When you buy new headphones or earbuds, what do you do first? Unwrap them with excitement and start playing your favorite music?
You wouldn’t be wrong.
But some believe that before you start using your new headphones, you should burn them in first. That means, playing hours of sample sounds to help wear the headphone drivers in, leading to a better, more accurate sound.
The only thing is, many headphone experts think that headphone burn-in is a myth, a waste of time. So, what’s the truth? Do you need to burn in your headphones? Or could you damage your headphones in the process?
What Is Headphone Burn-In?
Headphone burn-in is the audio equivalent of wearing in a new pair of shoes. Before you begin using new headphones to listen to music or otherwise, you play numerous different frequencies and tones to wear the drivers and diaphragm in.
As with a new pair of shoes, the characteristics of your headphones or earbuds will change as the components burn in. Once the headphone drives begin to lose their rigid, out-of-box manufacturing sound, you’ll begin to hear the headphones as they were truly meant to sound, making your audio experiences sound that bit better in the process.
There is no specific amount of time you should burn your headphones in for. There are plenty of suggestions from experts, audiophiles, and everyone in-between, but nothing written in stone. Depending on what you read, headphone burn-in can take a little as four hours or up to a whopping 400 hours.
How Does Headphone Burn-In Work?
So, to truly understand headphone burn-in, it’s useful to have a base understanding of how headphones work.
Your headphones are effectively speakers. Each speaker features three main components: the voice coil, permanent magnet, and diaphragm.
When an electric current travels to your headphones, it passes through the voice coil, creating an electrical field that interacts with the magnet’s electromagnetic field. The variance between the two fields causes the voice coil to vibrate, and when it does, the diaphragm moves with it. Now, when the diaphragm moves, it creates pressure waves in the air around you, and when it hits your ear and moves your eardrum, you hear music.
Those who believe in headphone burn-in contend that as the new headphones come with all new hardware, the voice coil, magnet, and diaphragm are rigid and do not move as freely as possible, leading to inaccurate audio playback.
Is Headphone Burn-In Real? Does It Make a Difference?
Figuring out if headphone burn-in makes a difference comes down to testing. Sure, you can wear your headphones in, and it might feel like they sound different, but it is possible to measure the difference across audio frequencies.
To help us understand headphone burn-in, we’re going to take a look at the results of three different studies and see how testing conditions measure the effects of headphone burn-in.
1. RTINGS 120-Hour Burn-In Test
The RTINGS 120-hours burn-in test is as it sounds. The team took four brand new headphones and played “a 20-second full-spectrum sine sweep (10Hz-22KHz) followed by a 50-minute full-spectrum pink noise calibrated at 90dB SPL, followed by 10 minutes of silence for cooling down the drivers,” for 120 hours.
The changes in frequency response measured were too small to be audible and a lot smaller than the normal fluctuations in frequency response that happen due to changes in the position of the headphones between re-seats
In short, there were minute changes in frequency response, but they are likely imperceivable to the human ear. RTINGS found “No evidence in support of the existence of the break-in effect.”
2. Tyll Hersten’s In-Depth Test
Now, a test that switches between two pairs of the same headset, one of which has around 1,000 hours of burn-in and one that is still completely box-fresh. You can watch Tyll’s subjective headphone burn-in test below.
The subjective test replaces measured frequency charts with Tyll’s experience—not very scientific, I know, but the results are interesting, nonetheless.
3. Oluv’s Burn-In Test
Oluv’s test measured burn-in on a pair of in-ear monitors (IEMs), running 60 hours of pink noise to bring monitors up to speed.
His conclusion (like many others) is that headphone burn-in makes a small difference but is typically negligible. Oluv goes on to say, “I didn’t hear anything. There is no difference. Three days burn-in didn’t change anything,” which he also backs up with his audio measurements. He also added that if you can hear a difference between the IEMs, it is negligible.
How Do Other Factors Affect Headphone Sound Quality?
It appears the jury is out on whether headphone burn-in makes a notable difference to your listening experience. But if it isn’t burn-in, what are people hearing instead? What other factors affect how you experience your headphones, changing the audio experience over time?
One suggestion is that a combination of small changes adds up to the notable difference in listening quality. Mechanically, yes, headphone components do change as you use them. Not many would refute that fact.
But headphones aren’t just mechanical. The earpads adjust to the contours of your ears, helping to create a better seal around your ear, improving your audio. The headphone headband might give a little bit, further helping your comfort levels and the headphone deal. Incorrect fitment for your headphones or earbuds makes a surprising difference, sometimes altering the frequency response and volume detection drastically.
Furthermore, as you become accustomed to the headphones in general, your understanding of their soundstage and tuning is also likely to change. Or, if you’ve significantly upgraded, you’ll notice a significant difference between your old cans and your new ones.
Should You Burn-In Your Headphones?
As someone that frequently tests headphones and earbuds for MakeUseOf, my advice would be just to start using your shiny new headphones or earbuds without worrying about a lengthy burn-in period.
At best, you’ll experience a marginal difference. At worst, headphone burn-in can damage your headphones, ruining them before you even begin using them for their intended purpose.
Of course, if you want to burn your headphones in, go ahead!
Here are the essential features you’ll need for true wireless in-ear headphones you won’t regret buying.
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