"Seasoning" headphones?
June 15, 2009 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Is the practice of "seasoning" headphones just supersition?

In the Amazon reviews for a pair of earbuds I'm buying, I came across the claim that they sounded awful unless they were "seasoned" first by hooking them up to a constant audio source with a wide frequency range overnight or even for a few days. I googled "seasoning headphones" and came across this claim for some other headphones and earbuds, although it's not widespread.

To me this sounds like either (1) rank audiophile supersition, or (2) someone pulling the reader's leg. That's why I'm coming to AskMeFi. Opinions, please. Better, facts.

Cheers!
posted by rwhe to Technology (47 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Argh. I know how to spell "superstition", but my fingers didn't. Twice!
posted by rwhe at 12:21 PM on June 15, 2009


Some components seem to open up a bit after initial use, some don't. Since some do I would probably withhold judgment on the phones until you have had them for awhile. You don't need to do anything fancier than play music through them. My last pair of cans, the Sennheiser 600s did not change appreciably from initial use as I recall. I have a pair of British speakers that changed noticeably. Some sciencey types will howl that this can not be true, but just because you don't know why something works does not mean that it doesn't work. There exist myriad medicines in which the mode of action is poorly understood. In audio, accurate reproduction of high frequency material, above the threshold of human hearing, improves the perception of the music in the audible range, and this in blind listening tests. Anyway, this is not a thing to get hung up about on your new phones. They might improve over the first 20 or so hours which is a good thing.
posted by caddis at 12:30 PM on June 15, 2009


previously
posted by caddis at 12:35 PM on June 15, 2009


I have heard the claim that "seasoning" audio equipment is necessary. However, unless you need these for a job that requires absolutely perfect audio, I posit that your own ears and the wetware in your skull will do more to affect the sound than general use of the circuits will.

accurate reproduction of high frequency material, above the threshold of human hearing, improves the perception of the music in the audible range, and this in blind listening tests

Please provide a citation. I have an armchair interest in seemingly-impossible audiophile claims such as the one you've made, and I'd appreciate learning more!
posted by muddgirl at 12:36 PM on June 15, 2009


IMO and IMexperience, it helps. Facts, bah, what are those?

And, previously on AskMe: Mechanical systems wear over time.

Bottom line: it costs you nothing, can do no harm, and has some anecdotal evidence in favor of it.
posted by Malad at 12:37 PM on June 15, 2009


After reading caddis' "previously" link, I suspect that some people, upon getting a new prescription for their glasses, would attribute the gradual acclimation to the prescription to "burn-in" of the lenses...
posted by muddgirl at 12:38 PM on June 15, 2009 [8 favorites]


Since there are actual moving parts involved, it is quite possible that some headphones and speakers will actually change as they get broken in. I tend to think that a bigger part of the change in sound is likely attributable to the listener growing accustomed to the unique characteristics of that particular piece of equipment.
posted by paperzach at 12:42 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty skeptical but at the same time can see why people think this. Indeed, part of me is quite sure on a gut level that I have experienced this with some equipment. So yeah, I'm in two minds. I'd go with Malad's bottom line.
posted by ob at 12:44 PM on June 15, 2009


When I get a new pair of glasses, the world looks strange for a couple of days. Then my nervous system adapts to the new glasses, and things look fine.

That also happens when I buy a new computer display. For a while pictures and video looks strange, and then my nervous system adjusts and they look fine.

I've also noticed that happening when I buy new headphones. I'm sure there's an adaptation process -- but it's me that's doing the adaptation, not the headphones.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:50 PM on June 15, 2009


Opinion: It works.

Facts: If it doesn't work, what's the harm? 24 hours usage of something whose usual lifespan is probably in the tens of thousands of hours or more? A dollar's worth of electricity?

There's a sort of Pascal's Wager here, it seems to me.
posted by box at 12:51 PM on June 15, 2009


Well, you would never (or should never) hit a new pair of loudspeakers with a "turned up to 11" sonic blast right out of the box. So, I can see where the same would apply to any other speaker system, even the minute earbuds. That said, I'm not sold on the need to do some overnight sonic gymnastics. I would just go easy on them through the first couple of days of use. Play a nice variety of music and avoid cranking them up too loudly.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:57 PM on June 15, 2009




Facts: If it doesn't work, what's the harm?

