Linger around in audiophile circles long enough and you’ll eventually come across the curious ritual of burning in headphones. This process essentially involves running audio gear for an extended period of time. This is purported to make your headphones, IEMs, and speakers sound better. If that sounds implausible, that’s probably because the concept is a pseudoscience. Let’s find out why.
What Is Burn In?
Some audiophiles believe that the quality of sound output from new audio gear such as headphones, IEMs, and speakers improves after letting them run for several hours. Like running in a new car or wearing in new shoes, burning in a new pair of headphones supposedly allows the moving parts to settle in and reach their “true spec”, thereby achieving the best possible performance.
Prima facie, the logic even seems plausible. A pair of speakers, IEMs, or headphones have dynamic drivers that oscillate to reproduce sound. It is entirely possible for the acoustic signature of the drivers to change after extended usage, otherwise known as the burn-in period. Does that mean there’s a method to this apparent madness?
A Glimmer of Plausibility…
Some justifications for this myth cite manufacturers coating dynamic drivers with paraffin wax for long term storage and transport. The process of burn in can potentially wear this coating off. This, in turn, can bring about a positive change in the moving mass of the drivers and therefore the sound quality as well.
In fact, the additional elastic supports (spider and surround) found in larger loudspeaker drivers have a greater impact on the movement and damping of the speaker cone. These elastic supports are affected by the stress of being actuated over many million cycles, which can alter their frequency response over time.
…That Falls Apart Under Basic Scrutiny
The logic behind burning in audio gear, however, begins to fall apart the moment you delve deeper into the arcane ritual. No one seems to agree on the duration of the burn in process.
Some recommend 20 hours whereas others run their gear for 500 hours. The ideal audio material also varies according to whom you ask. Some insist on test tones such as frequency sweeps, white noise, or pink noise. Others either have elaborate break-in albums that are passed around in audiophile circles.
Like any pseudoscience, there’s no standard for breaking in your audio gear. That’s the first sign that the ritual could be a big nothingburger. The second sign is a lot more obvious.
Change isn’t Always For the Best
Remember how we learned that the drivers within headphones, IEMS, and speakers have moving parts whose frequency response could change over time? The operative word being change.
The various aforementioned moving parts within these audio gear will only degrade over time. One must also consider how the internal crossover circuitry (basically capacitors, inductors, and resistors) is prone to degradation. This definitely can’t bode well for sound quality.
Going by the laws of physics and basic electronics, your headphones, IEMs, and speakers only sound progressively worse as they age. The rate at which this degradation happens might be negligible for all practical purposes, but nothing suggests that this change is for the best.
Shure Sure Doesn’t Buy into The Myth
Why don’t brands that manufacture these audio devices step in and dispel the myth? Well, when your target demographic entertains the notion that your product ages like fine wine, would the marketing folks let the engineering team step in to break that convenient illusion?
That didn’t happen at Shure. The reputed audio manufacturer revealed to Wired how it had put the notion of burn in to the test by evaluating its iconic E1 earphones. Shure’s test samples had seen plenty of usage over the years since their launch in 1997. Not surprisingly, the brand’s internal testing revealed no perceivable change in the sound output over time.
That’s right from the proverbial horse’s mouth.
The Placebo Effect
Another interesting investigative piece by Inner Fidelity’s Tyll Herstens compared brand-new AKG Q701 headphones with a burned in pair. Frequency response charts were plotted for each break-in interval and compared with that of the brand-new headphones. It must be noted that these headphones are notorious for requiring hundreds of hours of break in, with many users claiming to notice an improvement over time.
Herstens, did notice an observable change in the frequency response charts over time, but he concluded that this wasn’t an evidence of break-in as a means of improvement to audio quality. That compelled him to conduct another comprehensive test spanning a break-in period of 300 hours. The data gleaned from the comprehensive test showed no perceivable difference between the new and burned in headphones. This is telling for headphones that are touted to benefit the most dramatically from being broken in.
Herstens, however, sums up this myth with a great analogy:
My hiking boots break-in; my sneakers break-in, too. But my hiking boots aren’t going to turn into sneakers over time. This idea that you simply must let headphones break-in before you know what they are going to sound like is a myth. And this data busts it.
Burning In Headphones is a Waste of Time
Scientific testing has failed to show any evidence supporting the burn in myth. Then why do audiophiles still swear by it? This could be down to the fact that our sensory perception is a function of the brain interpreting information relayed by the senses. That’s also why art and music tend to be subjective. Scientists aren’t even sure if everyone is on the same page when it comes to the basic colours.
The concept of break in could, therefore, be down to familiarity. The possibility that your brain gets used to the sonic signature of the audio gear, which in turn amplifies the perceived quality over time. Otherwise, there is neither any scientific nor empirical explanation to support its validity.