A Headphone Burn-In Experience - Home Theater Forum and Systems - HomeTheaterShack.com

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post #1 of 2 Old 01-18-13, 08:19 AM Thread Starter
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Wayne Myers
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A Headphone Burn-In Experience

I used to believe that burning in new speakers and headphones could not have a significant effect on how they would sound. Recently that belief changed, I was convinced I had witnessed a significant change in the sound of a set of new headphones after burning them in. On further investigation, it turns out I was wrong, burn-in had made no difference whatsoever.

That was the short version of the story. Here is the long version.

I consider myself to be a reasonably proficient critical listener, certainly not the best, but... better than average? At least that is what I would like to believe. Who can say for sure? So it is with some amount of sheepishness that I reveal what happened recently while preparing to evaluate the Pioneer SE-A1000 headphones for a review on Home Theater Shack. My purpose in doing so is hopefully to shed a tiny ray of light on the subject of headphone and speaker burn-in.

First, here is what I have long believed to be the facts about headphone and speaker burn-in.
  • Small changes of different kinds can and do take place during the early life of any electromechanical component or system. This is engineering fact.
  • Those changes are usually small enough to be difficult to measure, and diminish quickly (50 to 100 hours), following an inverse exponential curve.
  • Human hearing is very sensitive, perhaps sensitive enough to hear the resulting difference in sound in a speaker or headphone, under the right conditions.
  • Human auditory memory at this level of detail is not very reliable, making it unlikely that those tiny differences can be remembered for any meaningful future comparison.
In other words: burn-in is a real phenomenon, any the resulting sonic differences are tiny, but perhaps just audible with careful direct comparisons, since auditory memory can not be trusted for more than a few seconds. These have been my beliefs for a long time, supported by my understanding of the engineering and psycho-acoustical factors involved.

On with the story. Upon receiving the SE-A1000s, I opened them up to give them an initial listen before burning them in, which I do routinely simply to avoid any questions about it. It was clear that they were brand new because they came in one of those tough sealed plastic packages that has to be cut into and destroyed to get them out. I spent about a half-hour listening to different tracks to get an initial impression, comparing them to other headphones I own. I noted a quirk in the frequency response, discussed in detail in the review, and after listening hooked them up for burn-in and forgot about them.

Five days later, just shy of 120 hours of burn-in, they were retrieved and plugged in for another listen before detailed evaluation, starting with the track which had been most telling about the frequency response quirk previously noticed. Immediately, the impression was that they sounded very different, that the quirk, a dip in the frequency response, was much less objectionable. I listened to parts of a few tracks, actually excited at the change.

A plan was devised. Another pair of the same headphones was quickly ordered, from a reputable source that could be depended upon to send factory-sealed new headphones. The first pair was set aside to await a side-by-side test, to be followed by burning in the second set for the same amount of time as the first set with further comparison.

When the new set of headphones arrived, sealed in an identical tough plastic container, they were opened and set up for comparison. Imagine my disappointment, almost shock, to realize that the new set and the burned-in set sounded the same. Identical. No difference. To be thorough, set number one was then taken through the complete evaluation and scoring process. Then set number two went through the same process. The scores were the same. Then both sets went through the same evaluation and scoring process together, comparing back and forth. At no point was there any discernible difference between the two. Burning in the second set made no difference. I did everything I could think of to duplicate the conditions where I thought I heard a change in the first set. The two sets always sounded identical.

What had happened? Two big question in my mind were:
  1. What happen on that day when headphone set number one came off the burn-in setup and I was so convinced that they sounded so different?
  2. Why was I not more careful then to immediately do some critical comparative listening and be sure about what I believed I was hearing?
I honestly have no recollection of what I was doing before the moment that I made that error. Was I listening to other music? If so, what type? For how long? With headphones? The speakers? Was it loud, was it soft? Or was I doing something else altogether? Was there anything I was doing that might have had my hearing preconditioned in a way that would affect my perception when grabbing those headphones after burn-in? If not, how could they have sounded so different?