The harm comes when your friendly neighborhood headphone dealers start insisting that you need to purchase a special "seasoning CD" (or whatever) in order to get the best out of your new purchase.
posted by philip-random at 1:06 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have just the CD for that. Seriously, any music will do.
posted by caddis at 1:08 PM on June 15, 2009


It's probably baloney. If it were true that would mean the physical driver can be altered by only 24 hours of use which would imply your drivers would probably wear out or shake themselves to bits in a year or two of regular use.

But hey, if you have an audio source, it's probably harmless. Go nuts.
posted by chairface at 1:10 PM on June 15, 2009


box: I rejected Pascal's Wager long ago.

Why don't you toss salt over your shoulder for good luck? The cost in salt is maybe 1/100 of a cent, and the few grains are lost in the carpeting or the dust on the floor, so no problem there. The value of the good luck you might accrue is incalculable.

I can't speak for you, but one reason I don't toss salt is to retain respect for myself as a rational being, as well as the respect of others.

I don't want to try to burn in my earbuds "just in case".
posted by rwhe at 1:13 PM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'll tell you why seasoning seems to work for some - their ears were fatigued when they first used the equipment. By letting thier ears rest, thier headphones sounded better. Audio equipment does change over time though, some things sound better many years down the road. But if these are headphones that show significant differences in spectral qualities only after 24 hours of use, I wouldn't buy them.
posted by bigmusic at 1:23 PM on June 15, 2009


This is done with speakers all the time. You don't need to send them a huge frequency range- just listen to them, or leave them playing something.

It's just like a pair of jeans, they get more comfortable as you wear them.
posted by wongcorgi at 1:31 PM on June 15, 2009




I have no facts but I do have an opinion based on my own usage. The reviews for my pair of earbuds also say that sound quality improves after seasoning. When I used the the first couple of times they sounded alright (better than the crappy ones I'd been using so far) but did seem to have a dull, muted output. I followed the reviewers' suggestion and left them on overnight, and the sound did improve - still a bit dull, but markedly less so than before. I did not season them again, but I do use them daily and I would say that they settled down into the quality I have now within about a week of daily post-seasoning use.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 1:39 PM on June 15, 2009


Common sense would dictate that it's superstition. Here's why:

In the modern consumer goods market:
1) Profit margins are razor thin,
2) Most consumers are not "enthusiasts" who are aware of all the arcane trivia related to the product they buy
3) Yet consumers have very high expectations of quality and service.

You cannot expect the average consumer to know that earphones / speakers have to be broken-in. If you tried to sell a product that sucks for the first X hours, the number of returns or warranty claims that would happen would wipe out any profits the manufacturer or retailer could ever hope to make.

It would be business suicide not to sell something that works perfectly, right out of the box.
posted by randomstriker at 1:43 PM on June 15, 2009


caddis - per your second link:

I think there's no doubt that the performance of mechanical systems change throughout their lifetime. The question is: will speakers and headphones perform noticeably better than the out-of-box configuration after some arbitrary length of use? That is a much harder claim to prove.
posted by muddgirl at 1:47 PM on June 15, 2009


I can say that personally, I have experienced positive results with burn-in. That being said, the results were near-minimal and I probably wouldn't have noticed if I weren't comparing the sound to a control.

Sound coming out of a new pair of headphones tends to sound harsh to me. This may very well be some sort of placebo effect. But I have no reason to discard the idea of seasoning or burn-in because, as others stated previously, all mechanical systems wear over time and the speaker is such a system. Maybe the permanent magnet and the electromagnet affect each other? Maybe the diaphragm becomes worn in due to the forces being exerted upon it? Repeatedly bending a material in a certain way can change the way it behaves, like breaking in a shoe.

This question is almost impossible to answer without a great deal of blind testing being performed.
posted by Phyltre at 1:54 PM on June 15, 2009


I don't want to try to burn in my earbuds "just in case".

