Subwoofer Break-In: Dispelling the Myth
The other day, I was looking up subwoofers for an article I was writing. I came across a brand that I’ve only really heard about in adverts on places like YouTube. So I decided to check them out. Within a couple of minutes, I left that site vowing never to recommend those subwoofers to anyone. Why? Because they claimed that their subwoofers (and all subwoofers and speakers for that matter) needed to be broken in. I thought this old myth was dead. But apparently not. So, for those that haven’t heard, Subwoofer break-in is a myth with no subjective or objective data to back it up.
What is “Break-In?”
“Break-in” of a subwoofer or any piece of AV gear is referring to running the gear for a certain length of time before it will reach optimal performance. This is always a one-time thing that you need to do as soon as you take the speaker or component out of the box. They’ll have all sorts of reasons why break-in is a thing. With subwoofers, break-in usually refers to the different parts of the driver (the surround and spider specifically) that need to stretch and loosen. In other AV gear it may be that components need to warm up (physically). Sometimes, as is the case with speaker cables, it just is a thing that needs to happen and no one knows why it works. They’ll handwave some science terms around in a configuration that sounds vaguely scientific (“aligning the electrons in the conductor” for example), but it is all nonsense. Modern electronics and gear NEVER need a break-in period. But did they ever?
Author’s Note: The only real exception to this rule is projector bulbs. Projectors bulbs can and do change their performance over the first few hours of life. Most calibrators will say to wait at least 50-100 hours so that any changes can settle in. Usually a dimming of the light output and some color shift.
Let Me Tell You A Story…
As with many AV myths and legends, they all started in the past. When we really didn’t know what we were doing when we built AV gear. Break-in back then (and this was long before subwoofers were introduced so we are mostly talking about electronics) could more accurately be described as “warm-up.” Amplifiers in those days used vacuum tubes. These tubes needed to warm up in order to work…at all. They literally wouldn’t work if they weren’t hot enough. They could also come with contaminates on the outside the would burn off during the first few hours of use. Most modern tubes come “pre-burnt” and are ready to go.
Psychology At Play
The real issue here is that it sort of makes sense that things need to warm up or be broken in before using them the first time. You don’t buy a new car and slam the accelerator to the floor the minute you get into it. You slowly increase the speed until you are comfortable that you, and the car, can handle all the power you are giving it. But the fact is that the car really doesn’t care. You could slam the pedal down it is would be just fine. Even in cold weather (another myth that won’t die), it is fine. You are the only one that is uncomfortable slamming that pedal down. And we (the rest of the drivers on the road) thank you for it.
When someone suggests that a speaker or subwoofer needs a break-in period, it creates doubt in your mind. Could it be true? If it is, what are the consequences? More importantly, what is the cost of the break-in period? With most gear, the rumors are a couple of hours to a couple of days. That’s not a high cost. You just let them play a little bit before you start to evaluate them too closely. But that really leads down a dark road.
Author’s Note: The components within a speaker don’t need any time to stretch to perform optimally. If they did, they’d continue to stretch throughout their lives. But no one says that, do they? The same people that tout the benefits of break-in never talk about break-down. Because if normal use of a device changes its operation, then there should be wear and tear that will eventually break it. And since 20 year old speakers can break down, no one ever claims that it is the same mechanism that breaks them in. That’s because break-in is a myth.
Where Your Wallet Gets Involved
People that have been in the AV game know that break-in of subwoofers or speakers is a myth. We’ve known it for a long time. All the components within a speaker don’t need any time to stretch to perform optimally. But some manufacturers like to promote a break-in period for two main reasons.
First, the longer you live with a new piece of gear, the more likely you’ll end up with a positive outlook. In the first few days of owning gear, especially something complicated like a receiver, it can take a while to figure everything out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard or read of people buying some gear, getting frustrated with it, and immediately returning it. By adding in a “break-in” period, it forces people to spend more time with the gear. More time will often lead to fewer returns.
But do you know what really helps lower returns? When you make the break-in period so long that the warranty can potentially expire. We’ve seen it before. Hundreds if not thousands of hours of continuous play before a speaker or subwoofer’s break-in period has expired. For many users, that puts them well past the 90 day return period. Could be a coincidence? Sure. Or a flagrant money grab. You decided.
Subwoofer Break-in is a Myth
Subwoofers and other AV components these days don’t need a break-in period. Their components and parts are either scientifically incapable of breaking-in (like solid-state components) or simply don’t need any extra time to perform optimally. The components of a driver, like the spider and surround that many people worry about needing to be “broken-in,” are stretched and flexed during construction. Any additional break-in is unnecessary. They will sound exactly the same from minute one to minute one thousand!