Home Resources What Is Headphone Burn-In? [Real Or Myth?]

What Is Headphone Burn-In? [Real Or Myth?]

by Stuart Charles Black
HIFIMAN DEVA Review

Don't forget to share if you found it helpful!

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!!

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.

But…

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.

HIFIMAN DEVA Review

HIFIMAN’s DEVA.

HIFIMAN DEVA Review

After Burn-In. 😛

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.”

Huh?

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?”

HIFIMAN HE-4XX Review

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.

Measured data?

Sony MDR V6 vs. MDR-7506

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:

  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 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.

Video Discussion

Don’t forget to leave me some love and subscribe! <3

YouTube video player

Final Word

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?”

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

If you love what I do here and want to support the blog and channel in a more personal way, check me out on Patreon and discover all the value I have to offer you.

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]

Can’t decide which headphones to purchase? Interested in a complete buyers guide outlining over 40 of the best options on the market? Click on over to the best audiophile headphones to learn more!!

Be sure to also check out my Reviews and Resources page for more helpful and informative articles!

Don't forget to share if you found it helpful!

You may also like

14 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.)

Reply
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.

Reply
Lars Benedikt Røssell August 12, 2022 - 11:07 am

Thanks Stuart.
Just thanks. You are great, I love your way of writing and thinking.
The way you make us think with you.
It is great.
Thanks.

Reply
Stuart Charles Black August 12, 2022 - 2:10 pm

Lars, Thank you so much! I want to do an actual test with a K702 I’ve had since 2019. I will buy a brand new set of pads for it, and then purchase another brand new K702 and measure them both. This will prove or disprove beyond a shadow of a doubt if anything within the actual sound signature changed.

Reply
Adam March 9, 2023 - 11:06 pm

I couldn’t disagree with this article more. I’m not an expert, but have study electronics and built my own speakers and there absolutely is a “burn-in” or “loosening” period for speakers. It has to do with the two points of suspension on speakers. There’s one suspension at the bottom of the cone (spider suspension)and one around the outside(surrounding suspension). This is here to allow the cone to move, but not “runaway”. As the suspension flexes the material becomes less rigid and moves easier over time. This allows the speaker to move more efficiently and effectively and moving more air at a quicker rate to your ears. This causes the change in tones and punch your speakers have. I would hear this with the Fosgate subwoofers I’d install and would notice the bass would increase and the car would shake more over time. I’ve found this with earbuds to be true also. I had some Jabra85Ts for 6 months that were sounding kinda flat. I decided to retest my hearing with them and my listener profile changed and my earbuds sounded way better. Hope this helps.

Reply
Stuart Charles Black March 14, 2023 - 3:54 pm

Thank you for the comment! I will certainly keep those things in mind. My plan is to buy a brand new pair of K702s, replace the pads on the model I’ve had here since 2019, and then measure both. I think that would also give a clear-cut answer to the question.

Reply
Jesse April 12, 2023 - 5:47 pm

The topic of headphone/speaker burn in certainly is intriguing and subjective like many things. Though I’m not a sound engineer or have a measurement rig to gauge key differences, my position on “burn in” pertains to getting acclimated to how a headphone or speaker sounds in addition to pad wear or specific things like headphone clamp reducing overtime potentially affecting sound etc. The drivers breaking in/loosening up probably happens to some extent. However, compared to say getting reaccumulated to how specific speakers or headphones sound plus components like earpads wearing down… it’s more subtle vs overt. Case in point, I have both a Sennheiser HD 650 (purchased end of 2018) and 6xx (purchased Nov 2021). Though they are fundamentally very similar sounding plus having subtle differences, any of the differences I noticed had more to do with possible pad wear (the HD 600 lineup is known for pad wear notably affecting the sound etc) and headphone clamp.
My 6xx are still fairly clampy (used them less than my 650) while my 650s have lost a good portion of their clamp especially compared to when they were brand new. To my ear, the 650s are slightly and I mean slightly less forward sounding and more “correct” sound wise to my ear. These differences are not easy to spot right away plus one needs to A/B both headphones and volume match among other things. Point being, burn in relates to (at least from my perspective) adjusting to how speakers and headphones sound in addition to wear and tear on tangible components (earpads, headphone clamp etc). Anyway, I’ve been meaning to divulge some of my insights on this topic.