Okay, maybe the phrase 'a sort of Pascal's Wager' was a mistake. Let me say it again without it: It is my perception that burning in headphones is worthwhile. My perception isn't something that I'd grant the same weight that I would hard data. That said, though, the cost-benefit analysis suggests, to me at least, that burning in headphones is worthwhile.
posted by box at 2:06 PM on June 15, 2009


I think there's no doubt that the performance of mechanical systems change throughout their lifetime. The question is: will speakers and headphones perform noticeably better than the out-of-box configuration after some arbitrary length of use? That is a much harder claim to prove.

Perhaps it is, but anecdotal evidence suggests it to be true and scientific evidence shows significant performance changes over 70 hours. If you were a speaker manufacturer would you optimize your design for the pre burn-in parameters or the post burn-in parameters?
posted by caddis at 2:29 PM on June 15, 2009


box: Sorry, that came out much snarkier than I meant it. You pushed my button and I went clank, clank. Notice that there are plenty of other people in this thread using basically the same argument, but they didn't happen to mention Pascal's Wager.
posted by rwhe at 2:36 PM on June 15, 2009


If you were a speaker manufacturer would you optimize your design for the pre burn-in parameters or the post burn-in parameters?

The study you link to isn't sufficiently controlled enough to make that determination. Along with age/number of cycles, the following things will significantly affect performance of most mechanical and electronic systems.

1) Temperature of the environment.
2) Operating height above sea level.
3) The length of continuous operation since the last time the system was shut down (i.e., those burn-in measurements may change if the system is turned off, rested, and turned back on)
4) The test set-up itself, including the test equipment. How often is it calibrated? After all, if the assumption is that "electrical equipment is subject to unexplanable burn-in", wouldn't this apply to the measurement equipment as well?

I suspect that speaker equipment is hardly "optimized" at all, beyond the design criteria to exhibit a certain frequency response over a certain range.
posted by muddgirl at 2:53 PM on June 15, 2009


I'm on my third pair of Grado SR-60s in about four years, and while the first pair seemed to require a period of time to "break in", the the other two did not. For the most part, they sounded "right" from nearly day one. While I suspect there's a certain amount of physical loosening of the diaphragm that occurs with use, my experience has led me to believe that significant improvements in sound with time are mostly psychological - i.e., you're getting used to the aural characteristics of the headphones.
posted by jal0021 at 3:04 PM on June 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


A lot of the opinions here don't take into account the difference between consumer and professional grade equipment.

Although I haven't seen any articles on this, I'm going to surmise that most consumer-level gear is going to work as well (or poorly) as it ever will from the first moment to the last.

On the other hand, lots of pro gear, and definitely higher-end headphones and speaker monitors, improve and "settle in to" their sound after an initial period of adjustment through normal usage. I can't cite anything specific, but I've seen the practice mentioned numerous times in pro audio mags over the last 15 years.

That being said, the benefit seems to usually apply to things with larger moving parts (like speaker diaphragms), rather than tiny little precision things. You don't say what grade earbuds you're looking at, but IMHO any quality difference from "burning in" on a diaphragm that small is going to be virtually undetectable.
posted by Aquaman at 3:09 PM on June 15, 2009


I suspect that speaker equipment is hardly "optimized" at all, beyond the design criteria to exhibit a certain frequency response over a certain range.

I suspect you don't know what you are talking about.
posted by caddis at 3:45 PM on June 15, 2009


I suspect I do. The guy is buying a pair of earbuds, not expensive speaker equipment for a studio or other environment where quality is key.
posted by muddgirl at 3:46 PM on June 15, 2009


caddis: A couple of questions.

1. Was this study (Audax Break-In) ever reproduced, either with another set of these speakers, or a variety of other equipment, or both?
2. How do we know that the differences measured in that study make any difference to the human ear?
3. You say there's anecdotal evidence that burn-in works, but as various posters have pointed out, it's equally plausible given the anecdotes that the people were adjusting to the equipment, rather than the other way around. How can one overcome this objection?
posted by rwhe at 3:47 PM on June 15, 2009


One thing that doesn't seem to have been addressed is off-gassing. Most new headphones are made with all sorts of polymers, vinyls, rubbers, and plastics, and burning in may help accelerate the exit of any volatile (in the sense that they will ultimately leave) chemicals and stabilize the materials used, through the slight amount of heat and/or through internal friction.

