Listener Fatigue: What causes it?

For many audiophiles, listening is a lengthy endeavor.  Hours on end are spent blissfully in the listening chair, enveloped in sound.  A common experience is listener fatigue, a feeling of tiredness or a unconscious switch to tuning the audio out or to passive listening.

What causes this feeling?  Is it simply too long to continue being entertained or interested, or is it a change that occurs in the ear or the brain? Is there a way to prevent this from happening so we can continue to listen for hours on end? User, B_limo, consulted the Forum for an explanation.


B_limo: 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 opinion, 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 opinions about what listener fatigue is and why it’s caused?

Tom6897: 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.

Brauser: 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.

Schubert: Listener fatigue is just your brain trying to translate something it knows is not real into something that sounds real. The harder 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.

Geoffkait: 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.

Blueshirt: I experienced some sort of fatigue today. I’ve 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 adrenaline rush that after a few hours I needed to take a nap.


It seems this fatigue may stem, in part, from all of these factors. Surely it is some sort of strain on our senses to try and put together all of the unique elements of these sounds into a complete aural experience, and the less natural the sound, the more difficult it could be for our brains to process. High volume and high emotional content can also work to put us over the edge.

Do you think it’s possible to avoid listening fatigue? What changes have you made that helped to prevent it? Sound off in the comments below!


  1. Fatigue is caused by
    A. Listening to music that you think enjoy, but aren’t enjoying, trying to convince yourself that continued listening is worth it. This one’s easy to fix, get some better music, problem solved! 🙂

    B. Listening to music which you know is beautiful, you have heard it beautifully before, you want to experience this beauty, and yet you are not realizing this beauty currently. You have spent much time and $$ to achieve it, but yet it still eludes you. This one’s much harder to solve, and fuels much of our hobby. Turning down the treble may not help, because the purist in you doesn’t want another filter in the signal path! 🙂

    1. Loudness is not necessarily the culprit. If there is no distortion, such as when listening live to acoustic instruments, you can enjoy it at very high decibels. Listen up close to a concert grand, or brass horns, and the db’s are way up there, but you are not compelled to cover your ears. Listen to a very revealing audio system, and you may want to leave the room quickly, even when the volume level is low. It’s the distortion. And high frequency digital distortion causes the most discomfort.

      The comment about female hearing sensitivity has merit, in my opinion, and I have personal experience with this. I’ve had many amplifiers over the years, both solid state and tube. Whenever I acquired something new, I’d invite my wife to listen to it with me. Invariably, she’d walk out of the room minutes after listening to a solid state amp, and stick around a lot longer when listening to a tube amp, and she never noticed if it was tube or SS.

      1. A related question: is there a real difference in fatigue between single ended and push-pull tube amps? I’ve got a few decent tube pre’s but all solid state amplification, I’m marinating on taking the tube power amp plunge…

      2. I agree with most of the above comments. But I have found in all my audiophile listening years that poor room acoustics can also greatly affect listener fatigue. High frequencies are more prone to this and a live room will enhance this. When sound is reflected off a wall it causes a delay and I think this can cause us to hear sound as a confusing noise. Also, if you get a harsh slap echo it can get very fatiguing in a very short time. To support this idea, a year ago I was at my daughters piano recital. The students played a very top quality piano. The room was very live and was a disaster acoustically. The students that played at a quiet level sounded ok. When the students that played louder listener fatigue set in. The instructor finished with his very loud dynamic piece and I almost had to leave. No amplification was used here. Since they have had the recital at other locations all the students are very enjoyable to hear especially at the church. Without a proper room with some diffusion or absorption music shouldn’t be played at higher volumes.

  2. Exactly. Same with going to a concert. You’re excited to be there, enjoying the show, over the top, then when the concert is over, usually your ears are ringing. perhaps it’s all too loud. I can get a volume sweet spot where I can listen for hours with zero fatigue. IMHO the volume is the culprit.

