Equipment break in is a hot topic in the high-end. We get a new piece of audio gear and it sounds “stiff” unyielding and “new”. So we run it in and wait for a few weeks before passing final judgment. The question is asked all the time: what is breaking in, the equipment or me? The analytical side of us wants to scoff at this idea while the emotional empirical side is convinced it’s real. Which is it?
I suppose the answer is both, to some extent, but completely dependent on what it is we’re talking about.
What’s interesting is when we can easily understand the mechanism of change we believe it both intellectually and emotionally.
Speakers, for example, actually are mechanically stiff and their surrounds need to be broken in. Phono cartridges, the same. We understand that anything mechanical needs break in time. Intellectually that makes sense to us and we accept it without question.
But what about something electronic? We know that electronic systems change over time, from capacitors forming to thermal changes to individual components, but are these changes substantial enough to be heard? I suppose here we have to dig a little deeper and make a distinction between electronics we lightly interface with and ones we deeply interface with.
We know that electronics we lightly interface with, such as an appliance like a computer, do change over time but we don’t worry about breaking them in. The changes in the electronics that are occurring over time don’t register with us. (Side note: computers perform worse over time because their memories and operating systems get corrupted – it’s why rebooting helps in many cases – memories and buffers are cleared and cleaned and start fresh again). Whatever small changes may occur in the electronics themselves are perhaps too small to be perceived by our analytical side.
But electronics that interface directly with our deepest emotions, like a high-end audio system, connect our emotional brain with the music. When this happens, even the tiniest change in the electronics can make noticeable changes over time to our emotional responses to the music. This is because when we connect on an emotional level, our analytical side recedes into the background and our auditory and senses are sharpened. We actually engage an entirely different part of our psyche; one that is very different than our light interface model.
As engineers we have a small understanding of some of the parameters that are changing in the electronics and may cause us to hear these small changes over break in periods. But we cannot prove there’s a difference and blind A/B tests always fail us because they are trying to reduce the emotional bonds we have with the interface. You cannot expect an analytical style test to work with an emotional style issue because they are very different parts of our brains.
Bottom line. If you sense a change over time, it is probably real and that change most likely happens to both you and the equipment. Sensitive little buggers, aren’t we?