/ Technology

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.


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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Believe LCD is different from plasma.

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.

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.

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

lmsdav says:
4 February 2012

I use a sound bar. Solves the problem.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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!

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.

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?

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.

MARTY says:
17 February 2012


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.

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 ??

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!

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.

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.

CK, anyone

Remember the Linn Sondek turntable with Ittok arms?

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.

The Sondek is still alive and kicking after 30 years!

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?

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 !.

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.