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Are Blu-ray movies too loud?

Today's movies have tremendous dynamic range and that's great, but should there also be a compressed audio option on Blu-ray soundtracks?

Steve Guttenberg

Admit it: you'd love to watch movies at home that never get too loud or too quiet. You'd never have to lunge for the remote when the villain's plane crashes, to turn the sound down. We want movies that always have the same volume, like music, where the volume never changes. We like it that way, right? Why should movies be any more dynamic than music?

Now, sure, most receivers and sound bars have some sort of "Night Mode" scheme to compress movies' soft-to-loud volume shifts. Some receivers include more sophisticated volume-leveling processors such as Dolby Volume and Audyssey Dynamic Volume, but you have to delve into the receiver's pesky setup menus to turn them on or off. And, unfortunately, processors tend to dull and otherwise mess up the sound. For my late-night sessions I just turn the volume down, and that works well enough for me.

Here's another way to try to reduce the volume and still hear what the actors are saying: turn up just the center channel speaker's volume to improve dialogue intelligibility. You will then be able to listen at a much lower overall volume (this strategy works best on systems that let you adjust individual speaker/channel volume levels on the remote). You might also try turning your subwoofer off at night, and that will surely reduce the chances of the movie's sound disturbing sleeping family members.

The true source of the "problem" is that movies are mixed at "reference level," which most people would find too loud at any time of day at home where you're 10 feet away from the speakers. Movies are mixed to be listened to at high volume in movie theaters, and that's fine, but the studios should also produce a separate, director-approved "Late Night" sound mix for the Blu-ray or DVD. That mix would sound great at very quiet volume levels. Think about it: over the long term more people will see the movie at home at night than they did in theaters, so why not produce a mix for them? The standard, fully dynamic mix would still be there on the Blu-ray or DVD for those who want the original theatrical mix. Let people choose the mix that works for them.

The Late Night mix would surely sound better than applying any sort of one-size-fits-all processing to squash soft-to-loud volume shifts. Music, on the other hand, has the opposite problem: it has no dynamic range, instead being mixed to always be the same volume. The same two-mix strategy would be great for music -- the record companies should produce two mixes (dynamic and compressed) for every album. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.