Sound Advice: Poor TV audio continues to vex readers

  • Article by: DON LINDICH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 6, 2011 - 2:15 PM

Answers to your multimedia questions.

Q Is there a question you get more than any other?

A Yes, I receive a tremendous number of inquiries about TV audio. Readers complain that dialogue is hard to understand and that when the commercials come on they are far louder than the program's volume.

There are two reasons for dialogue being hard to understand.

The first is the way the programs are recorded. "Dynamic range" is the difference between the softest and loudest sounds in recorded audio, be it music, a movie or a TV show. Modern audio recordings have a wide dynamic range, and a DVD or Blu-ray disc has audio recorded with dynamic range comparable to the presentation in a movie theater. When the average home users turn up the volume to the point where the loudest parts aren't too loud for them, the dialogue is too soft because it is recorded at a much lower level. This has an effect on the commercial volume, as well. More on that later.

The second is the transition to flat-panel televisions. In the days of tube and projection TVs, the television had one or more speakers of decent size pointing directly at the viewer. Almost all flat-panels now have perfectly smooth front bezels with tiny speakers facing downward or to the sides, a much poorer arrangement if you want acceptable sound.

I don't seem to get dialogue complaints from readers who have a sound system connected to the television, although the problems with commercials' volume remain.

Why are commercials so loud? They are recorded at a much higher average sound level, effectively turning up the volume of your TV dramatically. When you turn up the TV to hear the dialogue in shows, the commercials can startle you when they come on.

Broadcasters know what is going on as advertisers toy with the average volume levels. Surely, the networks have the means to correct the problem by equalizing and adjusting the audio before broadcast. Why they don't do this is beyond me, other than not wanting to offend their advertisers. I would think you wouldn't want to annoy people you are trying to attract as customers by making their TV watching miserable, but the practice remains.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Last year Congress passed legislation giving the FCC until Dec. 15 to come up with rules to regulate commercial volume. It must start enforcing them by Dec. 15, 2012.

In the meantime, check your television, disc player or audio receiver for a setting called Dynamic Range Control, DRC or Midnight Mode. This will compress the dynamic range, which will mostly make dialogue more understandable. It won't help much with the commercials, though.

Submit questions and read past columns at www.soundadviceblog.com.

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