Rethinking Listening Fatigue

Listening fatigue to me has always been a sure sign that something was wrong with an audio system.

It is a useful test of a system, because it is not always immediately apparent - a fact which has undoubtedly helped Dr Bose get rich.

I have always thought fatigue was mainly a product of digital, overly bright tweeters, and/or a sonic signature that puts too much emphasis on "resolution" and not enough emphasis on high quality midrange.

But lately I am wondering if I have been oversimplifying things.

As you can see in my system link, I am using a pair of ATC SCM 7's with a pair of Behringer amps used as monoblocks for my desktop and PC audio.

Recently, I have added a Hagerman Technology USB interface box, which goes into an Audio Research DAC 5.

To my ears, the ATCs have a slightly laid back, non fatiguing sound typical of many English products which suits my tastes just fine, particularly for very nearfield listening.

What is curious, however, is that I am starting to realize that this system sounds really different depending on the volume and/or the time of day.

At times, this little system sounds wonderful. I feel I can listen to it for hours, with the speakers < 3 feet away from my ears and in many ways, I enjoy it more than the big system.

Detail for both music and movies is very clear and I have especially noted that I am better able to discern dialogue with these speakers, without ever feeling like the sound is too "etched' or embossed.

At other times, however, I feel quickly fatigued and suddently overwhelmed with an unpleasant this is way too loud, the music is congested and I must be bothering my wife sensation.

No one I know has ever described ATC monitors as fatiguing, so I am starting to wonder:

1) Despite relatively high power of the Behringer amps in a monoblock configuration, is it possible that they are overdriven and distorting at not terribly loud levels?If so, would this type of distortion, rather than overly hot tweeters, be a more obvious culprit for fatigue?

2) Or could grunge in my AC also contribute to listeners fatigue? Would some of you recommend a line conditioner rather than an upgrade to the amps for this desktop system?

The fatigue I am trying to describe always manifests itself as 'this is uncomfortably loud' sensation.

Thank you for your thoughts and comments on this and the topic of listeners' fatigue.


I'm curious to know if you can relate the issue to specific recordings. Have you ruled out the recording yet? The displeasing sound you mention sounds like compression to me.

For me, recordings that are highly compressed are very fatiguing, regardless of the fact that I may love the music. Unfortunately I can hardly tolerate listening to these recording on any combination of my home audio rigs. They sound fine in my car......


For me, recordings that are highly compressed are very fatiguing, regardless of the fact that I may love the music. Unfortunately I can hardly tolerate listening to these recording on any combination of my home audio rigs. They sound fine in my car......


That would be my answer too.

I would add that "they sound fine in my car" means that they will also sound fine on many forgiving and "scooped midrange" type systems (these type systems are common/popular these days precisely because of the preponderance of hyper compressed audio being put out by major labels - you need a forgiving speaker to compensate for harsh CD's or iTunes downloads - google "Loudness Wars" )

Unfortunately, ATC is not forgiving and does not have a scooped midrange. These are primarily designed for accuracy in a similar manner to their big studio stuff - I think you will indeed find ATC's will be more fatiguing than other forgiving designs and, of course, your car stereo.
For me its "ListenER Fatigue" and it has nothing to do with the audio system. Rather, I start thinking of all the chores which I should be doing instead of listening to this symphony for the thousandth time.
Beyond recording quality variability, which should be quite obvious in a high resolution system, I've found a strong correlation between quality of AC and good digital sound. I suffered from listener fatigue from time to time until I resolved all AC issues within my system. I've tried dozens of power conditioners, power cables, even AC receptacles, all make a difference within a high resolution system.

The uncomfortably loud sensation you speak of sounds like it may be an overly forward presentation, this can make things sound louder as the sound is more greatly projected into room and listening position. I've been able to resolve this purely with power devices.

