If you've ever sat on the sofa straining to hear the hushed conversation in the latest detective thriller, you're not alone. Not being able to hear your TV well is a common complaint, but what's to blame and how to do you fix it?
Flatscreen TVs are much maligned for having thin speakers that lack the power of the deeper ones inside the colossal big-box CRT TVs of yesteryear, but it would be unfair to lay all blame at modern TV's narrow feet.
Here we explain some of the causes of poor sound, take you through the settings you can adjust to improve it and help you find out if your own hearing may be stopping you from enjoying your favourite shows to the fullest.
Sometimes it's the TV. Some models are woeful, with thin sound that has about as much punch as a snake’s hiss – but that's not always the case. Each year we test TVs with expansive, rich audio that strikes a beautiful balance between the low and high tones, with plenty of mid-range in between to carry melody.
To find the root of the problem we need to look a little deeper.
A major complaint with TV sound is the extreme differences between dialogue and action sequences. A common scenario finds people constantly adjusting volume to compensate for the spikes and lulls in loudness. Characters conversing is too quiet so the volume goes up. But if it's followed by an action sequence or something with booming background music, then it's far too loud and the volume needs to drop again; until the next conversation.
These extremes are caused by something called ‘dynamic range’. It’s a technique used by sound mixers to inject some excitement into what you’re watching, and better convey the difference between quiet and loud sounds.
A grenade explosion is more than eleven times louder than speech. Even if a TV could output this 180-decibel blast, you wouldn’t want it to – it could pop your eardrums. So to achieve that sense of loudness, other aspects – such as speech – are made quieter.
A cinema, with its plethora of speakers, can handle these shifts. But a TV will have a harder time coping.
This brings us to the second part of the problem. To a certain degree, a TV is at the mercy of how sound is mixed. Just as a video editor cuts the visual action to create a sense of flow and drama, a sound editor adjusts audio levels to articulate tone and atmosphere.
Fear not though, TVs aren’t completely at the mercy of uncompromising sound editors and ferocious mixes. There are settings that can mitigate the issue without you needing to buy anything new.
As well as settings you can tweak, some TVs have additional technology that can make your listening experience that bit better. Check if your TV has these, or choose a TV that does the next time you buy one.
For anyone with hearing loss, treble can be the most difficult pitch to hear. The two audiologists we spoke to for this guide told us that trouble hearing TV dialogue was one of the most common reasons for people to visit a hearing clinic.
The staggering amount of choice of what to watch makes choosing something difficult enough. If there's more disagreement over what volume is best, then a hearing test could be in order for you or a family member.
But ultimately, if you can't hear your TV, even with the volume turned right up, then speak to your GP or head to a hearing clinic for a full test.
A diagnosis of hearing loss doesn't mean you'll be straining to hear your TV or reading subtitles for years to come. We spoke to the RNID (Royal National Institute for Deaf People) to see what specialist devices are available to help people hear their TV.
There are other devices to consider, too, such as the Bellman Maxi Pro streaming device. It uses portable microphones that boost the sound of whatever you put them near – whether that’s your TV, radio or dinner-table conversation. They work with hearing aids and headphones.
TV manufacturers are getting in on the act, too. The Sony Wireless Handy TV Speaker SRS-LSR20 looks like a radio, but it's designed for TV audio. It’s like a sound bar that the person with hearing problems places close to where they’re sitting, rather than putting it under the TV.
We've picked out a few devices that do a solid job of picking out dialogue.