This is part of a FAQ series! Please share and comment if you found any of these articles helpful!
- What is Soundstage?
- What is Latency?
- What is Timbre?
- What is MIDI?
- What is XLR?
- What is SPL?
- What does Sibilant mean?
- What is the Sennheiser Veil?
- Do Headphones Need to be Burned In? (You are here)
- How Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Work?
Hi friend and Welcome aboard!!
Before we get into the question of “Do headphones need to be burned in?” grab a snack, sit back, and relax because…
You’ve come to the right place!!
This is probably one of if not the most hotly debated topics in the audiophile world, and everyone has their own smelly opinion. 😛
If you’re looking for a concise answer, here it is:
The concept of headphone “burn-in” is widely regarded as a myth in audio circles. Scientifically, there is limited evidence to support physical changes in headphones over time, with the perceived alterations in sound likely attributed to listener adaptation as the brain adjusts to the new auditory experience.
Browse any forum, Reddit, or Head-Fi thread, and you’ll probably see people going back and forth on whether or not a headphone being burned in for a specific amount of hours helps the sound.
I also noticed it in my research; people will claim anywhere from a few hours to 200 hours.
200 seems to be the benchmark. Anything over 300 and you’re batty in my opinion.
It is one of those age-old conundrums and deserves its own article because it is a good question if you’re new to the wonderful world of headphones.
Is it legit?
Is it a placebo effect that we conjure up in our imaginations?
What does change in headphones over time?
I will attempt to answer these questions and more, as well as give a little more clarity to the subject.
Do headphones need to be burned in?
Is Headphone “Burn-in” real?
After demoing over 130 at the time of re-visiting this article, I now lean towards no.
When I was newer to the hobby, I’d probably shake my head and nod at the same time.
In other words, maybe?
Per my own experience, I’ve found that it’s mostly in your head.
As David pointed out below in the comments, a brand-new driver would likely only take a few minutes (if that) to loosen up given how fast it’s vibrating to produce sound.
The real phenomenon is that of your brain becoming acclimated to the new stimuli.
In other words,
headphones can sound weird to downright bad when you first put them on – especially if you’ve been listening to one specific headphone for weeks and then switch to something that has a different sound signature.
A brand-new set of cans will usually sound pretty harsh upon first listen, and you will likely be tempted to return them or profess that something’s wrong with the sound.
Heck, there may be!
I talk a bit about this concept in the video below – is headphone “burn-in” simply a way for audiophiles to justify their purchases?
Are they sometimes lying to themselves when they think a headphone sounds good when in actuality it doesn’t?
These are tough questions.
It should be considered.
Maybe the majority of headphones are not that great and we kind of fool ourselves into keeping them after getting used to the sound signature and warming up to it (pun not intended).
This also goes into marketing; how often do you hear a company say something like “It probably needs some more time to break in” even when you say you’re not impressed so far?
I also experienced this when attempting to demo a DragonFly Red some years back from Audio Advice.
One of the salesmen told me “You can’t demo it now. It hasn’t been broken in for the allotted amount of hours yet.”
Looking back, that seems kind of silly given all of the experience I’ve accrued since then, but I digress.
What specifically inside the DAC needed to be “burned in?”
These are the types of questions that not many people care to answer with a straight face.
The mind is a truly incredible thing.
The fact that we can store memories from our childhood is a testament to how powerful thinking and perceiving are.
It’s well known at this point that you can convince your brain to believe pretty much anything; through repeated words or phrases, daily re-affirmations, etc.
For example, if you say “I like myself” into the mirror enough times, your brain will eventually accept it and you’ll probably start to like yourself! (if you didn’t already)
These sorts of habits are what make our lives possible. Unfortunately, most people cultivate bad ones.
The age-old adage also rings true here: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.”
But I digress, again.
When we listen with headphones, our brains kind of store the perception of the sound signature in our subconscious.
Then, when we’re presented with a new stimulus (a different sound signature), our mind goes haywire for a bit while it attempts to sort everything out.
This might cause us to think that the sound is bad when in reality we were used to the other for so long that our consciousness is sort of being “tricked.”
The problem with attributing this sound change to the headphones “burning in” is that there aren’t any good reasons to make this claim.
In other words,
What exactly “burns in?”
If you think about it, nothing.
The headphones’ sound signature, outside of EQ, does not change.
When we say, the headphones “opened up”, or “the treble became less harsh over a period of time” or something similar, what we’re really saying is that we simply got used to its unique sound signature and now accept it.
This has happened to me countless times during hundreds (read: thousands) of hours of listening by this point.
The new stimulus (a new headphone) sounds a certain way, but with repeated listening, our minds adapt and it starts to sound different (and hopefully better).
So yeah, I do believe it’s mostly a placebo, given how intricate our minds can be.
What does change?
We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the pads, headband, our specific head shape, our ear structure, and even clamping force can all have significant effects on how headphones sound; both initially and over time.
But, this can not be attributed to Burn-In, as the pads are not part of the internal structure of the headphones themselves.
They’re essentially there out of necessity.
Pads specifically can radically affect a headphones’ sound profile; thus why there are so many variations out there.
For as much as I make fun of audiophiles, I think the notion of “Change the pads as needed” is a solid piece of advice.
Just make sure to use the same ones (or know exactly what you’re buying and how they will affect the sound), because all pads are not created equal.
This is why I don’t dabble much in pad-swapping aftermarket products.
I prefer to hear the headphones as originally intended, for better or worse.
This is also why I don’t usually EQ unless something really bothers me – i.e. harsh/sibilant treble that has too much bite and won’t go away.
Because to me, purchasing a set of headphones with my hard-earned money only to end up EQing them later sounds incredibly counterintuitive.
Either I enjoy the way they sound or I don’t.
Subtle tweaks are fine, but dedicating entire EQ profiles for headphones that cost hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars?
Yeah, no. Not a fan.
That said, there is some truth to burn-in, but even these tests suggest that it was the listener, the pads (or something else physical) that changed, and not the headphones themselves.
Tyll Herstens from Inner Fidelity used the Q701, a headphone notorious for needing a “burn-in” period. He did a few tests:
- The first involved comparing a brand new Q701 to one burned in for 90 hours. He concluded that there were some measurable differences, both audibly and measured via charts and graphs.
- The second involved a “broken-in pair” with a brand new pair.
- The third test involved burning in a pair of Q701s for 300 hours.
He concluded that burn-in is a real phenomenon, both in his own perception (he could clearly hear differences), as well as in measured data.
However, said differences are very small and not as monumental as some people like to claim.
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Perhaps there is some truth to burn-in (that of which I haven’t discovered yet), but for me, it’s mostly in my head.
In other words, headphones themselves probably change very little over time if we’re being realistic.
That’s not to say that there isn’t quantitative proof (sort of).
But the difference isn’t enough to justify the claim that headphones absolutely need a burn-in period to sound their best.
They just don’t. What’s actually “burning in” is you. Your perspective, etc.
The change most likely occurs due to factors that we can absolutely perceive; i.e. the physical construction of the materials slowly wearing down over time, as well as our brain’s ultimate acceptance of the sound itself.
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope I’ve answered the question of “Do headphones need to be burned in?”
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