Listener fatigue: what does it really mean?

Okay, so I used to think that listener fatigue meant that your ears just kind of got tired from listening to speakers that were overly bright. I don't have a good understanding of the make up of an ear, but I believe there are muscles in an ear that, I guess, expand and contract while we listen to music and I figured that's what it meant to have listener fatigue. Now, I'm thinking that listener fatigue is maybe more than your ears just getting tired but actually, your whole body getting tired and feeling drained. I experienced this time and time again listening to my paradigm studio's. They are somewhat bright and provide quite a bit of detail in my oppinion, so I'm wondering if, since there was such a great amount of detail coming through, that it was physically draining because I'm sitting there analyzing everything that's coming through the speakers. I would wake up and first thing in the morning, grab a cup of coffee and start listening to music (my daily routine) and 20-30 minutes later start nodding off and I couldn't figure out what was going on. I've been sitting here this morning listening to my new vandersteen's for two hours and can't get enough. I feel like I could listen all day and that I'm almost energized from listening vs. drained.

Soooo, what are your oppinions about what listener fatigue is and why it's caused?
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" Now, I'm thinking that listener fatigue is maybe more than your ears just getting tired but actually, your whole body getting tired and feeling drained."

You're not on a treadmill by any chance when you listen, are you? I find it better to go to the gym first, before listening. This allows me to prepare for the difficult trials that await me in my listening room. You may also want to have some energy drinks before listening, just to be on the safe side.
You have the right idea and are on the correct path.

The most common denominator for me is that the system does not sound natural, involving and lacks emotion/feeling.
There are many adjectives used to describe a system that can lead to fatigue, Among them: bright, harsh, lean, clinical, analytical, forward, cool/cold, sterile, un-emotional, tipped up, Hi-Fi.

When you find yourself listening for a system to do all the "Audiophile Gymnastics" it is already too late. Emotion and musicality to me should be first and foremost. Either you are listening to MUSIC or your EQUIPMENT. The equipment needs to be a window that is transparent and allows the musics to flow through it without being artificial.
B, quit over analyzing this stuff. You will soon grow tired of listening and start doing something really lame, like watching Dancing With the Stars.
Listener fatigue can be brought on in a number of ways. Here's a couple of common ones. 1) Overdrive your system by turning the volume up just a little bit too high. Most systems have a threshold volume level that is comfortable from which even a modest increase will introduce an annoying effect that reduces the pleasure of the experience to some degree. 2) Incorporating system elements that move the system to the bright side of neutral. I recall some years ago trying out a new pure silver interconnect. Nothing against silver, but this particular one was great in capturing detail but also added a hardness to the sound that I just couldn't handle.

Being involved in this hobby for over 40 years now I've seen a lot of system elements come and go. The one thing that I will not tolerate is Listener Fatigue.
I would second Brauser's suggestion that you may simply have the volume up too high. A great many audiophiles love to listen at a very high volume level, which will definitely lead to listening fatigue much quicker than listening at reasonable levels. I posted a thread several months back about volume levels and hearing loss, you might want to search for that under my moniker and check it out.
Soooo, what are your oppinions about what listener fatigue is and why it's caused?

I feel listening fatigue is a mental and/or emotional sense of being, not so much a physical issue with the ears. I find it most commonly occurs with me when my system has taken a turn towards a more resolving, clinical, analytical type of sound. Detail, detail everywhere, mental stimulation overload leads me towards shorter and shorter listening sessions. Sometimes leading me to not firing up the rig at all. The mind is burning up trying to take in all of this information and detail.

The cure is to remove the gear, cables, etc. that led to this hyper-detail sound in the first place and replace them with more musical pieces.
It's funny that I think I might be a detail freak. I love detail, but I'm not so sure that I prefer "dry" and "clinical" and I think that's actually slightly what I have. I think Jmcgrogan hit the nail on the head when he said that it's stimulation overload that sometimes leads to listener fatigue.