Reply
Stuart Charles Black April 17, 2023 - 11:59 am

Jesse,

Thank you so much! All great and valid points. The more experience I get with headphones the more I think pad wear is likely the biggest culprit in how they sound over time.

Before I sold my Oppo PM3s, I purchased a fresh set of identical pads and noticed a huge difference immediately when listening to some music. The sound was crisper, snappier, and just came across as more lively and energetic vs. the old pads.

In addition and as you mention, a huge portion of it is getting acclimated to the sound and that I think is so important for new people to understand. A lot of people say that you need a lot of time with headphones to gauge quality, but I would argue your VERY FIRST IMPRESSION is the best because you’ll simply get used to its signature over time – for better or worse.

So if a headphone sounds like crap to you at first, that’s probably because it is crap lol.

That said, it’s not always the case. Switching from certain types of sound signatures to others does take some getting used to regardless.

Reply
Amina June 18, 2023 - 9:53 pm

This article very informative for me . Thank you so much to your article .

Reply
Stuart Charles Black June 20, 2023 - 1:34 pm

My pleasure Amina! Reach out any time!

Reply
The Maker July 14, 2023 - 10:18 am

I read your article, read the comments and if I would have not experienced burn-in myself would absolutely agree and put it into the realm of Esoterik crystal BS BUT having owned brand new IE8 from Sennheiser (IEMs) and experienced something insane a few days after listening to them. They became totally different. It was a difference in money from 100usd up to north of 300USD (it’s always subjective but I loved them more than my HD600) this phenomenon regarding the IE8 has been confirmed by countless reviewers. Does that mean that this applies to other headphones? Probably not BUT I can assure u if u would buy a brand new never used IE8 and a second hand (used) one u will immediately be able to recognize the used one 9/10 times (we all make errors so I give u one). But maybe this specific model had issues that just prevented it to play as intended out of the box. Maybe it’s really possible and measurable with such a small driver. The IE8 uses a single dynamic driver I think. In many cases the burn in is probably really just a mental thing BUT with the IE8 it’s a fact that 100% certain on this one. When it comes to non moving parts it gets hard to believe BUT I didn’t have the experience so I can only use logic to judge it as highly unlikely. I mean changing the polarity on the power socket can have a difference but just letting it run for a longer time? Hard to believe if we don’t talk analog equipment (tubes). Anyway so burn in is a thing on specific headphones BUT probably from all the claims it is a majority a real thing. That doesent make it voodoo.

If u can find two pairs of new boxed IE8 go for it. If u can find them without buying the fakes that were making the rounds. It’s also interesting, that the headphones that seem to be profiting from burning them in (playing them a few days non stop) have strong anecdotal evidence in terms of amounts of reports. So the few Models that everybody claims get a lot better with burn in are few but where they happen they are plenty. Just google IE8 and u will see I am not the only one reporting this experience. But it’s in the end a failure of the manufacturer to provide the finished experience and quality on the get go. Nearly everybody was disappointed with their initial IE8 but everybody who stocked with them and gave them the time was satisfied and considered them surpringly great. That is not some mental gymnastics that’s a real change in audio quality. But I never experienced anything like this with a lot of other headphones (dynamic or electrostatic) so again I follow the general opinion of the article. Hope that makes sense and shines some light on the topic.

Reply
Stuart Charles Black July 26, 2023 - 12:14 pm

Thank you for the comment Jan!

Reply
Sandeep September 29, 2023 - 6:37 am

There are so many things which we don’t know, how they affect our sense of everything.
Maybe the headphone was first listened to on a cold evening, burned in overnight and put on again in the morning when sun was shining, breakfast was good, and it was start of a long weekend. Perfect to make everything (especially music) sound better.
Or may be the individual parts of the headphone did actually had time to stretch nicely after the long, unused time in their packaging and started to move freely and did their job better than when they were stiff? Perhaps a parallel can be drawn with human body? Unless we think we are special and our molecules and atoms behave differently. Anyways, athletes stretch to loosen up their muscles and joints before any event, so do the musicians before start of their gig. Perhaps it is the same with the interconnected parts inside the headphone? Or even with the interplay of atoms/electrons inside the electrical devices for that matter?

Who knows.

Reply
Stuart Charles Black September 30, 2023 - 5:00 pm

Great food for thought Sandeep!

Reply

Leave a Comment