Burn my headphones, literally?
Not really, no. Like a new car that needs to run in before you go driving around like the next Schumacher (please don't!), your audiophile-grade headphones need a similar exercise to ''run them in''.
When a headphone is fresh out of the box, its parts are new and need to adjust into their respective places for delivering optimum performance. That is the basic idea and reason behind the process.
This burn-in or settling in process is a standard for products that have moving parts during performance. This is because the parts that move (like the drivers) need to settle in their positions and need a bit of ‘shaking up’ to move freely and produce their best.
Speakers of all kinds require this - from standing tower speakers, bookshelves to even the humble headphones and earphones can be burnt in.
You might even notice that headphones straight out of the pack tend to sound sharp and smoothen out as time goes. This is because, over time, constant usage makes the moving parts settle in firmly. Hence, it is advisable to break in a headphone right out of the box for a good listen.
This process of 'breaking in' the speaker is known as "Burnin in". This is advisable but not necessarily mandatory.
Read on to know why.
So how do I go about it?
There’s a method to go about this process. It generally involves playing audio (usually static or pink noise, if you're being very particular) through new headphones for a number of hours or days at a stretch in order to break them in and bring about the best sound from the headphones.
But the time required to break in tends to be a very relative choice. This is mainly because one's favourite kind of sound output is highly relative. This is where the lines divide.
Case in point - If you talk to 10 audiophiles in a room, it's likely that each person would have a certain magic number of hours that they've burned in their own headphones for.
This number might range from something as short as 4 to a ridiculous 400 hours! There’s disparity between the agreed duration of burning in even. Some folks believe that only maniacs burn headphones straight for days. They believe that headphones need to be burnt over a duration of say, 10 hours and then the process repeated after a stipulated period of time.
Another point of contention is the music played. Some believe pink noise must be used whereas others feel audio tracks across the range - bass heavy tracks, vocals only and so on - must be played for burning in.
FAQs on Burning In
How to burn in headphones?
Simply connect your headphones to an audio source. You can even find burning in videos on YouTube these days. Once connected, let the music play and let the headphones be.
Pro tip: It is advisable to not wear the headphones while playing static or pink noise on it, unless you’re heel-bent on going completely crazy. In which case, we are not responsible for any side effects of listening to pink or static noise for long-term. Just FYI.
How many hours should you burn-in headphones?
As mentioned, this is where it gets tricky because everyone has their own choices. As such, there is no definite or golden number for burning in. This is something you’ll have to try to find out for yourself. Reading reviews about your particular model online is definitely useful to figure out the number of hours needed or whether it needs burning in.
Whatever be the number, one surefire way to properly burn your headphones is make sure you play songs that push all the frequencies of audio i.e. bass, mids, and highs. Ultimately, even with a general 10 hours of burning in, you may be able to see a difference. You can continue experimenting by periodically expanding the number of hours and checking for improvements.
How does burn in change the way my headphone speakers sound?
Your headphone, straight out of the box has moving parts in it. Even in tiny IEMs, there are minuscule precision drivers present. For music to be reciprocated in the headphones and then to reach your ears, air molecules need to be vibrated at very particular frequencies. That is what the driver in the headphone does. It is housed in a highly precise structure that aids the driver’s movements.
However, since it is new, it’ll need to be run-in a bit so that it reaches the optimal movement required for a good audio output. This is exactly why headphones that are burned sound smoother.
Is there a way to prove that burn-ins make a difference?
There isn't a very definite answer, unfortunately. While the majority of the audiophile community believe that burn-in improves audio, there does exist strong opposition for the practice. The reason is that one’s idea of good sound is a highly relative aspect. The best option would be to be patient with your headphones and approach the concept of burning in your headphones patiently. Listen to your headphones before you burn it and then afterward too and form your own opinions.
Do note that each headphone model has its own post-burn-in output. You might find that not all headphones require burning in. However, the higher up the headphone ladder you go, burning in your headphones definitely seems like a good practice.
What the experts think
Steve Guttenberg of CNET says "I believe headphones' sound "matures" over time, and I recently had the chance to compare a brand-new set of Etymotic ER-4PT in-ear headphones with my 10-year-old ER-4Ps. I felt the older set was "slightly more 'relaxed' and more laid-back in its tonal balance." The two models have identical specifications, and yet they sounded different."
The guys from WIRED completely rubbish the idea of burning in new headphones - "The ambiguity and voodoo can confuse buyers and quickly turn into a colossal waste of time. The fact is burn-in has now become tribal knowledge. You might as well be kissing each earpiece 50 times to see what sonic difference that makes."
Interestingly, top audio expert Tyll Hertsens from Inner Fidelity ran tests on a bunch of AKGs and concluded, "It's clear to me, having had the experience, that there is indeed an audible difference when breaking-in a pair of Q701 headphones. I've seen measured differences and now experienced audible differences. While the measured differences are small, I believe the human perceptual system is exquisite and able to perceive, sometimes consciously and sometimes sub-consciously, subtle differences. The differences I heard, while evidently fairly obvious to me, were not large. 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."
Our Thoughts on the Matter
Because there exists no clear industry standard, and there is no quantifiable evidence debunking the advantages of burning in new headphones. Audiophiles everywhere usually have to run their own tests or follow blindly the select few brands' prescriptions for a burn-in.
But guess what: it costs nothing, it does no damage to the headphones, and it’s a good way to get intimate with your headphones and how it reacts over time. The confusion around burning in headphones is numerous and perplexing. As discussed in above, even blind-tests only yielded only marginally noticeable results. These results were particular to a set type of headphones
Some websites go as far as to say that headphones sound "weak" when it's first taken out of the box, and that it should be burned-in with regular breaks, and not in a marathon session. As we said, the confusion is understandable.
If you have to burn-in your headphones, the objective should be to get comfortable with the sound. This is easily achieved with simply listening to the headphones for a few hours at least.
Post playback, considering you invested in good headphones in the first place, it should be apparent that the sound is better simply because you've dedicated a good amount of time in just getting to know them. That’s what one more school of thought believes.
To put it simply, you should take the practice of a burn-in with a pinch of salt. There is no mandatory burn-in required for new headphones, neither is the difference in sound significant because of burning in.
That said, it is important that when you buy new headphones, you should spend a decent period of time listening to different kinds of music. Besides burn-in, you certainly shouldn't ignore basic comfort.
Getting the right fit is almost always the key to bringing out optimal sound. With circumaural headphones, it is essential that you have comfortable contouring earcups, and with earphones you should consider memory foam or double flange tips.
Whatever you do though, if it's with the pursuit of achieving the best possible sound, it's probably worth reconsidering your entire setup. Starting with the audio file, or the amp being used to run the headphone, or finally, the audio player.