Why Is the Dialogue So Quiet on My HDTV?

By Jason Fitzpatrick on June 17th, 2015

We’ve all been there: the characters on screen are talking and it’s way too quiet so you crank up the volume only to be blasted by a loud explosion two seconds later. Why is the dialogue so quiet and what can you do to fix it? Read on as we show you how to tame wild swings in TV audio output.

Why Is There Such Variation In Volume?

It’s a situation nearly everyone can relate to. You’re sitting there watching TV and suddenly the characters are talking in hushed ones about something important. You can’t hear what they’re saying very clearly so you turn the volume up until you can. Everything is perfect and you can hear their conversation clearly and then BOOM! a car crash, explosion, or sudden shift in action blows your eardrums out as the volume level skyrockets relative to the quiet conversation you were just listening to.

What’s the deal? Why does it seem like so many TV shows and movies, especially action films and the like, swing so wildly from barely audible to room shakingly loud? The source of the high variability isn’t limited to a single issue and some or all of the issues can conspire together to create an unenjoyable TV viewing experience. Let’s take a look at where the problem comes from before we jump into what you can do about it.

It Was Mixed That Way

Audio is divided into channels. We dive into all the nomenclature of audio channels and speaker layouts in our guide How to Place Your Speakers to Maximize Your Home Theater Experience, but we’ll run you through a crash course here.

Headphones and TV sets without subwoofers are 2.0 channel audio (two speakers L/R, no subwoofer). Add a subwoofer and you get 2.1. Add in surround sound (two front L/R, two back L/R, a center front channel, and a subwoofer) and you get 5.1 channel audio. Add in two more rear L/R speakers and you get 7.1. channel audio; repeat the process of adding more surround L/R channels and you get 9.1 channel audio.

In a 5.1, 7.1, and 9.1 configuration the sound effects (everything from the big booms to the faint creak of a door in the distance) is pumped through the front and rear L/R channels (depending on where in the “soundspace” the engineers want the sound to appear to the listener).

Dialogue is pumped through the center channel, labeled with a (2) in the above diagram. (As a fun aside, you can unplug the wire to your center channel speaker while watching a movie or sporting event and the voices of the actors or announcer will vanish.)

Even if your home media center is set up perfectly and adjusted for balanced surround sound it’s distinctly possible that you’ll still experience the super loud special effects and explosions and super quiet dialogue simply because it was originally mixed that way. The audio engineers expect you to turn it up to hear the dialogue and then get rocked right out of your seat when that unexpected car bomb goes off.

You’ll note that we’ve made a lot of references so far to action movies. The phenomenon is radically more pronounced in action films and practically nonexistent in sources like sitcoms (aside from annoyingly loud commercials). In 2009, for example, audio engineers released a paper highlighting how movies such as The Matrix had a range of 25 units from the loudest to the quietest moments where as sitcoms like Friends had a range of only six units.

Your TV Isn’t Downsampling Correctly

Although we can point the finger at maniacal audio engineers in some cases, in the vast majority of cases we can blame your television itself. Most people are not watching TV with extensive home surround systems they’re watching TV with the simple 2.0 channel speakers built into the TV and maybe a 2.0 channel soundbar with a subwoofer added in for good measure to boost it up to 2.1.

In this situation anytime they watch any media with 5.1 channel audio (which is pretty much any DVD, Bluray, streamed source from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc.) it falls on the TV to perform a task known as “downsampling” to blend the channels together and rebalance them so that the 5.1 configuration sounds normal coming from a 2.0 system.

Although there are published ratios provided by organizations such as Dolby intended to provide the ideal downsampling configuration with proper balance that doesn’t mean the people who designed your TV set followed the guides (at all or properly) or that your TV even has proper downmixing algorithms in it in the first place. Many cheaper TV sets just smash the channels together and push them out the speakers with little to no adjustment. That’s a pure recipe for way-too-loud action and way-too-soft dialogue.

Your Media Center Isn’t Configured Properly

Sometimes you can blame overzealous audio engineers and sometimes you can blame cost-cutting television engineers. Othertimes you have nobody to blame but yourself. If you have a multi-speaker system hooked up to a receiver it’s on you to set it up correctly. If you’re using the wrong audio settings on your receiver and your channels are unbalanced or the settings intended to help equalize your listening experience are not active, then there’s a good chance you’ll be stuck with an experience (despite spending so much more) as the people with the cheap TV and no sound system.

What Can I Do?

Now that we’ve got an idea how the dialogue and the action end up so far apart in volume let’s look at ways we can remedy the problem. Although we’d love to walk you through the specific steps to fix your exact TV set or audio receiver that’s a bit beyond the scope of the article. Instead we’re going to highlight common settings and solutions; we recommend you use the terms and concepts here to explore the settings menu on your device or as a search term paired with the model number of your device to learn more.

Check Your Speaker Configuration

Many devices and services allow you to specify what your audio configuration is so that the device or service can either provide you with the right audio channel track or properly downsample it for you.

If your Bluray player, for example, thinks that it’s hooked up to a 5.1 channel audio system then it’s going to output all 5.1 channels and you’ll be at the mercy of whatever your TV does with that output (maybe your TV will downsample it beautifully, maybe it won’t). If your player has the option to specify that the audio output is 2.0 then the downsampling can be handled by the player and not the TV.

In the screenshot above, of a Samsung BD H6500 Bluray player, you can see the option labeled “Downmixing Mode” where you can specify how you want the Bluray player to downmix the audio channels for your speaker configuration.

In short, you need to pore over the settings of the device and/or service providing the signal to your television (e.g. your receive, Bluray player, cable box, TiVo, etc.) and ensure that if there is an option to select the speaker configuration of the receiving device that it matches what your actual speaker configuration is (e.g. if you’re just using your TV then it should be set to 2.0).

Enable Dynamic Range Compression

Normally compressing audio is bad thing if you’re looking to listen to rich and dynamic range. When it comes to taming the difference between explosively loud action scenes and whisper quiet dialogue, however, dynamic range compression is a necessary evil.

Labeled as “Dynamic Range Compression”, “Dynamic Range Control”, “DRC”, “Night Mode”, or (much less commonly) as “Dialogue Enhancement”, “Volume Amplification”, “Boost Downsample” or the like, this option instructs the device to compress the range of volume in the audio track of the displayed video such that the highest and lowest points are closer together. This makes the booms less boomy and the whispers less hushed.

Using the same Samsung Bluray player menu, you can see the option above for “Dynamic Range Control”. Typical options are On, Off, and Auto.

You do sacrifice fidelity to the original recording (loud noises meant to startle you during a spooky movie won’t be as loud, for example, nor will tiny noises be as tiny) but it allows you to watch an action movie once the kids are in bed without shaking the walls of the house.

You can find dynamic range options on TV sets, on audio receivers, and within media center software (Like Kodi Media Center or Plex).

Adjust the Center Channel

If you find that the adjustments aren’t to your liking and you have a multi-channel setup, nearly every receiver on the market allows for channel-by-channel adjustments.

Typically you have to turn off any sort of special audio mode like “Movie” or “Concert Hall” and then manually adjust your channels. The best way to approach this is to adjust the general volume up to the level that is comfortable for you in regard to the loud sounds in the movie or TV show (the explosions, the gunfights, etc.) and then individually adjust the center channel upwards until the dialogue is also at a comfortable level.

Armed with the knowledge of why the dialogue is so quiet and strategies for fixing it, you’ll never have to sit through another startling round of whisper-whisper-car-bomb-BOOM again. Have a tip or trick to help your fellow readers out? Hop into the forum below to share your media center setup knowledge.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 06/17/15
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