Written by TV

Sound on TV

In this week’s Media Talk Media Guardian podcast, there was a brief discussion a tthe end about the sound issues with some of our recent big TV dramas. In particular Parade’s End and Birdsong were mentioned with viewers complaining that they couldn’t hear the sound properly.
Now I must admit that I’ve not suffered this problem – although I’ve not yet embarked on Parade’s End. But it set me wondering.
Vicky Frost mentioned that as a TV reviewer, she often got to see this big dramas in excellent surroundings; Parade’s End, for example, she saw in a screening room.
It strikes me that the average viewer is now seeing TV with worse sound than ever before, while productions are being mixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 or better sound mixes.
What I mean by this is that today’s generation of flat screen TVs actually have pretty weedy speakers built into them. The speaker in your old CRT TV was probably better and beefier than the one in your current LCD/LED/Plasma TV. If your TV is only a couple of centimetres deep, then the physics of acoustics mean that it’s very hard (not impossible – but very hard) to get decent sound. Let’s face it, most TVs today have pretty tinny sound despite perhaps having wonderful pictures. That’s why there’s a whole aftermarket of soundbars and surround sound speeaker systems on sale.
It’s said that in days gone by, before record producers mixed their final versions of a track, they’d run it through something to simulate a transistor radio. That’s how people would first hear their new song, so they optimised it for that device. There are rumours of producers today doing the same thing with iPods and mobile phone speakers.
I wonder if the reason people have these complaints about dramas today is because when the sound is being mastered, it’s on studio reference gear in acoustically excellent environments? If you’re listening at home on a TV you bought in the supermarket for under £200, you’re perhaps not going to be able to get the best experience. If the audio was mixed for surround sound, then there’s only so much you can do to make it sound good with poor stereo – or even mono – speakers.
I’m not advocating a lowest common denominator approach to audio mastering for television, but perhaps viewers need to be made more aware of the importance of sound in their kit. It’s all very well that your TV is 1080p, but unless you actually plug some half-decent speakers into it, you’re probably missing out.