So this leads me to another question: can you have all the "juicy" detail, and yet have a warm sound too? I really enjoy pinpoint imaging and detail but I'm wondering now if a "musical" sound backs off the detail and pinpoint imaging that I've grown to love. I see how people can collect enough gear for two or three nice systems and end up keeping it all. It's like having the truck for camping, the sports car for track days and canyon carving, and then the luxury seden for cruising.
Over drive your amp even just a little bit and those low distortion figures will increase exponentially in some cases. In any case it's going to be distortion that causes fatigue. Usually when it's turned up loud. Odd order harmonics and IMD typically.
So this leads me to another question: can you have all the "juicy" detail, and yet have a warm sound too?

Yes, if you have two systems.

Just as your analogy with vehicles, they are designed for a certain perfomance. There are pick-up trucks and sports cars, there are detailed systems and there are musical systems. They cannot be one in the same.
Agree with Csontos, it's the distortion. The problem is, even when you get rid of as much distortion as you can, there's still a great deal of distortion in the sound. We tend to assume that's what it's supposed to sound like, that any remaining distortion must be the fault of the recording. Pop Quiz: Where on Earth does all that remaining distortion come from?

"An ordinary man has no means of deliverance." - Old audiophile axiom
The Anstendig Institute has papers on this subject you might find helpful.

check out the papers written under;

Vibrations: Natural and Mechanical

The body as a machine.

Our bodies are affected by the vibrational quality of our surroundings.

Hope this helps.
List of Possible Distortion Sources?

1. Comb filter effects

2. Tube microphonics

3. Cosmic microwave background radiation

4. Sunspot activity

5. Window vibration

6. Wall vibration

7. Floor vibration

8. Past Time coordinates embedded in recording

9. Directionality of wires, cables, fuses, etc.

10. Low pressure weather system
"It means its time to upgrade."

Good one!

But upgrade implies better or more expensive accordingly. Maybe practically its simply just time to fix things. It may cost more or less in the end than what you started with. Practically, spending more is probably part of what makes us feel better in the end, but I would not assume that.
Listener Fatigue is just your brain trying to translate something it knows is not real into something that sounds real. The hareder this is for gray matter the harder this on you. When you get to 3-4 hrs of listening still feeling good, stop spending money.
"When you get to 3-4 hrs of listening still feeling good, stop spending money."

That's pretty good advice!
I'm not going to read the prior responses because I think the issue of so-called listener fatigue is too complicated to answer with a simple post. Possible sources could start with the quality of input materials (e.g. CDs or LPs), could be tonearm and carty imcompatibility, and work its way to the speakers. Even simple downstream component incompatibility could be the culpret. Of course the easy answer may be the speakers.

As regards the issue of compatibility, there are a number of threads currently running about so called tube friendly and SS friendly speakers. The consensus seems to be that a mismatch between speakers and amps could cause an ear-ache.

Bottom lione: I wish there was a simple answer. I don't believe there is, but if one quickly trips on the solution, the problem could be easily resolved. Unfortunately, the solution may require switching out components, even though as a stand alone, the offending component may be an excellent piece of gear.

"Possible sources could start with the quality of input materials (e.g. CDs or LPs)"

I used to think this was more of a factor in the past than I do these days. I really think system related issues are a much bigger factor, though I know a lot of people find modern "louder" recordings to be a source of fatigue. That is a likely category of recordings to cause listening fatigue, but I find many modern "louder" recordings to actually be quite good, only a small % blatantly fatiguing. I wonder if some are actually designed to grate on your nerves rather than happen to come out that way.
What does it really mean?

You're tired of listening to something to a point where you have to stop. To your boss, your wife, your kids, other audiophiles, and yes, even your audio system. I'm going to use a computer analogy. Sorry about that.

