Best Low Fatigue Setups

This topic is to discuss setups that provide a high quality and low fatigue listening experience.

I sometimes listen to headphones for long periods, and regularly upgrade or side grade or down grade in search of comfort over several hours. Today I stumbled on a setup that caused literally no discomfort at all:

  • Aeon Flow Closed (AFC) headphones
  • Bravo Audio V2 amp (with a Groove Tubes GT-12AU7)
  • FiiO Q5 (DAC only line out)

The V2 did soften both the high and low end–tending toward a middle focus. However, I think it was also a synergy between the planar drivers and that specific amp. The AFC are gentle, but not the same with the more defined Massdrop CTH or a solid state amp.

I’d ignored that old V2 for a long time…“Distort-o-Matic”…“Little Shocker”…“Dust Magnet”…“Help me, I’ve fallen off the shelf again”…but it has my attention now.

Other ideas and experiences?


I’m really interested in what people are using too. I’ve been listening to my custom JH Audio Layla at work, but even they get a bit much after a couple hours. I think I need a closed back, over ear headphone but don’t want to give up on quality. Maybe the HD820?

I love my LCD-4 at home but I think any Audeze model is going to be too heavy for work… Not to mention expensive.

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For me, the first step in low fatigue is either a high quality (think vinyl) source, or a source of such low quality that I ignore sonic quality for content (news, spoken word, audible).

I find that crossfeed reduces fatigue for me. I like the Bauer Stereophonic to Binaural algorithm, with a 650 Hz cutoff frequency and 9.5 dB of crossfeed.

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Both the iSine and the regular Sine with a pad change can be quite comfortable for a long period of time and sound excellent in my opinion. They are much smaller than the rest of the Audeze stable though.

I can also listen to my HE560 for hours without fatigue. But that’s probably my upper limit for weight longevity.

While ear buds get a bad rap, there are many newer ones that are excellent and they can sit in my ears for hours upon hours and can probably sleep with them on if I wanted.

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That’s not what I’m getting at here. I’m talking about fatigue that follows from the internal structure of music. I listen to the exact same sources through different amps, DACs, and headphones but the fatigue factor varies. Some setups (e.g., the extremely bright Grado SR-80e) typically cause stress/fatigue/pain within seconds no matter the track quality.

All of my current sources are digital: ripped lossless red book CDs, high quality compressed, and commercial compressed (i.e., Apple, Google; I have but avoid the poor quality Amazon digital music).

I lump music into three fatigue categories for marathon listening sessions: (1) little or no risk of fatigue, (2) moderate risk of fatigue, and (3) inherently fatiguing. My goal is to move everything closer to #1 but maintain quality, and lengthen the time before I need a break.

1. Low fatigue risk

  • Female vocal soloists
  • Classical guitar
  • Piano
  • Most Folk/Celtic
  • Smooth pop/soft rock with buttery production (e.g., Paul Simon, Eagles)

2. Moderate fatigue risk

  • Violins (especially massed in an orchestra; high frequency sounds)
  • Brass - can be extremely harsh through some systems
  • Pop standards/orchestral - as typically incorporating violins and brass
  • Distorted electric guitar - most rock and pre-1980 heavy metal
  • Electronica and synth pop

3. Inherently fatiguing

  • Rapid changes in volume (e.g., driving bass, “wa wa” EDM flutter)
  • Extreme compression (e.g., abrupt volume onset vs. natural sound; square vs. sine waves)
  • Massive distortion (e.g., post-1980 heavy metal; Mesa/Boogie amps used after Metallica)
  • Intentional noise (e.g., Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine)
  • Poor studio recordings (e.g., cheap pro equipment common until the 1980s; early Clash and Replacements)
  • Poor live recordings with multiple echoes
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WOW! A lot to think about here. Of course the chain makes a difference. Marathon listening sessions? I checked your public profile. And I didn’t find you in the intros. What do you do for a living? Does it involve headphones?

Otherwise, my first thought is about the patient that went to his doctor, demonstrating “It hurts when I do this!” and the doctor replies “Well then don’t do that.”

