Audio Dictionary: What is headphone listening fatigue?

If, like me, you read/watch a lot of headphone reviews online, you might notice the word “Fatigue” popping up here and there.

But what does this really mean? Well, it’s more complicated than headphones being physically uncomfortable to wear, and usually refers to differences in how we all perceive audio.

This is a pair of Beyerdynamic DT990 Premiums, one of the most infamously fatiguing headphones ever made, even though it’s really comfy. I have one coming in later this week I’m going to review!

As I discussed HERE, headphones are tuned to be warm, neutral, or bright. In short, warm headphones are bass-emphasized, neutral headphones try to recreate the original source with as much accuracy as possible, and bright headphones tend to emphasize the higher frequencies.

Some of this is subjective too. So, if you’ve been using warm headphones for a long time, a neutral headphone might sound really bright and piercing to you even though it “technically” isn’t.

This is where listening fatigue comes in. Usually it’s related to too much energy in the higher frequencies, which becomes piercing, grating and irritating to your ears over longer listening sessions. But this can happen either due to the way the headphones are designed, or due to personal/psychological preferences and sensitivities.

Just as we all like different types of food, preferences play a big part in how we enjoy sound. While there are general guidlelines based off of science, it’s hard to design a sound that will please all people.

The Audio-Technica MSR7, another polarizing headphone thanks to its energy in the upper midrange. I love this but I could immediately hear why they aren’t for everyone.

That’s why the DT990 and the MSR7, the two headphones pictured in this article, are so polarizing. On a graph, they are both technically very good at reproducing audio for critical listening, but this means they have some upper-end energy that some people might find aggressively annoying.

Plus, not everyone wants to hear high-end detail, and in fact, some songs are mixed assuming you aren’t using that type of equipment. Distortion, hiss, and other recording and mastering errors become all the more apparent on less-warm gear.

The most common headphones and speakers on the market are all about low end thump, not high end detail and clarity. That’s changed a little bit in the last few years…but as long as Beats dominates the headphone market, this will probably be true.

That’s why it’s recommended to spend a few days with your new audio gear before you decide to return it. If you hate the way it sounds, it might be horrible…but it might also be that you just haven’t given your brain a chance to adjust yet. If you still find something fatiguing after a couple of days, that’s probably not going to change over the long haul.