Home Resources Do Headphones Need To Be Burned In? [Grey Area?]

Do Headphones Need To Be Burned In? [Grey Area?]

by Stuart Charles Black

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Updates

  • 2/19/19.
  • 1/16/20. Article Cleanup.
  • 2/6/21. Article/link cleanup.

1,007-word post, approx. 2-3 min. read

This is part of a FAQ series! Please share and comment if you found any of these articles helpful!

  1. What is Soundstage?
  2. What is Latency?
  3. What is Timbre?
  4. What is MIDI?
  5. What is XLR?
  6. What is SPL?
  7. What does Sibilant mean?
  8. What is the Sennheiser Veil?
  9. Do Headphones Need to be Burned In? (You are here)
  10. 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!!

Campfire tales.

What I will bring you in this article

  1. Introduction
  2. Do headphones need to be burned in?
  3. Measured data
  4. Final Word

Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!!

Introduction

This is probably one of if not the most hotly debated subjects in the audiophile world, and everyone has their own smelly opinion. 😛 Browse any forum 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 notice it in my own research; people will claim anywhere from a few hours to 200 hours. 200 seems to be the benchmark.

It is one of those age-old questions and deserves its own article because it is a good question. Is it legit? Is it a placebo effect that we conjure up in our imaginations? Do some headphones need it while others don’t? 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?

In my own experience, I feel that it does help. 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 signature itself.

I’ve been there, but I always give them time before making a final judgment. The M50’s are a prime example of a headphone that got better over time. The sounds really started to marinate and “open up” if you will, causing the overall signature to present itself more balanced (though the M50 is not really a balanced headphone). The clarity improved tremendously, and things got a lot more crisp and warm.

That said, I do think a big part of it is psychological, and I have a reason for that.

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. Don’t even get me started on dreams. Have you ever been about to fall asleep and a barrage of forgotten dreams starts flooding your consciousness? It’s kind of frightening but cool at the same time.

But I digress…

When we listen with headphones, our brains kind of store the perception of the sound signature in our sub-conscious. Then, when we’re presented with a new stimulus (a different sound signature), our mind goes haywire for a spell while it attempts to become acclimated to the new sound. 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.”

I experienced this phenomenon when I first put on the Bowers and Wilkins P7. Now I don’t think it’s a horrible headphone by any stretch, but because I was so used to a different presentation (extremely detailed sound if I could succinctly sum it up), the P7 sounded muddy and bad to me. The thing is, I used to like that sort of bass-heavy, warm signature, but once my ears got accustomed to something better, I could never go back to it.

This is kind of how burn-in works: 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 part of it is a placebo, given how intricate our mind can be.

Measured data?

That said, there is some truth to break in. Tyll Herstens from Inner Fidelity used the Q701, a headphone notorious for needing a burn-in period. He did a few tests:

  1. 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.
  2. The second involved a “broken-in pair” with a brand new pair.
  3. The third test involved burning in a pair of Q701’s 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 measured data. However, said differences are very small and not as monumental as some people like to claim.

Final Word

There is some truth to burn-in, but it’s mostly in your head, and headphones themselves probably change very little over time. That’s not to say that there isn’t quantitative proof, because there is. But the difference isn’t enough to justify the claim that headphones absolutely need a burn-in period to sound their best. The change in sound will most likely be a small measured difference, both in perception and raw data.


Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope I’ve answered the question of “Do headphones need to be burned in?”

Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Looking for something else? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!

Did I answer your question? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…

All the best and God bless,

 

 

-Stu

[Xtr@Ba$eHitZ]

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2 comments

David Gevert September 10, 2021 - 4:46 pm

Burn-in/break-in on headphones that results in a *measurable* difference is likely more related to the pads breaking in/compressing over time or the headband loosening up.

If you think about the driver breaking in – that’s incredibly unlikely to be the case if you think about just how fast these drivers are vibrating to produce sound. If the material is stretching, loosening up, or however you want to describe it, it’d probably happen within the first few minutes of playing any sound. And why are reports of headphone driver burn-in almost unanimously considered to be positive? Why do reports state that it happened over a set period of time…and then stopped?

Any notion of the headphone driver physically burning in or breaking in…is nonsense. Like you said…it’s mostly in peoples’ heads. Any physical, measurable changes happen to the pads/headband. Because we DO know that they change over time. Clamping force can have an impact on sound (just look at the theory that the Koss KSC75 and the PortaPro actually measure and sound very similar…if the clamping force is the same, i.e., putting the KSC75 drivers on the PortaPro headband.)

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Stuart Charles Black September 11, 2021 - 10:00 pm

Fantastic comment, David!

Wholeheartedly agree and you’ve inspired me to write up a video script on this topic as I had never really thought about that (regarding the driver). It really doesn’t make sense, does it?

As you noticed, I mostly have always ascribed to the “In your head notion” but now I’m pretty much all the way there. It’s always annoyed me to an extent, but lately even more so because of how many headphones I’ve demoed and how the same exact thing happens every time – that is, I simply get used to the headphones’ sound signature and nothing more. I talk about it in this video actually, but I want to do a dedicated video to the topic itself now that you’ve brought it to light even the more.

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