“What did he just say?”
Those are some of the most commonly uttered words in my home. No matter how much my wife and I crank up the TV volume, the actors in streaming movies and shows are becoming increasingly difficult to understand. We usually end up turning on the subtitles, even though we aren’t hard of hearing.
We’re not alone. In the streaming era, as video consumption shifts from movie theaters toward content shrunk down for televisions, tablets and smartphones, making dialogue crisp and clear has become the entertainment world’s toughest technology challenge. About 50 percent of Americans — and the majority of young people — watch videos with subtitles on most of the time, according to surveys, in large part because they are struggling to decipher what actors are saying.
“It’s getting worse,” said Si Lewis, who has run Hidden Connections, a home theater installation company in Alameda, Calif., for nearly 40 years. “All of my customers have issues with hearing the dialogue, and many of them use closed captions.”
The garbled prattle in TV shows and movies is now a widely discussed problem that tech and media companies are just beginning to unravel with solutions such as speech-boosting software algorithms, which I tested. (More on this later.)
The issue is complex because of myriad factors at play. In big movie productions, professional sound mixers calibrate audio levels for traditional theaters with robust speaker systems capable of delivering a wide range of sound, from spoken words to loud gunshots. But when you stream that content through an app on a TV, smartphone or tablet, the audio has been “down mixed,” or compressed, to carry the sounds through tiny, relatively weak speakers, said Marina Killion, an audio engineer at the media production company Optimus.
It doesn’t help that TVs keep getting thinner and more minimal in design. To emphasize the picture, many modern flat-screen TVs hide their speakers, blasting sound away from the viewer’s ears, Mr. Lewis said.
There are also issues specific to streaming. Unlike broadcast TV programs, which must adhere to regulations that forbid them from exceeding specific loudness levels, there are no such rules for streaming apps, Ms. Killion said. That means sound may be wildly inconsistent from app to app and program to program — so if you watch a show on Amazon Prime Video and then switch to a movie on Netflix, you probably have to repeatedly adjust your volume settings to hear what people are saying.
“Online is kind of the wild, wild west,” Ms. Killion said.
Subtitles are far from an ideal solution to all of this, so here are some remedies — including add-ons for your home entertainment setup and speech enhancers — to try.
A speaker will help
Decades ago, TV dialogue could be heard loud and clear. It was obvious where the speakers lived on a television — behind a plastic grill embedded into the front of the set, where they could blast sound directly toward you. Nowadays, even on the most expensive TVs, the speakers are tiny and crammed into the back or the bottom of the display.
“A TV is meant to be a TV, but it’s never going to present the sound,” said Paul Peace, a director of audio platform engineering at Sonos, the speaker technology company based in Santa Barbara, Calif. “They’re too thin, they’re downward and their exits aren’t directed at the audience.”
Any owner of a modern television will benefit from plugging in a separate speaker such as a soundbar, a wide, stick-shaped speaker. I’ve tested many soundbars over the last decade, and they have greatly improved. With pricing of $80 to $900, they can be more budget friendly than a multispeaker surround-sound system, and they are simpler to set up.
Last week, I tried the Sonos Arc, which I set up in minutes by plugging it into a power outlet, connecting it to my TV with an HDMI cable and using the Sonos app to calibrate the sound for my living room space. It delivered significantly richer sound quality, with deep bass and crisp dialogue, than my TV’s built-in speakers.
At $900, the Sonos Arc is pricey. But it’s one of the few soundbars on the market with a speech enhancer, a button that can be pressed in the Sonos app to make spoken words easier to hear. It made a big difference in helping me understand the mumbly villain of the most recent James Bond movie, “No Time to Die.”
But the Sonos soundbar’s speech enhancer ran into its limits with the jarring colloquialisms of the Netflix show “The Witcher.” It couldn’t make more fathomable lines like “We’re seeking a girl and a witcher — her with ashen hair and patrician countenance, him a mannerless, blanched brute.”
Then again, I’m not sure any speaker could help with that. I left the subtitles on for that one.
Dialogue enhancers in apps
Not everyone wants to spend more money to fix sound on a TV that already costs hundreds of dollars. Fortunately, some tech companies are starting to build their own dialogue enhancers into their streaming apps.
In April, Amazon began rolling out an accessibility feature, called dialogue boost, for a small number of shows and movies in its Prime Video streaming app. To use it, you open the language options and choose “English Dialogue Boost: High.” I tested the tool in “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” the spy thriller with a cast of especially unintelligible, deep-voiced men.
With the dialogue boost turned on (and the Sonos soundbar turned off), I picked scenes that were hard to hear and jotted down what I thought the actors had said. Then I rewatched each scene with subtitles on to check my answers.
In the opening of the show, I thought an actor said: “That’s right, you stuck the ring on her — I thought you two were trying to work it out.”
The actor actually said, “Oh, sorry, you still had the ring on — I thought the two of you were trying to work it out.”
I had better luck with another scene involving a phone conversation between Jack Ryan and his former boss making plans to get together. After reviewing my results, I was delighted to realize that I had understood all the words correctly.
But minutes later, Jack Ryan’s boss, James Greer, murmured a line that I could not even guess: “Yeah, they were using that in Karachi before I left.” Even dialogue enhancers can’t fix an actor’s lack of enunciation.
