Burn-in is the process of testing a system or component by running it for an extended period to detect any problems before being put into use. When speaking of headphones or earphones, ‘burn-in’ or ‘breaking in’ is the process of letting a new pair headphone play music for 50, 100 or even 1000 hours before using them.
According to audiophiles who burn-in their headphones, a new pair of cans fresh out of the box may not sound as good as a pair that has been in use for a longer time. To make them sound better, headphones are burn-in within the first few weeks of ownership.
Burning in your headphones is like working them out. A new headphone comes with all new components from the diaphragm, magnet and voice coils. When new, these parts are rigid and do not reproduce accurate sound waves. Breaking them in for several hours makes them achieve an optimal state for reproducing audio.
The purpose of breaking in new cans is to enhance their state of performance by improving the audio. From another perspective, most people have termed breaking in new headphones as a placebo effect.
So, how do you burn-in your headphones and does it improve the audio quality?
There are different ways of breaking in a headphone. The most common include playing a variety of music such as pink noise, white noise, frequency sweeps, radio noise and many more. A quick search on youtube these days can give you videos you can use to burn in your headphones.
Alternatively, if you have a library of music from different genres, you can use them to break in the headphone. Just load the different music files on your music player, connect your headphones and let them play.
During burn-in time, it is recommended you play the audio files at moderately high volume. Increasing the volume way too high could damage the headphone driver and at worse cause failure. It is advisable you also let the headphones be especially when using pink noise and other inaudible audio files during breaking in.
The number of hours needed to properly burn in a headphone varies from one person to another. Because there are no scientific or hard facts about the hours needed to reach an optimal state, it is widely recommended to take a minimum of 40-hours. Alternatively, you can read reviews about a particular headphone model online to get a rough number of the hours needed.
Even though headphone burn-in has been around for some time, there are no hard facts that can prove it is real. Most people who claim burn-in works base their opinions on experience with their gear. I share the opinion that headphone burn-in works, but you do not need to play pink noise or burn in music for several hours. Just take your headphones and start enjoying them. Apart from the loosening of the headphone driver, other factors such as the earpads will also affect sound reproduction over time.
One of the popular headphones that shows improvement after an extensive burn-in period according to most audiophiles is the AKG Q 701. A break-in period of around 300 hours is normally recommended based on what I have seen going around about the AKG K701.
On a reply to a question about burn-in or break-in, Shure refuted the fact that headphone burn-in could significantly alter the sound quality of a headphone. Shure also stated it has not measured any differences in the performance of old (extensively used) and new earphones.
RTings also tested four different headphones namely the AKG Q701, Audeze LCD 2 Classic, Beyerdynamic DT 1770, and Etymotic HF5. Their results found no evidence to support headphone break-in. According to them, the changes observed were either to small to be heard or either caused by fluctuations in system performance or environmental noise.
After reading several opinions about headphone burn-in, there is no definite answer that can prove whether headphone burn-in is real or not. Though there are small differences in some cases, it could be a psychoacoustic effect caused when a human being adapts to new sounds over time. It has also been described as a placebo effect.
Though I believe headphone burn-in works, the difference in the audio quality is almost inaudible. Over time, the sound of a headphone will likely change because of other factors too like softening or the ear pads wearing off.
Do you believe in headphone burn-in? Share your thoughts in the comment and let’s continue this conversation.