Breaking in what?

January 16, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

It has been said that break-in, the phenomena of equipment improving its sound quality with use, has more to do with breaking in the user's ears than the kit.

I think that opinion is misleading.

There is a difference in equipment performance with break-in. Of this I am certain. I can almost always tell when a unit is fresh off the line or has been in service for some time. It only takes a single audition.

That's not me breaking in. It is the equipment changing with use.

That said, here's an uncomfortable truth. Our ear/brains break-in over time too. The longer we listen the more accepting we become of sound.

While both are true, one does not negate the other.

It's tempting to dismiss the equipment break-in observation because equipment break-in is hard to explain. Often a mystery.

Mysteries are there to solve, not dismiss.

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29 comments on “Breaking in what?”

  1. "Mysteries are there to solve, not dismiss."--Lovely and pithy!
    Add "...or (just) believe."--Somewhat less succinct--but does complement the thought, I think.

  2. I have no doubt that there is brake-in, for at least certain internal components. I have had capacitors changed/upgraded in the past. They seem to take quite some time to reach their full potential. My most recent being crossover capacitors in my speakers. The change over the first month was significant. I have had similar experiences with capacitor changes in other components.

    What I have never personally noticed, however, is a break-in period on interconnects or power cables.

    1. There is only one way to know for sure if you are breaking in your ears or your equipment given that audiophiles don't believe in measurements unless it suits their preconceived conclusions. Take two brand new unbroken in units that sound identical. Break one in but not the other. Then compare them. Anyone who claims equipment break in ever try that? ..... I didn't think so.

      1. Yes, in fact, that's what I tried to say in the post - guess I didn't do well. Sorry.

        I can routinely take two identical pieces of gear, say two DACS, one brand new, the other in use for perhaps a week. I can identify the difference between the two easily. It's repeatable and demonstrable.

        1. Congratulations. At least someone with a brain tested the theory. Question, if you let the broken in one sit for say six months or a year does it go back to where it was before it was broken in or does it remain broken in? If you break the one that wasn't broken in so that it matches the first one, let it sit idle and then you keep playing the first one but not the second one, can you hear a difference being they were broken in for different amounts of time?

          1. I haven't been as scientifically rigorous as I should to answer this question. However, what I can tell you is that a broken in unit seems to remain broken in for up to a month, maybe longer.

            I have always suspected the forming of capacitors. If I had the time, the obvious solution would be to pre-form the capacitors before installing them and then testing. I haven't had the time.

            1. I never thought leaving it idle to see if it returned to its prior state. It's not practical for me to test that. That is an interesting spin. What I also noticed is that the improvements don't seem to come at a gradual pace. They seem to come in sudden "leaps", meaning you may not notice an improvement for days, and then all of a sudden there is a big improvement. I would be interested to know if that is what you notice as well.

          2. That would be going into fine detail of break in hours, requiring a log of time, what was used for break in etc. I know some people who have done this kind of record keeping, including the late Bob Crump, of TG Audio.
            I've found once a cable has been fully run in, it takes about 4 to 6 hours of playing time to come back. And they don't seem to go all the way back toto when they were new, after laying around for a few months.
            I personally don't hear a cable fully broken in unless it has been on a cable cooker, had some break in in tracks played through them, and plenty of music tracks.
            Beyond that, you could send them to Synergistic research, and have them zap the cables with 1 or 2 million volts. I haven't gone that far.

    2. I've heard it on interconnects and power cables. And I've used two of the same cables, one broken in, one not.
      With cable cookers, the cables come out brighter sounding, then mellow somewhat.
      Without going into every detail, I find break in makes the cables a little fuller, less edgy, and usually a more realistic tone of instruments. The amount of improvement also varies with cable designs.

  3. Let's suppose what you say about equipment breaking in is true. This raises a lot of disturbing questions. Even a bottle of fine whiskey that costs under $100 is aged for a dozen years or more before it is sold so that it can be enjoyed immediately to the fullest after it is purchased. Why doesn't the manufacturer break in equipment costing thousands of dollars before it is shipped. Is a retailer going to break in equipment for the manufacturer before he puts it out for display and for customer comparison with equipment that has already been broken in? Break in means that the equipment is undergoing change. Where does it stop? Why should it stop? When designing and testing new equipment how do you know how it will perform after it is broken in? Is each design change evaluated before and after break in? In the past automobile engines were broken in meaning that the piston rings were machining the last few ten thousandths of an inch of the cylinder walls to form a more perfect individual matched set. That is NOT what happens in electronic equipment where each component changes independently of each other. The connotation is clearly negative and is more commonly referred to as "performance drift." Much sensitive electronic equipment where this happens has to be initially calibrated and then recalibrated periodically. That doesn't happen with audio equipment. Other consumer electronics such as ultra high definition TV sets, don't need breaking in, they're good to go right out of the box. There are a lot of good reasons for avoiding equipment that is claimed to need breaking in. "Mr. dealer, my XYZ doesn't sound like the one in the store, is something wrong with it?" "No, it just needs a few thousand hours of breaking in. You'll see. By the way, the store policy is that you can't return it for a refund or even a store credit after seven days. Have fun."

    1. I can speak to whisk(e)y. The aging process is not easily accomplished at home—picture large charred oak barrels, and finally the blending (in many cases) of several barrels to get the desired taste.

      Now wine, we can and do age at home.