Hardware: I agree with many of the other comments here. Listening too loud, a piece of gear or a cable that's too harsh will kill you. Years ago I had a pair of Hales Design Group speakers. Good speakers but power hungry. I bought a Musical Fidelity amp without listening to it because I new it had the juice and the reviews were good, and I got a great deal. (BTW: good specs + good reviews + good deal - actually listening = stupid. learned my lesson) Within 2 minutes, I knew I was in trouble because the missus says: HMM, SOUNDS REALLY BRASSY. While it had the juice to drive the speakers, dynamics, and resolve - it was a brilliant Migraine Maker and it didn't last long. Even in the background I had to turn it off. And if you're wanting to turn off background music you're in deep sh*t.

Software: Some recordings are just harsh. I love the band Big Star and I downloaded a supposedly "Redbook quality digital file" from Rhino. Their recordings are edgy to begin with, but however Rhino encoded the digital files is just so shrill that I can't listen very long, even though I love the music. Also, the type of music you listen to can have an effect. I can handle about an hour of bebop. I love Scott Walker's experimental work, but I can only take one record at a time. Try listening to Gorecki Symphony 3 twice in a row at high volume without huddling up in a corner. Which brings me to...

User error: If you're actively listening to music, you don't leave YOU behind when you sit down in your fake Eames chair. YOU are the most important component in your system. Your mood, physical well-being, stress level, etc, all come along for the ride. If you have a great system without the hardware and software issues mentioned above, the music will transport you away from yourself, but you start there. And 90% of the time I get there. But sometimes I don't want to be hyper immersed. So I'll put on simpler music, or I walk away. Other times, and I'm embarrassed to admit this, I'm so transported that my monkey mind is shut down completely and I finally relax. Then fall asleep. But that is all me fatigue.

Here's a test. Drink a beer. Turn on your system. Drink another beer. Start listening. After a hour, are you bored, analyzing your set up? Drink another beer. Put on a favorite record. Still not happy? You probably have a hardware issue because your user issues should be greased.
Ooh, this is fun – let’s continue adding to the list of possible sources of distortion.

10. Ceiling vibrations. (We’ve got walls, floors and windows dialed in, but let’s not forget the ceiling. And furniture. And glassware. And clothing. And hair – gosh how could we forget hair. Wee little hairs is how we hear anyway, and just imagine using the wrong shampoo. Totally f-ed.)

11. Ectoplasm. Gostbusters, anyone? ‘Nuff said.

12. Matter. Dark matter is particularly insidious (it can really sneak up on you, you rarely see it coming), but all of it can be problematic / fatiguing. More so with the stuff we know exists.

13. Electrons. Yes, they may be everywhere, but they can really tire you out. And if you run them through conductive materials just so across energy differentials, they can also be quite useful when mixed appropriately with electronic devices.

14. Tachyons. Invisible, immeasurable, theoretical, sound exhausting.

15. Weather. High pressure, low pressure, changing pressure, static pressure, too dry, too humid, too cold, too warm. Again, f-ed, f-ed and f-ed.

16. Residue(s). Of all manner, really. Psychic can be particularly bad. Psycho-acoustic residue can accrete and be notably fatiguing. High-viscosity petrochemical residues are best avoided – definitely do not treat your listening environment with these types of sprays, particularly the flammable kind (i.e., napalm may look like fun in the movies, but it’s really not safe for home use, or anything else). Emotional residue. Be nice.

17. Sound waves. The root of all evil. And the vibrations that cause them (see also, “vibrations, bad” compare “good vibrations”). Enervating.

18. Atmosphere(ics). See also, “weather” and “sound waves.” The ineffable majesty of fluid dynamics aside, no atmosphere, no exhausting noise. At all. Problem licked. (And the tree-falling-in-forest conundrum is pure bonus points, as no one around to hear in any event.)

