This is part 14 in a series on Headphone Specs, Drivers, DACs, Sound, and how all of them relate to each other. There’s a wealth of knowledge in these so don’t hesitate to open some more tabs, bookmark, and share!!
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!!
What I will bring you in this article
Do headphones need to be burned in?
Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!!
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 it’s 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 judgement. 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 is. 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 phenomena 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 (hopefully better).
So yeah, I do believe part of it is placebo, given how intricate our mind can be.
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:
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 Q701’s for 300 hours.
He concluded that burn in is a real phenomena, 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.
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?”
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Did I answer your question? I would love to hear from you. Until next time..
Stu is determined to provide the truth about all things audio, and strives to deliver excellent content to you the reader! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, attend church, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His attention to detail and perfectionist attitude are what allow him to excel, but it can be both a blessing and a hindrance at times.