Headphone “burn-in” is easing up the materials holding the driver to improve its technical capabilities. That’s the theory. But does it make a real difference?
We made a test… (see results below).
We’ll also discuss:
- How long do your new headphones need to break in?
- Reasons why people believe in burn-in
- If other audio equipment (amps, DACs, cables) also benefit from breaking in
- “Breaking in headphones” is a process of stretching the drivers and other components to achieve optimal sound performance by continuously playing audio.
- The idea of breaking in headphones most likely came from a logical assumption that headphones arrive “stiff” from the factory, so they require some stretching.
- Headphones sound and work optimally if they have passed QC (quality control) and don’t require any burn-in.
- You can try breaking in your headphones by letting them play music or pink noise for at least 40 hours on medium volume.
- Potential benefits of burn-in are smoother treble and tighter bass response. Users claim to experience tiny to enormous improvements in sound quality after burn-in.
- Our burn-in test shows negligible differences in frequency response after 105 hours of continuous music playback.
- A common myth is that burn-in can somehow fix bad-sounding headphones.
What is Breaking-In Headphones?
“Breaking in” or “burning in” your headphones means stretching the driver components, like cones and glued parts, to make them more “elastic” and easier to drive.
Headphone drivers are movable components that vibrate. That means that whatever they’re attached to also vibrates and can stretch over time. As if you’re constantly bending something: the more you bend it, the easier it gets to bend.
The time necessary to successfully break in a headphone varies significantly. Some say it takes a few tens of hours (usually 40 hours), whereas others claim it can take up to 200 hours or more.
A supposed effect of burn-in is:
- Less harsh sound, especially in the treble frequencies.
- Bass can improve, as stated by some headphone manufacturers.
In the video below, workers at the headphone manufacturer ABYSS talk about their views on burn-in and other interesting facts regarding headphone manufacturing:
Where does the idea of headphone burn-in comes from?
The idea of burn-in probably came from the fact that some manufacturers let headphones play for a certain amount of time to observe any changes in sound and physical properties. Any drastic change means that the product isn’t ready to hit the market and needs to be improved.
In case your headphones have terrible audio quality out of the box, you shouldn’t simply wait for burn-in to fix the problem. You should return the headphone as they’re probably faulty.
The Test: Before and After Headphone Burn-In
People normally have to try to believe it. So we made our own burn-in experiment to find out whether it measurably changes the sound. Since we were already reviewing 1MORE Triple Driver, we used them to make our test.
How we made the test
- We first used an appropriate ear tip size to fit inside our MiniDSP HEARS. They need to fit just right not to slide out during the test and consequently change the measurement.
- Then, we placed our MiniDSP someplace where nobody would move it. The environment has to be as controlled as possible.
- Afterward, we made our first control measurement using REW software and DragonFly Red as a headphone amp/DAC. This is the base measurement that we will later compare to other ones. Our 1MORE Triple Driver had around an hour of playtime when we started our test.
- When everything was set, we plugged the IEMs into our music player of choice (Samsung Galaxy S7) and let them play for more than 100 hours. We set the volume to 80%.
- We occasionally performed a measurement, very carefully plugging and unplugging cable to avoid moving the IEMs.
Results of our burn-in experiment
We made 4 measurements after an hour, 20 hours, 50 hours, and 105 hours. Here are the results:
Based on the measurements of our burn-in test, we see very tiny changes in frequency response. After 105 hours:
- The sub-bass quantity lowered a bit up to 80Hz
- After 80Hz, the middle bass started to increase slightly
- A steady boost lasted through a lower midrange up to 1kHz
- Between 1kHz and 17kHz, the response remained practically unchanged
- Above 17kHz, the treble slightly lowered in intensity
Discussion about burn-in results
Simply looking at the frequency response measured, you could come to the conclusion that the break-in effect does exist. However, the difference is so small that a person wouldn’t notice it.
At best, the difference between the control and 105-hour burn-in measurements is 0.3dB.
That is far from the drastic change that people claim to be caused by breaking in your headphones. Furthermore, the tiny differences might be a result of ear tips slightly moving due to IEM vibrations.
Do Headphones Need Burn-In?
Based on our results from the test, headphones don’t require burn-in. If they passed quality control, it means they already sound as they should, so you shouldn’t expect any additional magic to happen.
Furthermore, more expensive headphones go through various testing stages, so they already clock many hours before you even receive them. The manufacturer Abyss tests them for at least 30 hours.
That said, if you’ve been in audio for a long time, you might experience something that might indicate burn-in or know a person that swears that it’s real.
My first and only experience with a burn-in was when using HiFiMAN RE-400 in-ear monitors. I distinctly remember cymbal crashes during the second guitar solo in “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd to be sizzling and fatiguing.
However, when I tried to listen to the same song again a few months later, the harshness disappeared completely. That said, I still consider that the reason could be in other things, like updating the music app, using foam ear tips from a different brand than before, etc.
Apart from our test from above, here are some tests, objective and subjective, performed by known audio sites or personalities:
- Even DMS, a known audiophile YouTuber, made some tests with headphones known to benefit from burn-in and found that they indeed change their sound. However, he also mentions changing earpads and possibly moving the headphones, which can affect their measurement.
- Tyll from InnerFidelity made another interesting test, where he listened to 2 headphones of the same model, but one was already burnt in for 1000 hours. He noticed that the latter made them sound a bit smoother than brand-new ones.