The Sonos Arc soundbar was helpful for hearing dialogue without the speech enhancer turned on most of the time for movies and shows. The speech enhancer made words easier to hear in some situations, like scenes with very soft-spoken actors, which could be useful for those who are hearing-impaired. For everyone else, the good news is that installing even a cheaper speaker that lacks a dialogue mode can go a long way.
Amazon’s dialogue booster was no magic bullet, but it’s better than nothing and a good start. I’d love to see more features like this from other streaming apps. A Netflix spokeswoman said the company had no plans to release a similar tool.
My last piece of advice is counterintuitive: Don’t do anything with the sound settings on your TV. Mr. Lewis said that modern TVs have software that automatically calibrate the sound levels for you — and if you mess around with the settings for one show, the audio may be out of whack for the next one.
And if all else fails, of course, there are subtitles.
Brian X. Chen is the lead consumer technology writer for The Times. He reviews products and writes Tech Fix, a column about the social implications of the tech we use. Before joining The Times in 2011, he reported on Apple and the wireless industry for Wired. More about Brian X. Chen
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Huh? What? There Are Ways To Improve the Sound on Your TV?. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
The most likely culprit for poor sound is the TV's tiny speakers. The latest TVs may be able to produce amazing images, but with such thin frames they can also suffer from poor sound quality. If you're using a separate speaker or soundbar, perhaps errant settings are to blame.Why is TV dialogue hard to hear? ›
As the actual physical TVs have thinned in the era of HD screens, most internal speakers are now built at the bottom of the set or backward from the rear; that means that the sound isn't directly going to you, and may be getting dampened or absorbed by the set's surroundings.Can barely hear dialogue in movies? ›
This is because films are created with a reference level for most sounds, but allow for dynamic swings of up to 20 decibels louder. If you adjust the volume down for these swings, it's hard to hear the regular sounds.How do you fix very low dialogue but very loud sound effects on TV? ›
Adjust Your Settings
This could require some trial and error. First look for something called “Dynamic Range Compression” (some TVs have an option called “Night Mode,” which is similar). The idea of this setting is to even out (or compress) loud noises like explosions and softer ones like dialogue.
Make sure the Media volume is turned up on your phone or tablet. Launch the Netflix app and select a movie or TV show. While your movie or TV show is playing, use the volume controls on the side of your device to increase the volume to the desired level.Why can't I understand what people are saying on TV? ›
Consonant sounds tend to be more soft in volume and can often be washed out if a person has some high frequency hearing loss. This can cause the dialogue to sound muffled making it difficult to clearly understand what is being said. In addition to hearing loss, another issue could be the speakers of the TV.Why is Netflix dialogue so quiet? ›
Change your audio settings
If your device is connected directly to your TV, check your Netflix app audio options. If surround sound (5.1) is selected, try changing it to Stereo instead. If you are unsure how to change your Netflix app audio settings, visit our alternate audio article.
Poorly Mixed Audio
composer and sound designer have a script to refer to and have heard the lines dozens of times, they're well familiar with the dialogue and can hear it easily. This can result in them adjusting the background music too loud.
Some movies deliberately mix spoken conversations at a lower level than loud explosions so that the booms have more of an impact in a theater, where the sound system is better and you don't have neighbors to disturb.Why can't I hear voices clearly? ›
Sensorineural hearing loss
Voices may sound slurred or muddy to you, and sounds can come across as either too low or too high. If you cannot distinguish voices from background noise or have difficulty hearing women and children's voices in particular, then you may be experiencing high-frequency hearing loss.
In surround sound speaker systems, most of the main dialog comes from the center channel, while the ambient noises, sound effects and soundtracks come through the left, right and back speakers. So, the key is to make that center channel more audible while perhaps toning down the other speakers.Why is my streaming video and audio out of sync? ›
A slow or unstable internet connection can cause audio lag when streaming video, especially if you are using a wireless network. To check your internet connection, you can use a speed test app or website on your phone or computer. You should have at least 5 Mbps for HD streaming and 25 Mbps for 4K streaming.Why can't i hear voices on HBO Max? ›
Check the volume control in HBO Max and on your computer to make sure they're not muted or set low. If you're using external speakers, check your speaker cables and the volume control. Update your browser to the latest version. To find out how to do this, see Troubleshoot computer.Can hear TV but not understand words? ›
Auditory processing disorders (APD)
For some people, hearing but not understanding may signal an auditory processing disorder (APD). This means the nervous system—not the ears—struggles to make sense of the sounds coming in from the ears. APD is often diagnosed in children, but it also can be diagnosed in adults.
The sound systems in most ultra high definition TVs – with tiny, downward-facing (or backward-facing) speakers – do not sound as good as the sound system in a 1952 Philco black and white TV. The ultra-small, poorly-aimed speakers in flat screen TVs are often incapable of reproducing human speech clearly and accurately.How do I fix the narrator on my TV? ›
- STEP 1 Power the TV On.
- STEP 2 Find the System Option.
- STEP 3 Locate Accessibility Options.
- STEP 4 Select “Narration” or “Audio Guidance” and Turn Off.
- STEP 5 Exit the Menu.