Do different sound signatures grow on you?

First official post here after being in forum purgatory for a while.

Basic question is this… Why do some headphones (HFM HE 4XX) sound great to me on my first listen and others (LCD-1) seem dull and lifeless and almost veiled for couple of songs and then miraculously become clearer and fuller? I don’t quite get it. I’m assuming that somehow my brain gets accustomed to the sound somehow but it still doesn’t make sense to me.

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That is an interesting question. Tonight I found that when I switched from one headphone to another (Focal Stellia to Campfire Audio Solaris 2020), at first the Solaris 2020 sounded “dull and lifeless”, but after just a few songs they sound great again. So my brain must be adapting to the different presentation - in this case going from full size headphones to iems. This is a phenomenon that I have noticed before, but your question piqued my interest. There must be a scientific explanation.

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I think we all have good and bad listening days. Some days even my best headphones aren’t getting me there.

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I definitely have to agree with this. Some days no matter what gear I use and in what combination I just don’t get the experience I have on others. I put this down to my Sinuses and whole hearing system, for want of a better description.

I suffer with Sinus problems and think that blockages occur in the tubes or whatever and this affects the music/sound. That’s my personal experience anyway. There are obviously other factors involved too such as mood, tiredness, be it mental or physical. I’m sure there are more but you get where I’m going. Great discussion you the way.

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I find that somedays certain sound signatures appeal to me and others they don’t.

I also find that when I am not feeling inspired by the sound, some random skipping of tracks usually ends up on something that does inspire me.

However, there are days when I just can’t get into the groove with what I am using at that moment. Silence also sounds great now and again :wink:

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Two independent possibilities here:

Body and Physiology

  • Natural Sensitivities - ear shapes, internal anatomy, and receptors vary between people; some devices start out being ‘preferred’ by a given person
  • Training - changes in listening skill do happen with exposure. These are passively learned when listening, but genuine growth is obvious if one plays a musical instrument
  • Orientation and Fatigue - the body uses electro-chemical processes for most everything. Hearing requires a complex mix of physical transmission, nerves, and chemical neurotransmitters. The body must get the receptors and nerves working together and working efficiently. It certainly takes ME a while to stabilize, and also my perception can change or get worse over time. Sometimes the same volume setting will seem too loud after an hour or two.

Equipment Warm-up and/or Break-in

  • Equipment performance can and does change as it warms up. The changes are pretty obvious with tubes, and in my experience it can happen with planar magnetic headphones too. It’s almost as if some planar drivers need to be re-magentized or saturated before they stabilize. I experienced this regularly with my HiFiMan HE-560s, where they sounded dull if not used for a long time. After being used for a couple hours they were fine, and the next day they’d be fine too.
  • Some equipment sounds different when new, and this could be conflated with warm-up when testing a new item.
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I think brain burn in has a lot to do with it. I think it’s analogous to how our eyes behave when walking from a dark room from a bright one, and vice versa. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the nuances.

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This has generally been my experience, especially the training part. What sounds “right” to me now is pretty different than what sounded right to me when I first started with more audiophile grade stuff. Part to “you don’t know what you don’t know” and part a refinement of palate.

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I never fail to be flummoxed by the HD 6XX: these headphones always sound off to me when I first put them on. The slightly muffled (or veiled) sound accounts for this, as does their laid-back quality and mid-bass hump. In other words, these characteristics immediately strike me as departures from what the music should sound like - at least, according to my expectations. But, at the same time, the timbre of instruments sounds right. So, my brain is dealing simultaneously with contradictory signals; something right and something wrong. My guess is that the brain moves swiftly to raise flags about somethings being off but then latches on to what’s right and gradually adjusts to the deviations from “accurate” sound to the point where you forget their “inaccuracies.” Only with practice and critical listening - and reading the forums! - can I begin to be conscious of what these things are.

I also suspect that expectations have a lot to do with this: with a closed-back, bassy headphone like my TH-X00 Ebony, the bass always comes across as a bit of a surprise. But, then again, I think I adjust pretty quickly to them because I don’t expect them to be “realistic.” By contrast, my go-to headphones these past few months, the Focal Clear, immediately sound right to me. As a listening session wears on, though, I begin to notice a few things that sound slightly artificial (a bit of bass heft, for instance, or a slightly steely or glassy quality to the treble).

