How to prevent listening fatigue in your audio setup? The power of contrast…

Dries Van HooydonckAudiophile Mindset, ListeningLeave a Comment

How to prevent listening fatigue in your high-end audio setup? The power of contrast

Listening fatigue can occur to any audiophile: you listen to your hifi or high-end audio setup, and suddenly the sound is not good anymore. In this article you will discover how listening fatigue occurs, what the underlying principles are, and how you can prevent listening fatigue from happening to you. And you will also discover what I call “the power of contrast” at play. So sit back, relax and enjoy this article… 

The sky turns pitch black. Dark clouds are forming above you. It is completely silent. You feel that a storm is coming. And then suddenly… The first bang, like fireworks on New Year’s Eve but ten times louder. Another bang. And a flash of lightning every couple of seconds. Then the sky opens up a little, an avalanche of rain pouring down, the roof of your house sounding like it could collapse any moment.

I find a thunderstorm amazing. It makes me feel more alive. The adrenaline peaks, and I eagerly observe this sublime spectacle. Not even the most suspenseful thriller can compete.

But it is that moment of silence that intrigues me most. The calm before the storm. In a movie, such silence always predicts something thrilling is about to happen.

Such silence makes the subsequent apotheose more compelling. The more calm the moment before, the larger the climax afterwards.

The power of contrast

the power of contrast

Such a thunderstorm is the perfect example of contrast.

We humans love contrast. Our brain is utterly alert when we witness contrast.

Another example that illustrates contrast very well: when a group of people is all dressed grey, nobody stands out. But when one person wears a red sweater, you will notice him immediately.

We have been programmed like this since the primeval times. Back then contrast could mean danger: a yellow tiger between the green leaves of the forest for instance. Brain on ultra-active.

Today we humans still have remains of our primitive ancestors in our genes, and we still use this primitive part of our brain, also known as the reptilian brain or the the basal ganglia. It is the oldest part of our brain. It is our attention gatekeeper and decision maker.

reptilian brain used by audiophiles when first listening to new hifi or high-end audio component

With music reproduction the same principles of contrast are at play, and this can trigger our reptilian brain in the same way as a yellow tiger would for our ancestors.

If you are an audiophile, and when you are aware of this principle, it can save you from a list of bad choices when a new upgrade presents itself.

It can save you tons of money, or equipment bound for resell. It can even prevent you from listening fatigue all together: never having to make another upgrade in your live, completely satisfied with the hifi or high-end audio components you already have in your possession.

What is listening fatigue?

listening fatigue

Listening fatigue is a term used to describe the discomfort or disliking of the sound of your hifi or high-end audio setup when listening to music. Especially when listening to a certain hifi or high-end audio setup for a prolonged period of time, listening fatigue can occur.

Listening fatigue does not only occur with audio hobbyists that listen to music at home on their hifi or high-end audio setup. Also audio professionals such as mastering engineers can experience listening fatigue when listening all day long to monitors while they are mastering a music track.

What causes listening fatigue in your audio setup?

There are claims made by high-end audio manufacturers and reviewers that certain equipment would be better suited for a prolonged listening time when compared to others.

So, one solution to prevent listening fatigue would be choosing the right equipment: components whose sound merits you can enjoy continuously, also when prolonged listening is required, still benefiting from their musical reproduction in abundance.

While it is certainly true that some components are better at sound reproduction than others, there are also other aspects at play, that can cause listening fatigue. These aspects are rarely (or not at all) talked about in review magazines, or other professional literature.

These aspects go beyond technicalities of equipment, and go deeper into the psyche of the listener himself.

The component itself can cause listening fatigue

WAW effect

waw effect when first time listening to audio components

One of the reasons listening fatigue can occur is the WAW effect.

The first time you listen to a new component it can really blow your socks off. You’re not yet accustomed to this new sound. It impresses you. It contrasts to the sound that you were used to listen. Your primitive brain on ultra-active.

When you start listening to your new component every day, this first WAW effect – read: contrast – is gone. Instead of ultra-active, your primitive brain now has gone back to sleep. No more adrenaline. No more excitement. This could lead to listening fatigue.

Coloring, hyping or omitting certain aspects of the sound reproduction

high end audio component hyping coloring or omitting a certain aspect of the sound

Another reason for your new equipment soon becoming boring, is that when listening more closely, you might find flaws in your component that you did not hear when you were first listening, when WAW effect set your brain on hyper alert.

Listening more closely might reveal other things: your new component does not reproduce the music the way it is supposed to sound. Your component might:

  • Color or hype certain aspects of sound.
  • Omit certain aspects of sound

This also can lead you to getting bored, or frustrated. It might even lead you to your next upgrade.

You are part of listening fatigue yourself

Contrast is gone

listening fatigue caused by habituation when contrast and waw effect are gone

As you can read, you are part of the listening fatigue yourself.

It is your brain that gets triggered by the WAW effect, because the new sound is in contrast to what you heard before, and in contrast to what you were accustomed to.

But this WAW-effect will not last.

What sounded amazing at first – brain on ultra-active – now sounds mere suitable, or even worse: not satisfactory anymore.

Because listening to music on your setup has become routine and normal, your primitive brain has gone back to sleep. Your music now becomes like the grey group of people, without that person wearing a red sweater. Or without a yellow tiger in the bushes.

Habituation

When you listen to music on your hifi or high-end audio setup every day for multiple hours, this can soon become quite a boring affair. Even though you might have the best setup in the world, you can still grow accustomed to it.

Habituation kicks in.

The need for a new shot of adrenaline

Like an alcoholic in need for more booze to continue satisfying his urges, you too might be ready for a new shot of adrenaline, instead of the same old boring sound as before.

This too will leave you wanting more, with an urge to upgrade. A costly joke if you choose the upgrade path every time.

Solutions: how can you prevent listening fatigue?

Choose the right components

Now you have knowledge regarding the “power of contrast” and the “waw effect”. Using this knowledge can help you to choose your components more wisely.

An ideal audio setup would be a setup where noise floor is extremely low, so it can display your music with its natural dynamics. This means: with contrast between soft passages, and loud passages, contrast between instruments playing pianissimo or forte, contrast between a voice whispering, or a voice shouting.

This way you can use the power of contrast to your advantage.

Apart from choosing your components wisely, there is also another thing you can do to prevent listening fatigue. I call this the high-end audio diet.

The high-end audio diet

When listening fatigue occurs – or to prevent listening fatigue – it might be helpful to forget about your audio setup every once in a while. No more music listening. A fasting diet for a couple of days.

the high end audio diet or fasting to prevent listening fatigue

Instead of listening to music, you could go for a long walk in nature. You could attend a live concert. Meet friends. Or go to the city for a day.

Another part of your high-end audio diet could be to listen to your favorite music on a simple setup, like your laptop speakers or via your smartphone.

Final thoughts

These are techniques you can use to consciously plan “calm before the storm”, or use the power contrast to your benefit.

When after a couple of days your diet is finished and you press play again, you might notice once again how amazing your audio setup can actually sound.

use the power of contrast to your benefit

No more grey people, but red sweaters all over the place. Yellow tigers in the bushes. And thunderstorms that bang through your speakers.

WAW effect all over again. Brain on ultra-active. And no more need for costly upgrades.

The more silence there was during the diet, the more intense the music experience becomes afterwards.

A listening recommendation after this period of silence: Riders on the Storm by The Doors perhaps?

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