Your low fatigue risk category is interesting. You’ll note de-emphasis of high frequency like cymbals. I’m not sure why male vocalists would not fall into this category - Mel Torme, Sinatra, Pavarotti. But “Margaret Thatcher Sings!” That’s fine. [humor alert] I find the Eagles to be fatiguing. One more Hotel California and I’ll get nausea.

Inherently fatiguing. Poor sound setups are fatiguing. Poor live venues and performances mixes don’t have to be recorded to cause serious ear fatigue. Add amplification, and it’s always worse. An orchestra in a theater with poor acoustics will be bad, but any electric/electronic instruments always seem worse to me. I’m talking live, not recorded here.

Rapid changes in volume - do you find a good Mahler recording to be fatiguing? (That’s a real question).
I find intentional noise to be fatiguing because well done it requires concentration. Think Paul Hindemith’s industrial music or the Beatles “Revolution Number 9”. I like the Orb from their middle period (Cydonia) and don’t find their mix quite as fatiguing - but they don’t have too many rapid volume changes.

I could go on with questions here. But getting to your point about the hardware chain. My favorite headphones are electrostatics. But I think the least fatiguing are Planar-Magnetics from the limited selection I have heard. The highest quality dynamics I own are Sennheiser HD-580s, and they will cause more fatigue than the HiFiman HE560s. I understand your point about lower end Grados. They have a signature clarity in and perhaps emphasis in the frequencies you appear to be most sensitive to.

One of the interesting Moderate category is “Distorted Electric Guitar”. I would be curious if you find Jimi Hendrix to be less fatiguing than other artists. From other reading, I seem to recall that typical musical instrument speakers at least in the past - had high inherent distortion. Jimi rather famously used to output his guitar through Leslie’s and not regular guitar speakers. They have an entirely different profile and sound. All of the distortion you hear from Jimi is that which he really tried to create - including the feedback.

I am not at all certain that analog sources are inherently less fatiguing than digital. I find that most of my analog was done in an analog chain, but I don’t know about remastered recordings. I sometimes have an old vinyl album and a new remastered one that probably has digital in the mixing, and the new one sounds overall better. Generally, I find live and analog sources to be less fatiguing than digital, but unless you are at an outdoor festival, you don’t have marathon sessions, and even there, bands change and there are less intense sonic times.

Let me go back to your first post. “I sometimes listen to headphones for long periods, and regularly upgrade or side grade or down grade in search of comfort over several hours.”

I think that the break and change of signatures reduces fatigue in itself.

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I can definitely listen to my HD650’s for hours on end of fatigue free listening. The music played does play a factor in bringing on fatigue whatever headphones you use though. Some mellow Jazz or Classical music is great as is easy listening middle of the road stuff from any decade with regards popular stuff. Of course volume matters too. If it’s too loud, then even if your listening to a Nun fart it will be fatiguing. (sorry for the analogy of it offends anyone).:grinning:


Yeah, I keep a low profile online. Just a personal preference. I’m blessed with a natural curiosity about everything and cursed with a memory for everything too (good and bad).

I’ve been using headphones to retrain/improve my hearing. It works for me–objectively, per what I now hear on recordings and from live instruments.

I find classical and jazz to be extremely demanding (spiritual cousins to some heavy metal sub-genres), and often distracting. To me, the fatigue seems to follow from the magnitude of the changes, not the suggestion of change. Mainstream productions tend to cut off the sharp corners and roll off the ends. This provides the tone without the stress–and easy accessibility.

My Bloody Valentine’s noise pop album “Loveless” is famous for many reasons, including giving the author Kevin Shields permanent tinnitus.

That’s good to hear. I’m shifting my attention toward planars after getting the Aeon Flow Closed. I’ve yet to get a mortgage to buy an electrostatic. :wink:

He’s in the moderate category and really no different than anyone from the same era. His sounds and feedback are very unconventional, but the production is smooth and pretty conventional (i.e., sharp corners cut off).

I’ve gone digital out of convenience and having little patience for analog systems. The really bad digital artifacts of the 1980s and 1990s have been resolved, and I’d fail a blind test today. No question.

Yes, for sure. My point is to let the music flow while I’m working and in the zone.

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