Break-In & Burn-In Versus Broken & Burnt Out

Brand new speakers are well known for not performing their best until they have been “burnt-in” or “broken-in.” This is true for all mechanical systems such as turntables, phono cartridges, CD players and even sports cars. Reviewers and new buyers of Ohm Walsh speakers have often commented how it took hours of listening to many kinds of music, listening from different locations for several weeks until the speakers seemed to ”click” into place. That day the speakers seemed to disappear and only the music was left to enjoy.

People often ask me how long they should run the Walsh speakers before they do serious evaluation. They are asking an important question and it deserves a thoughtful answer. I have learned to ask a number of qualifying questions:

  1. When was the last time you attended a concert when the performers did not use microphones? The answer lets me know if and usually what “raw” music they are familiar with as compared to “processed” music, heard through electronics and speakers (or recorded music). If they have been to a recent performance, I follow up with “How often do you attend live concerts without sound reinforcement?” That tells me how familiar they are with “raw” music.
  2. What kind of music do you listen to the most of the time? This gives me an estimation of frequency range and dynamic range the system will need to achieve.
  3. How loudly do you like the system to usually play? …at the loudest? How big is the room and how far are you sitting from the speakers? This information tells me how loudly the speakers need to play and at what level they should sound the most accurate.
  4. What speakers have you been listening to for the last few years?

The answers to these questions allow me to tailor my answer to their specific needs. Recently, I discussed listening outside the room. Although an informative test, this method is never the way to break-in or burn-in any speakers. You should always be in the room and have the speakers at no higher sound level than you would normally play. As a sports car can go faster when it is fully burnt-in, the time for maximum sound levels is once the speakers are already working at their best.

In the very rare cases when their prior speakers were full-range electrostatics like KLH Nine or Quads, I recommend they do a lot of placement experiments before serious evaluations. Dipoles interact with the room in an entirely different way than the mono-pole Ohm Walsh. The proper placement and listening positions will almost never be the same for both style speakers. The room/speaker interaction is going to overpower and qualitative difference in performance. For these listeners, they should first find the spot where the Ohm’s image like the electrostatics. Next confirm the wide “Sweet-Sweep” of the Ohms. Then confirm the intelligibility of human voices. Then it is time to do serious evaluations.

The drastically different radiation patterns of monopole and dipole speakers interact with your room in very different ways. It is possible to get them to sound very similar, but it takes very different placement to do so.

In the less rare (but still usual) cases where they are musicians listen to “raw” music every day, it is easy: start evaluating immediately after getting the placement optimized for imaging, “sweet-sweep” and intelligibility. Listeners familiar with “raw” music will find the difference between new and broken-in Walshs is small compared to the difference between music played through conventional boxes and through Ohm Walshs. They can start enjoying music immediately.

For the majority of listeners (experienced with box speakers) I recommend they do their room placement work at the level where they normally listen to their music (or just slightly lower). I encourage them to use well-recorded solo voice (both female and male) for both the ‘sweet-sweep’ and Intelligibility tests.

I believe most of the burn-in period for Walsh speakers is the listener getting used to the sound of music without the coloration that all box speakers add to music. This includes the box speakers used at concerts to fill the space to the levels modern audiences expect. This box-quality is easily demonstrated (actually exaggerated) by asking a friend put their hands on either side of their mouth (the hands do not need to form a megaphone; but just be close to their mouth and touching their face). Have your friend start talking and while still talking remove their hands. Since you are accustomed to hearing their voice “raw,” adding the box edge of their hands is very obvious. Most music played through sound reinforcement speakers at live concerts also has this box quality. Unless you are used to “raw” music, full range electrostatic or Walsh speakers you will expect all music to have box quality. We find that breaking in the ears of the listener takes more time than the speakers.

Ohm once received back a pair of speakers that the consumer had described as lacking detail in the treble and as having an overall coloration. We offered to bring the drivers back to the factory and make a custom pair that would address his concerns. He did not report in any change in sound quality during the two months of his audition. We suspected it was a room/speaker interaction problem and having his evaluation and his drivers we could possibly compensate for his concerns. When the drivers came back, we were surprised to discover that buyer was correct: one driver lacked treble and the other sounded bad. Opening the drivers up we found one super-tweeter was burnt-out (not burnt-in) and the other driver was broken (rather than broken-in). This is not how they were when shipped. The speakers had been played very, very loudly for a very long time. If there had been people in the same room while they were played at these levels for this time, serious hearing damage would have taken place. So, I suspected the new Walshs had been connected, turned up very loudly and the consumer left the room allowing the speakers to burn-in without damaging his hearing. I believe he never heard the sound the way the Walshs should. It was poor communications on my part.

I learned my lesson. I now recommend everyone stay in the room during the burn-in period. This allows their ears to break-in to the Walsh’s sound character at realistic levels.

Good Listening!


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John Strohbeen Author

John Strohbeen is the president of Ohm Speakers.

John Strohbeen

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