Reviewing headphones means listening to new and different headphones, earbuds, in-ear earbuds on-ear and over-ear headphones on an almost daily basis. There is not often a chance to break those headphones in. It’s not until the bus ride home at the end of the day do I put on my cans and listen to the set I know in the tone, balance and timbre that I like and am familiar with. I have broken those things in!
The question is, are my headphones better for having broken them in? Lifehacker addressed this topic recently and went to some pros to get their data. Their premise addressed whether breaking in headphones leads to a better sound quality/production. So, do you really need to break in headphones to fully enjoy your listening experience?
Lifehacker always has a couple of useful tips in their articles that come in handy for when you need them. Another nice feature: they entertain questions from readers and take the time to give an answer with a thorough treatment.
They find an answer that is a middle-ground compromise, which has a lot to do with the fact that there’s a lot of gray area in this subject and not much research. Still, Lifehacker’s efforts are commendable, since they have come up with an in-depth explanation of arguments for and against this practice that takes into account what manufacturers and science have to say about the matter.
What Manufacturers Say
On the manufacturer side of things, it’s easy to see how this topic has become such a gray area one. Each manufacturer has something different to say about the need to break in your headphones for a rich auditory experience. Over at CNET, Steve Guttenberg says that, ultimately, you’ll come across manufacturers who are all for it and then have a chat with another one who completely rejects the notion. The most sensible response comes from Grado labs’ John Grado. Grado acknowledges the need of headphones to break-in (because of their mechanical nature), but overall, it’s not something you need to stress about. Just keep listening to a new pair like you normally would.
What Science Says
In the science domain, there’s not much conclusive data, except for the investigations of Inner Fidelity’s Tyll Herstens. For the objective data, Herstens measured the frequency response of a headphone with a long break-in period (the AKG Q701) over time. He noted some evidence of break-in, but it wasn’t anything significant. Next, with the help of a friend, he tested whether the human ear could pick out the differences between a new pair and a broken-in one. Turns out, his friend was able to tell the difference, but it wasn’t as dramatic as people like to claim.
The Psychology of Breaking In
I think much more of our desire to “break-in” headphones can be explained through psychology. To be honest, I think it’s more like how one becomes accustomed to the smells of their own home. I can remember so vividly visiting friends houses and recognizing a distinct odor or aroma – a smell that did not exist in my home. But then, I clearly remember coming back home after spending a few days staying with a cousin. My house now had that funny, distinct house smell. The reality is that everyone’s houses have a smell, we just become accustomed to them.
This is basically Herstens’s final thought, over time we become accustomed to the specific sounds of our well-used headphones and sub-consciously tune out the buzz and other noises produced by that particular set/brand of headphones.
So in some ways, listening to a set of headphones many times DOES break them in – but really the headphones are breaking us in.
At the end, you’re better off choosing a pair of headphones that you like, enjoying your music, and leaving it at that.