/ 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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)

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.

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!

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 !

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?

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.

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.

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.

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