/ Technology

Q: What’s flat and sounds like a tin?

A: Too many TVs. Here’s our chief executive, Peter Vicary-Smith, challenging TV manufacturers to bring sound quality into the 21st century. And we’ve already seen improvements from some brands…

Recently I’ve been reflecting on an issue raised by Which? member Mr Kitchen at our recent annual general meeting. It struck me as an example of technology moving one step forward and two steps back – leaving consumers to foot the bill for the shortfall.

We live in a world where technology has achieved the almost inconceivable; where scientists have landed a probe on a comet travelling at 40,000mph. Yet when it comes to mid-priced TV sets, too many manufacturers are churning out sleek, modern TVs with state-of-the-art flatscreens – and the sound quality of a transistor radio. (Some, of course, have both terrible picture and sound quality – see the inappropriately named Cello).

Looking for the up-sell

A few years ago, manufacturers took their eye off sound quality to focus on flatscreen picture technology. TVs all shrank to the thickness of a sandwich, speakers suffered and sound quality took a dive. Companies didn’t seem bothered – they appeared to seize the opportunity to sell people a soundbar to make up for their sets’ deficient sound. And in some cases – particularly for TVs priced at around £500 or less – the problem persists.

In 2014, around 20% of the TVs we tested scored two stars or less for sound quality, and all but one costs less than £500. Sound quality at this level means you won’t be able to pick out actors’ voices easily in dramas, for example. Picture quality is generally fine on these models.

Don’t go on looks alone

Several brands – notably LG, Samsung and Sony – made improvements after we reported on poor sound quality. Currently, at the higher end of the market, sound is generally fine, and in the mid-price range some manufacturers are managing to turn out TVs with great pictures and great sound – the £500 Best Buy Samsung UE48H6200, for example. So why can’t the rest do it?

The impressive-looking sound-letdown models tend to be discounted in the sales – so if you’re looking for a TV this January, don’t fall for a huge screen at a bargain price – and take Which? reviews with you.

Comments
Member

The problem is small speakers can never take the place of larger ones when applied to modern flat-screen tvs. Where do you put the speaker ? Most buyers want a thin framed model as that looks more up to date as well as presenting a better image to the eyes . Most speakers are still moving coil which get worse in frequency response the smaller they get . I have yet to see small speakers with a flat diaphragm and no voice coil ,like my Sony APM speakers of the 1980,s . AS you see in adverts now manufacturers have got round the problem by selling Sound Bars which are now heavily advertised as “upmarket” sound quality, costing from £50 upwards. Putting a speaker rear facing (in the back of the TV) muffles the high frequency content . A solution that I have is to integrate it with your hi-fi system this presupposes that yours is good quality -separate quality amp and real hi-fi speakers (Tannoy ) this gives all the highs and lows missing from midget speakers . These small speakers could be fitted with integral amps to contour the signal to make it better sounding ,but who is going to pay a high price for them ?

Member
T Ward says:
9 June 2015

NOT everybody has a HI Fi system.
My elderly father needed a new TV to replace his old CRT tv. The picture quality is brilliant on the new TVs but, a big BUT. He could Not hear the sound.
His comment was I want my old TV back. I had to agree with him.
If the speakers are now going to be the largest components in a modern TV, cant the design start with a bulge at the base of the TV. After all if you are going to end up with a VERY LARGE BULGE ANYWAY, in the form of a so called Sound Bar. Yes I am angry.
Extra clutter, power and expense.

Member

I remember listening to a Which? Tech podcast in Feb 2012 explaining that Which? had downgraded its TV sound quality rating as a result of the move from CRT to flat-screen TV. I made a comment on Conversation and Jack Turner reassured me that Which? is paying attention to sound quality in their reviews, so it is great that Peter has published the current Conversation.

I would like to buy a new TV and have been listening to some of the ones in shops and purchased recently by friends. By far the worst I encountered was a Cello model, which Peter mentions in his introduction, but I’m now reconciled to buying a sound bar as well as a TV.

Member

Yes sound quality has gone down and the biggest sound quality dive is by our very own government who years ago decided everything was going digital and that included digital radio . As we all know that went down like a lead weight thrown in the water . Why because FM which has been upgraded over 60 years massively out performed the new digital radio in quality of reproduction and all the Hi-Fi mags agreed as did the majority of the general public . Remember those radios costing £150 or more back then ? You can hardly give them away now. I spent a good bit of my life building high quality mos-fet power amps and pre-amps as well as repair them digital chips just dont compare with analogue equipment built by hand. Yes a expensive DAC can do a good job but how many people have one in their car or house ? Some power chips have low distortion but fail in other areas of hi-fi- like transient time and other factors.

Member

Duncan – The most common cause of poor sound quality is small speakers. My 1967 transistor radio delivers better sound than some current TVs and radios, simply because it has a decent sized speaker. Since the days of early black & white TV it’s been known that speakers need to face forward. My early flat-screen TV does have forward-facing speakers, but you can’t have that with modern sets where the screen is as wide as the case.

With digital radio, part of the problem is that we have so many DAB channels shoehorned into the limited bandwidth. I agree that some of the hardware is very poor, but much of the criticism of DAB radio relates to poor reception rather than sound quality. If I want to listen to music on Radio 3 at home I will use my 1980s FM tuner with an external aerial, but for use in the car and for portable sets, DAB is fine and provides useful information about programmes.

Member

Wave-change read my first post the first thing I say is Small speakers can never take the place of larger ones . You mention speaker need to face forward I said speakers need to face forward putting a speaker in the back of the tv muffles the high frequency sound and no I am still not convinced about the “superior ” quality of digital radio .

Member

Sorry Duncan, I missed your earlier post. I’m certainly not claiming that digital radio has better sound quality, but having the choice of DAB and FM gives us choice. That’s important if you are dependent on a built-in aerial and reception could be a problem. I won’t pursue this further because our topic is the poor sound quality of flat-screen TVs. When so much effort has been placed on improving picture quality, it’s really disappointing that sound quality has been sacrificed.

Member

I bought a 40″ Sony Smart TV a few years ago which did not have brilliant sound & I was amazed at the exorbitant price of sound bars that I looked at. The simple & relatively low cost solution I have adopted is to buy a set of Logitech PC speakers with an independently adjustable bass unit for about £40. Sound is vastly improved but what I find really inexplicable is that this option is never mentioned by Which.

Member
Richard says: