Great TV audio
Speakers, soundbars, headphones, AV receivers
You pay particular attention to the picture quality when buying a television, right? We’d like to recommend that you pay similar attention to audio quality as well. It’s worth comparing the sound: The flatter these devices are, the more important the audio know-how of the manufacturers becomes.
Even if you have you just bought a new TV, or are dissatisfied with the sound of your current one, this Tech Guide has some tips you can use to improve your television audio quality.
Everything you need for great TV audio
Immerse yourself in the experience
Sound is so much more than just music. In film and television, it plays a major role. The soundtrack drives the action, directs viewers’ attention and intensifies emotions. Conversely, poor TV audio can spoil the experience. It’s not only the sound volume that matters.
One typical problem is poor speech intelligibility. The more complex the audio signal, the greater the risk of acoustic distraction. Football commentary is easily lost amongst the cheering fans and stadium atmosphere. Film music and sound effects mask character dialog. Changing the audio settings on your TV can improve the balance. Many stations that broadcast programs with surround sound (Dolby Digital), also broadcast in stereo. Unfortunately, the impressive surround sound is lost.
Improve audio quality
Televisions with good speakers, wireless headphones or external sound systems can drastically improve sound quality. More below.
Television placement has a strong influence on the sound. TV speakers that emit sound downwards or backwards require a reflective surface to direct the audio towards the viewer. Bass tones change depending on the distance to a wall. Experiment with the position of your TV.
Not too flat
The thinner a television set, the leaner its sound – this is a common misconception. Most believe that full tones require large speakers. It’s difficult to reconcile good sound with a flat television housing. However, technical tricks can sometimes be used to outwit physics.
Some TV manufacturers put their speakers in an extra space at the base of the TV. They place additional woofers on the back of the housing, or turn the entire screen into a sound transducer. The difference in audio is enormous, which is why you should definitely visit your dealer and compare several devices.
Additionally, modern televisions use sophisticated signal processing. They analyze the sound signal with artificial intelligence (AI) and change the sound characteristics to suit the program. Switching between settings for speech or music is no longer necessary (see practical tip). Experience these features for yourself at your local dealer.
Speakers are often built into the TV invisibly to save space. They emit sound downwards and backwards through narrow openings. A larger speaker housing or an integrated soundbar at the edge of the screen provide more space for the speakers to work. This almost always benefits the sound.
To reproduce bass tones, a speaker must move a lot of air. The bigger the diaphragm, the better. That’s why subwoofers are such large speakers. Some TV manufacturers place several speakers on the back of the housing, which then work together. Passive diaphragms that resonate in concert or bass reflex channels also increase the audio volume.
Flat panel transducers
Some televisions use the screen itself as a sound transducer: A hidden built-in coil causes the display surface to vibrate and produce sound. This allows for rich audio without visible speakers. The technology is also useful for the center channel in a surround sound system with an AV receiver. Dialog in movies or football commentary would appear to come directly from the center of the screen.
The sound of almost any television can be improved by tweaking the settings in the sound menu. There are treble and bass controls, and often presets for various types of programs. Adjust the audio for speech, music, or set it to a high-impact movie profile at the touch of a button.
Something special for your ears
The fastest and cheapest sound upgrade for your television: wireless headphones. Wireless models are already available for under 100 euros, but they can also cost many times that much, depending on the equipment and wireless technology used.
The easiest way to connect your headphones to your TV is via Bluetooth. Any smartphone headset can be used where the TV supports the A2DP audio protocol. Unfortunately, not all models do. A wireless adapter can be plugged into the sound output of your TV, just like an external sound system. Advantage: Instead of headphones, you can also use a Bluetooth speaker.
Headphones that use their own radio technology have a transmitter. These usually have a greater range and offer more features than Bluetooth models. For example, some base stations can send audio to two pairs of headphones at the same time, allowing each listener to set their own volume. Virtual surround sound simulates sound from several speakers without having to rearrange your living room.
Older television viewers in particular, can benefit from the calibration features and adjust the audio to suit their personal hearing ability. Those who find the pressure from over-ear headphones too much can get headphones that hang in their ears like a stethoscope.
