/ 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.

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.

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?

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!

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?

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.

Hari Seedhar says:
2 August 2012

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

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.

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.

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 .

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.

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.

Richard Dale says:
21 May 2012

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

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.]

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.

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..

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?