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Can't Hear That Holiday Movie Dialog? Check These TV Sound Settings

Don't let muffled speech ruin family TV time.

a father and daughter on a terrace play a game on a TV set above a fireplace.
Samsung

This story is part of 12 Days of Tips, helping you make the most of your tech, home and health during the holiday season.

This holiday season you might have plans to enjoy a holiday special or Christmas movie with friends and family. Before you plop down in front of the TV with your loved ones, however, it pays to check your TV. sound settings. Muffled or incomprehensible dialogue can have a number of causes but relax, there are some easy fixes too.

The most likely culprit is tiny TV speakers. The latest TVs may be able to produce amazing images, but they can also suffer from poor sound quality. If you're using a separate speaker or a soundbar, perhaps errant settings are to blame. Yes, you can always enable subtitles on your TV, but if you don't want to have to read the whole time, or you want to have the set on in the background, then it's sound quality we need to fix. Let's begin.

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1. Check your TV's sound settings

TV speakers often sound terrible, but most TVs have settings you can use to improve their audio. For example, recently some friends called me to fix their TV sound -- they said the dialogue was boomy and hard to understand. Upon arriving, I found the soundtrack was distorting at anything but the quietest levels. A look inside the settings uncovered why: Someone had created a weird Custom mode that had the bass jacked all the way up.

TV calibration

Fine-tuning your TV sound settings can make dialogue sound much more understandable.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Bass in particular is the enemy of understandable speech: It tends to hide the frequencies that help us decipher what people are saying. Rather than play with individual bass and treble controls, the easiest thing to do is to try the preset sound modes first. 

1. Use your remote to access the TV's settings menu, then look for a section called Audio, Sound or something similar.

2. At the top of the menu should be a selection of presets such as Movie, User or Standard

3. While watching a speech-heavy show or movie, cycle through the modes to see which ones sound best. 

If you're finding the dialogue is mumbly, for example, try a Dialog, News or Speech Boost mode. If that's not available, Movie or Standard is the next best option.

Also, disabling audio enhancements like Bass Boost or Surround, which often harm dialogue, or Night Mode, which can help (or not). Every TV and every room sounds different, so it's worthwhile to experiment.

If your TV has one, you can also try reducing the individual bass control like I did in the example above. A little boost to treble may also help improve intelligibility. Once you've got the audio as good as you can, simply exit the menu. Press "save" if the TV asks you to, but otherwise you're all set.

2. Have a soundbar or speaker system? Try these tweaks

External speakers will sound better than what's built into your TV, but they may need a little tweaking to help with dialogue too. Your speakers might be too close to the wall, for instance, or stuffed inside a cabinet. There could be other causes -- for example, if you find that people's lips are moving but speech isn't correlating, you may need help with a lip-sync issue

Here are some common fixes for bad sound, and they don't cost a cent. First, simply pick the kind of system that you have:

Soundbar

As with TVs in step 1, try setting the soundbar to a speech-enhancing mode, Movie or Standard.

If your system has a subwoofer, it could be too loud compared to the rest of the system. While explosions are fun, they shouldn't be at the expense of a good story. If you have a separate bass or sub control, try turning it down. You can also try placing the sub in an optimal position with this guide.

003-klipsch-reference-theater-pack

The Klipsch Reference Theater Pack is a set of ultracompact 5.1 surround speakers with a wireless subwoofer.

Sarah Tew/CNET

AV or stereo system with speakers

If you have tower or bookshelf speakers, try moving them away from the walls and corners, and then point or "toe" them in towards the middle where you sit. Removing speaker grilles will also boost speech by a small amount. These little changes alone won't be enough to transform Sly Stallone into Laurence Olivier, but could be enough to discern what an actor is mumbling about.

The other thing to try is a calibration -- whether via your receiver's menu or app, or manual. I prefer to do a manual calibration by ear as automated routines almost always need manual tinkering anyway. See CNET's guide to improving sound quality with your phone.

3. Buy a new soundbar

If the previous options aren't cutting it for you, it may be time to invest in some new equipment. Thankfully excellent soundbars aren't very expensive, and almost anything will sound better than a TV speaker. The Roku Streambar, for example, is affordable and offers HDMI connections and an onboard 4K streamer. Vizio also makes an excellent range of soundbars.

Read more: Best Soundbars to Enhance TV Dialogue

There are some soundbars specifically designed to make speech more intelligible. For instance, when Zvox branched out into hearing aid design the company brought the tech to its range of AccuVoice soundbars. The company has models starting at $100, and it includes the flagship Zvox AV357.

Zvox AV357
Pricing not available

Going the next step and buying a surround system also has added benefits -- especially if the system has a dedicated center channel speaker. In surround mixes dialogue often comes primarily from the center channel, and being able to increase its volume independently can really help.

More sound system recommendations