Headphones and fatigue due to online meetings

I have been doing online meetings long before we had the pandemic and lockdown. Over the years the duration of the calls started increasing since I was working for a startup. Once the call durations increased I started feeling a weird kind of exhaustion at the end of every call, and I couldn’t exactly point out the reason behind that.

I was previously using a JBL E65BTNC headset for calls & music, which got damaged due to rough use and got crushed in some bag or something (don’t recall exactly). After that I purchased Razer Tiamat 7.1 V2, a surround headset.

Sometime during the use of the JBL I discovered the Active Noise Cancellation in the JBL headset was causing a kind of ear pressure leading to headache. Perhaps my ears don’t tolerate ANC. This was one of the reasons for buying a headset without ANC. The Razer headsets have good noise isolation.

Once I switched to the Razer headset, it significantly reduced the headache and fatigue problem, but still a little bit of discomfort was there especially after long duration calls. Eventually I discovered that it was because of the audio volume. While listening to music, or say playing a game, you get to listen to studio quality music which doesn’t have any kind of noise and so it is comfortable at higher volumes.

I think the meeting software, Google Meet/Zoom/Teams/etc strip down the audio quality for faster, real-time transmission and/or the quality of audio equipment that others on the call are using are usually not studio quality ones, so that causes more fatigue because the encoding/decoding process adds a bit of noise in it. When you are wearing a headphones with noise isolation or noise cancellation, you tend to notice minor variations in the sound.

Came across this post by Shantanu Goel about why he stopped using headphones for health reasons. I could instantly relate to it, I recently switched jobs and the new company gave me a Macbook which doesn’t support the surround headset I have.

So I was forced to use the Macbook’s speaker & built-in microphone. The M1 Macbook Pro’s speakers are quite good – the volume can fall short a bit if you are in a noisy environment though. I tried recording my Tabla on it and was stunned by the audio quality that got recorded, it doesn’t pick up any background noise in it. I live near a construction site and none of that noise got captured, which is truly amazing. Apple advertises it as a studio quality microphone, quite true to the statement.

Not all seem to agree on the studio quality part though. I guess it all depends on the reference scale, which is often defined by one’s past experience.

So the key learning here is, for long duration meetings use speakers. If not possible use headphones without ANC (or turn off ANC) to reduce fatigue.

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