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Why is the sound of flat panel TV’s so bad and what can be done about it?

It is unfortunate that as flat panel TV picture quality has soared and their prices declined, the audio quality has sunken with the prices!  Many people find the audio in new TV’s to be “thin” or “tinny”, and movie dialog can be difficult to understand.  Why has this happened?  Manufacturers focus on making TV’s with great picture quality in smaller/thinner cabinets at the lowest possible price.  This leaves little space left in the cabinet and money in the budget for speakers.  Since people rarely “listen” to a TV when making a buying decision this makes sense.  Some clients have commented that the sound quality of a “modern” TV, is inferior to a 20 year old, smaller screen, heavy weight, “tube” TV.

 

An irony is that with the improvement due to HD picture quality there has been a corresponding improvement in the available audio quality as well.  First to Dolby Digital surround on DVD and HD broadcasts then to Blu-ray with even higher resolution audio.  So what are your options if you want great, good, or simply acceptable audio from a flat-panel TV system?

 

The obvious choice is a surround sound audio system to get the full benefit of modern video formats.  However, a good surround system is somewhat expensive to purchase and install and that is not necessary for a secondary TV (think bedroom) or if movies are not your main interest.  There are alternatives to surround that sound good, but before discussing these, lets briefly explain why surround sound sytems are pricey.

 

Surround sound systems are expensive simply because they have so many speakers — at least 6 (Left, center, right, 2 surrounds and a subwoofer) and as many as eight speakers.  Unlike TV’s and other electronics, speakers don’t follow the steep price/performance gains from newer technology.  While speaker designs improve over time, it’s a slow process.  A good pair of stereo speakers today costs about the same as 25 years ago!

 

So, if you’re on a budget that cannot support 6 good speakers or don’t need/want surround, what can you do?  One approach is to use small, cheap surround speakers.  There are a variety of “home-theater-in-a-box” (HTIB) systems that do just that.  They cost $400-$1,000 for a group of small speakers often with simple receiver to drive them and sometimes a basic DVD player.  While these produce surround audio, they sound bad!  Like most things, you get what you pay for in Audio/Video and these systems have cut every corner to keep the cost low.  We find its far better to install a good pair of stereo speakers and avoid HTIB surround systems.  This yields a system with good stereo sound for TV, movies, and music.

 

Another approach is to use a “sound-bar”, a single long speaker placed under the TV that has multiple independent speakers.  The better soundbars accept and reproduce actual surround sound, some reflecting the side and rear channels off side walls.  Soundbars have two other features the are highly desirable; they are easy to install, and don’t clutter the room with lots of speakers.  We have only found a few of these products that provide good performance.  Some soundbars are low-performing products that are stripped down versions of the HTIB.  The better products yield surprisingly good results for about a third of the cost of a full surround system.

 

In summary, if you have a tight budget that doesn’t support a full surround system, or simply want better sound from a secondary TV, there are some good solutions.  Assisting clients is making the best decision for their situation, then getting it properly installed and setup is a big part of our job and perhaps the most satisfying part.


12 Comments

  1. gary thomas

    I have a sound bar that does not attach to my set. The cables are
    incompatible. What can I do?

  2. Hi Gary:
    If you still need help, call us at 919-338-0921. You may need an adapter like analog to toslink depending on your TV. We have successfully used these and know where you can find the appropriate adapters.

    • prakash

      well go to settings of audio in led tv and set terrible to very low value and bass to decent value also can use external decent speakers hope it helps!!!!!

  3. Read your article on how to fix the puny sound quality from these new thin televisions, and that you only found two of the sound bars that produced sound worth having, but you did not say which ones they were ;/ Could you please let me/us know what those were? Thanks
    Jan Gordon

    • Hi Jan:
      At this time there are a handful of Sound bars that we sell and feel offer good performance.

      The Sono’s Playbar is very, very good. It is much more than enhancing audio from a TV, it is a complete digital music system. It can also be a simple sound bar or grow to a full 5.1 surround system.

      For entry level, The Polk sound bars are solid – we sell the model that retails for about $500, I believe it is the 6000 series.

      We have sold Yamaha and they are unique in that they can create a true surround field by reflecting sound off the walls. Cost starts about $900.

      Finally, the Monitor Audio sound bar is quite nice, very musical. Its costs is about $1600 and it is physically large, but sounds great.

      Hope this helps.

  4. I just recently connected two existing Stereo tuners to both of my flat panel TV’s. All you need is a simple audio cable. Then hit the auxiliary switch on your tuner. It improved my TV sound dramatically. It’s a great option if you happen to have a sound system near your TV. I already had audio cables too, so this cost me absolutely nothing!

    • Yes, almost any audio system will have better sound than the TV speakers. A good surround sound system is complex and a serious investment. A simple stereo audio system with a couple decent speakers can greatly improve your enjoyment of TV audio programs. You do have to adjust the volume with the audio remote, but you may be able to program a Cable/Sat remote with the volume/mute codes for your audio system.

  5. Hi,
    Given your expertise, I’m hoping you can back up a theory of mine. It seems to me that the sound output of a flat panel TV’s built-in speakers is shriller and more audible in adjacent rooms when compared to a decent auxiliary sound system. Generally, in order for dialog to be intelligible, I think a viewer tends to pump the levels more with small speakers, which is made even worse because of the higher and tinnier frequencies that small speakers rely on.

    If you haven’t already guessed, this theory of mine applies to a small domestic issue… My roommate, bafflingly, prefers the TV speakers to our surround sound system. Probably because he doesn’t want to pick up an extra remote control. So I’m hoping the physics supports my case when I argue that it’s noisier in my room when he uses the TV speakers versus the surround sound. Haha.

    • You are probably correct Tracer. Audio is very subjective and people have very different opinions and preferences.
      Good luck with the roommate.

  6. Actually, I had that very problem when we moved to a larger home, and we wanted to keep the character of the room without turning it into a home cinema. I got an idea to use a beautiful older style stereo, which we bought inexpensively in the local antiques shop. We are both VERY happy with this solution – it looks great and sounds very good. I have prepared a brief guide on how to do it: http://greathomeprojects.blogspot.com/2015/12/3-big-sound-for-your-flat-screen-tv-in.html

  7. M. Alanazi

    I did what JC did. Which is hooking up my new TV to my existing mini system (samsung MAX-L65)all I needed was a 3.5mm to a Y RCA cable and i was good to go.

    cost: 10$

  8. Gary Bracewell

    I have a new RCA flat screen full HDTV. I have used HDMI to connect to my Panasonic Home Theater Audio System. However, I am unable to switch the sound from the the TV speaker to the external speakers. My owners manual does not seem to address the procedure to do this. Can you offer any solution to get sound out of the external speakers?

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