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

Originally posted 7/10/2017.

Updates:

  • 10/8/21.
  • 4/12/22. Article revisit.

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!!

Video Discussion

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This is probably one of if not the most hotly debated topics 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. 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.

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 100 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 actually be! I talk a bit about this concept in the video above – 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 really be considered. Maybe the majority of headphones are actually 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 tells me “You can’t demo it now. It hasn’t 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 actually 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 spell while it attempts to become acclimated.

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 really any good reasons to make this claim. In other words,

What exactly “burns in?”

HIFIMAN HE-4XX Review

If you think about it, nothing really. 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, and even the 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 exact 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 personally 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 EQ’ing 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 costing 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 measured data. However, said differences are very small and not as monumental as some people like to claim.

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!!

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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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4 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

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