/ Technology

Listen up, HD TV audio still lacks oomph

Audio visualisation

Flat panel HD TVs might have conquered the living room, but despite their glorious picture quality, their audio can’t match CRT TVs. Isn’t it about time manufacturers got their game together and gave us good quality sound?

I’ll let you into a secret. Despite testing and reviewing hundreds of lovely new flat panel TVs over the past few years, I’m still watching telly at home on an old big box CRT.

It’s only now with the switch to Freeview HD that I’m finally going to take the plunge and get a new flat panel HD TV (and start enjoying all those new fancy features my poor old Thomson Best Buy could only dream of).

But there’s something holding me back, despite the lure of free HD and the chance to watch iPlayer on the telly. Something which virtually no flat panel TV, however good the picture, can deliver – sound quality to match my CRT.

Our HD TV audio tests

We’ve tested hundreds of flat panel TVs since they first appeared (amazingly only about 7 years ago) but I can count on one hand the few that have delivered truly impressive sound quality.

Too many are weedy, bass-free zones that give nothing but the odd spot of earache and a new level of meaning to the word “tinny”. “Not fit for purpose” is the over-used phrase in our listening test lab. Things have got so bad that we’ve heard some TV shockers that lack the audio oomph of an iPhone (I’m not making this up).

The lack of oomph is an easy one to work out. New tellies are mercilessly thin. Amazing as they may look (and it’s hard not to marvel at some of the screens – only millimetres thick!) that beauty comes with a heavy price. Listen to a new TV and the audio will not be a patch next to an old good quality CRT. Budget hi-fi and home cinema systems could be from another planet for all the similarities in audio performance.

What’s our audio alternative?

Sound bars are an option, but they’re an expensive extra, so it’s hard to justify forking out for them. Instead, wouldn’t it be great to sacrifice some of that slim-line appeal for a bit of extra space for the speakers.

Panasonic seems to be making a step in the right direction – some of its new TVs have a relatively bulky sound bar built into the display casing. Still, results to date have been underwhelming.

So it’s either plug my new flat panel HD TV into the stereo (great for a movie, but a tad excessive for a bit of channel surfing), fork out extra for a half decent sound bar, or put my dreams of HD and internet telly on hold while I wait for the manufacturers to deliver.

That’s pretty disappointing for an audio visual product.

Comments
Guest
YouKnowWho says:
15 August 2011

The best bet is to permanently mute TV audio and use an AV amplifier.
Stereo, or, source dependant 5.1/7.1 sound from a dedicated amplifier and decent speakers is light-years away from the tinny offerings of a TV.

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Guest

I already have rigged up my computer to my hi-fidelity system for an altogether superior audio
experience, with of course independent amplification and pair of quality speakers.

Guest
Dave Harper says:
15 August 2011

Yes the flat screens generally have rubbish sound. I feel sorry for people leaving the likes of Tesco with a cheap HD tv quite likely thinking they’re going to enjoy cinema sound. I have a decent Sony Bravia but still push the Sky HD input through a bespoke home cinema system.

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Guest

My TV is a Hitachi CRT set bought in 1991 when NICAM stereo was only just coming on line. It’s a NICAM stereo set and compared to the new flat screen (LCD, LED, HD and other variants) it sounds quite good, but TV manufacturers have never bothered much with sound quality and I’ve always used my Hi-Fi system for the sound.
Flat screen sets can’t expect to be even as good as the older CRT sets due to the lack of space (especially depth) in the cabinets in which to house speakers.
Even back in the 1970’s, when I was a kid and used to buy Practical Electronics and Practical Wireless magazines there were endless kits being sold to allow TV sound to be put through a decent stereo to get better sound. At one time you could even buy a TV Audio tuner as a separate item for your stacking HI FI to receive the audio only for the TV channel you were watching so that old old tellies with no audio output could be switched to silent and the sound heard via the stereo.
These days I think it’s an exceptionally rare TV that doesn’t have an audio output for connection to the Hi-Fi, and if you are unlucky enough to have one of these you can almost certainly get the audio from your VCR (does anyone still have one?!), DVD player / recorder, Freeview box or other cable / satellite box.
It’s a point worth noting though because Which? are currently surveying members about how they test electronic gadgets such as camera another audio visual equipment and it would be worth any Which? staff noting that rating the audio quality of a TV should perhaps be part of the testing, especially for Best Buy status.

