What is the first thing you do when you get a new pair of headphones? Some of us might unbox it and put up an Instagram story. Others might immediately put on their favourite playlist and crank up the bass. However, if you ask any audiophile what they do with a new pair of headphones, their answer will most likely be: burning them in. Audiophiles are discerning music listeners who are motivated to get the very best sound quality out of their headphones, speakers, and audio equipment in general.
India's audiophile community has been growing and thriving over the past few years, with meet-up events, and Facebook groups and online community platforms such as The Indian Audiophile Forum, where thousands of hobbyists and enthusiasts exchange ideas, reviews and thoughts related to headphones and audio equipment. The enthusiasm and passion shared by the members on discussion topics can certainly be formidable and even intimidating to newbies. Burning in is something that almost all of these enthusiasts agree is necessary.
All headphones and speakers have a few basic components - a magnet, and a voice coil or diaphragm. When connected to an audio source, an electrical input interacts with the magnet which makes the voice coil move, which in turn produces sound. Most headphones work exactly the same way, and that's a lot of moving parts inside a tiny speaker that has likely been stuck together with an adhesive, waiting to be let loose and free.
Just like putting on a brand new pair of shoes for the very first time, headphone speakers are likely to be very stiff and can sound unpleasant. The speakers need to ‘loosen up' before performing at the optimum level. This process of loosening up a brand new headphone is what audiophiles refer to as ‘burn-in' time. Very often, headphones can sound dramatically different right out of the box and after a few hours of use. They can sound sharp, shrill and shallow at first, but loosen them up for a few hours and they sound full-bodied, warm and cohesive. Headphones, speakers and really just about any brand new audio device can be put through the burn-in process.
Every audiophile has their own personal process that they swear by. But most would recommend playing audio continuously through the headphones for anything between a few hours to a few days. Many headphone brands have prescribed a recommended 4-6 hours of burning in time before giving them a listen. Some have even launched ‘burn-in' apps that you can download on your mobile phone to help, such as the 1More Assistant app.
A more scientific approach would be to play ‘pink noise', a piece of audio with all frequencies being played. This ensures that the headphones get ‘all-round' exercise across the frequency range to ensure that performance is optimised for all frequencies of sound. Audiophiles would do routine checks every few hours to make note of the improvement in the headphones' performance.
I usually prefer to keep things simple, and my personal recommendation to most is to simply leave a headphone plugged into a laptop or phone overnight while playing your favourite music at 75% volume. Usually, at the end of 7-8 hours of continuous playtime, a headphone should have loosened up enough to sound as it was meant to.
Headphones straight out of the box can sound pretty boring. They may sound tinny, sharp, or shrill. Bass would most likely be missing, or it will simply sound shallow, and lacking depth and feel.
Burning in headphones will most likely tone down the harshness of the treble, making the highs sound like sparkle, rather than shrill. Vocals usually find themselves more natural, more believable and more life-like, rather than like the distant sound coming through a cheap loudspeaker. But the biggest impact is usually on the bass; it should sound full-bodied, deep, and cohesive.
With rock and pop tracks, guitars should sound full-bodied and cohesive, rather than twangy. With jazz tracks, drums should sound sparkly and clean, rather than flabby and sharp. With EDM tracks, bass drops should sound deep, rather than airy and hollow.
Traditional wired headphones certainly have a long life, since unlike their wireless counterparts, they don't have any batteries or electronics components that are likely to die or breakdown within a few years. Headphones that have been used carefully can age like fine wine, getting better with use over the years.
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."
While the vast majority of audiophiles subscribe to the idea of burning in new headphones, there is a vocal and enthusiastic minority that claim that burn-in is a popular myth with very little evidence to support the idea that it makes any noticeable difference.
Wired completely refutes 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."
My own experience with burning in has been a mixed bag. I certainly find that most headphones sound better after a few hours. At Headphone Zone, we ship thousands of headphones to customers across India every month. A small minority of them certainly give us a call after receiving their headphones, disappointed with the sound quality. The last thing anyone wants is for a music lover to find their favourite test track sounding horrible with a brand new pair of headphones. Our usual recommendation is to let the headphones burn in for a few hours and give it a second listen. It comes as no surprise that a lot of people are taken aback, not just by the recommendation, but also by the outcome.
However, burn-in doesn't automatically make a bad pair of headphones sound amazing. It certainly comes with a heavy dose of caution that one must take before expecting a transformation to happen at the end of the burn-in process. I believe that getting used to the sound of a new headphone can take its own time, and combined with the burn-in process, it can take anything from a few hours to a few days. However, if it doesn't cost you anything beyond time, it probably doesn't hurt to take your new headphones and leave them playing overnight before taking them for a spin on your favourite playlist the next day.
The author of this article Raghav Somani is the founder and CEO of Headphone Zone, an online retailer and distributor of headphones and earphones in India.
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