Headphone Burn-In

Have you ever purchased a new set of headphones that everyone raves about, only to be disappointed by its lackluster performance?  Too tinny?  Not enough bass?  Before you return it, try to burn in the headphones first.

What is burn-in?

Burn-in is like “stretching out” for new audio equipment before the big workout, and is the term used to describe the settling of the headphone diaphragms into their intended and most efficient state.  What this means is that it has to settle in to a proper “fit” or “sound.”

Burn-in is an electronic process wherein components are kept on for extended periods of time to detect potential flaws, and it is also a physical process where the diaphragms loosen up through use and eventually reach a point that could be considered final.  This has somewhat been used synonymously to “breaking-in” a new set of headphones.

The theory behind the process of burn-in postulates that using the headphones will loosen the diaphragms of dynamic headphones, thus allowing them to become more flexible and vibrate more freely.  This is analogous to breaking in baseball gloves or a pair of shoes.  With use over time, the headphones achieve their tone with gradually fewer sonic faults, thus drawing closer to the designer’s intentions.  Meier Audio has different words for the same process: break-in “improves the mechanical properties of the suspension of the drivers and also tightens” the windings of the coil.  The result varies among users:  Some cannot discern the difference, yet for others the difference is black and white.  Most, however, identify the difference as being more subtle.

How do I do it?

There are different ways to burn-in your headphones (or earbuds).  If you google “burn in headphones” you will get at least a dozen different methods.  The most common ways include running a variety of music, white noise, pink noise, radio noise, frequency sweeps, etc. through the headphones at a medium volume.  Unfortunately, there are no actual data verifying the best method.  My preference is to use a broad range of musical genres in your playlist, and my playlist include Classical, Soul/R&B, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Blues, Pop, and Broadway Musicals.  Playing a single type/genre of music may not exercise and stress the entire audio spectrum.

Some recommend setting the volume to a comfortable listening level during burn in, while others recommend a volume slightly higher than your normal listening level.  If you hear distortion, pops, or cracks due to high volume, you are likely doing damage to the drivers.  On the other hand, using very low volumes will not be very effective in burning in your headphones.

How long should I do it?

The recommended optimal time required to burn-in headphones vary.  The minimum time of burning in headphones has been argued by many audiophiles.  On average, many suggest that about 50 hours of burn-in time is required to reach their optimal performing state, though this has ranged from 40 hours going up to over 300 hours.  Different headphones may take longer than others for a so-called ‘complete’ burn in, and there is no exact or set length of time for burn in. It is best to use your ears to listen for changes to decide when you should stop the burn in process.  The main purpose of the burn-in process is to loosen the diaphragm of a newly crafted headphone and to stress the headphone driver.  Most audiophiles agree that the sound quality will be noticeably improved after burn-in.

Some people try to expedite the process by running the headphones continuously for over 40 hours at max volume after purchase.  I would avoid this method, since using extremely high volumes for prolonged periods of time can damage the headphones irreversibly.  My suggestion is to plug your headphones into your computer or mp3 player, set the volume to medium, and let the music play for up to 4-5 hours a day for 5 days.  You can even do this while at work or sleeping.

When is burn in complete?

The theory behind initial burn in is to achieve the condition at which audible changes stop occurring and you are left with drivers than have settled into the sound that they will have forever after, the sound that it was designed to have. Subsequently, regular use of the driver won’t cause significant change in the sound, until perhaps years and years later when thousands upon thousands of hours have passed and the life of the driver is at its end.  After a driver has reached its designed parameters through burn in, regular use won’t cause significant audible changes.

Is burn in real? 

The idea of burn in has always been controversial.  Some say that there is evidence that proves it one way or the other.   Some say the phenomenon is purely psychological conditioning, others insist upon physical changes to the drivers, and yet some agree upon a combination of the two.  Having said this, there really is no scientific evidence proving that one method is better than the other, or that this process actually improves the sound of headphones.  If you do choose to break-in your headphones, choose the method that you prefer.

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About Ask Conrad
I am a University Professor. A Neuroscientist by trade, and a technophile/geek on the side. My work and research is heavily dependent on computers and state-of-the-art technology. I like Jazz and Bossa Nova. I play the piano, guitar, and ukulele.

One Response to Headphone Burn-In

  1. Pingback: Review – Motorola SF600 Wireless Sports Headphones « Ask Conrad

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