19. Perceptual lense(s). Subjective-based, epistemological reality is really the pits. And soooo exhausting.

20. Parallel universes. And no, not higher order dimensions, those sound divine. Parallel four-space, alternate space-time continuums. You do not want these rubbing up against your listening environment, the possibility they may be infinite and effectively omnipresent notwithstanding. I’m sure there’s a spray for that (but see, “residues).

21. Magnets. And magnetic fields. Even the one’s that make your speakers go. And the ones created by No. 13, above. But mostly the earth’s magnetic field, totally fatiguing. And: magnets, how do they work, anyway?

22. Plants. If you have to ask, you’ll never get understand. But trust me. Plants.

23. Water. Things sound crap under water, yet we’re mostly made out of water. Think about it.
Dark energy pushing everything apart is highly fatiguing. But seriously turn it down and give em a rest.
Whoa! How about analyzing lack of fatigue. What's going on when there isn't any? Or any tweaks, conditioners, regenerators, Mu-Metal, wires and cables costing as much or more than the gear itself? Must be deafness.
when i "upgraded" my speakers to B&W-801's i now had transducers designed for recording engineers to discern flaws and minute problems in playing back studio takes. I knew that going into the acquisition, but all of the subsequent upgrades and adjustments to the rest of the system and my room to dial in the best possible sound became an open-ended journey.
HIgh-end audio can become a like it a lot/worry over it a lot proposition.
you can get a ton of information off the source you never knew was there, but
it "can" complicate the simple desire to just sit back and listen to some tunes.
the best cure i know is to find the best engineered recordings you can and
mentally IGNORE any and all shortcomings of recordings that are obviously not so wonderful. maybe someday they will invent a "remastering" digital
device that can correct over 90% of the flaws of a piece of music you love in real time. not just a room corrector, but something that will literally generate
a REALISTIC 3-D soundstage, the whole enchilada. with a "MAGIC" control where you can add as little or as much realism as you desire. that WOULD be cool....
Schubert had stated the answer succinctly. No more need be said.
If not understood, the original question can be abbreviated to...
"why does my brain hurt shortly after turning on the switch"?
I was going to provide an answer but I also agree with Schubert 100%. And believe me I have experienced listener fatigue with various causes.
my take is this. Go to a live acoustic jazz concert in a great sounding hall... and after an hour and 45 minutes you will be fatigued. If the emotional content, the degree of engagement in the music is high, then after a time (typically 1.5 hours or so) you will be fatigued.

In a stereo system, brightness, harshness, etc. can lead to fatigue. That is an entirely different thing. On the other end of the continuum, those who have systems that are "non-fatiguing" are systems that are not bright, not grainy sounding, etc. --- but if such systems are non-fatiguing even after 3-4 hours of dedicated listening... then the emotional content/degree of engagement in the music is minimal. That is, 1.5 hours of excellent music well recorded is fatiguing --- and 1.5 hours of grainy, harsh, bright music is also fatiguing. Bottom line... any session of dedicated listening is fatiguing after 1.5 hours or so... either for good reasons or bad (or a combo, in varying degrees, of both).
I experienced some sort of fatigue today but I don't think it was listener fatigue.

Ive been building my system up incrementally. Today I finally got my new DAC and the change was enormous. It think I was so emotionally connected to the music and probably had some sort of adrenalin rush that after a few hours I needed to take a nap.
Bonhamcopeland and Mezmo, thank you, you made my night. That was great!

Robsker, that's something I haven't thought about yet it is so true. Thanks for another insight on listener fatigue.
Lol, Sonic. You know, my musical tastes have vastly widened over the past 9 months. I'm listening to a little classical, some country (Chris Whitley), some jazz, alot of music I never had an interest in before but I can honestly say, Kenny G. has not once been played, nor Michael Bolton.

"Michael Bolton? Are you serious? Your name is Michael Bolton? We love Michael Bolton. What's your favorite song??" "I don't know, I mean, I guess I like all of them". ---Quote from Office Space

where one can listen for hours of uninterrupted music, the other can only listen for a shorter period of time (does not get the same musical satisfaction).

