The picture quality of modern TVs is better than ever so it’s a shame the same can’t be said about the sound quality. So how did we get here, and how much do you need to spend to fix the problem?
Modern TV Speakers Rarely Face Forward
Take a look at most TVs and the reason for poor sound should be evident. The industry shift toward smaller bezels and thinner designs means there’s no room for front-facing speakers in most designs. If you can’t see any speakers (or the grille behind which the speakers are located) then the speakers aren’t facing you.
Instead, manufacturers rely on speakers that fire downwards from the bottom of the panel or backward from the rear of the TV. This means that the sound bounces off your entertainment unit or the wall behind your TV before it reaches you, which introduces all sorts of variables.
In the case of downward-firing speakers, the distance between your TV and the entertainment unit can impact sound dramatically. If you don’t have an entertainment unit and have instead mounted your TV on the wall, the sound will fire straight down to the floor instead.
Soft furnishings will dampen sound. If your rear-firing speakers are hitting a curtain or your downward-firing speakers are shooting straight for the bed or carpet, the fabric will absorb much of the sound without it ever reaching you. You can use this effect to your advantage to dampen reverb, but it’s not ideal for a lot of modern TV speaker arrangements.
You can use the RTINGS Table Tool to rank TVs by frequency response and distortion levels when it comes to sound, to get an idea of which TVs sound the best out of the box. Keep in mind that a frequency response measurement and perceived sound quality are two different things. It’s hard to know whether your expectations will be met when all you’re looking at is a spec sheet.
TV Speakers are Too Small for Big Sound
Having speakers that don’t directly face you can significantly impact the clarity of the sound you hear, but the size of the speakers included in most models is also a problem. This is particularly evident in the lack of bass response since bass requires larger sub-woofers to make an impact.
Bigger speakers mean bigger sound, while smaller speakers are more commonly associated with “tinny” sound that lacks depth and roundness. All of these things are a factor in the disappointing end result, leaving you with an audio experience that lacks clarity because the speakers aren’t facing you, and which also lacks impact because there’s not enough room for speakers that produce an impactful bass response.
Even if your TV had better bass, you might encounter another issue: rattling from the TV chassis. This presents another problem for manufacturers to solve, which would require the use of higher-quality materials and push the price up. The site What Hi-Fi complained about a “slight bass rattle” in LG’s 2022 C2 OLED, even though the TV ships with fairly puny speakers to begin with.
It can be hard to understand why TVs fall so short when some laptops like Apple’s MacBook Pro and Dell’s XPS line sound so impressive. It’s important not to compare these like-for-like. Sitting in front of a laptop is quite different from sitting the recommended viewing distance from your TV.
A TV has a much larger space to fill, with the sound intended for multiple listeners. For a laptop, only the space directly in front of the display has to sound good. Many laptops fall short, just like TVs do, and it’s thanks to the same issue: limited space for small speakers that are kept out of sight.
How to Fix Poor TV Speakers
The most cost-effective solution is to use a stereo setup you already have. The speakers attached to a modest home stereo are almost certainly going to be larger than those in your TV, and you can position them so that they face you directly. Just be aware that many modern TVs lack analog audio outputs, so your receiver will need a digital input that corresponds to the one on your TV like S/PDIF or optical output.
If you’re in the market for a purpose-built affordable solution, consider a soundbar. Even a cheap soundbar like the Roku Streambar will provide a better listening experience than the vast majority of TV speakers, with a mid-range option like the Sonos Beam providing impressive results in a relatively small package.
Sonos Beam Gen 2 (Black)
The second-generation Sonos Beam provides big sound in a small package, ideal for smaller sets, narrow spaces, and tight budgets. Impressively, the Beam does a good job with Dolby Atmos audio despite lacking upward-firing speakers.
If you’re happy to spend a bit more you can nab one of the best soundbars on the market like the Sonos Arc with upward-firing speakers for proper Dolby Atmos support. For best results, make sure your soundbar can connect to your TV with an HDMI cable using ARC (Audio Return Channel) on older models or the more recent eARC standard on newer TVs.
The Sonos Arc is one of the best all-in-one soundbars you can buy. Spending the extra cash will get you a high-quality, cinematic experience through and through.
If you’ve got the budget, space, and time to invest then a true surround setup like a 7.1 or 5.1 system can’t be beaten. You’ll need a receiver that’s compatible with whatever standards you want to take advantage of (like Dolby Atmos, DTS, DTS:X, and so on). You should also make sure that your TV supports the same standards or will at least “pass-through” the audio (LG OLEDs don’t pass through DTS, for example).
Some TVs have built-in Bluetooth which makes it possible to use wireless headphones. This can provide an immersive viewing experience, but it’s not ideal if you have a whole room full of people. For a wired experience, a relatively cheap headphone amp or DAC connected to an available analog or digital output would work too.
If you’re one of the few Apple TV users you can also use AirPods or link a HomePod or HomePod mini (in pairs, for true stereo and home theatre sound). This will only work for content you watch with the Apple TV.
Software Only Goes So Far to Fix the Problem
Many TV manufacturers use a few tricks in a bit to enhance dismal audio. These range from equalizer settings that add clarity to dialogue to virtual surround sound presets that attempt to imitate a real home theatre setup.
You should play around with your TV’s various sound modes to see if any of these improve your experience, but don’t expect miracles. Your experience will still be better if you upgrade to a soundbar, home theatre setup, or by using a stereo setup you already have.
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