The randomness of the problem also speaks to AC issues, power quality fluctuates quite a bit in many areas.
It probably doesn't apply to your case but often amplifiers with very deep negative feedback sound fatiquing even if sound is not overly bright. After each impulse feedback is a little late and output transistors go to saturation and need a moment to return from it(charge trapped at the semiconductor junction). We don't hear it because our brain fills-in short gaps in the sound but it makes us feel fatiqued after a while. It is called TIM (transient intermodulation) and it was very common in early transistor amps since designers used negative feedback to lower harmonic distortions to absurd levels.
This is great - thanks for answers so far!

Re recording quality, yes I would agree nothing is more fatiguing than a bad, overly compressed recording.

But no, I would say these observations apply even while listening to old audiophile favorites, albeit after ripping in EAC to the hard drive.

iTunes may be a culprit here, as I have been (I confess!) downloading various .99 old favorites. But pretty sure I have been doing this in "lossless".

Interesting that no one is pointing fingers at the amps yet, as I thought this might provoke another round of Behringer bashing.

Rather, not pointing fingers at Behringer...

Thank you for your interesting point on negative feedback.

to point the finger at one aspect of your system now probably isn't the most appropriate way, though for now, I'll go along with SMS' note. A decent passive filter shouldn't run much and it can translate into another rig or be sold again if it's not the solution. Even a simple system has several parts to it. Anyone of which can induce a problem.

iTuens too might be a part of the issue. Though I'd not put much money on it. I did notice a bit of a difference after installing an ASIO driver I bought online... and a far greater (mo better) difference when I switched to J River's player. Way better!

My take is from what you said initially... certain hours of the day things get wanky... regardless the music being played. Well that sounds like power gremlins are kicking up their heels now and then.

At the offidce all sorts of things can be routinely energized for a time and induce junk onto the grid. PC back up power supplies are known to be really bad for this Cell phone chargers, fax machines, etc. especially if close by aren't audio friendly items.

Some sort of good filter ought to do it for you. Like a PSA Duet or even a PSA UPC 200 should do the trick, given a decent power cord is used as the supply. you might even get away without having to buy a better one than they come with too.
Kijanki makes a good point and worth expanding. Audio systems make distortion, and the distortions that we as humans find the most objectionable are the odd orders. In fact the human ear uses the presence of the 5th, 7th and 9th harmonics as a means of detirmining loudness.

If the structure of these harmonics is altered even by 100ths of a percent we can hear it. 'Harsh', 'brittle', 'clinical', 'bright', 'chalky', etc. are all audiophile terms that describe surprisingly small amounts of extra odd-ordered harmonic content.
My first thought would be toward Intermodulation Distortion, which is a particularly annoying form unlike Harmonic Distortion. The correct definition of which is distortion created when an amplifier creates a frequency, the sum or difference of two other frequencies that it's amplifying. Of course most amps that have that propensity don't stop there. They tend to keep intermodulating the distortion with clean signal, and it's all an odd-order mess. Of course- The amp is also supplying gain to these distortion products, wasting it's power in the process and can sound "compressed" as a result. More info:( (,2886,760%255F788%255F91329,00.html)
To try and tie things to together.

We are all talking about the same thing as being fatiguing.

Higher order harmonics from intermodulation be it TIM or other forms of distortion.

This happens with a bad amp design. It also happens when an amp is overdriven. It is worse when an SS amp is overdriven.

However as Reubent pointed out it can also be on your source media (CD or iTunes). Audio compression is often overdone in the mastering process - it make all loudness levels on a CD match and give the CD an "etched" and aggressive sound. It does the same thing as clipping on an amplifier - it creates a whole bunch of higher order odd it sounds the same.

Try grabbing any pop/rock CD that you bought in the 80's and compare it to something you bought in the last few years. It is pretty obvious. In the last five years is it has begun to affect other genres such as jazz and classical.

