Why you should consider burning-in your headphones (Or should not)

Headphones burn-in

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What is headphones burn-in?

You might have heard of breaking in new shoes, but are you familiar with the myth of headphones burn-in? New shoes require break-ins because their rigidity causes blisters. The only solution, albeit counterintuitive, is to wear the shoes more often to soften the rigidity. The shoe is considered done breaking in after the wearer has achieved the most comfortable state for the shoes.

In the world of headphones, this process, called burn-in, is supposedly used to enhance the headphones’ performance.

How do I burn in my headphones?

The burn-in process is relatively straightforward and pain-free. All you have to do is continuously play music through the headphones, which is recommended for at least 40-50 hours.

Burn-in gurus usually play pure tones like sin wave, sweeps, pink noise, and or AM/FM static. You can layer them with more complex tones, like classical music, to give the headphones a more robust workout.

Normally, people do this in a single sitting instead of in separate sessions to expedite the burn-in process.

Pro-tip: You need not wear the headphones during this process unless you are considering going nuts. 

Why does it sound like a plausible idea?

To understand this, we need to look within the headphones. If you have ever had your hands on a pair of broken headphones, consider opening them up to see the full glory of the internals.

Look out for this thin, semi-rigid piece of membrane called a diaphragm. This piece of diaphragm converts mechanical vibration from the voice coil into sounds. Such a device is called a transducer. This is where the sweet music is coming from.

Similarly to a new pair of shoes, some believed that a freshly minted pair of headphones might have rigid diaphragms, hence deemed to be ‘weak’ or not at an optimal state. By burning the headphones via the methods mentioned above, the physical structure of the diaphragm can be loosened up.

We need to dive deeper to understand why the rigidity of the diaphragm matters. How does the diaphragm produce sound?

Headphone burn-in with diaphragm
Credit http://www.innerfidelity.com/content/how-headphone-dynamic-drivers-work

When an electrical audio signal reaches the voice coil, the magnetic property around the diaphragm forces it to move in a linear motion back and forth. This mechanical movement pressurizes and rarifies the air in front of the diaphragm, hence producing the sound wave representation of the original electrical signal.

A rigid diaphragm might not be able to compress and rarify air as easily as a loosened diaphragm, so it might not be able to create an accurate representation of the electric audio signal. Overall, this leads to poorer sound quality from the headphones.

There was an “experiment” done by Tyll Herstens, who had to undergo a double-blind test to identify burnt-in headphones from a new pair of headphones. Firstly, both headphones are of the same model, and it was known beforehand that the green headphones had been burned in for at least 1000 hours.

Even though they are of different color, Tyll wouldn’t be able to see it since it’s on his head. He would then randomly pick one of the headphones from a flick of a coin, and he had to identify the headphones(either green or white) that he was listening to. He did it 15 times, and he only got it wrong twice.

At the end of it, Tyll gave insights on how he identified the burn-in headphones. To him, the burn-in headphones gave him significantly “smoother” sound. However, do take note that such judgements are purely subjective and were not consistently reflected among everyone.

So what’s the catch?

No scientific approach has been taken to investigate burn-in effects on headphones. No one has been able to come up with conclusive results on the relationship between headphone burn-in and improvement in sound quality.

Conclusion

So, is it worth burning in your headphones? Well, it depends. If you are an audiophile, why not? If every slight change in sound quality can be picked up by your well-trained ears, then this is definitely advantageous to you since you get improved sound quality at no cost!
Otherwise, keep calm and carry on listening.

💬 Conversation: 5 comments

  1. I have been listening to music critically for the last 37 years. In my experience it is more than advantageous to burn in your headphones. Oftentimes when they come out of the box their dynamic range is very limited. Also Austin times and you don’t burn then man you get a very boxy sound.

    1. I think that any pair of headphones or floors tanning speakers etc definitely need to be, what i used to call it broken in. All cones to a degree, and price change a lot, listen to a track you know before and after, and if you listen instead of just hearing, the difference is definitely there.

  2. I noticed the difference isn’t a big when compared to, say loudspeaker midwoofer drivers, but it does exist. While woofers resonance freq usually drops by a few Hz, as the suspension loosens and other parameters related to it, the difference in headphones, at least with impedance sweep was very minimal. I wonder if anyone attempted to do Thiel/Small comparison before and after burn in on headphones, if the T/S model applies.

  3. I absolutely agree, that there is a difference between used and brand new headphones of the same type / model. I purchased a pair of ATH M20x in 2019. They have been great (particularly for the price). Although they are still working fine, I decided to replace them for Xmas 2022. The new ones just didn’t sound right, so i compared the two sets, with the same sound source. The difference was ‘alarming’ i immediately checked to see if there had been any spec changes. No, none at all. I actually thought they might be faulty? As there was reduced bass , mid and treble response compared to the older set. I was all set to send them back but then read this article, which made complete sense. So, will be keeping them for sure. Many thanks, to ‘headphonesty.com’

  4. I almost sent back my new Beyerdynamic dt900’s because of the shrill, thin sound. After 10 hours breaking I still was unhappy with them. But I gave them another 12 hours and listened, and they started to sound much better.

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