Audio break-ins

Ok, shameful click-bait, but I’m not talking about crime here, but rather the notion that is still being spread around like fertilizer especially on forums, about all audio gear “requiring break-in periods” to sound it’s best.

I want to talk about this because I’ve heard it one too many times and it bothers me.
Believe it or not this is actually a relatively new concept that is not grounded all that well in my opinion. Time and time again I keep hearing and reading stuff like “oh, my dac sounds and performs so much better after 60 hours of “break-in” (constant use)” or “you have to let this CD player “break-in” for 50 hours before it sounds it’s best” or “you have to play these headphones or speakers for 50 hours at high volume before they will sound their best”, you get the picture. I’ve even heard of people selling high-priced gizmos that supposedly “aid with the break-in period”. That is the ultimate BS right there in my opinion.
This concept was almost unheard of back in the 70s through the 90s. In fact, as far as I can tell it is only about 4 or 5 years old at best. In my opinion, it was started by some person or group who wanted to appear to be the smartest one in the room so that everybody would listen to them.

First of all, to my knowledge and experience, the only pieces of audio gear that has any type of connection to a period of time that changes it a little (“break-in period”) that can even be measured, are tubes and phono cartridges. With a “new” phono cartridge the cantilever (the long metal looking thing that juts out the bottom that holds the actual stylus) can often be a bit stiff at the mount point on the body, which is actually a little suspension of sorts. After about 30 hours of use it settles in and the sound will potentially change at that point, it will be subtle, but noticeable and usually for the better. (In fact, sometimes one has to go back and re-check the cartridge set-up at that point, just to be sure things have not shifted too much. Most times, all is well). That said though there is another larger factor at work even here that covers the rest of audio gear as well in regards to this concept of “break-in period”. That factor is the listener’s ears.

Let me attempt to explain. What needs to be noted is that there are no moving parts in items like DACs and amplifiers, etc., so what is there to “break-in”? Other gear with moving parts such as turntables, CD players and speakers (speaker cones and their surrounds move with sound ya know, you can actually see this happen with lower frequencies) are designed to work at full potential right out of the box. Think of it this way: If you have to wait say, 60 to 120 hours after starting your new turntable spinning before you put your first record on or after starting your CD player before you put in your first CD, how many people would even purchase those things?
Another example would be speakers, if you had a pair of speakers with the surrounds of the cones let’s say or even the diaphragm of a dome tweeter that were as hard and stiff as concrete and you sent signal to them, the result would be disaster. At very least they would sound down-right awful and unlistenable or you could be watching things fall apart, etc.
What is really “breaking-in” are our ears and brain. Every piece of audio gear, be it speakers, headphones, amplifiers, CD players, DACs, even turntables, etc. has its own native sound signature, like it or not. It really all boils down to what flavor ice cream you like. In other words, what flavor of sound do you and your ears find most pleasurable. Every time you encounter a new piece of gear its your ears that need to get used to it’s sound signature and how it affects the rest of your system. Its our ears and brain that are needing the “breaking-in period” not the gear itself. This is a natural thing.

Here’s another analogy: Have you ever been to someone else’s place to hear their system being different from your own and found that it sounded different to you than it does to the owner of the system even though you are listening to the same thing at the same time?
Let’s say for another example that you are out auditioning speakers and listening to the same types of speakers with the same source and music, but each one sounds somewhat different to you. Well, that’s because your ears are just not accustom to the particular sound signature of the gear yet. Granted, there are instances where you may find that you will not get used to certain sound. For example, I have an issue with beryllium and ribbon tweeters, just too harsh to my ears to listen to long enough to adjust to. It’s different things for different folks. If you are somewhat harder of hearing in the higher frequencies than those types of tweeters may be to your liking, I don’t know. Who knows, as I age I may prefer them myself someday. It’s like horned speakers, I usually do not like them and find them to be somewhat brash, but I have heard a couple that sound more comfortable to me. Obviously, they were tuned differently. (I’m still not a fan of horned speakers though, I’m just pointing out that our ability to acclimate changes over time).
The point is that if you were to sit and listen to any piece of gear for 30 to 60 hours let’s say, it will in fact, sound different to you than when you first hear it, but not because the piece of gear has finally “broken-in” all of the sudden. It’s because you have grown accustom to or have become acclimated to it’s native sound signature.

I’ll give a personal example: I was not too long ago shopping for headphones. (I’m not a big fan of headphones, but I see them as an occasional necessary evil) and wanted a set that offers a wide soundstage with accurate bass and overall frequency range without sudden drop-offs in inappropriate places and such.  I have had a pair (still use them) of Sennheiser HD518 cans for years.
Fast forward a few years, I find now that my Sennheisers have a cliff drop at around 9 kHz which affects the highs. Bass and mid-range are fantastic, highs are ok, but staging is somewhat narrow for being open headphones. Still, I find them to be most comfortable, but was in need of a wider stage at least and slightly better higher frequency performance, so I went shopping.

After diligent research, I chose to go with a pair of AKG K7xx as they are claimed to be like the 65th anniversary K702s, but with improved bass response, etc. When I got them, I plugged them into my AVR’ headphone jack and despite the near 200 WPC of real power (obviously not in the headphone amp portion), but still, it could not drive the AKGs. So I went and had to purchase a separate headphone amp (A Schiit Magni 2. This is not a bad amp either, especially for the price and the fact that it is made in the US). However, when I tried the AKGs through it, they sounded lifeless with thin bass and overall 2 dimensional sound. The staging was what I wanted and they are fairly comfortable, but while I knew the bass was there according to how they designed the headphones, it lacked impact and the mid-range sounded veiled to me. I thought, “these are awful and not performing to the specs listed. It can’t be the amp because I checked it and tried it with my other headphones with which it performed well”. Over the course of days, I kept trying them for grueling half-hour sessions at a time. Slowly, I heard them a bit better, at about the four-hour point is when I found things just begin to get more easily noticeable and more from then on.
I’ve clocked about 8 hours on them so far and find them a bit more to my liking. I still have a bit more “getting used to them” to do. I go back to my Senheisers and instantly feel more comfortable with their sound except for the narrow stage and lack of high frequency dynamics due to them being rolled off too soon (well before even 12 kHz). I’m instantly comfortable with them because I am well acclimated to their signature as opposed to the AKG signature. Over time I will be acclimated to the AKGs though as well.

The point is, as I see it, is that it is our ears and brain that self-adjusts, not the gear. So, next time you hear someone say stuff like, “this turntable, CD player, DAC, Speaker, etc. requires said number of hours for break-in” or “my (insert gear here) sounds way better after xx hours because it broke-in”, just know that they are not stating the full explanation for some reason. In the meantime, just sit and enjoy your new piece of gear, whatever it may be and let yourself get used to it.