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Flatscreen TVs can’t beat CRT TV sound – but do you care?

CRT TV sound

Did you sit down to watch the Queen’s Christmas Broadcast yesterday? Did it sound a bit tinnier than 10 years ago? That’s probably not her fault, but the flatscreen TV you’ve got…

Whether it may be public transport or pop concerts, it’s easy for older generations to look back with a feeling that standards have gone down since the ‘good old days’.

Sometimes this notion is forged from misty nostalgia, but sometimes it’s based in cold hard facts. We always say in our reviews and advice that TVs don’t sound like they used to – well, we now have the data to back it up.

In our unique snapshot test, we found that a 17-year-old Nokia CRT TV (yes, Nokia) sounded better than any 2013 flatscreen TV. But should we expect a TV as slim as a picture frame to pack audio oomph?

A matter of space

As many modern TVs are less than an inch thick, there just isn’t the space to fit the same quality and size of speakers that would come in a CRT TV, or hi-fi system.

We expect our TVs to be slim, stylish and light so that they fit easily into our homes, whether we mount them on our walls, or place them on a piece of furniture.

By contrast, CRT TVs were a piece of furniture in themselves, and moving them required a military operation and hell of a lot of ‘bending at the knees’.

Go big and go home

The advent of flatscreen TVs has also allowed us to increase our screen size expectations so that now a 50-inch plus TV doesn’t seem all that outlandish – and you don’t need to win the lottery to afford one.

In an ideal world, we’d like modern TVs to have fantastic sound and be super-slim, but speaker technology will have to improve further before that can happen. Sound bars and home cinema systems can give you better TV audio, but that does mean extra expense.

So, are you happy to trade off good sound for a large and slim screen? Or do you think TV manufacturers should do more to improve audio standards?

Comments
Profile photo of Beryl
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This is indeed a problem for the elderly with age related hearing problems who need to resort to sub titles much to the chagrin and annoyance of younger viewers! I have found switching to HD channels vastly improves the sound quality. I have adjusted the sound in the main menu which has helped but without the sub titles I still find myself straining to hear with one ear hand adjusted in the direction of the TV screen!

Profile photo of brianC.
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This all very well and a good help to the deaf or partly deaf,but as with all captions displayed on TV they are not up long enough for me to read,being part sufferer of Age Related Macular Degeneration,and in fact anyone with sight difficulties,you get half way through reading it
,adn it’s gone.

Profile photo of rarrar
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Fully agree
But
Why are Which repeating a week old conversation which had plenty of comment.
See here:
http://blogs.which.co.uk/technology/tvs/a-17-year-old-tv-sounds-better-than-any-modern-set-which-lab-test/

Profile photo of Patrick Steen
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Hi Robert, thanks for the comment. That’s a post on our sister site Which? Tech Daily, which has a different audience and goes deeper into the research. You’re one of the brilliant ones who uses both of our sites 🙂

We wanted to bring a snippet of the research to the Which? Convo audience, as we know TV sound is something that winds many of you up. Thanks

Profile photo of Beryl
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Speaking as someone uninformed as to the intricacies of such hi-tech matters, approximately 5 years ago I purchased a Panasonic Viera TV (then considered top of the range) with a faulty sound system from J Lewis who could only offer a repair, which I refused in favour of a replacement. I contacted Trading Standards who advised I speak to a small local independent trader for a second opinion who recommended I purchased from them a sound system costing £110 which I declined. I eventually finished up contacting the main UK Panasonic Distributor who admitted a consignment of this particular faulty model was inadvertently despatched to J Lewis who, armed with this information, conceded and eventually supplied me with a new model. The problem, I was informed, stemmed from ‘insufficient padding within the back of the set.’ The whole point being I could have been saddled with a faulty set had I not complained but I could have done without all the hassle at the time.

Profile photo of Stach
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How about practicality rather than agony ?
I see no reason why flat screen TVs, no matter how flat, should not be supplied with separate speakers of an optimum size for adequate sound quality to be placed on the floor below the TV.

Profile photo of dave newcastle
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STACH, Absolutely the obvious way forwards. We have been putting off investing in a “flatty” for a long time because of their sound problems. It is just mad to produce a “modern” TV with poor sound. What a cheek that manufacturers have the audacity to produce such rubbish! ( It mirrors the spare tyre- free modern motor!)

