Breaking It In
Sound &Vision and other audio magazine product reviewers often mention a break-in period before evaluating speakers, and I’m curious how this procedure is accomplished. Are speakers simply left on playing content at a moderate level for a period of time? If so, how long is enough, and are other electronics also given a similar treatment before evaluation?
James Mitchell Via e-mail
The need for product break-in is well accepted in the high-end audio community, where listeners claim sometimes quite significant improvements in sound quality over time.
But the subject has always been somewhat controversial, with the more objective camp dismissing the notion outright or claiming that the differences in pre- and post-break-in sonics are overstated. In our pages, you’ll sometimes see our reviewers mentioning the break-in of speakers, which are, after all, electromechanical devices with moving parts required to compress air, whether these are piston-like cones (typically attached with a flexible spider at the voice coil and a surround at the perimeter) or a film- or ribbon-based diaphragm. With thousands of readers counting on our opinion, it’s only logical (and fair to the manufacturer) that our review samples should be loosened up for at least a few days before any serious evaluation is done. There’s no real formula for it other than to run some steady content through the pipes for as many hours as you can at moderate to loud volume. The speakers don’t need to be played continuously, though a reviewer might just do that to clock hours faster and get on to the work at hand. You can loop full-spectrum pink noise from a disc or digital file, which works the broad range of frequencies, or just put on some favorite content that ideally has a bit of bass energy to help engage the woofers. For a plain old audiophile bringing new speakers home, just enjoying them over time will break them in, and if you’re an experienced listener, you might hear them evolve as they settle.
The value of a break-in period for electronics is more questionable. Competently designed audio electronics, by nature, will never show the same potential differences in sound quality you get with transducers like loudspeakers or phono cartridges. From time to time, you’ll see a review in S&V that mentions a perceived change after an initial listening period. My view on break-in for electronics has been the same as that for audiophile cables: My experience is that it depends very much on the system and the component under test. High-end systems that display powerful resolution tend to make differences more obvious for experienced listeners. But while I do believe firmly that electronic components can have their own sound, made all the more evident by the quality of the system around them, hearing a singular piece of electronics evolve over time in any meaningful way (beyond what might occur during the initial warm-up after turning it on) tends to be rare. An exception is tube gear, which requires adjustments as the tubes age to maintain optimal performance.—RS