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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10 Responses

  1. Richard December 21, 2015 / 23:32

    I think the test missed something personally. Wearing headphones also involves a physical aspect and this can also effect the audio. One of the characteristics of good audio on headphones involves fit and form. The better the fit the lower the losses and over all audio response ie volume. I have had cases were customers were experiencing level issues with headphones and the fix was just a matter of swapping to a different ear cushion. I was sceptical of this theory at first until I tested it myself using a spectral analyser and a real size foam hairdressers head with two mics embedded in the head where the ears are. I found ear cushions alone can have up to a 6db effect in the audio loudness and can effect the spectral response massively. How this relates to burn is is that foam ear cushions do change shape the more you wear them. I’m betting this also can effect how comfortable the headphones are to wear (mental aspect) but also the audio response as the cushions seal better on the ear.

    • Daniel Gniazdo January 5, 2016 / 12:35

      Hey Richard,

      That’s an interesting insight. If that’s the case, the “burn-in” effect is less about the mechanical parts inside the diaphragm and more about the adjustment of the ear cushions themselves – so more like the shoe break-in, actually. That would also mean that, instead of letting the headsets lie on the table playing 90 hours of white noise, people should wear them on their heads, whether with or without music.

      That introduces a new dimension to the debate.

      Thanks for your comment,
      Daniel

  2. Ben July 31, 2016 / 12:12

    If you want a different burn – in track:

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  5. SoundMaximum September 21, 2016 / 18:38

    It’s certainly a fiction. I’ve used couple of Jabra mid-range headphones, haven’t noticed anything like that.

  6. Kanoareview October 16, 2016 / 18:46

    For the longest time I thought burn in was total nonsense. Because what can really change about a barely moving speaker membrane and a bunch of copper wires. But after building speakers for 10 years and listening to endless headphones I had to change my mind. They really do start to sound better after a while. It’s very subtle but the difference is definitely there.
    And materials change when they deform or conduct signals. If the materials change then they behave differently. So it’s entirely possible that burn in occurs and can benefit the sound quality.

  7. L December 15, 2016 / 11:04

    I don’t actively burn-in per se, but quite a few of my headphones sound way better after some use.

  8. Luis Soza February 4, 2017 / 07:25

    Thank you for sharing this article, that was very informative. Everyone does want a good experience when using headphones. Everyone looks for something that provides good quality as well as convenience. With so many products available in the market, one gets really confused what to buy and what not to. One of my colleagues recently bought a pair of affordable audiophile headphones from http://www.soundmagic.us/ and is happy with the product. And as you said, it really is a personal belief regarding headphone burn-in. Some feel that the newer the headphone, better the quality of sound and some believe in burn-in. Everyone has their own views regarding that.

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