Here is an explanation

And hear is a quote for you

"I listened to all the CDs submitted to NARAS for consideration in the 'Best Engineered Non-Classical' Grammy category. We listened to about 3 to 4 cuts [from the TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY SEVEN albums submitted]. Every single CD was squashed to death with no dynamic range...the Finalizers and plug-ins were cranked to 'eleven' so that their CD would be the loudest... Not one...attempted to take advantage of the dynamic range or cleanliness of digital recording.

-Roger Nichols - Grammy winning engineer for Steely Dan, Beach Boys and more - Jan. 2002 Eq Magazine
Oh and for those who like detail. Here is some sobering reading that explains how your DAC is very likely clipping due to illegally loud redbook on most recent CD's.

And CD sales are declining...and the industry wonders why?

Well they get what they deserve - if, as quoted above, 267 of the best CD's nominated for non-classical grammys are all "squashed to death" no wonder everyone agrees that digital is fatiguing! Why pay good money for a bad product -you can download it for less.

CD and iTunes quality is truely terrible these days. No wonder Vinyl is still around - you physically can't make Vinyl hard clip in the way a CD can. Vinyl phsyically cannot sound as harsh and bad as "illegal" redbook CD.
I agree that the vast majority of contemporary cds sound terrible, the main reason I buy very little comtemporary music. Even some of the recently done remasters are starting to sound way too hot for me. The recent box set about Electra Records is one example, when the sound of folk bothers me something is way out of wack.
Shardone - you are absolutely right. They neglected quality and encouraged copying by setting prices too high. SACD, HDCD etc. are carrying much better copy protection but are way too expensive often with poorly mixed recordings.

DVDs are sold in countries like China for couple of bucks (still profitable) but cannot be imported back to US because of zoning. Industry is not playing fair.

Early popular music CDs were digitized poorly (jitter impossible to remove) and recorded on CD with overly bright sound. Unfortunately sales of CDs were propeled by majority not interested in good sound and often played on boom boxes.
This thread is getting very sad.

It sounds like I should just chuck all of my gear, go back to analogue and spend my weekends listening to the Sheffield Drum Record.
any information source as to what labels (classical music) employ the least compression? I would suspect DG, Telarc, and from what I have heard, Channel Classics - but that is just on a subjective basis.
Cwlondon - Sheffield's Kodo Drums are very well recorded on CD - no need for vinyl here.
To the originator of the thread - your comment that the time of the day determined, at least in part, the experienced listening fatigue, is evidence that the source of the fatigue may your own subjective state; necessarily not constant. Major changes to equipment may not yet be in order. Your gear probably does not care what time of day it is. A little controlled experimenting i.e. keep constant the volume, music selection etc, and notice how much of the listening fatigue is linked to your own physical or mental fatigue, and so on, seems to be indicated prior any component changes or additions. Less of an esoteric solution, but realistically fits your initial comment.

All the rhetoric & theoretical causalities aside... I feel a solution (if one is truly being sought) rests with either spot replacement of the components of the now rig, and/or the addition of power filtering… and pass that, perhaps some changes in wires or isolation footers. All of which have IMO made for a far more listenable condition… and you are seeking a solution, correct? Not merely theorizing about whuy fatigue occurs, right?

To prove this out, you can simply take the whole setup and being to swap it’s components with the main system. AS you’ll then see if it does the same thing (s) there. That will give you better insight as to what’s what.

A very quick way to easy listening is adding a pair of Nirvana SL interconnects… or speaker cables… I think they can even make a ground loop not so bad.

Whenever I perceive a problem somewhere I always ask, “What’s the common denominator?” …. Or what has changed?

