/ 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.

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?