  3. Geoffkait nailed it. It’s distortion. More specifically, it’s the type of distortion that comes from solid state. Having used both tube amps and solid state amps with very similar sonic qualities, I assure you I can listen to the tube amp 10 times longer than the solid state amp… and my ears don’t ring afterward.

  4. waiting for the phase correct/time alignment responses to come in… when i had my tube amp with meadowlark speakers i never got tired of well recorded music. of course too loud is no good with any sound. when you go to a symphony and sit close it is never as loud to the ‘ear’ as cranking a stereo in even the best of sound designed spaces.

  5. I think that L. F. is caused by a range of factors, internal and external. The internal ones are; the increased intensity with which an audiophile may be analysing the sound, and this is very energy intensive, (try listenig to expensive stuff at a dealer where you may mistakenly end up spending a great deal), and external factors: too loud, coloration, distortion, and poor recording quality, especially by broadcasters, and in England they really don’t care about the output quality any more..

  6. Richard Vandersteen’s manual for the 3A Sigs points out that the speakers build up heat over time depending on the volume in DBs (and he says 86 should be the max for all listeners, though the 3A Sigs do not have a 100db dynamic range anyway). So, in addition to physical fatigue, I suspect the speakers become too hot to successfully dissipate the heat, and thus there is . . . distortion.

  7. OK you guys are too young. Experiments conducted decades ago by Stereo Review pinpointed the primary cause of listener fatigue as intermodulation distortion. Apparently the human ear can tolerate way more harmonic distortion, which tends to exhibit as overtones that are nowhere near as irritating as IM components. The principal cause of IM is clipping (i.e. overdriving), and is more prevalent with solid state equpment.

    The secondary cause is rough or harsh treble response, anything that degrades the airy shimmer around say a triangle or piccolo. Women are far more prone to this type of fatigue, and it was theorized that this was why very few women are into audio.

    What we as music lovers need to do is turn the damn thing down! Even a notch or two can be enough to tame clipping, especially with a solid state amp. Avoid complicated interconnects that can introduce capacitance, another cause of IM with solid state equipment. And choose speakers and headphones with flat or gently rolled off treble response. Take a look at the response curves of great performance venues and they will tell the story.

    1. OK then, if it’s IM why are some recordings are unlistenable while others can be cranked and listened to?

      1. Because the recording equipment produced unacceptable IM OR recording or mastering levels were set too high OR equipment/studio acoustics produced ragged treble response. Old Motown recordings often exhibited several of these flaws.

      2. Check two videos on this website regarding ‘Loudness Wars’. This junk audio sound engineering is also responsible for the listening fatigue.

  8. Listening fatigue can be caused by listening to poor recordings on a revealing and accurate system. Sometimes the only way to enjoy some favorite but inferiorly recorded tunes is on an audiosystem that is less revealing.

    1. I am SO tired of this syllogism. The WHOLE POINT of audio is accuracy, accuracy, ACCURACY!!!! If a record is poorly recorded but contains valuable music (think jazz recordings from the 1940s), we just have to live with it. Listening to an inferior system just because its faults mask recording problems is just the dumbest idea I ever heard.

  9. A missing element here in all your comments about listener fatigue is mondo trumped up bass. Bad subwoofers. Sure it can be enjoyed like candy for minutes at a time, but three or four hours of bloated pounding that really doesn’t have anything to do with music, that I can’t tolerate because of the fatigue. Ad speakers on top which sound metallic and brittle instead of natural (I see knives, captain!!!) and the fatigue is coming at you from all fronts… More natural sounding electronics, cables and speakers I’ve found can open up music instead of close it down from fatigue….

  10. As this shows many oppinions, the best universal is volume beyond the systems capability as even a radio sounds ok a low levels. I found the most bliss by returning to records and for my CDs a nice flavored, smearing highs does the trick for all but the unfixable digital dogs. Some tubes in the chain from digital also help. Some new LPs from digital sourses bring in all that is not wanted from a good analog source component.

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