If I had to name the most common issue with televisions that I hear regularly, then it must be this; "how do I fix the sound of dialogue on my TV?".
For many people, they are delighted with the picture on a modern flat screen TV. But, when it comes to the sound, it can often be a disappointing experience.
Now, there are several sound-related things that people complain about when it comes to their TVs. It's not loud enough. There's not enough bass. Movies don't sound exciting enough.
But the most common complaint appears to be – "I can't hear the talking properly".
If that's the case, the most common solution is to turn up the TV volume… and then the music and sound effects are too loud!
And so, the cycle begins.
Can't hear the talking – turn it up. Music is too loud – turn it down. Can't hear the talking…
So, if you want to improve the sound of your television – especially for the dialogue – what are the best TV sound settings? And, if that doesn't work, what other options do you have?
Well, here are some ideas that you can try.
In case you aren't sure. The dialogue on a TV soundtrack refers to the voices. The things people say.
In most cases, this is the most important part of a TV show or movie. Of course, for things like music videos, then the music is more important.
But for the majority of movies, documentaries, dramas, current affairs etc. – the most important aspect is the things people say.
So, if you can't hear the dialogue very clearly, then you're not going to get much enjoyment from your show.
One thing you should understand is that there might be several reasons why the dialogue in a TV show isn't clear on your TV.
These can range from:
This is one of the reasons why it can be hard to have a single solution to this problem.
Your issue might just one of those things. But it might also be a combination of all of them. That's a tricky problem to solve.
If your problem is just that the actors just aren't speaking clearly enough, then there's not much you can do about that - save from contacting the culprits on social media and asking them to try a bit harder!
However, for most of the other issues, there are a few things that you can try to make things better.
And, if the dialogue is clearer, then the actor's performance might work better for you too.
Some solutions will just involve tweaking a few settings on your TV sound menu. Others might require you to spend some money.
Either way, you should find a solution to your problem.
The first thing to try is to adjust some options in your TV sound settings menu. It can be a quick and easy way to improve the sound of your TV speakers. And, it's free!
I recently went to my parent's house for a few days, and guess what was one of the first things I heard when I arrived?
"Oh, by the way, watching our TV is really annoying. We can't hear a word anyone is saying. Is there anything you can do about it?".
See, that's the problem with running a blog about home theater technology, your friends and family expect you to have all the answers to their technical problems. It's a burden, my friends, a terrible burden.
Anyway, enough of my problems, what did I do about it? Well, grabbed the remote control and dived into the sound settings menu.
Now, my parents currently have a Samsung LED TV from a year or two back. Unless you have the same TV, then the chances are that you won't have the same audio options.
However, most TVs these days have comparable audio settings, so you will probably have something very similar on your television.
Although there are often several different options in the audio settings for your TV, some of them aren't anything to do with changing what you hear. So, you need to figure out which ones are important for altering the sound output.
I would say there are three broad areas to look out for:
In different TV brands, these will be called different things – and they might be spread around the menu in different places – but these are the general things you should be looking for.
The main thing you should think about before you start playing around is, what are you trying to achieve?
Do you want to make the dialogue clearer? Or, do you just want to make the sound a bit bigger and more exciting?
Your end goal will determine which are the best settings to change.
Also, you may only need to change just one of these settings – or you might tweak them all. It depends on what gives you the result that you want.
Sound modes are presets that the manufacturer provides to quickly change what you hear.
They might not always be called sound modes – but there will be a section of different presets.
The default is usually called Standard (or something similar) – which is a balanced setting with little EQ or effects. The rest have names like Sports, Movies, Ambience, Clear Voice and Music.
These will be different for each TV brand but will all do similar things.
Now, it may be that these presets are all that you need to change. By selecting one, you will enable a setting that alters the sound.
It may add equalization, compression or apply a special effect. Try each one and see what you think.
Remember - what are you trying to achieve?
In my experience, many of the modes are a waste of time. But you might find one that quickly gets you the sound that you really want. So, give them a whirl.
For example, sound modes like 'Clear Voice' (or similar) are supposed to be for those of you who want to make the dialogue clearer.
The problem is they usually just boost some mid/high frequencies and remove all the bass – so they sound terrible for anything other than a single voice.
Still, maybe that's what you want?
On the Samsung TV I was working with, I had just 3 sound modes:
In many cases, if the other sound modes don't give you what you want, you would just leave things on the Standard setting and move on to compression and equalization.
The Amplify setting is a bit like the 'Clear Voice' example I gave above. All mid and high frequencies and less bass. I didn't like it, but it may work well for hearing-impaired viewers.
In this case, I selected Optimized. This creates a type of virtual surround sound.
Now, in most places around the web, you will find people telling you to turn these virtual surround settings off. And, I agree that they don't offer a surround experience comparable to having a proper surround sound speaker system installed in your room.
But I was looking to make the dialogue clearer.
And, what you will find with many virtual surround settings is they push the music and effects away to the far left and right of the stereo image – and try to leave the voices in the center of the image.
This is what I want. To clear a space so that the voices have more room to be heard.
Now, you may just not like the overall effect that virtual surround gives you. In this case, don't use it and try something else.
But, if you are trying to hear the voices clearer on your TV, give it a go. It may do the trick.
On some TV models, I have seen the virtual surround sound as a separate menu item. You leave the sound mode as standard and then select the surround effect elsewhere.
Seek and ye shall find.
Of course, your TV may not have a virtual surround effect. In which case, try one of the other sound modes – or leave it as standard and try some compression and EQ instead.
Most TV brands will also offer some form of compression. It may be called auto volume or auto gain control. Something along those lines.