Headphones with a transmitter
Inexpensive headphone models use analog radio frequencies (RF) to transmit sound. This is not entirely noise-free, however, which is noticeable during pauses in conversation and quiet sections in movies. If you are looking for the best sound quality, look for digital headphones. The transmission range inside your house is about 30 meters. Tip: Ideally, the transmitter should also serve as a storage and charging cradle, letting you easily recharge the batteries after several hours of use.
Surround headphones can decode multi-channel sound from TV stations, DVDs or Blu-ray discs. You will need to connect the transmitter to your television via a suitable digital audio cable.
Bluetooth headphones or speakers that work with smartphones can also be paired to televisions, providing they have this feature. However, not every TV that supports Bluetooth can transmit audio over Bluetooth. This short-range connection is often only intended for keyboard or remote-control input only. Ask your dealer to find out if a TV is capable of Bluetooth audio.
With a Bluetooth adapter, you can output audio from any TV via Bluetooth. The audio goes from your TV to the adapter via a cable. The range is about ten meters, just like all Bluetooth audio devices.
Soundbars and sounddecks
Surround sound with a small footprint
As the name implies, surround sound immerses you in the audio. Cinema audiences are actually surrounded by a large number of speakers. At home, there is often not enough space to place several around the room. A soundbar solves this problem. As a narrow, bar-shaped box, it reproduces the complete surround sound from your TV, sometimes with bass support via a wireless subwoofer.
Many television stations broadcast films, shows and sporting events with surround sound, using the Dolby Digital audio format. This uses five sound tracks plus a subwoofer channel for bass tones, and is known as 5.1 surround sound. Blu-ray producers and streaming platforms sometimes add even more channels, using new surround formats such as Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. But how can so many audio channels be played back via one soundbar?
Television manufacturers use different technologies and approaches to reproduce surround sound using fewer speakers. Some mix the rear channels with the front. Electronic signal processing then creates a virtual surround effect. Another approach uses speakers that emit sound towards the ceiling and walls, reflecting sound back to the listener’s position. Others offer wireless boxes that can be used to expand a soundbar into a wireless 5.1 or multi-channel system.
Important for movie fans who want to play DTS or Dolby Atmos: Your speakers must be able to decode these formats. Some TVs can also convert sound in these formats. However, almost all devices can use Dolby Digital these days.
These bar-like speakers need very little space and are quickly installed: connect the soundbar to a power outlet and to the TV via an audio cable, and the speaker will fill the room with sound. Many models support surround sound and multi-channels, or can be expanded with additional wireless speakers.
Some TVs have such a slim footprint that a soundbar would intrude on the picture. A sound deck, often also called a sound base, is an alternative. It is functionally the same as a soundbar, but is located further under the television. The deep case takes up more space in a cabinet, but can provide more volume, and has a positive effect on bass reproduction.
Next to sound bars and sound decks, there are many other speaker arrangements that can improve your system’s audio. Floor-standing speakers with HDMI ports can be connected directly to the television. Complete surround sound systems with an amplifier and set of speakers serve the same purpose. Even just two speakers in a stereo system may help.
An additional subwoofer gives the bass more power and completes the sound picture. Wireless versions only need a power connection. They get their sound signal wirelessly from a soundbar on the TV or from other AV devices.
How does audio reach the sound system?
Almost every television has an analog sound port – either a headphone socket, or a red and white component signal. A cable from there to the analog input port(s) on your sound system transmits TV audio
The better choice for surround sound: Use a fiber optic cable to connect the TV to the digital input of the sound system, usually labeled OPT IN. Not only is stereo sound transmitted, but also digital surround signals with 5.1 channels. The sound system distributes the audio to its speakers.
The best way to play audio over a HDMI connection is via an Audio Return Channel (ARC). Ports with this label transmit the television sound to the sound system at the highest quality. Note: For TVs with several HDMI connections, look for the abbreviation ARC, otherwise the external speakers will remain mute.
Home cinema without compromise
Do you want movies to sound as perfect at home as they do in the cinema? Then you’ll need an AV receiver. Its integrated surround amplifier can supply several speakers with audio simultaneously. The number of speakers your system has depends on the model. There are 5.1 receivers, but also some that support nine or more channels. Output channels that are not needed in your home cinema setup can be distributed as speakers in other rooms. That’s how these systems can be used to play music in kids’ room as well as TV surround sound in the living room.