The above can be from overly bright speakers and/or gear!

Happy Listening!
Actually the main and only significant cause of listening fatigue, assuming your equipment is of a reasonable quality, is that your speakers are not properly set up in the room.
The only thing the ears do is measure time and volume.AKA phase and amplitude. Since the singer is coming from both speakers it is imperative that the singer pressurizes both ear drums at exactly the same time. Since this a matter of pressure change and NOT distance it is a difficult thing to accomplish. One way to check this out is to dis-connect one speaker and listen to your music and see if you still get fatigue. By eliminating one speaker you have taken away the inner-modulation distortion caused by the two speakers banging into each other My guess is that you will not get any fatigue at all. This is where a set up of your speakers using the "Master Set" technique is absolutely essential for any quality system. There is a great article on "Master Set" on Audio Circle in the acoustic circle. Or get hold of me and I can go over things for you.


B -- rock on with the Chris Whitley. Solid. Living With The Law and Dirt
Floor are my favorites. Different, but brilliant, each. And do check out his
daughter, Trixie Whitley (yes, for real). She did a you-tube video of rather
go blind with Brian Blade and Daniel Lanois that is one of the best things
ever. No BS, one of the best things, ever. And that band, Black Dub,
dropped a studio album last year (or the year before, damnitt if i can
keep track anymore), that though radically over-produced, has
moments of brilliance. Check it out, you won't regret it.
Mezmo, I actually have all of Trixie Whitleys songs that I could get from Spotify too. I love female vocals and wouldn't say that she has the best or most refined voice out there by a long shot, but she is my favorite female vocalist. I absolutely love her music; it's just dripping with emotion.
B, nice. I've got a serious thing for lady singers (I know, not the preferred
nomenclature). Trying to think who can hold a candle to Trixie. Tanya
Donnelly, pre-Belly, the track Not Too Soon from Throwing Muses, with her
her screeching like a cat, is near-orgasmic. Early Heather Nova, especially
the live stuff, before she went all silly, is pretty fine. Jess King, her first
album, has one track on it that is devine (I Believe in Angles) -- thought I
fear you won't be able to find it anywhere. Had a real soft spot for Fiona
Apple's first album, before she went right the hell off the wheels. More
recently, working on the start of a thing for She Keeps Bees, but it hasn't
really taken hold yet. Sandra O and a couple of tracks from Yea, Yea, Yeas
are top notch. Don't love all of it, but when she's on, she smoulders
something fierce. (Watch the video for Maps off of their first album. I
challenge you not to love it.) Margot Timmons, of course. Not every time,
but when it's on, it's the very definition of an irresistible slow burn. Oh, and
apologies for totally hijacking your thread...;-)

IMHO, one of the reasons for the listener fatigue is from a physical energy of sound. The sound has a physical energy and sonic energy. The p energy is what pushing the sound away from the speaker. We hear the S energy pushed from the P energy. What we want to listen is the S energy. Not P energy! For example, the beginner golfers hit a lot of slice balls. This slice ball flies straight at the beginning of the flight of the ball. The golf ball starts go to side way after hitting and pushing energy from the golf club (P energy) dissipated and weakened. P energy is forceful energy from an object and they hurt human ears like a sonic boom. S energy is a natural movement of the sound. The unbalance of P energy from the tweeter and the woofer causes discomfort and fatigue to your ears and brain. The unbalance of S energy will generate just tasteless of music sound. ***A sonic boom is the sound associated with the shock waves created by an object traveling through the air faster than the speed of sound.(from

The bright sounding speakers are OK. I love shimmering, sweet, dazzling, and splendid high frequency as long as P energy between the tweeter and the woofer is balanced. I enjoy the bright S energy, but I don’t want the P energy from tweeter. We control the S energy with the volume level. If the P energy of the tweeter on any speaker can be controlled, we can easily make a musical sound system.

