TV technology has certainly advanced. The display resolution has increased, picture quality has improved greatly, and screen sizes are thinner and larger than ever. 4K and 8K HDTVs have advanced the category by decades in a very short amount of time. However, one area where today’s TVs still suffer is sound quality. Consumers reach into their wallets to buy a TV that looks great but sounds terrible. It doesn’t have to be that way so let’s discuss how to improve your TV’s sound.
Why TVs Sound So Bad
It’s not a mystery why TVs sound so bad in relation to everything else they offer. The attractiveness of having a TV so thin that you can hang it on the wall to save space also contributes to why they don’t deliver in the sound quality department. There just isn’t enough interior volume (space) to house traditional speakers or for them to move enough air to provide a convincing listening experience, especially for movies.
This means that watching TV and listening to the sound through its built-in speakers is only 50% of the experience. This is even more apparent as TVs can’t deliver the high-quality stereo and surround sound audio available from an increasing number of broadcast, cable/satellite, and streaming sources.
There are several ways TV makers try to cram speakers into TVs. Some include:
- Embedding speakers in the TV frame.
- Embedding speakers on the bottom frame of the TV and pointing them downward.
- Embedding speakers on the left and right side edges of the TV for better stereo sound.
- Placing the speakers on the back of the TV so that sound bounces off the wall.
- Using the screen as the speaker(s). On select Sony OLED TVs, actuators are placed on the rear of the screen, allowing it to vibrate and produce sound. The vibration is not visible and does not affect the picture quality. Sony’s brand name for this technology is “Acoustic Surface”.
Other techniques to improve the sound of TV speakers include equalizer settings, dialog enhancement, and virtual sound processing. Despite these features, physics puts a limitation on how much sound you can get out of a TV’s built-in speakers.
However, there are ways you can improve your TV listening experience if you think “out of the box”.
The most convenient way to improve TV sound is with a soundbar. A soundbar incorporates two or more speakers housed in a single cabinet that connects to a TV as an external sound system for your TV. With few exceptions, you can wall mount a soundbar, which saves additional space and visually complements a wall-mounted TV.
There are several soundbar configurations available:
1. Soundbar Only: All of the speakers are housed within a single cabinet as per soundbar definition.
2. Soundbar with Subwoofer: Many soundbars come packaged with a separate subwoofer (usually wireless). Some soundbars promote that they have subwoofers built-in, but if you find them lacking, you may be able to add an optional wired or wireless subwoofer. Check your soundbar user guide for details.
3. Soundbar with Subwoofer and Surround speakers (either included or optional add-on).
This option consists of a soundbar for the front left, center, and right channels, a subwoofer (usually wireless), and compact surround sound speakers. If included with the soundbar, the amplifiers for the surround speakers are sometimes housed in the subwoofer. If this is the case, the surround speakers connect to the subwoofer via wire. Read the user guide for your soundbar or surround speakers for details.
4. Soundbar with Digital Sound Projection
A Digital Sound Projector is a type of soundbar (Yamaha YSP Models) that utilize a series of small speakers (referred to as beam drivers) placed across the front of the bar. The beam drivers are grouped in clusters that can be assigned to specific channels and projected to different points in a room.
Each beam driver is powered by a dedicated amplifier, and the beam driver assembly is supported by audio decoders and processors. This is an innovative approach for getting surround sound from a soundbar design but requires a closed room for best results so that sound can be reflected off walls. A digital sound projector may or may not come with a subwoofer, but you can add one.
Instead of placing speakers and connections in a “bar” design, the cabinet they are placed in a cabinet can double as a platform for setting a TV on. A sound base works best with a TV with a center stand. If a TV has end feet, they may be too far apart as the sound base may be narrower than the distance between the TV’s end feet.
There is also another level of soundbar systems from brands like Theory Audio Design which incorporate a passive pro audio loudspeaker setup with a dedicated amplifier and controller. This type of system offers a level of sonic performance above anything you will find at Best Buy and while not inexpensive, is state-of-the-art and used by movie industry professionals to mix the audio portion of your favorite TV shows and films. We reviewed it earlier this year and it was like nothing else that we’ve heard so far.
Home Theater Systems
Although a soundbar provides an easy way to improve TV sound, especially for small spaces and most of the time, small budgets, a home theater audio system with separate speakers is the best way to get a full surround sound experience.