Profile photo of brianC.
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GOOD FOR YOU whoever you are.Stuck to your guns! !and beat the system of fobing customers off,the way the dealers tried to con you was disgusting,including the seller,who must have know of problem from the manufacturer.I TAKE MY HAT OFF TO YOU.

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Peter says:
27 January 2014

Bit of a shame to read this about John Lewis, often one of the highly regarded firms…

Profile photo of saibal
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Being one of a dying breed who still have their CRT TVs, for once I am feeling smug about the fact that I can enjoy home cinema sound with the 5 speakers I have in Dolby Digital! It was always about the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ thinking for me with my old TVs, and this is yet another reason not to change.

Profile photo of Lee Beaumont
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I use my laptop for all my DVD/TV viewing and have a old TV that I use for my PS1/PS2/PS3 Gamecube & Wii U.

Last year I did spend some money on a flash 42inch TV. But each time I looked at it all I could think of how how much money i wasted. So sent it back after 6 weeks later for a full refund.

I like using my laptop to watch TV/DVD’s as I can take screen shots to share on Twitter/FB/Tumblr. Plus I can do my work at the same time too.

Member
Mike Starkie says:
27 December 2013

I agree with the problem of poor sound volume on modern TV’s. I have invested in one of the Panasonic SC-HTB20 soundbars recommended by Which, and it has made an enormous difference. It is reasonably priced at £169, has a much better sound quality than the TV and can be racked up to a reasonable volume for my failing hearing. Well done Which for recommending it.

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With regard to comments about poor sound volumes, I would politely enquire if elderly complainants have checked that they would not benefit from having hearing aids, or even just need wax removing from their ears. In my experience these solve a lot of peoples’ problems with sound volume although they cannot restore the ability for people like myself to hear high notes. I accept that others may have a genuine problem with the sound level but I have not myself met a set that cannot be turned up louder than I can tolerate, and sometimes have to turn the amplification of my hearing aids down to cope with the volume levels preferred by other people.

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Allen says:
27 December 2013

It is not a question of volume, it is a question of sound QUALITY!!
I have a modern top of the range Panasonic flat screen TV, that cost well over £2000 !!
My partner and I frequently have to resort to subtitles, especially when dialogue involves regional accidents, including American accents. The problem is that the sound track of modern programmes contain such a massive amount of detail, that the poor speaker in the flat screen tv is unable to cope and the detail becomes lost, producing sound that is difficult to decipher, especially for the older viewer who has less than perfect hearing.
Also, I would like to point out that a hearing aid that amplifies, only makes the poor sound louder and not easier to understand!
We do have to resort to using our sound bar which greatly improves the sound but uses additional energy which is hardly good for the environment.

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David says:
27 December 2013

Yes, sound is poor but its hard to see what can be done in such a slip casing. What happened to the flat design of loudspeakers that were supposed to give a very slip unit? I can’t help feeling we are being taken for a ride with soundbars though. I haven’t tried it but would it be possible to plug in a fairly decent speaker system designed for use with computers but costing much less? Or you can connect to your Hi Fi but would then need to position the speakers at either side of the TV.

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Chris says:
27 December 2013

I have significantly improved sound quality by using a pair top end M-Audio computer speakers plugged into the back of my Sky box. This gives a much better aural experience than the TV speakers especially for music and choral presentations.
The down side is that the computer speakers can not be adjusted via the TV remote control, but the improvement in sound quality is worth the walk to the TV to control the volume.
A much more economic solution than buying a sound bar!

Member
Peter says:
27 January 2014

I’d say the benefit of using your hi-fi more than makes up for any inconvenience regarding changing room layout. a little. After all, unless you have a ‘real fire’ heating up the chimney, and would find it impossible to put your flat screen TV there (and probably too high, so would cause everyone to get neck aches, too), then central on a wall, with a suitable unit below to hold Hi-Fi Amp, CD player, TV source (whether satellite, Freeview or from Virgin Media) with an HDMI cable up to the TV and speaker cables out to speakers), should give you very good sound to go with a decent video image.

I have an Onkyo amp which has a remote control so can alter the volume (or simply mute if the phone rings). It’s also handy to use a separate amp if one just wants a radio service. I know they don’t make much mention of the various radio stations available via most digital boxes, but whether one is using Sky, FreeSat or Freeview, there are a number of great services (BBC, WRN to name a couple) to choose from.

