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More than a few times I’ve run into frustration and disappointment with my sound after adding a new component, only to realize later that the root of my problem was Break-In (or lack thereof).

One of the more annoying things in audio is when you see a guy rush onto an online forum forum to write a review of a new component he’s just taken it out of the box and hooked up.  Break-in is real in the world of audio (despite the skepticism of some).  The sound of a component will change dramatically as it undergoes the break-in process and the more sophisticated the system the more you will hear the effects.

Here are some things to listen for:

  • The sound may not be too bad for the first 30 minutes, but after a few hours it’ll get progressively worse until it’s consistently lousy.  By lousy, I mean the timing will be off, the sound will seem like it’s being held back or congested and you’ll find yourself turning up the volume to try to cut through the noise and distortion.
  • Speakers with thick and stiff drivers require some intense dBs (volume) to break in.
  • Using a break-in disc for your speakers and even your components can speed the process considerably.  The disc from Isotek is very popular for this purpose and is well worth the money.  This disc also has a 5 minute rejuvenation track, which I use at almost every listening session; it cleanses the speakers, cables and components of static energy that builds up over time and frees up the sound slightly.
  • DACs can be broken in for the most part with the downstream components turned off, but for the other components, playing music is necessary.
  • A short break-in period may be needed for components that haven’t been used for a while or when hooking up cables in the opposite direction.
  • The final stage of the break-in isn’t gradual.  It’s more like breaking the back of the distortion and the sound will usually oscillate and then come into focus very swiftly.
  • Here are some typical break-in time frames: DAC (100-400hrs), speakers (100-500hrs), Amp or Preamp (100-100hrs), tube or fuse (20-50hrs), ICs (150-300hrs), speaker cables (300-500hrs).

The main thing is to be aware of the break-in issue whenever you add something new into your system.  Having the patience can be a challenge.  It’s no fun to listen to gear while it’s performance is compromised and even experienced audiophiles frequently second guess themselves about whether the break-in is complete.  Some companies will precondition their speakers or their cables and there are some devices available to break-in cables (though more expensive than most want to pay).  Still, there’s no getting around it completely and paying attention to the issue can make your life much easier.