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The thinner tech gets, the worse it sounds

While technology manufacturers are obsessed with making ever thinner products, there’s one thing that’s suffering – sound quality. But it’s not just TVs and laptops that are starting to sound tinny.

As anyone with a passing interest in technology will be aware, the ultimate goal of all manufacturers is to design the ultimate slim line gadget, which we can impress our friends with and promptly lose down the back of the sofa.

And manufacturers have really come a long way in this respect. I can still recall the first ‘pocket TV’ I saw. I was amazed at its portability and the idea that you could watch the Crystal Maze literally anywhere.

But as impressive as that pocket TV was, it was still pretty chunky. If you managed to actually get it into your pocket, it would most likely have dragged your trousers down instantly, unless you were sporting a sturdy belt.

Today we can watch telly on our smartphones, some of which have the same dimensions as that of a Ryvita. However, this new slim form factor isn’t all good news.

The price of this impressively thin technology is not just money, it’s their sound quality. With smaller and thinner equipment, there’s less room to fit in nice big speakers, so as they get smaller, the sound suffers.

Poor sound quality

Rubbish sound quality is an issue we’ve identified before on Which? Conversation with HD TV’s and laptops, but it’s also creeping into other areas.

Some of the latest sat navs are cause for concern, with their slimmer bodies. It’s one thing to miss a vital plot point on Midsomer Murders thanks to small TV speakers, but it’s another entirely to miss your turning on the M6 because your sat nav wasn’t loud enough.

So what’s the solution? Well, adding separate bigger and better speakers to your kit is obviously going to help. But it’s rather galling to spend the best part of a thousand pounds on your brand new TV, only to be forced to spend more because the speakers aren’t up to scratch. It’s a bit like buying a car and having to pay extra for the wheels.

Even thinner HD TVs

With 2012’s TVs looking thinner than ever (LG’s OLED TV is a tiny 4mm thick) it’s safe to assume that there isn’t going to be a sudden u-turn on getting bulkier tellies. It’s a shame to think that the big, boxy CRT set I threw away a few years ago probably had better sound quality than the flatscreen I replaced it with.

Technology marches on, and our equipment is looking better day by day, but the sound is getting left behind. Maybe in the near future we’ll see TVs being sold that are thin as paper, but with the caveat ‘speakers sold separately’.

It’s time manufacturers addressed bad sound quality head on, instead of trying to sell us skinny peripherals to solve a problem that they created.

Comments
Profile photo of ArgonautoftheSeas
Member

Hi-fi buffs have been channelling their
TV audio through their hi-fi system since
CRT days.

Personally think the average computer user
or TV viewer cares very little or nothing abt
having good sound quality, hence manufacturers
being able to get away with it.

Rig up your computer to yr hi-fidelity
system for a much-improved or superior audio
experience.

Profile photo of ArgonautoftheSeas
Member

I think the laws of physics prevent the manufacturers
improving on sound quality as opposed to say visual
display or any other parameter, when making things
smaller, thinner or less bulky.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Absolutely. Speakers have improved over the years but it is not possible to get reasonable sound quality from tiny speakers. Which? reported the problem in a recent report on TVs but still recommended certain models as ‘Best buys’. ‘Least bad’, maybe.

On another Conversation it has been said that some Sony TVs develop faults due to overheating of the very thin screen.

OK, CRT TVs were bulky but why do we have to go to the opposite extreme and produce pathetic products. Yes we can connect TVs to our hi-fi systems but it really should not be necessary for most users.

Jack mentions smartphones. Let’s have one with a decent size battery that lasts a week and not the toys that are currently available.

Profile photo of ArgonautoftheSeas
Member

Like I said, the average consumer is
not too concerned abt poor sound quality,
whether from computer or TV.

It’s the hi-fi buff or audiophile who
cares enough abt getting a good
audio experience; aunty beeb
has herself recommended rigging
up computer to hi-system, obviously
the better yr hi-fi is, the higher or better the
sound fidelity shall be.