In my area, DAB no longer carried LBC 97.3, but it is available via FreeSat and on the internet at least (my Android phone has a 3.5mm socket and I have this plugged into the Onkyo amp for music from San Francisco a lot of the day).

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gerry says:
27 December 2013

Do sound bars require mains power or just connect to the TV?

Profile photo of terfar
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Soundbars do require power. They are effectively a long box fitted with several speakers and amplifiers.

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gerry says:
27 December 2013

Do sound bars require their own mains power or do they just connect to the TV?

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Gerry, soundbars do require a mains power supply as they take just the sound signal from the TV and no power. In order to provide a rich sound they need mains power.

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smug_alec says:
27 December 2013

This is not exactly a revelation. Anybody with a pair of functioning ears (and a brain) will have realised this. So why don’t people have their loudspeakers positioned either side of the TV display? Beats me. Why don’t people route the output of their satellite receiver / PVR / Freeview box / DVD player through their audio system? That beats me, too.

Soundbars? No thanks. Ported loudspeakers? Still no thanks! (Since when was a loudspeaker meant to resonate like a musical instrument?)

We are an illiterate nation when it comes to anything technical – and the dumbing down of Which? in recent years has not helped. (Just looking at the Which? Guide to Tuner/Amplifiers c.1978 – with its comprehensive, objective technical reviews – what went wrong?)

Profile photo of rarrar
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Often the only way to get around audio delay and lip sync issues when using an external hifi system is to use the TV’s audio output; now a days this is often only available as a digital output and most hifi systems especially older ones do not provide digital audio input facilities.

Personally I want a simple, integrated and neat setup for the TV in my lounge and dont have space in the kitchen for more boxes.

Profile photo of jjmmwgdupree
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As someone who listens to a lot more music on his TV than average (I suspect) I’ve decided to stick with my old CRT TV.

If I was to buy a flatscreen TV I’d need a hi-fi or something for the sound, and it would have to sit behind the TV along with the other set-top boxes, since they would no longer sit on the set top, thus losing the space advantage that is the only reason for buying one of the things in the first place.

To my eyes CRTs have a better picture than any of the reasonably priced flat screens I’ve seen, and – can I just throw this one in? – I don’t like HD. It allows me to see more than I see in real life. I don’t want to see the newsreader’s wrinkles, the soap star’s bloodshot eyes, or the self-concious idiot trying to look normal at the back of the shot.

Call me a Luddite (You’re a Luddite – Ed) but I know what I like, and who am I hurting by sticking with it?

Member
Richard says:
27 December 2013

I can’t help feeling Which has lost the plot by accepting excessively thin TVs are progress. My view is that TVs are MULTImedia devices which should give good sound and vision. Surely they should be designed for people with eyes and ears? So taking sound quality away in order to enhance not even picture quality but manufacture-led fashion seems to be materialistic folly and not really what people expect when they buy the latest bells & whistles TV.

Are consumers being taken for a ride and being pressured to buy yet another mains consuming device to make up for lousy overall design?

Profile photo of terfar
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The pressure is on for thinner and thinner panels. The result is poorer sound. You just cannot get good sound from flat speakers whether you pay £10 or £1,000, a flat speaker isn’t going to sound good. (OK, so you can get Quad Electrostatics, but they are still huge and cost upwards of £6k.)

In defence of flat screens, can you imaging how large a 55″ CRT would be in your living room. It would almost be like having a grand piano hogging half the space: my wife complained about our old 32″ CRT. So just accept that when you buy a new TV, you will have to connect the sound to another device (a soundbar or a good HiFi). At least with a good HiFi it won’t be redundant when the TV is eventually scrapped!

Profile photo of rarrar
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A facility to connect external speakers ( direct not using a hifi amp) would be a big step forward

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Peter says:
27 January 2014

Agreed. However it would mean the majority spending extra (to cover the cost of an internal amp to drive those speakers) and not everyone will have the need.

If one has an amp designed for AV (so it has multiple HDMI inputs and just one output going to the TV), I don’t think they’d like to have wasted (say) 50 quid on another amp inside the TV when the AV Amp can drive 5 (or 7, or 9) speakers.