Normally, speakers receive their signals via a speaker cable. Wireless AV receivers are an exception. Installation and setup may take more time than simply connecting a soundbar, but the additional effort is worth it: no other home cinema system is as flexible and powerful as a surround system with an amplifier.
As AV receivers require quite a bit of power to amplify audio signals, they also produce a lot of heat. They should be positioned where the air can circulate freely. If you install one in a cabinet, make sure it is well ventilated. Some models offer an Eco mode, reducing the power and thus also the heat that is generated in use.
An on-screen menu on the TV allows you to adjust the sound output to suit the speakers you are using. High quality AV receivers can do this automatically via an included microphone, used to record and analyze test tones at the usual listening position. From the data that is collected, the technology can calculate a sound profile with clear trebles and rich, precise bass tones.
If you own many audio and video devices, you will benefit from input/output switching features: Modern AV receivers come with sockets for half a dozen HDMI sources, from Blu-ray players to game consoles. No soundbar has that many inputs. Depending on the model, there may also be connections for analog and digital audio devices, as well as for streaming music via WiFi or Bluetooth.
One of the strengths of AV receivers, is that they can handle almost all video and audio signals. Current models support Ultra HD resolutions (UHD, 4K 8K), as well as High Dynamic Range (HDR) for extended contrast. This is important where the video signal is required to pass through the receiver to the television. Only then can you watch a UHD film from a Blu-ray disc or a program from a streaming box on your TV at the original quality. If in doubt, ask your dealer whether your selected AV receiver supports pass-through audio and video of such high-quality signals.
Surround enthusiasts should also pay attention to the Dolby Atmos and DTS:X sound formats. They add a third dimension to the spatial information transmitted to the front and rear channels: height. Additional speakers can position sound effects more precisely in the room. A helicopter seems to hover over your head, raindrops patter invisibly in the surrounding trees. It really sounds like you are in a cinema.
You can set the level for each audio channel individually on AV receivers. If you raise the volume of the center channel slightly, voices will sound louder and speech will be easier to understand. In some cases, there may be a dedicated dialog setting for this.
How many channels?
Stereo setup with speakers to the right and left of the TV.
The subwoofer delivers low-frequency tones and amplifies the bass.
A center speaker at the front improves dialog.
Surround speakers at the rear left and right position sounds around the room.
TV audio in multiple rooms
Mutli-room systems allow you to distribute music across several speakers in your house. This is usually done wirelessly using radio frequencies, and renders speaker cables superfluous. Such a system can also transmit television audio, as soon as the TV is connected to it. It’s then not only your living room that benefits from better sound. If you want to, you can listen to movie audio throughout your entire living space. You don’t need to miss anything if you need to go to the bathroom, or raid the fridge.
Since both audio and video must be synchronized, only multi-room devices with a HDMI socket or optical digital input are suitable for connecting to a TV. The quickest way is to install a soundbar. It receives the sound from the TV and feeds it into the streaming network. Amplifiers or AV receivers that are part of a multi-room system work in the same way.
A smartphone app takes care of the rest. It groups the multi-room device in the living room with the speakers located in other rooms. Until they are separated, they all play back the audio signal from the TV or the Blu-ray in perfect synchronization.
Devices that have a night mode won’t disturb neighbors and sleeping family members. When activated, the electronics cut the bass back and reduce peaks in loudness. That way, you can enjoy a movie without disturbing the peace.
Modern multi-room systems can do even more. They connect speakers from their system to form a wireless surround system. The TV soundbar or front speakers in the home cinema are then supported by wireless models at the back of the room. A wireless subwoofer contributes the necessary bass. Advantage: This room-filling sound is achieved without running additional speaker cables. You just need a power outlet at each speaker’s location.
The speaker groups you can form wirelessly have another advantage: they don’t have to be permanent. When movie night is over, the rear speakers can be moved from the 5.1 setup to another room, to play music – until the next movie night sees them return to the living room.