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Whether you bought a subwoofer for a sound system or for your car’s audio, you are going to hear that you need to “break in” your sub. But do you really need to? And if so, what is the best way to break in a subwoofer?
To break in a subwoofer properly, use a 3-step process. Breaking in your subwoofer loosens the stiff spider components. The first step is a short moderate volume break in Follow that with a longer break-in at full volume. Step three is a final break in over 10-12 hours.
Breaking in a subwoofer is not a difficult process, but you will never know it if you just listen to those who say you don’t have to break in your sub. We will explain how and why you should do so in this post.
Check out my article on why subwoofers should have a break-in period.
How Should You Break in a Subwoofer?
We are first going to explain how to break in a subwoofer for a sound system. Afterward, we will discuss different options for breaking in car subwoofers.
Once you get the subwoofer home, do not plug it in and turn it up to max volume. Even if you do not damage the sub, you will not get maximum performance from it by doing so. Instead, follow this five-step process:
Check the Connections
In the excitement of getting your new equipment, it’s easy to make a mistake in hooking up your new subwoofers. For example, you ideally want 16-gauge speaker cables. Also, speakers need to be connected in phase. And you definitely don’t want to short out your amp. These your subwoofers will be worthless.
Find a Recording to Loop
When you look for something to break in your subwoofer, you want a piece with constant and repetitive deep bass. Even if you like the percussive intro to Beethoven’s fifth, you need something with a deeper and regular beat. A reggae tune is a great option. Just make sure there is enough bass that the driver has to move.
You might hear some people suggest you use “pink noise.” However, since the driver creates bass by displacing energy, you need music that will force the driver to work.
Play On Moderate Volume
Play the tune you have selected for fifteen or twenty minutes at a moderate volume. This allows the driver to adjust to the amp and begin the warm up phase. This gives the resins in suspension components to begin the loosening up process.
Do a Full Break In
Time to get a little louder. Play it at twice the moderate volume for around two hours. If you leave during that time, when you return, you will hear that the subs are louder. That is because the mechanical components, which we’ll discuss later, are becoming more flexible.
The Final Break In
Final Break In. A final 10-12 hour of playing at a moderate level will complete the process. This additional working time can provide you with an additional 1 to 2 db of gain.
How to Break in a Car Subwoofer?
You will need a few things before you start. First, the power load to your speakers needs to be adequate for your subwoofers. Second, find music that has lots of low-level bass.
Breaking in a subwoofer can be done the easy way or the hard way. Let’s start with the easy way first. It’s a commonly used method because of its simplicity.
- Mount the subwoofers in your car.
- Play tracks you like for a week or two (or about 12 hours of playtime). Keep the volume at a moderate level.
- As you do this, the suspension in your sub will have increased flexibility. You will notice that your sub plays louder at the same volume. That is a function of the lower Fs.
- In a couple of weeks, set your gains and then blast away.
The easy method will break in your sub without you having to do much—except be patient.
Free Air Method
If you are not that patient, this option will let you break in your sub in a day. You will need a tone generator app. Check the Google app or Apple store for one. You also need an external amplifier and a jack that will let you connect your phone to the app.
Mount your subwoofer to a flat piece of wood and place it between two chairs. You want them to be able to move freely (free air). Before you start the break in process, weigh down the board so it will not move.
Set your generator app to play a low-frequency tone (30 hertz is good) and play it for a few hours at a low volume. Increase the volume every few hours until you have a good excursion. Continue this process for the next 24 hours.
To make this work, you will need access to enough power to run the amp and speakers. An amp power converter takes the ac power coming from your house and converts it to the 12 volts direct current needed to charge car batteries.
To get a better idea of how to do this and what it looks like, check out this video:
Do You Need to Break in a Subwoofer?
To answer that question, you should first understand the different parts of a subwoofer. There are several key parts, and knowing how they interact is key to understanding why you should not just crank up the bass after the sub is installed.
- Voice Coil. The coil, which is a cylinder with wire, usually copper, takes the incoming signal and reacts with the magnetic field. This reaction creates movement in the cone, and this movement creates sound. When they work hard, the coil can get hot enough to burn wires, melt glue, or deform the cylinder.
- Spider. This flexible ring performs two functions—keeping the voice coil aligned and supporting the cone of the sub to the frame. A spider can tear or become deformed if it is forced to move faster than it was designed to.
- Cone. Cones are initially rigid and need to be loosened to perform at their best.
- Surround. This ring needs to be flexible enough to hold the cone to the frame and give it the flexibility to move. A ring that does not have enough flexibility can tear off the cone.
There are other parts of a subwoofer, such as the backplate, the voice coil gap, and the basket, but they are not key to understanding why a subwoofer should be broken in. Instead, elements of each of those parts need to be loosened and made more flexible gradually. The breaking in process is designed to allow each of those components to gradually become flexible.
Think of it like warming up before you exercise. Once you stretch the muscles, they are less likely to tear or become injured. The same is true for your subwoofer. When a sub comes off the assembly line, its spider is stiff. The resins begin to soften, the woven fibers of the spider begin to stretch, and the surround becomes more pliant.
So one reason to break in a subwoofer is to prevent damage to the components by loosening them up first. However, there is another reason, and we will discuss that next.
Improved Sound Quality
Breaking in a subwoofer also improves its performance. To understand how that works, you need a basic understanding of some key concepts.
- Free-air resonance. Also called resonant frequency or Fs, refers to the frequency when the voice coil and the cone move most freely. The weight of the cone and voice coil (the moving mass) and the stiffness of the other key pieces—spider and surround—influence the free-air resonance.
- Excursion. The distance the cone travels from its resting position.
