Three subspecies currently are recognized:
venusta (Sclater 1855); type locality "in Nova Grenada et in rep. Equatoriana provincia Quixos", but probably from "Bogotá" (Hellmayr 1936). Holotype in the (British) Museum of Natural History (Warren and Harrison 1971).
Occurs from Venezuela south to central Peru in northern Pasco.
Crown clear yellow.
xanthocephala (Tschudi 1844); type locality Peru; fixed as Vitoc by Zimmer (1943)
Occurs in central Peru in southern Pasco and in Junín.
See Detailed Description. Nominate xanthocephala usually is described as intermediate in appearance between venusta and lamprotis (Hellmayr 1936, Fjeldså and Krabbe 1990, Schulenberg et al. 2007).
lamprotis (Sclater 1851); type locality Bolivia. Holotype in the (British) Museum of Natural History (Warren and Harrison 1971).
Occurs in southeastern Peru and in Bolivia.
Crown orange-yellow, contrasting with the golden yellow sides of the head (Nørgaard-Olesen 1973, Fjeldså and Krabbe 1990).
Saffron-crowned Tanager is classified in the genus Tangara, the largest genus of Neotropical birds. Tangara is divided into 13 species groups based on vocalizations, diet, geographic distributions, behavior, and appearance (Isler and Isler 1987). Isler and Isler (1987) classified Saffron-crowned Tanager within their Group 5, the largest species group, along with seven other species (T. johannae Blue-whiskered Tanager, T. schrankii Green-and-gold Tanager, T. florida Emerald Tanager, T. arthus Golden Tanager, T. icterocephala Silver-throated Tanager, T. chrysotis Golden-eared Tanager, and T. parzudakii Flame-faced Tanager). All of these species, except T. parzudakii, have striped backs and six of the eight species (including T. xanthocephala) have a distinctive foraging behavior in which the birds search for insects underneath moss covered branches using the diagonal-lean foraging method (Isler and Isler 1987). The monophyly of this group has been confirmed using mitochondrial sequence data (Burns and Naoki 2004, Sedano and Burns 2010). Within Group 5, T. xanthocephala is most closely related to a clade of six species: T. arthus, T. florida, T. icterocephala, T. parzudakii, T. johannae, and T. schrankii (Burns and Naoki 2004, Sedano and Burns 2010).