cymbals are probably the best hi-hats for beginners and most other regular hobby drummers who don’t require the absolute top-tier hardware. They provide a consistent response at a killer price, and they’re sure to last you for years of playing with no issues.

How we picked our top three

There are a lot of great hi-hat cymbals out there, making it hard to select certain models as better than others. Each pair of hi-hat cymbals has their own unique sound, and some may fit your personal style better. With that said, most drummers are more or less looking for the same thing from their hi-hats: good performance in the form of consistency and sound. We judged hi-hats with this in mind, and also a few other pieces of criteria which we’ve explained below.

Performance

Even though cymbals are anything but simple in nature, their performance is still easily gauged. The material and forging process tells us a lot about how the cymbal will perform, and talking to actual users as well as listening to audio taping of each cymbal in action gives us the most thorough understanding possible. When deciding which models to pick as the best hi-hat cymbals, we wanted to cover all ends of the user spectrum: those who demand the highest quality and best sound, and those are who okay with giving up a little quality and sound in order to reach a more manageable price tag (the top cymbals can get very expensive!). As you’ve probably guessed, the first two picks in our guide covered the first half of the spectrum, whereas the Meinl hi-hats covered the other half.

Materials

There are several factors that give any cymbal its tonal properties. The type of material used is among the more important ones. More often than not, you will see some variation of the 80/20 copper/tin alloy being used. Some brands like to infuse the mix with a bit of silver, while others keep it clean. These are generally going to be higher quality cymbals, whereas others will be made of lower-quality blends of alloys. When choosing our top picks, we mainly looked for cymbals which were made with higher-quality material variations, which is why our top two picks were forged from the coveted 80/20 plus silver. Our third pick was of a lesser-quality material, but with beginners and hobbyists in mind, we didn’t think the top-tier in quality was of paramount importance.

Price

Our goal with the pricing aspect was to not go into super expensive models; the reason being, after a certain level, you see very small amounts of improvement. Now, we know that $300 for a pair of cymbals can still be considered “super expensive”, but we tried to imagine the longevity of those models. Not only do our top two picks offer incredibly superior performance, but they can also last quite a long time, making their price tag more of a long-term investment than a short-term cost.

Things to consider before buying

Before you commit to any particular pair of hi-hats, there are some things to consider. Hi-hats, just like all other cymbals, come in a whole variety of sizes and flavors. That is something we have mentioned already. Based on that, you have to figure out what your goals are and how to pick something that will work best for you. Here are some things to pay attention to before making a final decision.

Finding the right size

The size of a hi-hat cymbal affects a lot of things. First and foremost, it will determine how ‘deep’ the hi-hat will reach, and how much sonic projection it will offer. Smaller hi-hats are generally heavier on the trebles and pierce the mix a bit easier. However, larger hi-hats bring a whole lot more girth. A 14″ is more or less the standard these days, despite what music genre you are into.

You will hear that a 13″ is great for jazz and blues, but a 14″ can get the job done as well. One aspect where it might be better to have a smaller set is when recording drums. In other words, if you are planning on recording anything in near future, it might not be such a bad idea to get a smaller set. There are larger sets out there as well, but those are already bordering a crash type of sound, which is why we recommend sticking with 13″ or 14″.

Hand-hammered or machine-hammered

Without trying to go too deep into the subject of cymbal manufacturing, the way they are made also plays an important role in what type of sound you will get. Hand-hammered cymbals are generally going to have a pretty rich texture that is sparkly but has a decent amount of girth as well. The only downside to this is the price you are going to pay for such a piece. The other side of the coin comes in the form of machine-hammered cymbals. These have a little less ‘character’ but are much more consistent, and consistency is important.

Let’s say you have found the perfect set of hi-hats and they break for whatever reason. If they were machine hammered, you can just go into a store and pick up another set. It is almost guaranteed that you will get the same exact performance. That is something that can’t always be said about hand hammered ones. Consider whether the character or the consistency is more important to you before buying.

Proper hi-hat care and maintenance

As you may or may not know, cymbals need regular maintenance to ensure they hold their sound and lifespan for as long as possible. As you play, a lot of dirt and grime tends to get into the grooves on the cymbal itself. Over time, that displacement of mass can potentially alter the balance of the cymbal and also dull out its tone. There are special cleaning fluids out there which will dissolve the grime to a point where you can either wipe the cymbal down or just rinse it under luke warm water. If you were to take a really old pair of hi-hats which half oxidized, some elbow grease combined with a bottle of a cymbal cleaner would more than likely bring them back to life.

There’s another way to approach this issue, and that is to be proactive. Instead of waiting for the cymbal to get dirty, wipe them down with a soft towel after every session (or at least as often as you can remember). Many drummers disregard cymbal maintenance altogether, but you would be amazed just how much better your cymbals will sound and how much longer they’ll last with regular routine maintenance.

Wrapping it up

Hi-hats are the cornerstone of any drum kit. They are the one cymbal that you can use no matter what genre of music you are playing. Finding the right pair takes some time and experimentation, but once you do, your sound will improve significantly. After taking a look at over a dozen popular hi-hat setups, we think the ones in our guide offered the best performance for their price, making them perfect for nearly all drummers and all styles. With that said, we know that drumming hardware often comes down to personal preference, so find the cymbal that suits you best.

Sources

How to Choose the Right Cymbals by Musician’s Friend
Sound testing videos by Zildjian, Sabian, and Meinl

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