And why did I not immediately get super critical and careful to make sure I wasn't being fooled? This one is easy. I was excited, it was such an unexpected discovery, a breakthrough, an opportunity for a fun experiment and a detailed write up. I got carried away. Shame on me.

So, in a matter of a week, I went from unbeliever to believer and back to unbeliever again. Even more of an unbeliever than ever, having seen how easy it is to be fooled. This is not a claim that it is impossible to hear any differences due to burn-in. It is an example of how easy it is to get fooled even when we think we are being careful, a data point for the skeptics. The debate about burn-in will continue on, no doubt. You can tell which side of the debate I will be on.

The next time someone claims they hear a difference due to burn-in, my response will be: Prove it. What is your frame of reference? What kind of objective comparison did you make? If someone insists that their auditory memory is good enough to discern that difference, then I will say: Prove it. Set up a test that shows your auditory memory is accurate enough to catch tiny differences in frequency response heard several weeks or months apart, or even a few hours apart, even a few minutes.

By the way, for all this skepticism, I am also a believer in the possibility of the rare exception. It would not surprise me to find that there are a handful of audio freaks on the planet with super auditory memory who can reliably discern tiny differences in tonality hours or weeks or months apart, and would be willing and able to prove it through a well-designed test. But experience tells me that most people who think they hear those differences are allowing themselves to be deceived. I sure was.

Someone out there is thinking, "Way to go, you got careless. That would never happen to ME." Maybe not. I HOPE not. As soon as you get overconfident, though, as soon as you think you are immune, look out...

Here are a couple of questions for the Home Theater Shack community. They are sincere questions. The topic is easy to argue about, but let's not do that. This is a request for an open sharing of ideas and experiences. Those who are convinced you have heard differences due to headphone or speaker burn-in:
  • Have you been able to show by comparing burned-in versus not-burned-in copies of the same model, under controlled listening conditions, that the difference was real?
  • If not, is there some testing you have done or experience you have had that assures you that your auditory memory for that kind of detail is accurate enough to discern small differences in sound weeks or months later?
And here is a little experiment, one which many of you have probably experienced already in some fashion. Take two headphones, or two sets of speakers (the result seems to be more dramatic with headphones), that sound way different from each other. Say one sounds normal (flat) and the other sounds dull. Listen to music with the dull set for 20 min, then quickly (in just a few seconds) switch to the normal set. They will sound BRIGHT, the ears having settled into the dull sound and made it seem normal. Keep listening to the normal set. After a few minutes, they will sound normal again as your hearing settles back into that sound as being normal.

This is a basic psycho-acoustical phenomenon. (If it has an official name, someone please educate us, I have never heard it, and I have even gone looking for it.) Of course, if you stop and think about it, you will recognize that the dull-sounding headphones still sound somewhat dull after 20 min, but less so than at first, and if you relax into it, your ears do a pretty good job of convincing you that that sound is the "new normal." That is the phenomenon we are interested in here.

I would like to hear people's reactions to this experiment. If our hearing can adjust that much in just a few minutes, how can we expect it to latch on to minute detail of a particular tonality or frequency response and remember it with accuracy to compare teeny tiny differences two or three months down the line?

Appreciate your feedback.

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post #2 of 2 Old 01-18-13, 12:12 PM
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Location: Newcastle Australia
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Re: A Headphone Burn-In Experience

Thank you for an interesting and frank review in which you have raised some very good questions.

Your last comment about the listening experience with different headphones also translates to the brains visual processing. ie if you wear a pair of tinted glasses for long enough the brain compensates and makes everything look "normal" again. Upon removing the coloured glasses the world looks tinted until the compensation mechanism again cuts in.
An even more extreme version is glasses which invert the image. The test subjects found that after wearing them for a long time the image suddenly appeared the correct way up. Very weird.
See:- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perceptual_adaptation

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