It is unfortunate that as flat panel TV picture quality has soared and their prices declined, the audio quality has sunken with the prices! Many people find the audio in new TV’s to be “thin” or “tinny”, and movie dialog can be difficult to understand. Why has this happened? Manufacturers focus on making TV’s with great picture quality in smaller/thinner cabinets at the lowest possible price. This leaves little space left in the cabinet and money in the budget for speakers. Since people rarely “listen” to a TV when making a buying decision this makes sense. Some clients have commented that the sound quality of a “modern” TV, is inferior to a 20 year old, smaller screen, heavy weight, “tube” TV.
An irony is that with the improvement due to HD picture quality there has been a corresponding improvement in the available audio quality as well. First to Dolby Digital surround on DVD and HD broadcasts then to Blu-ray with even higher resolution audio. So what are your options if you want great, good, or simply acceptable audio from a flat-panel TV system?
The obvious choice is a surround sound audio system to get the full benefit of modern video formats. However, a good surround system is somewhat expensive to purchase and install and that is not necessary for a secondary TV (think bedroom) or if movies are not your main interest. There are alternatives to surround that sound good, but before discussing these, lets briefly explain why surround sound sytems are pricey.
Surround sound systems are expensive simply because they have so many speakers — at least 6 (Left, center, right, 2 surrounds and a subwoofer) and as many as eight speakers. Unlike TV’s and other electronics, speakers don’t follow the steep price/performance gains from newer technology. While speaker designs improve over time, it’s a slow process. A good pair of stereo speakers today costs about the same as 25 years ago!
So, if you’re on a budget that cannot support 6 good speakers or don’t need/want surround, what can you do? One approach is to use small, cheap surround speakers. There are a variety of “home-theater-in-a-box” (HTIB) systems that do just that. They cost $400-$1,000 for a group of small speakers often with simple receiver to drive them and sometimes a basic DVD player. While these produce surround audio, they sound bad! Like most things, you get what you pay for in Audio/Video and these systems have cut every corner to keep the cost low. We find its far better to install a good pair of stereo speakers and avoid HTIB surround systems. This yields a system with good stereo sound for TV, movies, and music.
Another approach is to use a “sound-bar”, a single long speaker placed under the TV that has multiple independent speakers. The better soundbars accept and reproduce actual surround sound, some reflecting the side and rear channels off side walls. Soundbars have two other features the are highly desirable; they are easy to install, and don’t clutter the room with lots of speakers. We have only found a few of these products that provide good performance. Some soundbars are low-performing products that are stripped down versions of the HTIB. The better products yield surprisingly good results for about a third of the cost of a full surround system.
In summary, if you have a tight budget that doesn’t support a full surround system, or simply want better sound from a secondary TV, there are some good solutions. Assisting clients is making the best decision for their situation, then getting it properly installed and setup is a big part of our job and perhaps the most satisfying part.