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Can the sound of headphones change as they age? This and other aspects of small changes

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by bcaulf17, Oct 3, 2019.
  1. bcaulf17
    I was sitting today and wondering...don’t know why I thought of it but I thought it was a good question; can headphones change the way they sound as they get older, and if they do are the changes noticeable? I’m not talking about the burn in theory; I mean a headphone that’s gotten about 5 years old. Is it possible for the drivers to tire out, and if they did how would you tell?

    I also have a new pair or headphones that only fits in their travel case if I unplug the cable from its connector so I have to unplug them and plug them in almost every day. Could doing this enough cause damage and again, would there be anything other than static or silence that would dictate it? The connector “shuttle” to the headphone can also be turned slightly counter clockwise. It was pretty easy to do and when I first did it I thought I broke them but they seemed to play fine. I did this again with music playing and turned it back and forth and didn’t notice any change in the sound but again, I’m just wondering if small little things like this could eventually make a change and display a sign of wear. I assume you really wouldn’t get any difference in sound overall because the cable and connector has nothing to do with the driver right?

    Just kind of wondering about this...
    courierdriver likes this.
  2. bfreedma
    Ear pads certainly age over time. I suspect changes in pads would obfuscate any other age related changes.
  3. bcaulf17
    Yes, I have heard of this, but I don’t think it’s happened to any of my headphones yet. I assume the sound starts to get a little flat, like the pads themselves!

    I don’t know why, I always had a weird feeling that doing things with cables could affect sound quality too. Plugging them in a certain way, cables kinking. Even though I know that’s not true, I’m just crazy haha. Just one of those weird placebo things to me.
  4. bigshot
    I doubt if sound changes incrementally. It's more likely that it will fail big when you drop it, the internal wiring shorts out, or the materials start to turn to dust. In any case, if you take care of them, they should last for a couple of decades at least. I have a set of Sennheisers I bought in 1980 and they still sound fine.
    bcaulf17 and courierdriver like this.
  5. courierdriver
    Headphones can and do change in sound as they get older, in my experience. They are like speakers in a home hifi system. Same properties apply. Except with speakers, it's easier to change the components because they are bigger. Not so much with headphones or iems. If soldering is required (and you don't have the skillz, patience or eyesight to do it) that could be a problem. Breakdown of SQ happens when drivers become brittle and old. Surrounds fail, driver baskets crack, crossovers get oxidized and solder joints get weak with age and use. Much of the cause (beyond repetitive frequent use) is environment. If you live in a warm, humid environment, your gear will be adversely affected. If you live in a very dry environment, the same also applies. Most manufacturers state in their instruction manual, at what their recommended perimeters of temperature and humidity that their products will perform optimally. I suggest that if someone is looking to preserve their headphones for longevity and SQ, that they store their gear in a case when not in use, and purchase some rechargeable silica packets to store inside their cases with the headphones or earphones. These rechargeable silica packets are cheap, can be dried out in a microwave oven, and help keep the headphones dry and in optimal condition. Again, time will eventually erode a transducer's SQ...but taking preventive steps can make a huge difference. By better controlling the environment that the headphones are used in, the better the chances of having them perform like when they were younger.
  6. bigshot
    I’ve never had speakers or headphones degrade. I’ve only had them fail completely and not in a subtle way. My main speakers date back to 1974, and the still work perfectly. They’re JBLs with cloth surrounds. Foam surrounds deteriorate faster.

    also excursion is what makes foam surrounds fail. Headphones don’t have much excursion at all. The driver material would have to crack, and I’ve never seen that happen.
    Last edited: Oct 4, 2019
    bcaulf17 likes this.
  7. castleofargh Contributor
    anytime you unplug the cable, you violently carve atoms out of the surface of the plugs. :skull:
    the magnets in the headphone lose their strength over time(the rate is no fun).

    more seriously and at a level more relevant to human hearing, in my limited experience, the pads were what changed the most and the fastest. the change in sound can be in the low end because of a better seal around the ear. it can be a change in signature from the pad compression, placing the driver closer to the ear. those might not be noticed because of how progressively those changes occur over time, but the change itself between the original response and after a bunch of minutes, hours, month(depending on material and original stiffness) will usually reach audible amplitude in a direct A/B comparison.
    logically, placing the headphone a little differently on your head will also result is similar types of changes and as the change is more immediate, if you can hardly notice those, the rest probably won't matter much. keeping in mind that some headphones are more placement dependent than others. I have yet to measure a headphone where those aren't the most significant changes over time in term of audibility.
    I imagine that some materials simply can't stay as they are for decades(glue, plastics, maybe even the diaphragm itself). I would argue that any designer with half a brain would try to use materials that do have long term stability unless they have joined in the programmed obsolescence model or they're simply too new as a manufacturer to know what the old guns have known for decades.
    honestly I don't really know how I could even go about testing something like that. intuitively I would imagine that off axis acceleration applied on the diaphragm may be the worst thing that could happen to a dynamic driver(beside being pushed too loud), but I have no facts to offer on this. again I'm sure that big manufacturers with a big research department have plenty of data on this for their products, but I'm not those guys and they probably can't talk about it. I would bet on transporting the headphone and maybe dropping it on the floor a few times, as a good potential contender for degradation, maybe UV light or humidity could be in the race depending on materials used? but clearly those stuff are going to be model specific, so who knows? not me ^_^.
    if an acoustic filter is involved(some piece of clothing or a sort of coffee filter), those act on the sound in a way define by how much air flow they oppose. so obviously if they get real dirty over times, a damping value will increase. how much and how big a role it plays on the headphone design is another story. for IEMs the filter being smaller and often in between us and the driver, getting one dirty has a bigger and more obvious impact.

    about moving the cable around, again it depends. obviously not all cables are born equal, and not all of them will handle the test of the office chair rolling over it with maybe half of your own weight and come out 100% the same. plugs are also not all equal when it comes to torture. but I don't know if that counts as "getting older" for a headphone? if so, I've certainly "aged" many portable audio devices and cables over the years:sob:. with a number of them getting right to audio cemetery in one violent move or by sitting on a DAP and using the plug as a lever between the sit and my butt to break stuff.
    and some clearly don't like sunlight or extremely cold temperatures. I'm not in a place where extremely cold is a thing(yet), so I only have anecdotes from my travels and looking stupid with my IEM cable being all stiff because I didn't keep it under my clothes, then being stupid by deciding to try and bend it anyway. the insulation didn't like that.
  8. bcaulf17
    Nice response (from everyone) and much appreciated. Little concerning that I’m causing a bit of destruction to the cable every time I unplug it...how will I know if it or the connector is busted? Static, drop outs, no sound at all?
  9. bigshot
    Yes. A bad plug would create static and drop outs as you wiggle it around. If that happens, just cut the plug off and replace it with a new one.
  10. bcaulf17
    Thanks! My new headphone is a 4 pin and it’s Beyerdynamic so hopefully it lives up to their build!

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