Home theater audio systems can be broken down into three broad categories:
1. Pre-Packaged System (Home-Theater-in-a-Box).
Although not as common that they once were, these systems contain most (or all) of the components needed, including the speakers/subwoofer, surround sound receiver/control center, and, in some cases, a Blu-ray/DVD/CD player. Some may also include music and video streaming capability. Some examples include:
2. Wireless Home Theater Package
This is a variation of the home-theater-in-a-box concept but employs all wireless speakers.
In a traditional wired home theater setup, the power needed to make the loudspeaker work is passed through speaker wire connections from an amplifier.
However, in a wireless speaker setup, a transmitter from a central control module that is connected to the TV via analog, digital optical, or HDMI-ARC/eARC sends the needed audio signals to powered wireless speakers.
Most wireless home theater systems are WiSA (Wireless Speaker Association) certified. These systems provide the same capabilities as a home-theater-in-a-box system without the hassle of running and hiding wires around a room. Using multi-channel wireless technology, WiSA systems are capable of transmitting high-definition audio without compression or delay at twice the resolution of CDs with less than 1/10th the delay of Bluetooth.
Setup is simple as you connect a WiSA-enabled control hub to a TV. The control module will find compatible wireless speakers. However, although the speakers receive sound signals wirelessly, they do need to be plugged into AC power so that their built-in amplifiers will work.
Examples of wireless home theater systems include:
- Platin Audio Monaco
- Enclave Audio CineHome II and CineHome Pro
- Damson S-series (Uses in-house JetStreamNet Wireless technology rather than WiSA)
3. Home Theater Receiver with Speakers of your Choice
If you want to boost your TV sound experience further, you can opt for a full home theater setup with a Stereo or AV Receiver and multiple speakers.
The receiver decodes and/or processes audio signals passed to it from the and sends the sound to each speaker (and subwoofer) via wired connections.
That creates may seem like a lot of wire clutter for many, but it opens the door to setups that offer a lot of flexibility. You can opt for a basic two-channel stereo receiver and two speakers, or two speakers and a subwoofer, to a 5.1 or 7.1 channel home theater receiver with the corresponding number of speakers for listening to surround sound formats such as Dolby Digital or DTS.
If you want something more complex, you can get a home theater receiver that supports vertically firing or ceiling-mounted height channel speakers for immersive surround sound formats such as Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, or Auro 3D-Audio.
Another benefit of a home theater receiver is in addition to audio coming from the TV, you can connect all your external audio/video sources (DVD/Blu-ray, Game Console, Cable/Satellite Box, Media Streamer, etc….) to the home theater receiver.
The receiver will extract the audio and pass the video through to the TV. This is great if your TV doesn’t have enough input connections for all your devices.
Home theater receivers are available from brands such as Anthem, Denon, Harman Kardon, Marantz, NAD, Onkyo/Integra, Pioneer, Sony, and Yamaha.
Surround Sound Formats
The surround sound formats you have access to depends on what is provided from the content source and the brand/model of the soundbar, home-theater-in-a-box, or home theater receiver is compatible with (consult your product’s user guide for details).
Examples of encoded surround sound formats include:
- Dolby Digital 5.1, EX, TrueHD, Atmos
- DTS 5.1, ES, HD, HD-Master Audio, X
- Auro 3D Audio
In addition to encoded surround sound formats, a soundbar or home theater receiver might also include one or more surround sound processing formats that can approximate or enhance a surround listening experience with or without the presence of all the speakers that would normally be required.
Examples of surround sound processing formats include:
- Virtual Surround (goes by several names depending on product brand/model)
- Dolby Prologic II, IIx
- Dolby Surround Upmixer, Height Virtualization.
- DTS Neural:X, Virtual:X
TV/Sound System Connection Options
Depending on the brand/model of the TV, soundbar, home-theater-in-a-box, or home theater receiver-based system, the available connection options may include one or more of the following:
- Analog RCA connections (stereo only)
- Digital Optical (stereo and up to 6.1 channel surround sound)
- HDMI-ARC/eARC (stereo, 5.1 or higher surround sound)
- Bluetooth (stereo or surround channels only – not always reliable)
Having a TV with a great picture quality is important, but without sound, you are only getting half the experience. Unless all you watch is cable news, TVs don’t have the sound quality to match their video quality. Consider one of the options discussed above to get the full benefit of the TV viewing experience – you will find that the money you might have to spend is worth it.