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Is headphone "burn-in" real?
June 5, 2006 7:30 AM   Subscribe

Is there any evidence to support the idea that headphones need to be "burned in" to sound better?

A couple of months ago I purchased a pair of audiophile headphones (Audio-Technica ATH-A900s, for what it's worth). They are the first expensive pair of headphones that I've owned, and so I was amazed by how well they sounded right out of the box, compared to the $50 Sony headphones that I was used to.

Strangely enough, though, last night I was listening to the Audio Technicas and thought, "You know, these things sound really good. Even better than usual." Now, one fashionable audiophile explanation for this would be that after a good deal of use the headphones have been "burned in"--that some amount of time of use ranging between twenty and several hundred hours is necessary to allow headphones to reach their full potential. However, that sounds like it may possibly be audiophile voodoo to me, like the idea that coloring the outer edge of a CD with a green magic marker will increase fidelity. It seems equally plausible to me that after many hours of use my ears have "learned" to listen to the headphones, and that I've gotten better withe practice at interpreting the message that the headphone's speakers are communicating (if that makes sense).

So is there any evidence to support either of these hypotheses?
posted by Prospero to Technology (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As in "experts" posting on the internet saying burn-in is necessary? Absolutely.

As in double-blind listening tests? No.

Guess what I think.
posted by deadfather at 7:34 AM on June 5, 2006

Burn-in FAQ at Head-Fi.

I've seen one burn-in test, but it was for speakers and he didn't actually do a listening test, he just measured specs.
posted by deadfather at 7:37 AM on June 5, 2006

I used to think this was pure hokum, until I started buying better gear, stuff with very high resolution such that even small differences in the sound are more clearly noticeable. I remain somewhat skeptical, but I have noticed a difference with some components. It would be fun to get two identical components, burn one in, and then compare the sounds of the two without knowing which one was burned in.
posted by caddis at 7:42 AM on June 5, 2006

I don't think it's that the headphones burn in. I think it's that your brain adjusts to the sound qualities of the headphones.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:46 AM on June 5, 2006

There is no strong scientifically-testable evidence to support the theory that speaker (and thus headphone) break-in affects the sound of a speaker in a significant way. Blind A/B comparisons between brand-new speakers and one with hours and hours of playtime show that listeners are unable to discern between the two with anything better than random chance -- i.e. no statistical significance.

It's your ears/brain that "break-in" and get accustomed to the different way in which new/difference equipment reproduces the music much more than any actual physical changes in the drivers.

This excellent and detailed artice covers the bases pretty well.
posted by pmbuko at 7:50 AM on June 5, 2006

artice = article...
posted by pmbuko at 7:51 AM on June 5, 2006

Here's pmbuko's corrected link.

pmbuko, do you have any references to those listening tests?
posted by deadfather at 7:54 AM on June 5, 2006

botched the link. Here's the correct one.
posted by pmbuko at 7:55 AM on June 5, 2006

Changes will likely be subtle, but the concept is real enough.

Consider, is there any truth to the idea that shoes need to be worn a few times to get comfortable? Of course you could then make Stephen C. Den Beste's argument about it being you, rather than the item. I'm sure that is true, to a point, but.. It is a mechanical system. Mechanical systems wear over time.

Lets break that down into sensible categories: initial break in, operational steady state, time for a replacement. A well designed mechanical system will be designed to be most effective during the middle period, obviously. In fact, it would be very hard to design a system to work best during the initial period, you would have to keep throwing away your prototype and getting a new one that didn't have any wear.