I wd read Which? reports but for more specialised purchases
(not that many), wd read something else exclusively or additionally,
AND/OR seek out info on the internet myself OR from
friends/contacts who have particular expertise
or knowledge.

Profile photo of ArgonautoftheSeas
Member

As a matter of science, I thought the thinner the screen, the quicker
the rate of heat dissipation.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I have not taken one apart but I guess the problem is the lack of ventilation when the screen is in a narrow case. Look up Sony Bravia dark lines/bands/shadows if you want to read about the problem. With other manufacturers producing very slim TVs I would not be surprised if we hear more about screen problems, and replacing the screen of a large TV is hideously expensive.

Profile photo of ArgonautoftheSeas
Member

Yup… had noticed seemingly inadequate ventilation points but thin screens
give out less heat unlike CRTs and no one leaves them on 24/7.

Profile photo of wavechange
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An LCD screen has the display and a powerful light source sandwiched closely together. A CRT operates in a very different way, so a comparison is not really useful.

Profile photo of ArgonautoftheSeas
Member

Believe LCD is different from plasma.

Profile photo of ArgonautoftheSeas
Member

Oh, forgot to mention when connected up like I’d,
voices come up very clearly and loudly when
skyping… you see with independent amplification,
am able to control sound output (levels thereof) emanating
from free-standing decent-size quality speakers.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

You can also buy a sound bar to put under a ridiculously thin TV to improve the sound quality. When manufacturers work out that you can integrate the two, we can have a reasonably thin TV with satisfactory sound quality. It is not rocket science.

Profile photo of ArgonautoftheSeas
Member

Yup… a CRT gives out more heat than LCD or plasma.

Member
lmsdav says:
4 February 2012

I use a sound bar. Solves the problem.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

So let’s have some TVs with this built in. I’m sure that there will still be a demand from people who want very thin TVs to hang on the wall and are prepared to compromise on sound quality (or to hook up to their hi-fi.)

TVs with small speakers and poor sound quality are rather like compact cameras without a viewfinder. We need to push the manufacturers to offer something better.

Member
John Rushby says:
4 February 2012

My wife and I are really glad we hung on to our old 27″ Philips widescreen CRT TV. The sound quality is far superior to that on any flat-screen TV I’ve heard. But not just the sound quality. I’ve yet to see a flat screen TV that can match it for picture quality. The CRT’s colour and tonal balance are much subtler and more natural, and it’s less tiring to watch. Furthermore, when it’s switched off we don’t have to contemplate an enormous, matt-black oblong. Instead, the glass front of the mid-grey CRT set reflects some of the light from within the room. The box is enormous, of course, but when tucked in a corner the back disappears from view. The TV still works perfectly. Junking it, as so many people do, would be a crime – financially, environmentally and, above all, artistically.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Sorry John but we are required to follow fashion and technological developments. What you need is a bigger and ‘better’ flat screen TV than your friends and neighbours. It’s no longer fashionable to switch off TVs now that a seemingly infinite amount of tripe is available, so you don’t have to worry about the appearance when not in use. I imagine that Philips have gone down the road to mediocre sound, paved by Panasonic and Sony.

I rather regret having parted with old Philips CRT TV (24 years old and still working perfectly) but it was made before the days of scart sockets and this became a bit of a problem.

Member
John Rushby says:
4 February 2012

I take your point, Wavechange, but I have in fact looked at a wide variety of flatscreen TVs, including those recommended by Which? as Best Buys. None has matched up to the Philips as yet. Furthermore, my CRT, being more or less the last of the breed, has three scart sockets, so no problems attaching a PVR, DVD recorder and VCR. I realise that flat is the way things will be from now on, and it won’t be long before we have no alternative but to endure the compressed sound of DAB radio as well, when FM finally bites the dust. Alas, though, such “progress” comes at a price, and that is sad. Sadder still is the fact that most people won’t notice the difference.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Sorry for being rather cynical about this John, but I hate those manufactures which put fashion over function. Although I am have a great respect for Apple’s products, I would like to have strong words with the designer who decided not to spoil the front of an iMac with a USB socket. And those who designed Apple laptops and iPhones in a way that denies the user the opportunity to put in a fresh battery.