Profile photo of Stach
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I have a question. Instead of a smart TV, could one have an ordinary TV with wifi facility be used with a laptop ??

Profile photo of jjmmwgdupree
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I wrote and asked Which? that question about a year ago and they said they would be writing something about it in a future issue. If they did then I missed it.

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Robin says:
27 December 2013

Sound is not a problem if you treat yourself to a B&O model

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John Taylor says:
27 December 2013

I recently bought a Sony 32″ HD TV (KDL32W653) to replace an old Sony CRT TV and was expecting to have to add a sound bar or external speakers. However, it turns out that the sound on this TV is surprisingly good as it is, so we have no plans for external speakers for now. “Which” reviews rated the sound on this model as above average for a flat screen, and this did influence my choice – so thanks for that!

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Salero says:
27 December 2013

I sympathise with comments above regarding hard to hear TV outputs. I bought an expensive Onkyo 5.1 surround sound system costing almost as much as the Panasonic Viera TV. This has a great output but the heat coming out of the main box is something to behold. It’s like a supplementary radiator, so I use it sparingly, thus defeating the object of buying it in the first place.
A second much cheaper remedy is to buy a Sennheiser transmitter and headphone set. Costing around £50 the transmitter plugs into the side of the TV headphone socket and makes a helluva difference. You can hear stuff in the background you never believed was there.
I find that constantly changing volumes when changing TV stations annoying, or even within a single programme being watched. Is it not feasible to get a TV that permanently ‘fixes’ the output volume to suit the listener, whatever may be transmitted from the programme?
The main problem with audio output on TVs is lack of treble for older listeners, giving a mushy/mumbly sound. Whereas you can partially overcome this by raising the TV volume, some of us have respect for our neighbours.

Member

Problems with sound on our Panasonic tv seems more related to the quality of diction recording in tv studios. Eg all old tv repeats, even from the 70s, are really clear and all the actors can be heard clearly. Modern shows, eg Homeland or Broadchurch include some actors with poor diction who are hard to hear. Other actors in the same shows are easy to hear. Also, some music background tracks can dominate too much in other shows.
I wonder if blaming slimline TVs for sound problems is possibly overlooking other contributory factors in the tv studios or poor diction by some actors.

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hashimoto880 says:
28 December 2013

I thoroughly agree with your comment. Time was when Spencer Tracy could be heard above the noise of dozen typewriters in the background. Not now-The audio on most films is pretty dire (especially those featuring American actors, most of whom drawl, whisper, or mumble at the same time. I blame the Directors.

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I remember the excellent diction of Dock Green on our early cathode ray tube set which had wonderful sound enhanced by the walnut veneered cabinet with tambour doors.

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Ron Reg says:
27 December 2013

I think that there are two further issues that require to be aired.
Microphone Qality @ Position: The sound quality varies between live and quality edited programmes. I am sure that the TV studio audio technicians are constrained by very poor quality, miniature mics that are clipped on blouse, shirt etc. Compare the sound with tiny radios with even smaller speaker(s). Radio uses decent microphones.
Voice Production: Too many persons employed in TV programmes have poor speech patterns and many fail to open their mouths and so mumble. Often failing to complete the end of words and sentences. Watch an old film or TV programme and compare the ease of understanding what is spoken. Bear in mind that audio hardware has improved over the years.

TV sets, however slim can improve matters by increasing the ability to amplify the higher frequencies. Thes frequencies contain most of the information required AND are those that are the subject of most hearing loss. They also only need small speakers! Perhaps, Which! should have some older persons on there audio review panel. It maybe ‘tinny’ to some but ok to those who have lost some higher frequencies.

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The small speakers in flat screen TVs handle the higher frequencies quite well, but don’t handle the low frequencies so well as larger speakers which for obvious reasons cannot be fitted into flat screen TVs. It’s the lack of sufficient bass frequencies that cause the TV sound to appear somewhat “tinny”

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Chris says:
27 December 2013

As other people have pointed out the problem appears to originate in the modern style of production and acting. I too am a little hard of hearing but can hear every word in, say “Dads Army” and other older productions whilst modern stuff, be it drama, comedy even music I end up reading the paper instead!