A very similar argument applies to warm up of electronics. Temperature most certainly does effect performance of electronics. Would the designer keep unplugging his work and wait for it to cool down? So, it follows that equipment is designed to run best when warm.
posted by Chuckles at 8:09 AM on June 5, 2006

Chuckles, the point is not if there is wear, but rather if that wear makes a discernable difference in sound quality. The OP asked for data to support this theory, or the theory that it is a psychological perception.
posted by deadfather at 8:15 AM on June 5, 2006

deadfather, I was afraid someone might ask that. I know I actually saw the research I cited on an audio board I frequent, but searches for it are coming up emtpy. This article by Tom Nousaine (pdf) will have to suffice, although it is not based on blind listening tests.
posted by pmbuko at 8:24 AM on June 5, 2006

deadfather, the obvious answer to that is, it depends. Mostly it depends on the model, and nobody is going to do scientific study on every new model that comes out, so..

Don't get me wrong though, I don't worry about burn-in, and I can certainly see how psychoacoustic factors have the potential to swamp any mechanical effect.. My point is, the notion isn't 'audiophile voodoo'.

When they tell you that power coming from nuclear plants makes equipment sound worse than power coming from hydro plants.. That is audiophile voodoo.
posted by Chuckles at 9:12 AM on June 5, 2006

Chuckles, I'd settle for a blind listening test on one model, any model. To date, I haven't seen one. Until I do, it's hard for me not to assume that it is in fact voodoo.
posted by deadfather at 9:45 AM on June 5, 2006

I took the measured specifications of the driver tested in Viksh's burning test and pluged them in the free speaker design tool, WinIsd. The plot below is a predicted frequency response curve for that driver, once put in an appropriate box. The green curve is before the burn-in, and the blue one is after.

The difference is small, about 1dB, which is the limit of what the best ears can distinguish, in pure-tone tests.

It is concivable that the burn-in would make a difference on the overall sound color of the speaker. The human ear is much better at detecting harmornics than at interpreting pure tones.

posted by gmarceau at 9:51 AM on June 5, 2006

This graph only applies to low frequencies. The behaviors of speakers at mid and high frequencies do not have nice closed forms equations. This is only for Vikash's driver, other drivers might burn-in more dramatically.

1dB is the limit of the best ears. The average limit is 3dB. Thus only some people would be able to hear the difference (if any), most wouldn't (which is exactly is how audiophiles start arguments.)
posted by gmarceau at 10:23 AM on June 5, 2006

People can't hear differences of more than blah blah blah. . . The only test that matters is a listening test. People can hear a lot more than you think. A pure tone test is different than listening to music. People supposedly can't hear pure tones over 20 khz but interestingly when you filter that out of reproduced music they can tell the difference (pdf). How? Good question. Not knowing the reason does not change whether something is true or not, although it sure does help us accept it as truth. Showing that one parameter of a speaker does or does not change with burn in does not really tell us much about burn in from the perspective that matters - the sound.

I remain skeptical about burn in despite having experienced it. It may be just one's brain becoming more comfortable with a different sound profile. That is why I would like to see a good double blind listening test.
posted by caddis at 11:41 AM on June 5, 2006

The first article linked by pmbuko above raises an interesting point--why is it that "burned-in" speakers or headphones always seem to sound better? If burning in is something that happens after the speaker has left the factory, then it seems as if there should be a 50-50 chance that burning in would actually make the speaker sound worse. Yet you never hear anyone say, "These headphones sounded great out of the box, but after 50 hours of burning in the midrange really started to suffer."
posted by Prospero at 1:44 PM on June 5, 2006

why is it that "burned-in" speakers or headphones always seem to sound better?

In terms of psychoaccoustics, and assuming the observation is true, that is a very interesting question. You often here people complain that a speaker is fatiguing, which would be a 'worse after break-in' scenario, I guess..

In terms of physical changes, just read my answer above again. Assuming the designer is competent, and that the prototypes are accurate models of the production run, and all that fun stuff.. Any physical changes would be accounted for with final sound reproduction in mind. You might come up with a design that was better before break-in, but after a bit of testing you would start to notice 'damn, this isn't working' and you would drop it. In principal, such a design wouldn't reach production.
posted by Chuckles at 3:57 PM on June 5, 2006

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