      I remember, years ago, my PS Audio 100C (I think) was out of the system for service. I substituted an old Radford SPA50 which had been unused for a few years. I fired it up and heard perfectly competent sound…but only that. It was lifeless, flat, unexciting. In the middle of a record, however, it suddenly bloomed—it made me look up from the liner notes with surprise. I know we're not talking about the same thing here, exactly, but the sound from audio gear does depend, in part, on how the gear is used. I have no doubt about what I heard.

    2. Lots of good points. Here is a company talking about the accuracy of their measuring equipment versus another http://info.tek.com/www-mdo-portfolio-ad.html?utm_source=just-media&utm_medium=social&utm_content=scopes-mainstream
      Personally, I've found lots of interactions between electronic equipment components when designing and building them. Things like, putting your hand within 6 inches of a computer causing it to lock up during bootstrap. Or an entire communications network crashing at the same time each week by a delivery truck going down a road. Bias in audio power amps drifting as components age bugs the hell out of me, design wise.

    3. That's a very good point for the sake of being practical (and smart). For the prices some companies charge, the product should be 90 to 99 percent ready to play music.
      Iv'e found if a component or cable is too far off the mark of realistic sound, it will never get there from break in or long term use. The problem there is usually compatibility with other components and the cables. All I can say is, a person is lucky if a new component or cable sounds just right with the rest of their equipment. Good luck.

  4. Assuming break in there is the question of when do you audition a piece of equipment at an audio dealer. Do you rush down to hear the latest interesting piece as soon as it arrives. Or do you have to wait a month or two to be sure about a product you're interested in buying? Then follow that up if you've waited a while with what it sounds like when you get your new, unbroken in piece home and put it in your system with the hope it will be what you heard at the demo. Or perhaps worse, if you demoed new and liked it and then it breaks in and isn't what you thought you bought.

  5. I still don't understand why if breaking in is so important that the manufacturer doesn't break his units in before they ship. Much of this equipment costs many thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands. Why is that an issue? Why isn't it shipped ready to play at its full potential. Why isn't break in part of the manufacturing process? Where is quality control?

      1. I have probably purchased more cable from more manufacturers both in length and dollars than most or all of the other people who post here combined. I've spend many millions of dollars of other peoples' money on practically every kind of cable you can think of. And never once no matter what the application did anyone ever suggest that the cable needed breaking in. Why is audio cable an exception?

        1. I expect you're smart enough to figure that out.

          You asked why manufacturers don't do it, and I was pointing out that some do. It takes time and space and equipment to do it, and not everyone thinks it's worth paying for.

          Comparing buying miles of comm cable for installs at work with buying cables for home hifi is apples and oranges. I've bought a lot more wire in length and cost for my studio and for live sound than I have for hifi cable applications. Not a meaningful comparison.

        2. Human hearing is very evolved sense, coming from very violent and threatening times (including now). Put an audiophile in front of some speakers in a box, fed by a bunch of electronic devises, and he'll have a heyday trying to get correct sound.

    1. You could ask the same question of automobiles. When people buy something they expect "brand new--in the box", not a demo unit, unless the price is reduced, or in the case of a used car, much lowered. It's kind of a mentality of "entitlement". And the warranty on the new widget is there to protect you against unforeseen problems...supposedly.

    1. I'll let PS Audio answer that question. From my experience, most companies want to put it in a box and sell it. UPS and Fedex get a lot of business from returns. Not good for the customer.

  6. Of course break in is a real phenomenon.
    I've experienced that so many times the last 40 years or so.
    Almost every piece of equipment sounds better after a while (from a few weeks to a month, depending on how much you use it).
    Has nothing to do with "getting used to" the sound. I am used to the sound already after a few days, especially when it's from the same brand of which I already have other stuff.

  7. Apparently.. some people resent feeling be left out and become jealous of those who can hear differences. They end up defeating themselves by failing to recognize they may have more to learn that would benefit their own listening experience. When they are told that audio equipment goes through a breaking in period? And, they can hear nothing to indicate it being true? Rather than trying to learn what it is that keeps their system from revealing this factor? Why their system lacks the needed transparency? They fold their arms in defiance and blame the one who can discern the changes for being delusional and easily influenced by opinion.

    Those who can not hear any difference in break in? Personally, I would try to avoid accepting an invite to hear their system. For their position would guarantee that it must be dulling the sound. For, how can a sufficiently transparent system not reveal such differences? By denying its reality they are denying themselves of their opportunity to grow and learn from others about improving their system in other ways.

  8. My most recent experience of changes from new (running/breaking in) was with a PS DSJ. Despite having adequate time to warm up I was initially quite underwhelmed with the sound relative to my my much loved CD payer, an Audia Flight. As days went past the differences between the two DACs became less in terms of detail and definition. After more than 100hrs of running the DSJ (mostly without listening!) there are still distinct differences in presentation but not in quality. Both are now very acceptable and provide an enjoyable way of exploring music. This was not so to begin with.
    My personal conclusion is that it is not the ears learning but the equipment changing.
    I have had very similiar expeiences with loud speakers, where (2) new drive units showed a distinct step change in delivery after a week or so, and obvious as the left one 'came up' before the right! (Lowther DX3 to DX4 for the curious). The physical causes here are less surprising, but of the two the DSJ change was more dramatic, though gradual.

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