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No pun intended, but hear hear. In my early 20’s I could hear up to 18 Kcs/ second, but the time I was 55, I had trouble hearing 10kcs/second, due to aging, unless the sound level was turned up on the signal generator. There are many speakers on TV who have poor diction and many who for so called dramatic reasons dictated by the programme or film producer appear to mutter and mumble. Most of the lady newsreaders are easily heard by my octogenarian ears. Whist not always, but sometimes to my taste, most of the period films and plays are very easy to listen to due to the standard of diction in such productions.

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Roger says:
28 December 2013

I have a 32 inch flat screen Panasonic (5 year old) with built in freesat and the sound in fine for normal use. I have it connected to my hi-fi if I want to watch something special.
My problem is poor program production standards… Too loud background music and sounds that drown out dialogue, actors that mumble there lines, trailers that are far louder than the programs…. shall I go on?

Profile photo of jjmmwgdupree
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There is a simple(ish) program called Audio Gain that keeps perceived volume to the level set by the listener. You can download it for your Mp3s under the title of Mp3Gain, but big business is ignoring it for some reason. Maybe they just don’t trust Open Source.

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We have a flat screen tv. Everytime I ask my wife what has been said on tv, she replies, she was going to ask me the same thing. Then I remembered some years back, I was having difficulty reading the paper and blamed the printers reducing the size of the letters. Then I discovered I needed glasses, I can read allright now! However I have had my ears checked and been told my hearing is allright for my age, age is the operative word I suppose, I am 66. However reading the above comments made me realise the problems are many. Old age therefore hearing, flat screen doesn’t have good quality sound, and diction used by the actors. I have stopped watching one series which I used to enjoy, because it became too hard to understand. Look forward to a system, a formula that will take all these into consideration when they build a new model.

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BRIAN THOMAS says:
28 December 2013

Buy a pair of PC speakers, plug-into headphone port on TV. have used this method for years. cheaper than a sound bar. £25-£35 is all you need spend.

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Improving flat TV sound: I agree with all the complaints and the reasons why listeners moan! Also, on many sports matches, I have to turn up the sound to an uncomfortable level to hear the commentary above the background noise, usually crowd noise; there is too much emphasis on ‘getting the atmosphere’ – to the detriment of missing what’s being said. I have found a good, but cheap, set of headphones with its own volume control helps a lot. I can then watch and hear my programmes with the volume where I want it without annoying my wife with the crowd noise etc!
However, my question concerns a cheap solution to improving flat TV sound. Some suggest plugging in PC speakers to the audio output socket or headphone socket of the TV. Which socket is best and why PC speakers and not other types?

Member

My LG 27-inch flat TV has “audio out” sockets at the back. I have connected some old PC speakers which require power from the mains. My LG remote control box allows me to mute the TV’s own speakers, as well as to adjust the balance of bass and treble frequencies to a variety of broadcasts , e,g, music, sport, theatre. These external speakers can be positioned at will, but care not to have an “empty” middle, or the better stereo sound on HD channels is compromised. There is still a lack of good bass, however. I imagine that PC audio speaker sets which include a so-called sub-woofer centrally placed would improve the overall sound as the 2 lateral spkrs cannot handle low frequencies as well as a hi-fi system would. Remember than ordinary TV channels are likely to have more bandwidth compression than HD ones. I understand that sound bars might improve sound distribution without having wires all over the place, but have been advised that these really need to be connected via an HDMI socket to give maximal performance.Unfortunately my 2007 TV does not have a spare socket at the rear. I hope this helps.

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Thanks, LesF, very helpful, but why old ‘PC speakers’ rather than other speakers was my question. Wouldn’t any reasonable quality old speakers do, say from an old hi fi or stereo set?

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PC speakers contain an amplifier. You would need a separate amplifier to drive other speakers, though that is likely to produce much better sound quality.

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I put off buying a flat screen, then my son walked in with a 37in Sony for me.What a difference! I thought I had the best picture and surround sound in my old TV . It was true, with big bass speaker and surround sound made the sound good but, the picture was rubbish against todays digital reception. I comment every day to my wife how good the picture is and how blessed we are to have so much variety in the broadcasts. I resisted going to flat screen too long I am so glad my son made the decision for me. By the way I have always bought the Which recommended buys and have so far not gone wrong. I will not let people with no knowledge of Which say otherwise!