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This may be analogous to what happens in vision, where the brain fills in missing parts of the vision caused by the “blind spot” where the optic nerve connects to the retina. Perhaps a similar phenomenon occurs where the brain “fills in” part of the auditory signal with the expected/desired sound pattern. I do know that over time, my appreciation for the sound from my iems increases. This must be what we call “brain-burn”.

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This is known and has been thoroughly researched. Please see the links below on auditory masking. The auditory system and brain can only process the dominant signal (or, can only process dominant signals very well). Back in the 1980s and 1990s this research was used to guide audio compression algorithms such as MP3 and Sony’s ATRAC in the MiniDisc system.

This is one reason why some people don’t care about audiophile grade sources or equipment.


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Wow, thank you! This is really interesting, and should be read by anyone who considers themselves to be an audiophile or who has a passion for audio quality.

I was also interested in learning about the “training effect” which tends to increase “trained or expert” individuals’ sensitivity to higher resolution audio.

trained or “expert” listeners are able to discriminate standard and high resolution audio recordings about 60% of the time

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I really wondered the same thing about if I could “hear” the difference between Spotify’s “high” setting and Amazon HD. Believe that spotify maxes out at 320 kb/s and Amazon HD does FLAC at CD or higher resolution and I could tell a difference. Not a significant difference but I could definitely hear a difference on the same set of headphones going back and forth between the two. It was subtle but if I had to describe it, Amazon HD was just… more. More nuanced high and low end. More detailed voices. I’m no expert, but in a quiet room I was able to pick out the high res files vs. MP3. I found a blind test on a website that I can’t remember. I was right 3/4 times. So I dropped spotify and now have Amazon HD. In the car it doesn’t matter with road and wind noise but at my computer I can tell. It’s only $3/month more so I figured what the heck.

Changing gears to my original question, it still amazes me how the sound just opens up and sounds more clear and detailed after a few songs. It weirds me out a bit but it is also kind of fun to wait for it.

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IMO @generic is all over this topic. We each tend to focus on our subjective experience of the senses, but forget that perception is in all cases a brain-mediated event. Hearing, vision, taste, and touch only occur thanks to a considerably amount of neural processing.

It’s a deep topic, but suffice to say that for all the senses, the brain posits a model of what the perceived impulses signify & represent, based on cognitive experience as well as primordial stuff like flight or fight, arousal levels, and intensity of stimuli. Simply changing the input stimuli in some way (ie, change headphones) does not result in instantaneous brain recognition & classification of the new stimuli. There’s a bit of lag time while stimuli are associated with the model and made sense of.

An especially graphic example of this is phantom limb pain (arising in the amputated/no longer present limb). This is an artifact of an enduring kinesthetic model (“what my body looks & feels like”) that develops starting in infancy and guides proprioception, movement, etc (and is thus relatively resistant to quick changes).

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Wow. Great explanation. @pharmaboy making the layman understand. Thanks for the input and analogy. Very well put.

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Each time I buy headphones I have terrible doubts for the first few days, then I start to experience what people describe with “burn in”. It seems to me the headphones are objectively opening up, becoming clearer, the bass is tightening, all the usual things people describe about burn-in. Thing is, this happens just as much with used headphones as with new ones. I know it has to be my brain adjusting. but it feels like a real change in the sound.

I always felt like each headphone (or other audio component) speaks a language, and you have to learn the language before you can really appreciate music through it. That’s why it takes time to tell whether you like a headphone. Your comment gives a bit more substance to this hunch: to learn the headphone’s language is to learn how to map somewhat unfamiliar stimuli onto familiar musical structures. And unfamiliar stimuli can be disorientating and confusing at first. More than once I’ve started out with new headphones wondering, “How can all those people have been so enthusiastic about this?” And two weeks later I love it.

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I would definitely agree. I have the same impression if there is a headphone that I haven’t listened to for a long while. When I go back to it, there is a similar (but shorter) adaptation period before it sounds as good as it did after the first burn-in. My first impression is “these don’t sound as good as I remember”, but after a while they sound great again. I surmise that there are two parts to burn-in: hardware burn-in, and “brain-burn”. In my experience, both are real, both are relevant factors.

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