/ 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.


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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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 ÂŁ40. Sound is vastly improved but what I find really inexplicable is that this option is never mentioned by Which.

Richard says:
10 January 2015

I don’t this sound on a TV is particularly important. We should be using cinema surround to compliment HD recordings. I regard the TV as something that should only convey picture to the highest quality. As for other gadgets on smart TV, I feel that too is a waste of money. We should be selling 4k TV’s for less than ÂŁ500 with no speakers and no other gadgets.

I think the manufacturers should continue to offer a range of different formats at prices in each bracket of a diverse market. Not everybody wants or can afford to have [or has room for, even] a state-of-the-art multi-functional entertainment system and complex interconnexions. The TV picture is only ever going to be as good as the cameras used to make the programmes and most of those are not HD or anything near it. On top of which, as illustrated in a parallel Conversation, the quality of the camera work itself and the editing can ruin a good programme or film. I am pleased that we can still buy a good quality medium-sized general-purpose TV with decent sound for secondary use in homes; theyare needed in workplaces, hotels, and lots of other places. It is disappointing that it has not been possible to match the sound quality to the picture quality with the popular flat-screen sets but we would much rather thave a thinner TV than the top-heavy and bulky boxes that the last generation of CRT sets migrated to. Apart from any other considerations you can now choose whether you want to mount your TV on the wall out of the way or stand it on a piece of furniture. With soundbars coming down in price I think that is a good accessory for those who need better sound. It largely depends on people’s viewing choices and it seems to me that in this case the market does actually respond.

I would like to see some TVs that offer respectable sound without adding sound-bars or cinema sound systems.

As John says, not everyone wants a complex system. One of my friends has a large Panasonic TV and purchased a cinema sound system, more because the sound quality was so poor than because he wanted cinema sound. Following the change of one of the various boxes he has connected to the TV, he was stuck with the built-in TV speakers for many months despite his own efforts at rearranging leads. I could not see the problem and the manuals were perplexing, so I unplugged everything and got everything working again without much need for experimentation.

Let’s get rid of TVs with very poor sound quality. If manufacturers want to sell TVs that need connection to an external sound system (as a radio tuner needs connection to an amplifier and speakers), that’s fine.

MsSupertech says:
10 January 2015

‘Cinema suround’… in my tiny terrace sitting room? I think not… Similarly, a huge screen and soundbar etc would be quite ridiculous even if I had enough space.
On the other hand we CAN appreciate the quality of an HD picture but want better sound than a 32″ set provides. We use the same solution that was mentioned above. We have connected the TV to our small hifi system the speakers sitting beside the set. No cost involved and the sound quality is a vast improvement over the output thought the TV itself.

Dobbodon says:
10 January 2015

If a TV is bought on the attraction of it’s thin styling then it’s unrealistic to consider it anything other than a monitor with minimal audio quality. TV broadcast sound quality has always been a great deal better than that from any TV I’ve ever heard. Before TVs came fitted with RCA audio outputs, even 40 years ago, TV sound tuners were available that could be used with a Hi-Fi system with astonishing results. A ÂŁ50 sound bar or computer speaker system will never do the broadcast quality justice but an alternative solution is available to anyone with a conveniently located stereo system, even a modest ÂŁ200 one, providing it has RCA audio inputs or a stereo jack socket. Although my 8 year old 32″ Panasonic flat screen & newer 19″ Sony Bravia TVs were selected on the strength of their good sound (for TVs) they don’t do justice to film soundtracks or concerts, so when I want to enjoy better sound than my TVs can provide I route the audio to a stereo system, a separates Hi-Fi system in the lounge or mini stereo systems in the bedroom and study.

Terry Reed says:
10 January 2015

Have a look at the Linsar X24-DVD with built in soundbar and it’s Bluetooth – The sound quality knocks the spots off any other small screen TV

Gordon says:
10 January 2015

I read all this stuff about poor sound on flat-screen TVs, all of which (to the best of my knowledge) have rear-facing speakers. Now, if the the 40″ TV that I bought last year had had one (or more) forward-facing speakers fitted at each side, increasing the overall width by (say) a couple of inches each side, I would have still gone for it.
[ These speaker units could be “clip-on/off”,….. so as not to offend the “cinema-sound” wallahs. ]
I think that if manufacturers’ market research found, ten years ago, that customers wanted their TVs to be as narrow as possible, at the expense of everything else…..they just got it wrong.
I suspect that they did not do the research. I suggest that they do the research now.