Of course this is purely speculation. IANA chemical engineer or headphone designer.
posted by a halcyon day at 3:49 PM on June 15, 2009


There's an ongoing argument about this on headphone forums as it applies to all/most headphones in general. For some specific headphones, for example, Ultrasone Pro line with titanium drivers, there's an agreement that there IS a very significant improvement after burn-in. The agreement between users is so complete that after reading many replies on threads I haven't seen anyone who said they did not notice significant difference. I did, too. The burn-in improvement is gradual over a period of about 250-300 hours. There's also a spike of sudden worse quality sound after iirc 100 hours that disappears after a while.
posted by rainy at 3:58 PM on June 15, 2009


We, well at least I and the test article I cited, were not talking about earbuds. Here is an interesting primer on speaker design that talks about many more properties than mere frequency response. I could make you a speaker with a ruler flat frequency response that would have so many phase distortions as to be nearly unlistenable. Frequency response remains the main design criteria. Good frequency response is the baseline. Then address the other issues. After they are addressed, go back and fix the frequency response which you may have just thrown out of whack. Repeat. If you are an engineer, like me, who has been through the design of something not suceptible to easy optimization, this basic process, albeit in perhaps a different technological context, is well know to you.
posted by caddis at 4:08 PM on June 15, 2009


2. How do we know that the differences measured in that study make any difference to the human ear?

Thiele/Small
posted by caddis at 4:12 PM on June 15, 2009


How can one overcome this objection?

I am not out to prove something, I am out to find the likely answer. When you have "proven" global warming come talk, because their exist a lot of people whose only objection to the weight of the science is to point out limitations in the experiments. I am not suggesting similar weights, just similar techniques.
posted by caddis at 4:16 PM on June 15, 2009


Simply put, seasoning headphones will make them very danceable.
posted by bz at 6:24 PM on June 15, 2009


caddis / rwhe: I recall a paper, published by Thiele &/or Small IIRC (though it might have been one of the other ABC engineers of that era), that showed exactly the same result. Can't point to it at the moment, though, as it would have been in the 60's or 70's (or maybe it was one of Small's 'revisiting' papers in the 80's?), and I currently only have journal access back into the 90's. (On second thoughts, it might have even been an internal ABC engineering paper I was able to find through my telco job?)

IIRC, though, the upshot was that the importance of variations in Vas diminished with decreases in driver size. Remember, Thiele particularly was outlining the parameters relevant to large drivers, and Vas as a function of compliance (due primarily to the surround and spider, both of which can be treated as circular, and the cone material itself, which can be treated as an area bounded by a circle) varies non-linearly with changes in diameter (Vas varies with the square of the diameter).

All of which suggests that, yes, 'breaking in' - at least in terms of Vas / Fs - is real, but the effects diminish greatly with decrease in driver size. At the small driver sizes in headphones it's largely academic; at the minuscule driver sizes of earbuds, it's almost certainly irrelevant.

Add to that the fact that Vas / Fs are free-air figures, and the purpose of determining them is to calculate a volume for the enclosure around the back of a driver to match what the driver 'sees' in front of it - I wonder how well that matches with the enclosed volume of an ear canal?

All of which makes me suspicious of how much of the perception of 'improved sound' is due to 'breaking in' of the drivers, and how much is due to gradual acceptance of the sound and other psychological & psycho-acoustic effects - at least with small drivers. I'll agree it does have measurable and observable effects when it come to large drivers.
posted by Pinback at 6:40 PM on June 15, 2009


psychological & psycho-acoustic effects - at least with small drivers. I'll agree it does have measurable and observable effects when it come to large drivers.

