That Old Devil Break-In

In the photo, Gloria is observing, “These two headphones appear to be identical, down to the aroma.  How can they sound SO different?”  I wondered the same thing until I remembered “break-in.”

You may have read my long piece about my journey of discovery with AudioQuest NightHawk headphones.  In it, I wonder how much of my change of opinion (to the absurdly positive) was due to the headphones changing and how much to my own change, that being in my expectations of what a headphone is supposed to do, supposed to sound like.

This past Saturday, FedEx delivered my own pair, purchased via the AQ salesman accommodation program, to my house.  Finally, my opportunity to compare a brand new pair to a well-oiled pair.  Wow!  The new pair sounds like a strong reminder of why I, we, didn’t initially like NightHawk.  The old pair is addictively difficult to remove from my head.

I know what’s going on, but I tend to require reminders from time to time of just how significant it can be.  It’s called either “break-in” or “burn-in,” the latter more appropriate for devices with no moving parts save electrons.

Everything in audio, and even video, needs time-in-use to come around to its true state of glory.  Since Saturday, I have been playing my new ‘phones continuously.  This morning, 60 hours later, I again compared my new pair to the well used one on Ken Peplowski’s gorgeous “Memories Of You” CD ripped to my NAS and played via modified Sonos Connect and AQ cables into the wonderful new Questyle CMA 800i DAC/Headphone Amp.  The salient feature of the 800i here is two 1/4″ headphone jacks so I can have both NightHawks plugged in simultaneously and simply move one off and the other on.

Two things I notice.  One, my new ones are a good deal improved by their 60 hour bath.  But, two, Ken’s beautiful reed intonation and touch on the keys are way more real sounding and present on the old pair.  And the rest of the quartet on this recording of very trad jazz is bigger, more 3D and more properly liquid, in both tonality and interplay.  Quite a bit, actually.

So the lesson, once again, is don’t judge a book by the first chapter.  In fact, to bust the analogy, here you have the ability to skip the first few chapters.  If you are weak of character and resolve, try to let new gear break, or burn, in without engaging with it too much.  NightHawk now comes with a card saying to allow 150 hours.  I’ll wager I was at least there a few months ago on the pair I finally fell in love with.  And it needn’t be spent with them on your head making you wonder if you erred.

Also, remember this applies to everything from cables to televisions.  Audio Research recommends, in writing, 600 hours on everything they make.  The Moon gear is acknowledged to take hundreds.  Oddly, a recent exception has been the Questyle, whose stuff seems to be all revved up the same day I turn it on for the first time.  Makes me wonder if the people building it might like it enough that they take each one home for a while before they ship it, just for their own pleasure.

Kaitlyn Herzog