Headphone burn-in: Fact or fiction?

by Headphone burn-in: Fact or fiction?Daniel Gniazdo

There’s a serious battle raging on about the concept of “burning in” your headphones. Dedicated audiophiles swear by it. Others think it’s mostly just babble. Who’s right?

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If you’re like me, your first reaction to hearing about the idea of “burning in” your headphones was, “Huh?!”

If you’re already familiar with the concept of headphone burn-in, you might have some strong opinions on the subject. But let’s start at the beginning.

What is headphone burn-in?

You know how they say you need to wear a new pair of shoes for a few days before they feel comfortable? This is called “breaking” them in. It’s something fitness experts recommend, especially for running shoes. That’s because the fabric needs to stretch and settle into its final shape.

Well, “burn-in” is exactly like that but for headphones.

The idea here is that brand new headphones should play music for dozens of hours before they finally sound right. This purportedly makes the speaker diaphragms loosen through extended use to reach their intended properties.

But while shoe break-in is well documented, headphone burn-in is a more contentious topic. Opinions on burn-in range from complete indifference to passionate zeal.

What do the believers say?

Some audiophiles argue that any new pair of headphones needs to be burned in. To them, the difference in audio quality between a new and burned-in pair is night and day. They have firm opinions on precisely how many hours of burn-in different headphone models need. You’ll find detailed step-by-step guides on how to properly burn in your headphones.

Even some headphone manufacturers jump on the bandwagon to offer special burn-in tracks that play random sounds, pink noise, and music to exercise the headphone diaphragm. Here’s one you can try if you hate both your ears and your neighbors:

What do the skeptics say?

The skeptics aren’t buying it. To them, the whole idea is pure nonsense.

At best, they argue, the burn-in is nothing more than a glorified placebo effect: People think their burned-in headphones sound better because they expect them to sound better. It’s all in their heads instead of their headphones.

At worst, it’s just a self-feeding cycle of audio fanatics making themselves feel smart through pseudoscientific observations.

What does the data say?

This…is where things only get muddier. Sorry!

Headphone burn-in – unlike Bluetooth safety – isn’t a topic scientists spend a lot of time on. (Which is probably for the best.)

There aren’t many data-based studies on this. But there is at least one person, self-proclaimed headphone geek Tyll Hertsens, who put burn-in to the test.

In his subjective trial, he simply listened to music on two separate pairs of headphones – new and burned-in – without knowing which one was which. He tried to see if he could hear the difference.

In Tyll’s second experiment, he actually measured the frequency response of a pair of new headphones after they’ve been used for 5 minutes, 25 minutes, 1 hour, and so on until 90 hours.

His conclusions? Not conclusive. While Tyll could detect differences, they weren’t dramatic enough to state that burn-in is a major factor. In his own words:

I’m absolutely convinced that, while break-in effects do exist, most people’s expressions of headphones “changing dramatically” as a result is mostly their head adjusting and getting used to the sound.

So, burn-in is real, but it’s also mostly in our heads. Thanks, Tyll!

What’s the verdict?

Headphone burn-in is one of those subjects that’s really down to your personal preference. It’s like arguing over whether PS4 is better than Xbox One (everyone knows Wii U is the real deal).

So here’s a crazy thought: If burning-in your headphones is a big deal for you, keep doing it. You won’t ruin them, and they may indeed sound ever-so-subtly better in the end.

If you don’t care, continue not caring. Just unpack those headphones, wear them straight out of the box, and enjoy your music.

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