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You’re probably familiar with breaking in a new pair of shoes, but have you ever heard of “breaking in” headphones? Headphones won’t blister your ears (like shoes can do to your feet), but the idea has some merit. It begs the question: can breaking in headphones improve audio quality? So, do headphones need to be broken in?
Breaking in a new set of headphones is not required because sound qualities are primarily subjective. There have been tests that lead some people to believe that “headphone break-in” improves sound by causing the diaphragm to become less rigid and allowing other hardware to move more freely.
In the world of music, drums are heated to give them better elasticity, but recently there have been ideas of headphone burn-in that we’re breaking down today. Some people swear by the burn-in process and will subject the headphones to hours of music until they reach “the right” frequency response.
Let’s see how that works.
What is Headphone Break-in?
As with a new pair of shoes, the idea of headphone break-in is the process of changing the characteristics of the headphones to an optimal before using them. You will have to play several different frequencies and tones to wear the diaphragm and drivers in.
Once the headphone diaphragm loosens up, you’ll hear this original sound that didn’t come with the manufacturer.
While there is no specific time to break in headphones, there are plenty of suggestions from audiophiles, music critics, and sound engineers. Some may say as little as five hours to a whopping 300 hours. There is currently no “best practice” for the amount of time it takes to break in headphones.
Is Headphone Burn-In Real? (3 Tests)
To answer this question, we’ll need to dig deeper into how headphones work – literally. So if you have an old pair of broken headphones, consider opening them up to follow along!
Headphones have a thin membrane called a diaphragm that converts vibrations into sounds. The vibrations are produced by an electrical field which causes it to vibrate. The movement of the diaphragm is transferred to your ears.
But why all this information?
People believe that burn-in helps the diaphragm to become less rigid, and the new couple, magnet, and any hardware in the headphone may not move as freely as possible fresh out of the manufacturer.
So, to know if headphone break-in is real, we may have to refer to a few tests done in recent years. These tests will give you an idea of how headphones work under different audio frequencies.
Oluv’s Burn-In Test
Oluv did a burn-in test on a pair of in-ear monitors (IEMs) playing pink noise for 60 hours. He concluded that there was a slight difference in the performance, probably negligible.
He continues to say, “I really didn’t hear anything. There is basically no difference, even after three days worth of break-in.”
He also gave audio measurements to back up his claims.
RTINGS 120-Hour Headphone Burn-In Test
In this test, a pair of brand new headphones was subjected to a 20-second sine sweep (10Hz-22KHz) and a 50-minute full-spectrum pink noise at 90dB. There was also a 10 minute-silence period to allow the drivers to cool down.
The one-hour drill was performed 120 times, and the results were interesting. The team said, “The frequency response fluctuations were too small to be audible and even smaller that the general fluctuations that happen due to changes in position of the headphones.”
In a nutshell, there were minor changes in frequency response but are likely not audible to the human ear. Therefore, RTINGS did not find concrete evidence to support the effects of break-ins on headphones.
Tyll Hersten’s In-Depth Test
Tyll’s test was a bit different and subjective. He took two pairs of the same headphones, one box fresh and the other subjected to 1000 hours of break-in.
Even though the two headphones had different colors, he was blindfolded and couldn’t know the models. So, the test was to listen to audio using either set of headphones and identify which was green and which was red. He did it 15 times and only got it wrong twice.
In short, he was able to identify the burn-in headphone. Furthermore, he said that the burn-in headphones sounded much “smoother” than the new ones. However, this experiment was subjective and received mixed reactions among headphones enthusiasts.
How To Break In Headphones Properly (4 Steps)
The process is relatively easy, and all you need is a pair of brand new headphones, a computer, a program, and a couple of days. Here is a typical headphone break-in process:
First, you need several types of audio files with different frequencies and sounds. Then, you can get a few pre-recorded files (preferably .wav files) or burn-in software such as the Burnwave Generator software.
Most quality headphones need over 100 hours, so you should be prepared to give them enough time.
If you’re using pre-recorded files, make a playlist of burn-in tracks and ensure to add breaks in between the playlists to allow the headphone’s hardware to cool down.
You can use any media player (iTunes, Windows Media Player, VLC, etc.) to break in headphones until optimal response rates.
While it’s not mandatory, you can listen to the headphones periodically to monitor progress. Generally, the higher the quality of headphones, the longer it will take.
For example, a Klipsch Custom headphone started recording changes at 80 hours, while a Sony MDR took only 5 hours to show pronounced differences.
Play the frequencies gradually to monitor changes. You may not be able to hear anything at 40KHz, but burn them at 40KHz for a while before proceeding to 30KHz.
Music may not have these low frequencies, but your headphones will respond better throughout the rest of their lives.
Bonus Tips for Headphone Break-In
A few tips to note for headphone break-in include:
- You do not need to listen to the music or sounds playing in your headphones unless you want to go crazy.