I don’t entirely agree with you about DAB. I would not want to listen to Radio 3 on DAB, but the extra features of my DAB radio, such as display of programme content and easy recording onto a memory card are invaluable and DAB quality is not an issue for the vast majority of what is broadcast on Radio 4.

Profile photo of Clint Kirk
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I have two issues with DAB: first, it uses too much energy so is impractical to run it on batteries (unlike my portable FM radio in which the batteries last for six months of regular daily use); and the time delay of a couple of seconds or so, which make the GMT “pips” totally meaningless. (Sorry for being off-topic.)

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

DAB is covered on a couple of other Which? conversations, so have your say there.

Rechargeable batteries and radios with a built-in rechargeable battery help to get round the first problem, and newer DAB radios give better battery life. I don’t know why time signals are broadcast on DAB since they are always late, but I’ve got accurate clocks in my house, set from a computer that is kept accurate through the magic of the Internet.

Profile photo of Clint Kirk
Member

Ah, computer synchronization with the Internet – another pet niggle. By default, Microsoft operating systems in the UK synchronize with time.windows.com — using a signal that goes across the Atlantic and back again! I set mine to synchronize with a UK-based NTP server.

Member
par ailleurs says:
4 February 2012

Firstly, tweek the factory settings on your flatscreen. Add lots more bass and treble frequency. That’s a good start. I’m sure most folk leave them as is. Also from personal experience, my Panasonic Viera sounds dramatically better when played via the tuner in theToshiba pvr/dvd recorder. Perhaps there’s a circuitry issue as well? Finally, when istening to music etc a sound bar or small hi-fi helps a lot more. My tv plays via my compact Bose radio/cd for this sort of broadcast and all is much more satisfactory.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

In the days of CRT TVs, some would produce a low frequency buzz due to mains hum and the frame scan circuitry needed to drive the CRT. The problem was due to poor design and generally more obvious when linked to an external sound system.

I have no idea about current TVs but consumer electronics is produced down to a price and quality could depend a lot on the model. I am interested in the quality of consumer electronic goods and I strongly suggest that it is best to buy on the basis of model rather than make.

You are absolutely right in suggesting that we should tweak sound controls, and the same applies to getting the best picture.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

To say something positive about thin tech, I have been very impressed by the the sound produced by my iPad 2. It’s fine for watching iPlayer and listening to the Which? Podcasts in a quiet environment. Yes I can connect earphones or headphones or hook the iPad up to something with better speakers, but the convenience of the iPad is great and I can put up with the sound quality and low volume.

Having said that, there is no reason why we have to compromise on the sound quality of TVs, except perhaps with portable sets.

Profile photo of ArgonautoftheSeas
Member

Used to earth to get rid of annoying hum and as to some
other audio equipment.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

That can be a great help, but not if the problem is poor screening or other faults or design faults in equipment.

Profile photo of Clint Kirk
Member

As TV are getting thinner, perhaps one day they will be so thin they would be flexible. Then they can be made to vibrate and the whole TV would itself be one giant speaker. Lots of bass!

Member
nawuk says:
13 February 2012

Interesting comments here, particulalrly around sound quality. There are advances in materials technology that allow for better or retained sound quality even when TV’s do go thinner as standard. Generally speaker quality is limited by material of construction for the speaker diaphragm. Obviously there are cost for new technology, but the TV manufacturers will only do something about it if the consumer starts to demand it, or one leader does address the issue. This is happening elsewhere in small consumer goods.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I agree that there have been advances in technology that have allowed us to have better sound quality. Compare a modern small radio with what was on offer in the 1960s and this is very obvious.

While there is need for a very thin speaker in a tablet computer, this is not essential for a large TV, which is not a portable device. An ultra-thin TV might be better for mounting on the wall, but many purchasers do not do that and the thickness is immaterial. It beggars belief that large manufacturers are producing thin TVs with poor sound quality rather than offering choice. Why should I buy a poor TV now and wait until the manufacturers find out what consumers would like?