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Guest

Sorry – in last line of my post (above) “testing” should read “Test score”

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Guest

HI Dave D
We do test the audio quality with a panel of expert listeners and this does feed into the total test score of a TV (20% of the overall). If a TV is especially bad for audio we will impose a limit and not recommend it as a Best Buy (regardless of the picture quality). From memory this happened to Samsung’s first generation of LED TVs. They raised the bar for picture quality but were absolutely dire when it came to sound. We’ll also award extra % for audio connectivity – so the more output options the better.

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Guest

It is a pity that TVs dont offer output sockets for speakers, far easier than feeding through a hifi/stereo system . Many people will have a spare pair of speakers laying around unused.
It does surprise me that with all the connectivity available on LCD TVs speaker connectors are missing.

Guest
Colin says:
16 August 2011

I overcame the sound problem by plugging an old but fairly good set of computer speakers into the headphones socket.

Profile photo of dean
Guest

Try an “old school” Panasonic 32″ LZD85 LCD

The very reason I bought this TV was it’s all round ability. At the time it was a top spec 32″ but I bought it because
a) it was a panasonic tv and they have NEVER let me down
b) What Hifi recommended it as the best performing tv for audio

So it’s simple, buy a Panasonic! I honestly don’t know how they produce such a large sound with strong focussed bass out of such a small cabinet.

Every one of my friends who has bought another brand has been very disappointed with their audio quality, not I

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Guest

I agree that the sound quality is poor from flat screen TVs but when I plugged in my Virgin PVR (now a Tivo) via the optical cable to my Naim Unitiqute driving Monitor Audio speakers I was blown away (and continue to be blown away) by the quality! (Sometimes members of my family turn up the TV sound by accident but as this is very obviously different to the HiFi sound I change it as soon as I can…) TV manufacturers do not stand a chance with this kind of set-up so it makes sense for them to focus on picture quality (and maybe content connectivity)

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Guest

Hi Nigel Bell,
Most new TVs come with a couple of handy features to counter the issues you’ve mentioned. Voice enhancement software can give dialogue a boost over background noise (it’s sometimes quite effective) and automatic volume control will level out the audio when they switch to ads. On Sony models the features are usually called Clear Voice and Auto Volume respectively.

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Guest

I agree. My Panasonic 37″ HD TV has a fantastic picture, something that was unimaginable back when the 525 line colour TVs were introduced. But as you point out, the pressure for ultra-slim flat panel displays has left no room for even a half decent speaker.

A 32″ CRT colour TV may have been vying for living room space with your grand piano, but that size provided the volume needed for decent sound reproduction. We could, of course, have overcome these shortcomings if we had all sat in front of the TV wearing wireless headphones, but that is about as satisfactory as the family all wearing 3-D spectacles (one reason for the poor uptake of 3-D).

It is a shame that so many people watch TV and listen to such thin sound, losing most of the atmosphere and impact. The TV program makers put in a huge effort to transmit top quality sound – these days usually in Dolby Digital 5.1 – when the majority of people would be better off listening with a tin can and string.

Guest
mrcook says:
16 August 2011

I put two weeks into looking around stores to buy the best. Sound is key. I was looking for foward facing speakers & woofer. So I got a Philils 9 series. 40PFL9705H. A rear mounted twin woofer and 30 watts a channel does the biz!

Guest

The sound on my Sony Flat Screen TV is not too bad at all. Plenty of oomph.

The problem is that background music often overwhelms any dialogue and on commercial channels the advertisements seem to come over many decibels louder than the programmes. Could the problem actually arise from how the signal is transmitted and not so much with the sets themselves?

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Guest

I use a £30 stereo unit, with the EQ set to Bass high
and have it just below the TV speaker threshold, this way the sound is richer and the bass exists, which even a Sony TFT screen TV is bad at.