Some tweeters equip a plastic or metal cover to control P energy. The side effects are loosing a big portion of S energy and whirling turbulence of sound waves. We can’t get musical satisfaction from thin and diffused sounds. These speakers with a cover sound usually not musical. If they are musical, that’s from woofer. Not the tweeter. How musical can they be without the high freq? Mediocre at their best. The woofer and tweeter on the speaker should be P energy adjustable without loosing S energy. So, this hobby/passion for hi-end music could be little easier.

The physical energy is very easy to control. P energy dissipates after hit an object while S energy bounces. Simple! We need a sound wave guide that kills/reduces P energy and bounces S energy to a listener.

Just my 2 cents.
If one follows some of the principles of Feng Shui, the ancient art of organization and energy control, you know, things like getting rid of old newspapers and old magazines and books, he should notice an audible decrease of distortion, especially when the volume is turned up. The distortion I'm referring to when the volume is turned up has nothing whatsoever to do with amplifier clipping, nothing so mundane, but everything to do with information fields, Audio's dirty little secret.

That's a unique way of breaking things down that I had not heard or thought of before applied to home audio. I have some background in geology (though it s been awhile) and the concept of P and S waves as they relate to seismic waves rings a bell.

Are you a seismologist?

It's an interesting perspective on sound that at first take rings true to me.
I also agree with Mihorn - loud volume itself has a physical impact on the listener. I experience it every day on stage at work, though it does help somehow to be causing some of it as well, blowing back at it, if you will. This is definitely a contributing factor to listener fatigue, if one plays one's home system too loudly.
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What technique? All you've done so far is ruminate about loudspeaker dynamics. Are you aware that what you refer to as sonic energy is what is "caused" by the physical energy of a speaker driver? And that the level of sonic energy present is commensurate with the level of physical movement/energy the driver is directly tasked with? It's a well known fact that speakers vary in speed and efficiency. The faster the better which is the most important aspect of sensitivity imo. Getting loud quickly is a skewed perception that doesn't speak to performance at all. So what are you telling us we don't already know?
Ears actually start to hurt. For me listener fatique has to do with how much information (distortion etc) that my ear/brain has to eliminate so that I can enjoy the music. A good example would be excessive volume which for me was to bring up the subleties in the music that were difficult to hear. I have found that the better the system the lower the volume I can play it at as I no longer had to turn it up to hear all of the subleties that make music enjoyable. The opposite example would be the crappy speakers in some TV's that you keep turning up to get an intelligible sound but you still end up straining to understand what is being said.
03-26-13: Mapman
Are you a seismologist?

No, but I did sleep at a Holiday Inn last night.
Thank you, don't forget to tip your waitress, I'll be here all week. ;)
B, anyone who thinks they can't have serious detail and musicality at the same time is at the very least, confused. Do you really think moving up the HI-FI scale doesn't include an escalation in detail? They absolutely do go hand in hand. If it's not musical, then performance is lacking. Having to "imagine" lost detail has to be the most fatiguing circumstance of all. Cold clinical detail is typically a result of huge amounts of NFB applied in order to reduce distortion. You definitely can have your cake and eat it too. You just have to find the right one. Cost is not a factor either. Imo, the word 'warm' should be forever banned from audiophile circles. You go from 'cold' to 'natural'. Warm is not desirable.
Let me be perfectly frank and repeat what I have previously written numerous times before:

Whether your are listening to an ear-bleeding boom-box or a mega-dollar high-end system, they all sound pretty good after 3 glasses of wine - and listener fatigue will be a non-issue!

Honesty, listening fatigue came, as it used to be for me, from ''analyzing'' sounds (you know, the ''air'' around the instruments) instead of freely listening to the performance and enjoying the artist.

Once you free yourself of this, the listening fatigue factor is no factor at all. Easy to say, not easy to do, however.