Member
John Rushby says:
13 February 2012

The main limiting factor in loudspeakers is their ability to vibrate air with sufficient power. To reproduce the bass satisfactorily the units must either be large or they must be capable of producing vibrations of considerable size. The compact design of modern flat-screen tellies conspires against these requirements.

Member
MARTY says:
17 February 2012

No 1 I HAVE NO HI/FI TO CONNECT TO.
No 2 I HAD TO TURN VOLUMN UP TO 90 % & IT WAS NO CLEARER.
No 3 UREKA I FOUND A CURE FOR THIS PROBLEM,
WHAT IS IT I HEAR YOU ASK??
I GOT A NHS HEARING AID.
I CAN NOW HEAR AS LOW AS 10% VOLUMN,
AND WITH EXTREEMLY GOOD CLARITY

Member
Anorak says:
17 February 2012

I was very sorry to write off my ten year old Toshiba CRT TV when the tube failed, it was equipped with surround sound including a built in subwoofer. The replacement Panasonic LCD with built in freesat HD has a wonderful picture, but sounds nowhere near as good as the old Toshiba. I solved the problem at minimal cost with a visit to the local boot sale. Bought a Panasonic home theatre sound system. The improvement was dramatic. It doesn’t matter if it is older than your TV, and you can ignore the built in DVD player if you don’t need it. Only consider one by a top make though, as there are cheap and nasty ones out there! The manufacturers of today’s electronics should certainly put as much effort into improving sound quality, as they have with picture quality, but I fully understand that size is a major hindrance.

Member
Simon Cherry says:
17 February 2012

I connect through a Hi-Fi system. That is best. I have bi-wired B&W floor standing + Linn speakers.
(Bose is a great compromise.) You can tweak the picture harshness in the software controls of the TV.
Picture quality is improving. The room acoustics are also important. Screen size depends on how far away you sit. Too big is wasteful and actually diminishes the viewing experience.
What will the rumoured Apple iTV be like ??

Profile photo of terfar
Member

Most flat screen TVs have both HDMI and (usually) a dedicated optical digital audio output for connecting to an external audio system. I guess that skinny screens and an external sound system is what the manufacturers expect users to buy.

I’ve always used an external sound system, even back in the days of CRT TVs. In those bad old days it was necessary to clamp an inductive pick-up onto the IF transformer to ‘rescue’ the sound before the TV ruined the signal and manufacturers didn’t provide any external connections. I’ve never heard a single TV able to reproduce sound that matches the quality of most broadcasts.

Good speakers and amplifiers will outlast a flat screen TV by many years, so buying a good audio system is an investment. Top end hi-fi has always been a sound investment!

Member
Engineer says:
17 February 2012

Be aware that, in an effort to keep TVs ‘thin’, the latest generation of sets have no Scart sockets. No problem of course – when you go out to buy that essential sound bar, just replace all your aging peripherals with nice new HDMI equipped kit.

Profile photo of Clint Kirk
Member

Thanks for alerting me to this. I’m not prepared to replace my good old hi-fi system, which sounds great but only has phono inputs.

Profile photo of ArgonautoftheSeas
Member

CK, anyone

Remember the Linn Sondek turntable with Ittok arms?

Profile photo of terfar
Member

You can purchase digital to rca phono converters for HDMI, digital co-ax or digital optical (tos-link). So you can retain your current hi-fi.

Profile photo of terfar
Member

The Sondek is still alive and kicking after 30 years!

Member

I just got a Samsung ue40d5220 40inch led HDTV. Stunning picture.
Sound is not great but I did notice something. If the set is more that a foot 30cm away from the wall the sound is poor but if you place it as close to the wall as the stand allows there is a significant improvement. Perhaps the speakers are designed to reflect off the wall?