No need to spend a fortune – cheap audio unit works brilliantly, in fact better than my old £160 5.1 audio unit which was a real butt pain.

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Guest

Love the picture on my 40″ Samsung HD TV – don’t love the sound. But it’s OK for normal TV programmes. For films, I always use the 5.1 set up on my trusty Sony DAV S550, which provides amazing sound quality (it passes the Saving Private Ryan – second scene test). Unfortunately, it doesn’t support HDMI so I have to use an optical lead.

As for picture quality – anyone else noticing poorer quality pictures on the non-HD channels? Or am I just used to the quality on the HD ones? Is there a way to find out what standard each channel broadcasts in, even in HD?

Guest
Paul Blackmore says:
19 August 2011

I’d be happy with a TV that just delivers a top end picture and no sound. I always use my Cinema Amp for watching anything, TV or Film. A TV is never going to compare to an Amp. Maybe they should take the sound out and drop the price, but have an external sound source for the same price. A lovely looking thin TV is never going to give good sound. Time to seperate the two.

Guest
Rich Elliott says:
19 August 2011

I’ve got a Samsung LE40C650 in the living room, with the sound running through a Logitech 2.1 computer speaker set via the headphone socket. Not ideal for the audiophile I know, indeed the man in Richer Sounds postively cringed when I told him, but it sounds ‘good enough’ for the average punter, ie me. The only problem we HAVE noticed though, is speech going out of sync with the picture quite a lot when watching Virgin cable programmes, particularly the HD channels. It’s a shame, because the picture is, to my eye, stunning.

Guest
RICHARD says:
19 August 2011

I bought a new TV at M&S in advance of the swirch over. It is their own model and the quality of the sound is so “thin”. No depth, no quality, despite altering the sound on the TV itself. Will either have to feed through the stereo or buy a sound bar.

Guest
Bill says:
19 August 2011

Ah! Panasonic! I bought a 37″ Panasonic Viera TV only to find, when installed, that the speakers were at the REAR of the set. Not much use when one has a hearing problem and have to rely on the sound ‘bouncing of a wall’.
Further, many, many TV documentary programs have background music overpowering the presenter’s voice. Why?
Some 7 million people in UK have hearing problems, so no matter how good a TV audio system is, it is wasted by programme producers.

Guest
Simon says:
19 August 2011

Have one of the last Sony CRT models and friends still compliment on the sound which I always have set on the virtual dolby mode. Its true flat screens with decent sound are few and far between. Theres a new Sony just out where the sound is rated highly but you have to pay over £2,000 for the privilege. With all the technology today it is surprising manufacturers have been able to produce so few flat screen tv’s with decent sound. I think it may be done deliberately so people invest in a surround system.

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Guest

Beware when buying SAMSUNG Flat screens – the headphone output is not good, and if you use the output from a Sky box or BluRay player to a surround sound amp, with the TV sound on then there is an awful echo. Turning the sound down on my Samsung gives an output that is not lip synched . I have complained to samsung but they seem to be in denial- A friend of mine has the same problem with his Samsung (different model). Using the output from the optical socket is the only answer, but my existing surround sound system does not have an optical input. I had to buy an adaptor from Maplins (£40) which gave me some sort of output, but only 2.1 surround not 5.1 which is what I really want ! I won’t be buying a Samsung again !

Guest
DavidNotts says:
19 August 2011

One of the plus points of moving to a flat panel is meant to be the massive decrease in power required to run it. If we all have to run the audio through a seperate amp does that hold true at all?

Guest
Dave Harper says:
19 August 2011

The lip-sync problem can happen if the audio is routed through a separate amp. I put the full HDMI signal into my Denon AV receiver so the video and audio are handled collectively. However, to cater for the odd occasion when lip-sync is an issue, the Denon has a feature that let’s you align the two signals. Another bonus is that my PS3, Wii and CD all route through the same Denon receiver and out to the speaker system. Worth the investment if you are into that sort of thing.

