Experts' Comments


OK, AUDIOPHILES: REAL talk. Earphone makers seem to be either too polite or scared to say anything. And the people in the industry who should know better are only actively encouraging a ritual. So let me say it for them: Earphone burn-in is a bunch of hokum.

For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, it basically amounts to pumping different kinds of sound into a new pair of headphones or earphones for a given period of time. This is to be done before any critical listening happens. Think of it as the sonic equivalent of breaking in a new pair of shoes — the idea being that the true character of your earphones will only surface after some robust exercise. The only problem? There's zero evidence this does anything but defer your enjoyment of music and add more confusion to an already complex topic.

Audiophiles will often apply their own burn-in technique to any number of music-listening devices: earphones, headphones, amps, speakers, even cables. With larger headphones, mechanical burn-in is supposed to describe the gradual settling in of the design parameters of the cone diaphragms (the things that vibrate back and forth to create the air pressure changes that we interpret as sound in our ears) into their intended or optimal state. After this period, proponents claim they are able to vibrate more freely, thus allowing for better sound.

But wait, there's more. Optimal burn-in times range from 40 to 400 hours, and the process itself can also take myriad forms. Manufacturers like Ultrasone offer specific burn-in times for their cans, but others are happy to leave the details to the true believers. Some of the latter will simply play music through their phones continuously for a day or two. Others go with a more comprehensive approach, making elaborate burn-in mixes and sharing them with others. These can include loops of pure tones, white noise, sine wave sweeps, and even pink noise. A cult burn-in favorite includes using Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, an album that's been described as "the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator." Others simply prefer the soothing sound of rain sticks.

To be fair, the physical properties of any mechanical device can and do change over time. But whether those changes have a perceivable (and beneficial) effect, that's another story.