Member
onying says:
18 February 2012

At last the reproduction of CLEAR & accurate sound is becoming a real issue to be discussed. For too long TV watchers have had to put up with incomprehensible speech , screechy higher notes & hollow lower notes, let alone poor sounding music, distorted by booming & scratching, on even the most expensive TV sets. I often have to give up trying to follow a programme because the sound track does not convey sense, but disappears in a welter of grunts & hisses unless the volume is set far too high which makes the whole experience unbearable. Come on manufacturers forget about box dimensions that do not allow a decent speaker set-up to be incorporated & put some real research into clear sound production. The old baffle/cone speaker can be improved upon so easily with really modern technology I am sure. Get a partially deaf person to analyse the sound produced, not an oscilloscope !.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

On the Which? podcast for 14 February, I heard that the requirements to achieve a four star rating for sound quality had been dropped following the arrival of flat screen TVs. I am not very happy about that because it is perfectly possible to achieve the same sound quality as the older CRT models by use of better speakers, even though this means redesigning the case.

Anyone switching from an old TV to a new one could be in for a bit of a shock. Why not give the TVs two stars or one star to alert us to the problem, so that we can try before we buy?

Sorry Which? 3 out of five this time. Must try harder. 🙂

There can be a good reason for changing the ratings system, for example if there is a general improvement in energy efficiency of appliances.

Profile photo of Jack Turner
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Hi Wavechange. The change in our sound rating benchmark for TV’s is due to flatscreens becoming the norm. As there is no longer a market for CRT TV’s, we had to adjust the rating so that the top score would reflect that of a TV it was possible to go out and buy.
However, we do talk about the sound quality of the sets in detail in the individual reviews, and the sound quality of the new flatscreens is something we will continue to highlight (through Conversations like this one, for example!).

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I can understand the problem, Jack, but I am still not happy. Normally I agree with what Which? does and you can find me defending Which? on a regular basis.

The logical way forward seems to be to supply flat-screen TVs with a sound bar. Until the manufacturers manage to work out this for themselves, perhaps using this combination should provide a reference point for decent sound quality, and the TVs on their own should be given a justifiably low score.

I spent Christmas with friends who had a new Sony Bravia TV (Which? recommended) and I could not believe how poor the sound quality was. When I replace my flat screen TV (an early model with bigger speakers) I want something half decent, though I am certainly not looking for hi-fi.

I do appreciate that you are highlighting the problem of TV sound quality.

Member
Mordenman says:
17 March 2012

What I find incomprehensible, is the absence of external speaker connections. My 28″ Panasonic CRT set has them (and doesn’t really need them), but the 24″ flatscreen (bought for the kitchen) need them desperately but hasn’t ! I am well aware of the ‘work arounds’ that are available, but I do NOT want to switch on another device or use yet another remote control, when I want to watch tv.
If I could only connect my nice little ex hi fi speakers to the telly, they could be driven by the sound amplifier in the set and controlled by the set’s volume control. I am sorely tempted to open the set, disconnect the tinny 8 ohm speakers and extend the wires out to my own units. also 8 ohm. The 5 + 5 watt output would be quite adequate ….. but away would go my warranty. I would try the headphone jack, but I think that output is intended for a much higher impedance load.
Of course, there would be no need to buy another complete sound system so maybe someone’s profits would suffer ?

Member
RICHARD GRODZIK says:
30 May 2013

Take the back off the telly.Disconnect the crappy small speakers and connect in a pair of bookshelf speakers.This is what I’ve done with successive telly for the past 40 years!

Member
Alan says:
3 February 2013

I’m still using my 28 inch Phillips CRT with built in surround sound. I am patiently awaiting a 5.0 sound bar (i.e two rears and no subwoofer) which should replicate the Phillips’ terrific sound.
An American company (Vizio) has got closest. Surely there must be a world market for this – a home theatre without all the wires? I hope the Phillips will last until one comes on the market.

Why do they insist on gizmos such as 3D and Smart TV before getting the basics right?

Member
Bob Roberts says:
2 May 2013

I am willing to agree that the “average” user does not care about audiophile quality sound from their TV. In fact, I am pretty sure that the “average” home cinema owner is not really seeking audiophile quality.

I do think that the “average” user wants to be able to hear the programme they are watching from their seat the other side of the room. They want for the dialogue to be distinguishable and to have access to reasonable audio performance at a range of volume levels not just “Full” or “Inaudible”.

