Audio Equipment Break In: Fact or Fiction?

AR-BreakInCOVERIMAGE450.jpgOn a Facebook audio group, I saw this question posted. And while I could have answered it on that page, I decided I wanted to get long winded about it here instead, so first, the question, or should I say questions...

"How do you know when a new piece of audio equipment has "burned in"? What is the indicator for you that this has happened? Do you find that the sound quality has improved enough to tell the difference? How many hours do you figure it takes?"

Let's deconstruct the questions with our own questions and definitions before we look at potential answers - how do we define burn-in? There are several potential definitions. It could refer to the initial break-in period, both physical and electronic, that occurs to various types of components in a sound reproduction system's component chain.

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Or it could refer to the time period before stuff breaks...but I strongly suspect the former.

How can you tell that burn-in (or whatever you choose to call the difference between when you turn on a system and when it is "burned in") has occurred? The standard old audiophile answer is, of course, "when you hear an improvement in the sound."

The third question is more of a "Huh?" question. If you don't hear a difference from cold turn on to whenever and whatever arbitrary time you choose, then obviously, there hasn't been any appreciable "burn in" phenomenon to experience. Or was that more of a "Duh?" question? OK, I promised not to be snarky...

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Ok, pontification time - different components have different potential burn-in, break-in, or stabilization times. The most obvious, and audible to my ears, is the surrounds of a dynamic driver breaking in. I had one loudspeaker in for review recently that, when first set up, sounded like crap - foggy, no center-fill, not even vaguely good...but then after about two hours (I left them playing at mid-level volume for a while) I came back, sat down, and found a vast improvement in the overall sound in almost every respect. Now THAT was break-in.

I've also used a number of power amplifiers that improved noticeably after ½ hour or so of playing time after being turned on from cold. Both the Pass X-150.3 and Pass X-150.8 definitely improve in all respects after ½ hour of playing time.

AR-BreakInCapacitors225.jpgCapacitors and resistors, when new and cold, can take a bit of time to stabilize. Whether that will be audible depends on the part, how it's being used, and the rest of the circuitry. I have not personally experienced burn or break-in that resulted in a sonic improvement that I could attribute to resistor or capacitor, or any other individual part, but I don't test parts as manufacturers and designers must do. If you, as a hobby, are listening to hear differences in resistors or capacitors, your hobby is WAY different from mine...

The last question "How long will it take?" is usually uttered by folks under torture. And depending on the component and nature of the burn-in, that time can vary. With some components I've seen claims of many hours before the device sounded optimal. Personally, I've never found much sonic difference (after initial break-in and warm-up) between a component after being used for one day and one that's been used for one hundred days.

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So, for me burn or break-in is a real thing. Experience indicates that some components and parts are more prone to producing an audible "break-in" or "burn -in" than others. With some, like loudspeakers, it can be a once, when new, phenomenon. Other components, such as power amplifiers, possess regular war-up cycles that are audible. The improvement in sound during warm-up from a cold start can be a regular part of what some stereo systems do... 

So, yes, no, and maybe... I hope I've answered that question well enough to get a passing grade without bribing any teachers...

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