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Guest

When I replaced my aging 26″ Sony Bravia, on which the sound was quite good, being an older an chunkier LCD TV, I bought a Which? recommended 32″ Pansonic Viera.
Great picture but the sound is awful. With rear facing speakers, there is no depth, no matter what setting you choose.
To compensate, I bought a Sharp 2:1 Sound Bar System with SRS WOW HD. Simple to install and quite inexpensive at £110 free delivery from Amazon.
No problems with lip-sync as this unit plugs directly into the TV’s phono-out sockets and leaves the earphone socket free for normal use. Auto on/off with manual override, 4 presets, Sub-woofer, Bass and Treble control. At 800mm (32″) wide, it fits neatly under the TV, so it suit my needs perfectly.

Guest
DavidNotts says:
19 August 2011

Not sure I’d call £110 inexpensive. That’s a big proportion of the cost of a TV. It’s like buying a new car and then being told the seats at £3k extra.

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Guest

Many cars have upgrades to the standard seats and you have to sell the car with the seats in.
You can keep the sound-bar for future use, it’s less expensive than many surround sound systems and a lot less intrusiveness than multiple speakers cluttering your room

Guest
Chris Gordon says:
19 August 2011

I have just been trying to solve this same sound problem. I have a Samsung HD LEC32650; with 2 sets of audio-in among a myriad of possible connecters but of course no phono audio out, just digital audio out. Very frustrating. I can only output audio to my amp through my DVD player unless I buy a new amp with digital audio in and add to the zillions of cables.

I think there is a presumption by TV manufacturers that people will buy a 5.1 system for the TV but I prefer to use my speakers. I have found with a pair of Kef speakers that there is no lip-synch timelag, rather to my surprise. But I can’t watch HD channels with this set-up, as the TV doesn’t recognise the external speakers set up this way, unlike my old Thomson tv.

There are also options to alter the sound setting in the TV menu; clear voice, film etc and that does make a difference to the quality of the sound, which doesn’t seem too bad on this tv, for everyday viewing, despite the sound reviews for Samsung.

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Guest

I too have been looking for a way to improve the sound quality of my Panasonic TX-32LXD80 not only the tonal range but also the general clarity of sound, suffering as I do from age induced high frequency hearing loss. In common with others I also get out of sync sound when listening via the LG HT 323 SD 5.1 Digital DVD/CD Receiver. I’m starting to think that the only solution will be to purchase a sound bar adding even more clutter and spaghetti!
This worry seems to be sufficient for Which? to undertake an investigation looking into the various solutions which are/will be available to us. How about it?

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Guest

UPDATE
I have now largely overcome the problem by fitting a Logitech Z323 Speaker System for £35; two L and R speakers plus a driven sub woofer. Whilst intended for laptop sound improvement and not especially ‘HiFi’, this has greatly re-enforced the bass line and allowed me to turn the TV set to maximum treble thus giving a much richer and wider band of frequencies allowing me to hear speech far more clearly.
Whilst on the subject of TV’s, I think it would be a good idea if ‘Which?’ included in their research/reports an indication as to how well a set is able to ‘hang on’ to a weak signal. I have the Panasonic (referred to above) and a cheap Daewoo portable in the bedroom, both digital sets and receiving a signal from the same aerial. The Daewoo is able to show a programme without any problems when the Panasonic screen is a mass of pixels!

Guest
Eileen Bell says:
31 August 2011

Our problem is that my husband is very deaf with 2 hearing aids and uses subtitles. He also sometimes uses Sennheiser T1810 earphones but they are not much help.
Has anybody like my husband used the sound bars?

Guest
Paul Turner says:
4 September 2011

Why doesn’t Which test some TVs that have sound bars built in ? I bought a Humax LGB 19DZT in 2008 for £237 for the kitchen. Crockery clatter, hard surfaces and my hearing aids don’t make ideal test conditions, but the table vibrates at modest sound levels so it must have some oomph !
Please test some.

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Guest

Hi Paul
Re TVs with sound bars built-in. We keep an eye out for them but they’re few and far between to be honest – which is why we put the separate units through a test. If anything new appears though we’ll be sure to put it through our test.

Guest
Hari Seedhar says:
2 August 2012

[Sorry Hari we don’t allow self-advertising. Thanks, mods.]

