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How to amplify the dialogue from your HDTV (Morrison's Mailbag)

Reader John asks if there's a way to make dialogue more intelligible on his TV. Geoff Morrison helps him out.

CNET reader John asks:

I am a senior. My hearing abilities are deteriorating and I expect there are a lot of others with the same problem. Background music in a lot of programming drowns out the voice. Higher frequency and soft voices are more difficult to understand.

I would like to know if there is any way to control the audio portion of a HD cable TV signal? Would a home theater sound system give you any control?

I know I may require hearing aids eventually but was wondering about an interim solution. If control is not an option, would headphones work?

Thanks for your help,

I can't speak to the question of hearing aids, but as far as TV audio is concerned, it's not entirely your ears.

The problem is: all TV speakers are crap. Many people can't hear dialogue from their TV speakers. Fortunately, there are several solutions.

The problem
There are multiple reasons why dialogue is so hard to hear on modern TVs. The first problem is the programming itself. Most TV shows have 5.1 surround-sound audio. OK, most quality shows have 5.1 audio. Those reality shows could be mono and no one would notice.

When all those channels get converted to the two in your TV, level issues from the downmix can arise. In theory it shouldn't, but in practice it does.

The bigger problem is the TV itself. Audio is so far down the list of priorities for TV manufacturers that it's doubtful they'd be able to care less. TV speakers add pennies to the cost of a television, and design aesthetics being what they are (thin everything), there is just no room for speakers large enough to create quality audio. Despite how certain companies have misled, physics aren't optional. Tiny speakers will always sound like crap.

So it comes down to needing to augment your TV's audio.

From best to worst:

Solution No. 1: A home theater system
If you get a receiver and separate speakers you can increase the volume of the center channel (where all the dialogue is). In addition, the separate center channel will be less burdened by other sound, such as music. If you get a decent speaker system, it will be way better than the crappy TV speakers.

This will likely solve your problem. It isn't the cheapest option, but the good news is that even if you replace your TV, your audio system will still work great.

Check out CNET's picks for AV receivers and speakers.

Solution No. 2: Sound bars
A sound bar is a simple solution, though not quite as good as separate speakers. These single bars have multiple drivers, and usually separate tweeters, and are often a big step up from the built-in TV audio.

I haven't heard many of the cheap models. I heard the Atlantic Technology PowerBar 235 at the CEDIA Expo, and it sounded good.

Check out CNET's page on sound bars.

CNET editor Matthew Moskovciak also recommends checking out the Zvox Z-Base 580 and Zvox Z-Base 555. They're not perfect and they're a little pricey, but they're geared toward making dialogue intelligible and have specific sound-processing modes to enhance dialogue.

The problem with most sound bars is you generally don't have specific, per-channel level control. So the audio itself will be better than from your TV alone, but dialogue may not be that much more intelligible. And sound bars with dialogue-booster EQs should be tried before you buy. They may do weird things to the audio.

Solution No. 3: Headphones
In most cases, headphones will get you better audio, but as with sound bars you're still not separating out the dialogue.

The ideal is to get audio at the same total volume, just with more intelligible dialogue. Solution No. 1 unquestionably does that, Nos. 2 and 3 less so.

Solution No. 4: Audio adjustments on the TV
In your TV's menu there may be dialogue or other audio adjustments that will help out. These features are rare, though, and I doubt they'd help in this particular case. Still, they're worth looking for, as if they did help at least it'd be a free fix.

Anyone else have some ideas for John? Have you found you're having a similar problem? Post your solution in the comments below.

Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. plasma, active versus passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.