And that kinda takes us to the same place where a lot of audiophile discussions end up--how small an improvement remains humanly perceptible? How do you mark the point of diminishing returns? When do you say 'that's good enough?' If some guy thinks (maybe it'd be better to say 'feels') his earbuds sound better after burning them in, who am I to argue? Are golden ears a blessing or a curse?
posted by box at 7:40 PM on June 15, 2009


And that kinda takes us to the same place where a lot of audiophile discussions end up...
posted by bz at 7:10 AM on June 16, 2009


bz, you will need some supports to go with that fancy cable. ;)
posted by caddis at 8:14 AM on June 16, 2009


Hah! Beautiful find, caddis.
posted by bz at 7:40 AM on June 17, 2009


We, well at least I and the test article I cited, were not talking about earbuds.

Somehow I missed this comment until today, so I apologize for that.

I am an engineer in a field that designs hardware which is not easily optimized. I am also an engineer in a field that takes technology based on theoretical concepts and develops it for mass-market production. The design process for a $1,000 stereo is not the same as the design process for a $50 pair of earbuds.

Furthermore, if there truly is a benefit to burning-in a set of earbuds, why are the manufacturers of earphones staying silent on the matter? Surely the engineers responsible would ensure that such a critical piece of information was included in the product instructions. For example, my car manual includes instructions to drive below a certain speed for a certain number of miles to wear in the engine.
posted by muddgirl at 12:33 PM on June 17, 2009


See there you go again, talking about earbuds when we were talking about regular speakers. I have no opinion on earbud break-in, although given the small size any effect would seem to be smaller but then maybe because of the small size any effect would be more audible. Who knows? If I had to make an educated guess I would probably say the effects are minimal to non-existent, but I don't have enough information to draw real conclusions either way for earbuds. There do appear to be some real effects with larger speakers though, although I will admit that the evidence is far from rigorous. As for manufacturers staying silent, not all are as evidenced by this blurb from the instruction manual for Eden bass guitar speakers:
We recommend that you use your David Series cabinet at low to moderate
volume levels for approximately ten hours before using it in a high volume
situation. This will allow the suspension components to “seat” themselves
and the speaker to break in. This is very similar in concept to breaking in the
engine of a new car. It will actually take about 24 to 50 hours of total
playing time to fully break in your speaker system. If desired, you can plug a
CD player into your amplifier and play a CD through your enclosure to
accomplish this break-in.
posted by caddis at 1:55 PM on June 17, 2009


I will refer you to the original question (emphasis my own):In the Amazon reviews for a pair of earbuds I'm buying, I came across the claim that they sounded awful unless they were "seasoned" first by hooking them up to a constant audio source with a wide frequency range overnight or even for a few days. I googled "seasoning headphones" and came across this claim for some other headphones and earbuds, although it's not widespread.

The Eden bass guitar speaker instructions say nothing about "hooking them up to a constant audio source with a wide frequency range overnight or even for a few days." The given instructions are completely different - they are advocating the moderation of the volume of the input for several hours, exactly like a car. They say nothing about the frequency nonsense.
posted by muddgirl at 2:01 PM on June 17, 2009


They say nothing about the frequency nonsense.

TSC user manual:
Break-In
Many people believe speakers improve with age.
With TSC speakers, you’ll notice a change in timbre, responsiveness, and sheer musicality as you use
them because the drivers “settle in” with use.
How long should you wait? That depends, for example, on whether you listen AM radio at low volume
or full orchestral music at live concert levels. In general, you’ll begin to hear differences after 20-30
hours of use.
Emminence Speaker Co. Engineer on the subject:
Simply put, all speakers are built to meet certain specifications right out of the box. Most manufacturers work diligently to ensure that happens, and tolerances are usually pretty tight. As soon as the speaker has been put into service, all that changes though, and so does the tone. The sonic results you’ll hear from break-in are: warmer, smoother highs, an increase in overall warmth, and a slightly deeper, fatter low end.

The components making up the speaker’s suspension are primarily responsible for such changes: the spider (the lower suspension) and the cone edge (the upper suspension). As the speaker is used, these components start to lose some of their compliance or stiffness, which results in changes to parameters mentioned above, as well as to tonality. The stiffness of the cone can also be impacted over time by use, but plays a subordinate role in the phenomenon known as “break-in.” The frequency response graph shows how a speaker might change during this process.

posted by caddis at 2:09 PM on June 17, 2009


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