Gotta start somewhere though, huh?
You mention that your conversion is via a HagTech USB this the Chime DAC or is it just the small, inexpensive S/PDIF/USB converter? If the latter, I would suggest you try a different DAC in its place. I did not find that converter to be very good in my system and to my ears, and would suspect it may have something to do with your fatigue if it's what you are using. Otherwise, if you are using the Chime DAC I have no experience to speak of. That front-end conversion is critical IMO though. I did some extensive listening with the Benchmark DAC so many folks love and found myself wanting to leave the room after half an hour of listening because, in my system it seemed to render a very strident high-end. YMMV, but I'd consider your front end as well.
I know that, when I moved to a new home, my listening enjoyment was greatly reduced and I thought my new listening room must be the culprit, a hopeless cause. Then one day (a couple sad years later) I was talking to someone at an audio store and he challenged me to try power conditioning, offering a 30 day, unconditional, money-back guarantee.

I took the offer, and it was the most significant upgrade I ever did for my system. The power in my house was so bad that it was ruining my system's sound. I have since upgraded considerably and run dedicated circuits, etc, but continue to use the power conditioning equipment, as most of the problem is probably generated in my own home (motors, computers, plasma TVs, etc.)

You don't have to spend a fortune. Even a $200 Monster Power Bar can have an amazing impact. Try it - from a store that offers a 30 day trial.

BTW - my system is now 100% digital (though it wsn't when I first bought the power conditioner) so don't let anyone tell you digtal has to be fatiguing. No one could possible call my current system fatiguing.

POWER delivery... I had a home with problems on the Grid.. at times during the day between about midnight and 7 in the morning, (mostly when people were asleep) the system was in its best buttery and hi current delivery state, with no listener fatigue, however listen between about 4 pm and 10 pm at night and it was much more forward and thinned out sounding.. Obviously it has to do with the transformers and supplies to everybodys homes and all the appliances etc.. running during the peak times.. I could tell this just about everytime. Fixing it can become somewhat a messy solution to many and expensive.. Listen at midnight and then at 12 noon the next day on a saturday or something and see what you find out!!
Good Luck
Thank you, everyone.

Jax2, I am a little confused. Yes, I am using the inexpensive Hag Tech box, but I have assumed it was converting USB to SPDIF only, which I then input to my Audio Research DAC 5.

Is there some reason that signal chain is worse than I thought?

Undertow, from an intuitive perspective your comments make the most sense. We live in a small village with old and stresed infrastructure, frequent power outages and regular line fluctuations from 110-120 volts, according the volt meter on my power strip.

Re Power conditioners, I have just looked at the PS Audio "regenerators".

If, in fact, this type of device can take erratic, noisy electricity and regenerate it into a perfect power supply, does this mean it would be no longer necessary to run a dedicated line, dedicated sub panel etc?

Thanks for all ideas.
I agree that your power is the first thing to look at. Why, because you seem to like your sound sometimes, ie. variable power or recording quality sounds like the culprit.

First of all, no power conditioner is perfect, they all have their own sound, you may have to experiment with a few of them. I also would suggest you not run your amp on them, most agree with this.

It is still best to run dedicated lines, the more optimum power you supply the power condtioner the better your system will sound. You don't have to run a dedicated sub panel, just run all your dedicated lines off the same phase in the main panel.
Cwlondon, well I can tell you my explanation is the most real, because it is fact... This is an issue nobody really thinks about, and with audiophile'ism most get very caught up in components themselves or better quality thinking they will automatically hear it all.. last thing they think about are the two most basic and primitive realities, your Room environment(acoustics etc...) and your Electrical power making all this happen are the most sensitive and most complex to work out, and is probably in the end for most the most expensive to sort out as it has to do with now a Whole home, environment and intrudes on actual living vs. a couple of components sitting on a stand...

As for power conditioning, or re-generation, well it can be better in your case and worse in somebody elses that don't have your issues, only thing is you need to take a shot and see what happens.. But I highly suggest buying new so you can have a decent no question asked return policy on any product you try.. I have had ZERO luck with Conditioners.. But bigger Isolation transformers or possibly a decent re--generator could be effective in your case but not a guarantee, however much more expensive than most conventional methods..

Dedicated lines are nice as well.. But this is gonna be permanent and costly too, so you might do this after you see how a device that you can return might help you first without permanent install and then decide how far to go with things.