Because Which?, in assessing TVs, allocated little emphasis to sound quality in the overall assessment, a TV with a good picture (but poor sound) usually qualified for a good “Best Buy ” rating. In other words, in the past Which? almost encouraged poor sound.

Answer is simple – put the sound through your hi-fi. I was given a reasonable ‘flatty’ a year back with blown speakers (previous owner hard at hearing). I connect the TV headphone out to the hi-fi Aux input for good sound quality. Obviously the speakers must be either side of the screen, but that’s no problem.

David Yates says:
11 January 2015

We have three 32″ Panasonic flat screen TVs around the house, all bought in the last two years and their sound is poor which only adds to the poor input audio on some TV programmes. My wife has good hearing and she complains. I wear hearing aids so the problem is even worse.
I emailed Which about 6 months ago about the problem when your report on sound bars appeared and I was considering them as a solution. I received an acknowledgment but nothing more. You didn’t report at the time on sound bars that would be suitable for smaller TVs. Are you going to do so?

There was report in November 2014 Which? on soundbars. Worth checking to see whether it covers your requirements.

Peter says:
11 January 2015

Seeking to improve the sound from our 31″ Sanyo flatscreen tv I looked up the Which survey on soundbars. Disappointed to find that not one of the products mentioned, except the Don’t Buy BOSE Solo at ÂŁ274.95, would fit on the cabinet, all being longer than 70cm. Through other internet searches discovered the Denon DHT-T100, a review gave it 10/10 BEST PRODUCT. Its dimensions and design meant that a TV would stand on top of it. Why was this product, and others suitable for the moderately sized TV not reviewed?

Hi Peter, sorry you couldn’t find a review for the product you were looking for. Because of the cost of testing, we can’t always have the latest models online straight away, or test all available models.
I’ve had a look for you and it seems most sound bars are above 70cm in length so would unfortunately be longer than your TV cabinet. As another option, you could look at wall mounting the sound bar. Many sound bars do come with wall mounting brackets so can be fixed to the wall to save space.

There are a plethora of really good small speakers available: an almost embarrassing choice from below ÂŁ100 to many thousands.

So why not integrate into the TVs a 50W (RMS per channel) amplifier and a pair of speaker binding posts. Let users choose their own level of speakers which they can keep for the subsequent TVs too.

Alternatively, there are many small, self-amplified speakers available too, so just a digital co-ax output would suffice. This is a solution available already as most TVs have a digital output.

I wouldn’t recommend BT (blue tooth) as a solution (though it would be very neat), because of inevitable lip-sync problems due to the BT delay.

Ultimately, with the digital output, the consumer has a wider choice of soundbars (not my favourite solution) or full Hi-Fi surround sound systems.

I think there is merit in offering TVs with built in amplifiers for connection to external speakers.

I’m not sure about 50W RMS output. I hope they would be provided with decent ear defenders. 🙂

Small speakers tend to be inefficient which is why 50 W is reasonable. As there’s a volume control, 50 W opens it to a wide range of suitable speakers.

Robert Beasley says:
11 January 2015

I fully agree with your comments regarding the poor sound quality of most modern flat screen T.Vs. In order to obtain an adequate sound reproduction, my wife and I had to buy a sound bar for both our TVs. I am hard of hearing and even with the sound bar, I often have to use personal headphones in order to hear adequately. One problem with this is that most TVs mute the internal speakers when headphones are plugged in (not much use when others in the room would like to hear the sound and most sound bars not accepting headphones. I found the problem quite difficult to overcome on one of the TVs, with most shops not having a clue as to how to get round the problem. The problem was eventually solved by fitting a splitter so that both appliances could be plugged into the TV.

If your TV has a digitsl output (sp/dif or coaxial) then the ultimatd solution is one of the highend BT headphones like Sennheiser RS220. The sound is sublime and will improve your listening enjoyment.

Paul says:
12 January 2015

In last month’s magazine, it was stated the some TVs “sound like transistor radios”, implying that all transistor radios have poor sound.
In fact, some transistor radios sound good. Also, I think all radios sold now are transistorised ( i.e. they don’t use thermionic valves ).

T ward says:
4 March 2016

Form follows funtion. If you bought a new radio it would have a decent speaker/s. So why can’t a TVs . After all it’s been built in, up until now.
We are supposed to saving power. What power saving rating does a TVs have? And with a so called sound bar?
To make up for an ill conceived design.
If I had designed rubbish like this
I would of been out of a job.

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