A simplified way of thinking about this is that the free-air resonance is the power required to move the cone. A properly broken-in subwoofer requires less power to get more excursion. The driver in most subwoofers will not allow the production of frequencies lower than the free-air resonance. If you can lower the resonance, you increase the frequency range.
How Much Improvement Will I See?
Although no one can guarantee what you will see from your subwoofer. REL reports that they typically measure 4-6 dB additional gain and an extra half octave range on their subs after they are broken in. The 123Toid YouTube channel did a test, and one thing they noticed based on their data was that breaking in a subwoofer also affects the size of the box you will need to build.
Why Do Some Say Subwoofers Don’t Need to Be Broken In?
This is an excellent question. Regardless of the data or YouTube videos that show increased excursion and increased range in lower notes, some people claim that subwoofers can be played at full volume right away. These are a few reasons people give:
- The speakers are broken in at the factory when the drivers are tested. This assumes that 1) the speakers are tested, 2) the test is at max output, and 3) the test is done long enough to truly stretch the spider. These do not seem reasonable assumptions.
- You need to adjust your ears to the sound. The idea here is that once you get used to the sound, the speaker is broken in. This argument assumes that your ear is capable of measuring hertz output.
- Speaker companies started the myth so that people would return fewer speakers.
Most likely, there is an unstated reason—impatience. Some people, after ordering the speakers, building the enclosure, and modifying the car so it could handle the additional power, don’t want to wait any longer to let the subs blast away.
What Happens if I Do Not Break in a Subwoofer?
Maxing out your subwoofer as soon as you get it installed will lead to a shorter lifespan for your sub and unwanted distortion. Often people who don’t break in their subwoofers run into these problems:
- Damaged Suspension. The increased strain caused by pushing your subs too early strains the entire system. A damaged suspension leads to a higher risk of tearing the suspension from the basket.
- Burned Coil. Without proper cone excursion, the coil will heat up quickly. The limited excursion also keeps the coil from having enough room to let the heat dissipate. The increased build-up of heat increases the risk that the voice coils will be burned.
What Else Can Damage a Subwoofer?
Let’s say that you broke in your subwoofer, but the sound quality decreases the more you play it. If you begin to hear distortion, there are several other things you could be doing wrong.
One of them is incorrectly setting the amplifier’s gain. First, set your amp’s gain to low while you play some music. Increase the volume on the receiver, and when you hear distortion, lower the volume until the distortion is gone. You have now found the maximum volume on your receiver.
Keep the music playing on maximum while you turn up the gain. When you hear distortion, lower the gain until the distortion is gone. You have now set the amp gain. As long as you do not go over the max volume, you should not hear distortion.
Other Common Mistakes People Make When Installing Car Woofers
Making sure that speakers have matching polarity is important for getting superior sound quality. If the polarity is reversed on a speaker, then it will be working against its matching speaker. While one speaker drives out, the other one will drive in, which means they will be working against each other.
- Integration Piece. Proper polarity is not limited just to the speakers. The integration piece, like the line output convertor, also needs to have the correct polarity.
- Incorrect Wiring in Speaker. If you have checked and polarity is good throughout, another problem can be the speaker was incorrectly wired at the factory. Sometimes the positive and negative terminals will be labeled incorrectly. Use a polarity test tool like the AUTUT Polarity Tester Phasemeter (Amazon) to ensure this is not the problem.
Let’s say your subwoofer is playing in the 20-80 hertz range, and sounds above 80 are played by other speakers. Since the subwoofer and the speakers are not in the same location in the car, the sound waves will work against each other. Here are a few solutions for that problem:
- Reverse polarity. The subwoofers and speakers do not all need to have the same polarity. Instead, like speakers need to have matching polarity. Sometimes reversing polarity on the subwoofers can correct. Switching the subwoofer phase can correct phase issues.
- Move subwoofer. Experiment with the placement of your subwoofer within the vehicle before you permanently install it.
- Digital Signal Processor. A processor (DSP) such as the AudioControl DQDX Digital Signal Processor (Amazon) will allow you to delay the front speakers so sound from your subwoofers can reach the front of the car. Delaying the sound is called time alignment. Since these processors can be expensive, try the other two methods first.
Subwoofer Enclosure Type and Installation
The type of enclosure you use for your subwoofer, how it is built, and how you install it can cause phase issues. For example, a ported subwoofer box usually has a better output for many, but not all subs. Before building a subwoofer box, you need to consider the frequency response for the subwoofer.
- Construction of box. A box that is not sealed well will allow in excess air. Air should only enter the box through the port. When you are constructing the box, make sure that cuts are straight and accurate. Have plenty of caulk on hand when you put the box together so that all the corners can be sealed up.
- Bracing. If the subwoofers are not braced within the box. A box that can be compressed and flexed by a strong subwoofer will affect the sub’s output.
- Secured box. A box that is not secured to your vehicle will lose acoustical energy.
SubBox has created a subwoofer box design software that you can check out.
Bad System Design
Your equipment needs to work together for maximum output. For example, if you have a powerful, beefy subwoofer but an average amplifier, you will not get full output from your woofers. Your power source and delivery system also needed to be able to handle the power your system will require.
Although some argue that subwoofers don’t need to be broken in, most experts will tell you that you should. Breaking in a subwoofer allows the sub to develop maximum extrusion while at the same time lowering the amount of power your subs will need, giving you more volume with less power while increasing their range.
If you don’t break them in, you take the chance that you will damage important components of the woofer, including the cone, spider, and surround. You also take the risk of burning the coil.
Since the process of breaking in a subwoofer is simple, why wouldn’t you? Even if you assume it isn’t needed, consider breaking it in as an insurance policy. If it isn’t needed, you just waited a little longer before you rattled some windows. But if your subs become damaged because you couldn’t wait, then you’ll be waiting for new subs.
Check out my recommended subwoofers for home theater.