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Ann Taylor says:
3 February 2014

I cannot understand why good diction and pronunciation are no longer a prerequisite for modern-day broadcasters. It’s not about accents, it’s about clarity of speech. Surely that is the necessary tool for the job of communication – just as other professionals need tools and training to carry out their work proficiently?
Sloppy speech, poor vowel sounds and dropped letter Ts are ruining the English language and are no example to children.
In the late 50s and in the 60s and 70s, I was employed as a television announcer, presenter and reporter. In that era, many of today’s broadcasters would not have been allowed near a microphone.

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Perhaps we should assume that we will have to put up with poor diction and pronunciation for the time being. Can we compensate to some degree by improving the sound quality and controls on modern flat-screen TVs? I do hope so.

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I fully endorse this comment,the ability for broadcasters to pronounce their words,and project their voice does not seem to be a requirement these days.they often look away and mumble to each other as if they are no longer speaking to an audience.Quite often when it switches to an outside broacast I can hear and understand them better than those in the studio!.
Accents can be a problem,but although I speak with a yorkshire accent,and somewhat deaf.I can always hear ( using my hearing aid) and uderstand-the Queen and most royalty,David Cameron,Ed Milliband George Osbourne,Ed Balls etc.I don’t suppose they have had special speech coaching!

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I am surprised that some well known people do not take more care with how they speak. Many now benefit from subtitles on TV programmes and perhaps improved audio systems on TVs could help those who struggle to hear but do not need to use subtitles.

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LesF says:
3 February 2014

This conversation seems to have drifted away from the original topic of audio quality of flat screen TVs! However I agree with the last few comments on diction and would add that there is a tendency among some broadcasters to speak much more quickly, and if that also involves a regional accent it makes things quite difficult for some people to understand. What is even worse – and I’m afraid I have to pick out “The Voice”as a prime example – the use of a subject- related lingo or patois is something that few of us except the officianados of pop can hope to understand.

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Ron Reg says:
3 February 2014

Returning to the original themes of variable sound quality and level. The frequent changes in audio levels during transmissions and between stations leads to a need to use the remote control as a volume equaliser. In the ‘olde days’, there was an AVC (automatic volume control) circuit that helped to smooth out these variations. The cost of adding such a circuit to current ranges of TV receivers would be very small. Even the broadcasters could smooth the variations before broadcasting; or are they concerned that the advertisers and their own trailers would not ‘stand out’.

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Chris says:
3 February 2014

What does patois mean?

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LesF says:
3 February 2014

Hi Chris, you can get quite good explanation of patois on Wikipedia but in a nutshell it is the jargon or informal speech used by a particular social group: examples from language come from island communities. I first heard some in the Channel Islands, a sort of franglais. I won’ t pursue this but hope it helps.

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Chris says:
4 February 2014

THanks LesF. Very interesting; I think my grandchildren have some experience of patois! however off topic again. In my case, near the flat screen television was a simple and cheap(ish) micro hi fi with an audio-in socket. Found myself a short stereo plug-plug lead and connected headphone skt. on the telly’ to the mini hi-fi audio in. What a difference! However it cannot improve the poor diction and sound engineering. Another irritant is the constant overlaid background music. Noise with rytham would sometimes be a better description

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Mary says:
10 March 2014

My 42″ LED LG flatscreen has terrible sound – lack of low frequencies and the loudspeakers vibrate in their metal housing. I didn’t like the appearance or price of soundbars so after an instore demonstration, bought a 2.1 speaker system from Currys for £60 (Nov 2013). It plugs into the LG’s headphone socket so the remote works normally. Two little speakers sit neatly either side of the TV with the bass unit on the floor. Best of all the 2.1 switches to receive Bluetooth at the push of a button so I can stream music from my laptop PC. The only nuisance is the 2.1 switches to power saving standby if the TV sound stays muted for a while. Good sound for only £60 – I can watch TV and easily forget I’m listening to loudspeakers at all.

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I’m glad your speaker solution worked out for you, but to my mind that’s still sixty quid you shouldn’t have had to spend. The laissez-faire attitude adopted by Which? over the subject of TV sound should amaze me, but it doesn’t, they seem to be adopting the position that the supplier is right and the customer must lump it on a lot of hi-tec goods.