Guest
60sgirl says:
27 October 2011

Sound has been a big issue of mine when buying a new tv. My old 32″ Philips CRT had 6 speakers on board and gave an outstanding performance whether watching an action packed movie or listening to a concert. The picture quality was superb too. It took me more than a year to find a stylish HD ready internet capable replacement with good sound and picture – another Philips, the 9704. When I come in from work and want to sit down and watch the news, I just want to turn on the tv and get a good picture and sound without having to turn on other devices. The 9704 does this beautifully, but at a price, both cost wise and in having a screen that is significantly chunkier and heavier than many others. The deeper panel houses the best speakers I heard on any set when out in the shops ‘listening’ to what was available. It was frustrating to visit stores where sales assistants could not understand why sound quality was an issue, or worse, weren’t able to let you hear an individual set. However, my local independent shops were able to help. I bought the tv at nearly half original list price as it is now a discontinued model. Although still an expensive set at nearly £1000 I have not had to buy any additional sound equipment for daily use. Others who have seen the set in operation have commented on the superb picture and quality of sound. Whilst it is not as good as my old CRT set in terms of sound, it was the best I could find at the time I was looking and at a price I could afford. I could not find a Which? Review of the 9000 series so thought I’d post this comment.

Guest
Geoff Aston says:
27 October 2011

I use a Panasonic TX-26LXD80 – purchased mainly as Which recommendation, and find as expected, a good picture but not very good sound with added clatter. To improve this, I use a Tangent AMP-100 amplifier and Castle loudspeakers, which provides a great improvement. However, I wish to improve the clarity of voices and am contemplating some sort of 5.1 system. Can you tell me if this would benefit broadcast TV (Freeview and Freesat) – does the broadcast signal contain 5.1 sound or is this synthesised from stereo sound information? I am interested mainly in normal programmes, not just films.

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Guest

The centre channel is traditionally used for speech and if this is encoded correctly then a 5.1 system will allow you to turn up the centre channel which may improve dialogue.
( I do this when showing films in local village halls ).

Some action films are known for having the sound effects too loud for a decent diaogue level .

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Guest

I use Sky+HD which is 5.1 on certain channels.
I cannot find 5.1 mentioned on any Freesat or Freeview HD receiver specs, not even the PVR or Tivo boxes.
The norm for audio seems to be MPEG-1 Layer II, Dolby-AC3 Audio, which I think is the equivalent of 2.1
Hope this may be of some use to you.

Guest
Hari Seedhar says:
5 January 2012

Hi Mike,
A large screen TV with best-in-class sound is expected to be unveiled at the CES this year. This TV should definitely set the bar for TV Audio many levels higher than current stuff out there.
Stay tuned for more news.
Regards
Hari

Guest
Richard Dale says:
21 May 2012

PLEASE review the sound quality and report it seperately for ALL your TV tests.

Guest
Hari Seedhar says:
2 August 2012

[Hello Hari, we have regrettably had to remove your comment as we don’t allow product advertising on Which? Conversation. Thanks, mods.]

Guest
Jane says:
11 January 2013

Thank you all! After reading all the letters, I have discovered that I am not going deaf as first thought – all I did was buy a flat screen tv and am finding it practically impossible to understand many films,plays and anything with background music – forget it! I am now using subtitles with anything difficult to hear. It looks as though I will have to get a soundbar, but at least I don’t have to go the hearing aid route.

Guest
joan clough says:
7 January 2014

I have slight hearimg loss and my husband has brought a sound bar .
which does seem to make a difference .he thinks its great , im not sure , last night a film was on and he couldn’t hear it well either . it was the soundtrack of the film..

Guest
Geoff Aston says:
7 January 2014

As always, the problem is one of clarity of speech. Programme producers do not help – too loud, obtrusive “background” music; actors mumbling; speaking facing away from the camera. Quite clearly, these are important factors as some programmes do not suffer these defects and are much more enjoyable in consequence. What is needed is some device to separate out the voice component and allow differential amplification of this. I understand that Sontia are working on a centre channel extraction algorithm which would do this, although they only manufacture components for other manufacturers to use. Does anyone know of an amplifier or soundbar which uses this Sontia technology?