- Play complicated music with different sound frequencies to further push your headphones. You can also use the music burning software and the media player simultaneously.
- Burn-in time is not volume, so be careful not to put too much volume than you’d usually listen to. You might damage your headphones if the audio plays too loudly.
Do Headphones Get Better Over Time?
Headphones will sound better than when they were new because it is a mechanical device, and shaking off the rigid diaphragms may make them sound better.
Most music critics say there is no need to burn-in headphones as using them will eventually make them sound better.
However, the only caveat to this is how you actually use it. The headphones’ sound can degrade when not used correctly, decreasing its lifespan down the road.
One way you can do this is to play sound at a loud volume for hours. Doing so can cause stress and is likely to damage the interior of your headphones.
Poor quality of earpads can also make the headphones lose their texture and eventually the sound frequency response. When the earpads get thinner, they become uncomfortable and can potentially change their acoustics.
Headphone Burn-In Time
The trickiest part of the headphone burn-in process is knowing how long to do it. It’s tricky because everyone has choices and preferences, and as such, there is no documented sweet spot for burning in.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, for you testers), headphone burn-in time is one of those trial and error things. You’ll have to experiment with it and find the sweet spot for yourself. Consider reading reviews about your specific headphone model and use them to figure out the number of hours to burn-in.
Whatever number you come up with, the idea is to stretch out the inner hardware parts by pushing all frequencies: bass, mids, and highs. So, the burn-in period does not need to take longer for you to get a high-quality frequency response, and even a 5-hour period can be enough to warm it up.
How do Other Factors Affect Sound Quality?
It appears that the critics come out every time there is a discussion on whether the break-in process makes a noticeable difference in the listening experience.
But if a break-in isn’t causing all this, what are people hearing? What else makes the listening quality change over time?
One suggestion would be a mix of minute changes adding to the notable difference in quality. However, mechanically speaking, headphones do change over time, and not so many people would deny that fact.
But it is not the headphone’s mechanical nature alone because other factors affect your listening experience with headphones.
Earpads are critical in headphones as they give you extra padding for comfort and create an ideal acoustic environment. Since they are made of foam or plastic, they will deform faster than metal.
The viscoelastic foam has an interesting property where it relaxes over time and becomes less rigid on the force being used.
Have you ever had a couch that you sit on every day until it forms a butt print on it?
Yes, that’s precisely how earpads work in headphones. So, the padding will conform to your ears over time, giving you a better acoustic seal. So, we’d say that a good fit is the most crucial consideration for a lasting headphone.
Is There Any Way to Prove That Burn-Ins Make a Difference?
Quite frankly, there isn’t a concrete answer. While most of the audiophile community believe that burn-ins make headphones sound better, there isn’t any scientific way to prove otherwise. That’s because one’s perception of sound is highly relative.
The ideal way is to be patient with your headphones and gradually approach the concept of burning in. Listen to your headphones when they are new, burn them, and then listen carefully after burning and form your own opinions.
Also, note that not all headphones require burning-in, and others need fewer hours to complete the process. However, pricier, high-quality headphones may need burning-in to improve a few subtle factors.
So, Is Burning-In A Myth, Fact, or Magic?
Typically, wired headphones last longer than their wireless counterparts as they do not have any components or batteries that will break down. They can last a lifetime and age like fine wine, getting better with time when taken care of.
Many producers stick to their old model headphones simply because they think the sound is better and has a smoother vibe than new models.
However, some people think that any scientific proof does not back up burning-in, and it’s basically a widespread myth amongst audiophiles. Wired has thoroughly refuted this fact stating that the idea of burn-in is filled with ambiguity and voodoo. They believe it is a total waste of time, and buyers should not be lured into wasting hours burning in headphones.
In our opinion, headphones may sound a tad better when played for a few hours. If you have the time, we would recommend giving it a try.
Of course, we do not promise the process will turn your whack headphones into producer-quality pairs…but since it costs you nothing (but time) to burn-in headphones, why not try it?
It won’t make your headphones sound bad and will certainly give you some time to get intimate with your favorite pair. But unfortunately, the above tests were only done on specific headphones and cannot be reason enough to conclude, which adds to the confusion of burning-in.
Conclusion: Do Headphones Need to Break In?
To put it simply, you should take the advice of burn-in with caution. No headphone requires mandatory break-in, and neither is the difference significant. The key takeaway when buying a new pair of headphones is to experiment with different sounds and music and have a feel for it.
Headphone comfort should be your top priority, as getting the right fit almost always guarantees excellent sound.
Whatever you decide to do, it is the pursuit of getting the best possible sound worth considering in your search. Apart from breaking in, you’ll have to discover other factors and see if they’ll help your headphones sound better.
Of course, if you want to burn your headphones in, go ahead! We’re eager to know your experience and if it significantly impacted your headphones.