I think that someone who owns a home cinema set-up to watch movies is unlikely to want to fire-up the whole shebang just to watch Question Time and I quiver in fear at the thought of anyone having to experience “In the Night Garden” in 7.1 surround simply because the expensive screen they purchased has a speaker which is not fit for purpose.

I totally understand the “Shiny Shiny” factor of lovely thin technology – it looks so clever and advanced. But then I have seen some Modernist chairs, which are practically sculptures and I can admire their design whilst having no desire to ever actually sit in one, let alone installing it in my living room.

Consumers are not “Choosing” thinner screens over better speakers. There is no manufacturer that says, would you like this 42″ Full HD screen in a 5mm thick bezel with an awful speaker, or would you prefer the exact same screen in a 20mm bezel with an acceptable sound performance.

Offer the consumer a choice and then we would truly have no-one to blame but ourselves. As it is – I blame the profiteering manufacturer who reduces cost from internal speakers and is hungry for peripheral sales.

Member
Simon Cherry says:
2 May 2013

Anyone who really wants hight quality TV audio will be directing the sound through their HiFi system.
I have B&W speakers which cost as much as my TV did. The sound is terrific.

Profile photo of acbeaton
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Surprised to read all these letters about poor TV sound with no mention of poor diction by actors, background music drowning speech and downright bad recording, all of which seem to be growing problems. Some time (years?) ago Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams on BBC Breakfast mentioned a campaign for better sound on TV and radio. I thought this was a great idea and eagerly awaited developments. Sadly I have not heard a mention of this since – not a ‘dicky bird’. Did somebody in the BBC quickly ‘sit on’ this idea?
My one-year old 46″ LED Toshiba TV has respectable sound for music and includes a sub-woofer for added base, if needed. (It is connected to my hi-fi amplifier and Bose speaker system, including woofer.) My main complaint is speech, but this is largely due to the faults mentioned above rather than the TV speakers, which I have tweaked as best I can to favour speech.

Member
RICHARD GRODZIK says:
30 May 2013

TAKE THE BACK COVER OFF YOUR TELLY.DISCONNECT THE SMALL CRAPPY SPEAKERS AND CONNECT IN A GOOD PAIR OF BOOKSHELF SPEAKERS.I HAVE BEEN DOING THIS WITH SUCCESSIVE TELLY’S FOR THE PAST 40 YEARS !

Member
Ian Baker says:
8 October 2013

Having just bought a new budget 40″ LED TV to replace an aging 37″ LCD that was starting to get patches, I was pleasently suprised by picture quality how thin it was, however, not pleasently suprised by the sound quality.

Fortunately said TV has a headphone socket. Experimented with various computer speakers I had round the house that did improve things, but still not great. Had the idea of finding some of the old hifi speakers I’d kept up the loft and found a pair of 15w 4ohm speakers. Dismantled some 7 quid Argos speakers and desoldered the speakers and soldered in my old hifi speakers leaving the cheap PC speakers to just work as an amplifier in effect. Results were fantastic, have a great bass and treble way better than I’ve had on a TV before and at a very low cost.

Member
T ward says:
1 May 2015

I was a designer before I retired. If I had designed a TV that had poor sound I would of been out to a job. Why can’t designers start with the largest part of the design, “the speaker” and design around it. If we have to have extra sound bars, why not design the extra width into the TV shape. Form follows function.

Member
T Ward says:
26 May 2015

I was a Designer and would of lost my job if I had produced such ill thought out products. I always considered the end user and asked people WHAT THEY WANTED.
TV sound quality is NOT the fault of the flat screen TV, ITS the Designers fault. NOT thinking clearly.
Start the design process with the largest component, THE SPEAKER.
I have just taken apart our old CRT TV and the speakers are about 100mm x 45mm x 50mm. The sound was brilliant. So why not bulge the back slightly to accommodate them?
And put the ON/OFF button on the front with the Auxiliary outputs. The back is hardly a convenient place. Consideration should also be made for hard of hearing and deaf people. Audio output etc.