- RTINGS made a more extensive and controlled test using 4 different headphones (one IEM), concluding that nothing changed, not even THD, in 120 hours.
However, as with many things in audio, there are a lot of conflicting opinions on whether something is true, placebo, brain playing tricks, or a cause of a completely unrelated thing.
While manufacturers like Abyss, JLab (which offers an audio burn-in file), and 1MORE, which also has a “Burn-in” feature in their headphone apps, claim the burn-in is real, there are some contradictions with the breaking-in logic:
- In some cases, recommended burn-in time can be up to 200 hours, which means that by the time you finish, you’re no longer legible to return headphones for a full refund.
- Stretching the driver material only works with some headphones, and it stops at a certain point, not changing the sound any further, which seems unnatural.
How to Break in Headphones: The Burn-In Process
If you’re a person who wants to try everything for themselves, we have great news. Breaking in a pair of headphones is very easy. All you need is patience and hours of audio material.
Remember, you’re trying to loosen up the tension of the new material around the headphone driver to (potentially) change its physical properties and, consequently, sound.
Therefore, here’s how you do a headphone burn-in:
1. First, listen to your brand-new headphones
For the most unbiased opinion, only listen to your brand-new headphones once, form an opinion, and then only listen to them once you finish the burn-in process.
2. Pick an audio recording and set it to play in a loop
Typically, audiophiles recommend using pink or white noise (you can find long pink noise tracks on streaming services or videos on YouTube). However, a more logical pick would be using various types of music that would stretch the driver more “dynamically”.
3. Set the loudness of your audio source to medium
Since you’ll be playing headphones for tens of hours, you don’t want to burn that tiny voice coil inside by keeping the volume high.
4. Leave your headphones alone for at least 40 hours
That’s the recommended burn-in time. You can do the burning-in process in intervals, like 5 hours per day, for example.
5. After those 40 hours, listen to the headphones again
Determine if you like them more than before. You should do that to avoid the effect when your brains get used to the sound. More on that later.
Potential Benefits and Effects of Breaking in Headphones
As mentioned, breaking-in headphones can result in a smoother treble response (less sibilance), warmer sound signature, and punchier bass.
However, throughout history, people often started to believe all kinds of stories due to the lack of understanding of a specific phenomenon. The “burn-in” effect can happen due to many other things than physical driver change.
- Ear pads shape: if you’re wearing your headphones during the burn-in process, the ear pads shape changes. They start to contour to your ears, becoming more comfortable and providing a better seal.
- Getting used to sound: brains can also work like active noise cancellation, eliminating or changing things that we hear so they no longer bother us. Basically, if you listen to somewhat decent headphones for a couple of days, they’ll start sounding better and better with use, with less annoying flaws.
- Placebo effect: mind can be powerful, making you believe something you really want to. Listening to friends or favorite audio bloggers/reviewers can even further amplify the belief that you actually hear changes in sound.
- Change of listening habits: if you find a flaw in your headphones, you will want to avoid it. In practice, you stop listening to problematic music or change how you position the headphones on your head (which can alter the sound a bit).
Common Myths about Breaking-In Headphones
One of the common misconceptions that you should avoid when you buy headphones is to stop believing that burn-in can turn bad sound into good.
- No burn-in period can’t fix poor sound.
Burn-in of other audio equipment
Headphones aren’t the only audio equipment that can supposedly benefit from breaking in. You can also burn in amplifiers, DACs, and even cables.
Burning-in amplifiers mean exposing them to an electrical signal, which flows through electronic components.
The idea is that by doing that, you heat up the components, which expands them a little, and fully puts them into place.
Mr. Paul from PS Audio even states that they have to burn in their amps for 30 hours (or even more) to get the desired sound. Otherwise, users would send them back, claiming they sound terrible.
Apparently, breaking in a cable doesn’t involve wires but the insulation. By sending through an electrical current, you start breaking it in on a molecular level, causing atoms to rearrange and absorb less energy, which leads to less distortion.
It takes around 25 hours to 100 hours to get the most significant improvements. Again, some swear by cable burn-in, while others can’t hear any difference.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
How long do headphones need to break in?
Manufacturers typically suggest around 40 hours of breaking-in, but some users even recommend 200+ hours to fully set the headphone sound. It is highly debatable whether that makes any difference.
Do headphones have to be broken in?
Headphones don’t have to be broken in, as there’s no proof it makes a noticeable difference. Also, some manufacturers already perform burn-in processes in the factory.
Should I burn in new headphones?
There’s no need to burn in new headphones. If they passed quality control (QC), they should already sound as intended, and if they sound bad out of the box, there’s no burn-in that will help.
Will headphones get more comfortable over time?
Your brand new headphones will get more comfortable over time by reshaping their ear pads and easing the clamping force to better contour your head. But, if the discomfort is too severe, check out how to make headphones more comfortable.
The logic behind the burn-in seems valid, but there is still no scientific evidence to back up the claims.
Whether it’s true or just a placebo, it doesn’t hurt to try breaking in your headphones and see if that makes a difference. However, never put all of your hopes on it, as nothing will ever fix a bad-sounding product.
What is your stance on this topic? Have your headphones changed sound over time? Did you purposely perform a burn-in process?
Please, let us know in the comments.