The idea is that it will compress the sound so that there is less dynamic range between the loud bits and the quiet bits.
This can be especially useful if you are watching TV at night. It helps to avoid annoying your neighbors and other members of your household with the loud explosions from your action movie.
Apart from using it for that purpose, it is a setting that in most cases I would not enable.
However, if your aim is to make voices clearer, then a little compression might help. You should find the voices are less likely to be overpowered by sound effects and music.
So, switch it on and see what you think.
Some TVs may offer a couple of different levels of auto volume. Maybe called Normal and Night. Something like that.
The Night version will be the most extreme and so I would try the Normal version first. Just so you can try and keep some dynamics in the sound.
In my case, I added the auto volume to help control the balance between the virtual surround effects and the voices.
In my case, there was also an equalization option with a graphic equalizer.
A graphic equalizer has a fixed range of frequencies that you can boost or cut in order to change how everything sounds.
You can make things brighter by increasing the higher frequencies. Or, get more bass by increasing the lower frequencies.
On some TVs, rather than a graphic equalizer, you may just get a simple two-stage bass and treble frequency control.
The more options you have for controlling certain frequencies, the more control you have over the sound.
With the Samsung television, I didn't change these settings. I decided that the changes I had already made were enough.
However, let's take a quick look at some of the best equalizer settings for your TV if you are trying to improve the sound.
You might find that extra EQ works well for you in addition to the sound modes and compression. Or, you may not have some of those options I tried earlier, and so you can try some equalization instead to improve the sound.
A default setting for a graphic equalizer will look something like this:
The graphic equalizer on your TV may well have a different number of bands – and different frequencies.
The default will be set flat like the example above. Move the control up to boost that frequency - and down to cut it.
The lower frequencies like 150 and 250 Hz are the bass low end. The 8k and 12k high frequencies at the other end will make the sound brighter.
The advantage of an equalizer with more bands is that you have more control over the sound. It is easier to pinpoint any problem areas.
But you will just have to work with what you've got.
If you are looking to get a general improvement in sound for your TV, then you might want to try a classic smiley face setting like this one:
This type of EQ curve attempts to work with how our hearing works. At lower volumes, we hear mid-range frequencies better.
A smile EQ setting on a graphic equalizer like this will boost the low and high frequencies so that we can hear them better. It should help to make things sound more balanced.
However, don't forget that you are limited by the speakers that you get on your television. There's only so much you can do with small TV speakers!
Also, you might also be in danger of overpowering the mid-frequencies. This may make voices less clear. So, don't overdo it.
If your aim is to simply make dialogue clearer, then you would want to have a different approach to EQ.
What are the best TV equalizer settings for dialogue?
Well, the clarity of a voice is found in the mid-frequencies – say from 2 kHz to 6 kHz.
Therefore, you can try boosting the frequencies available in your graphic equalizer around this area. Something like this:
This should help to amplify the dialogue and make it cut through better.
Another way of approaching this is to cut around the 300 – 800 Hz range. While this region can give warmth to a voice, it can also make things muddy.
So, by cutting in this region you might be able to make voices a little clearer and fix a muffled sound. Like this:
Or, you could try a little of both the previous two options - cut and boost.
The thing you should bear in mind is that you are not working in isolation with the voice. In a movie, you will be affecting the frequencies of music and sound effects too. So, try not to go too far.
One good trick is to make your changes and then hit the reset button to quickly remove the EQ (if there is a reset button). You will easily hear the difference in sound when the equalization is suddenly removed.
Of course, you'll need to set it up again after!
However, have fun and enjoy being a sound engineer for the day. Before you know it, you'll be mixing the next album for The Rolling Stones!
One thing to remember is that sound is a very personal experience. It's hard to get two people agreeing on what sounds good.
So, this process should be seen as a trial and error situation. Try a few changes and see if everyone agrees that it sounds better.
You might find that only some of the changes I did above work well on your TV – and in your room. You might find they all do. But, it's not an exact science.
Don't be afraid to experiment and find out what works best for you.
If you want to find out more about your options for buying a new TV, take a look at my guide to the best flat screen TVs.
You may get to the point where you accept that those speakers on your TV just aren't cutting it. That there's only so much that you can do to make things sound better.
This is certainly a viewpoint I agree with.
If you replace your TV audio with some dedicated speakers, then you will definitely get an immediate improvement in the sound of TV shows and movies.
However, you should also be aware that upgrading your speakers doesn't necessarily solve all the issues that we discussed above.
Depending on what you buy, there is still a chance that you will still get some of the same issues of a muddy sound – or sound effects competing with the dialogue – it's just that it will all be a bit louder!
So, buying a better speaker system will help sort many of the problems – but what you buy can also determine the level of control that you have over the sound that you hear.
So, what are your options for upgrading from your TV speakers to improve the sound of your TV?
Some of the newer TV models will support connecting to a Bluetooth speaker.
In your TV sound menu, there will be an option to select the type of speakers used for the sound output. The default will be set to 'TV Speaker'.
Of course, this just means that you intend to use the built-in speakers that come with the screen.
If you can output the TV audio to Bluetooth, you will have an option to select Bluetooth here. You will then need to go through the pairing process for your speaker.
If you prefer, you should also be able to connect to a pair of Bluetooth headphones instead.
On some TVs, you might need to pair the Bluetooth device first, before it appears as an available device in the sound output menu.
The advantages of using Bluetooth speakers for your TV sound are:
However, there are also some downsides to using this method:
As with all this technology, you need to decide which is the best solution for your situation.
If you really want to get the best sound from your TV, then you need to consider connecting it to a better sound system.
There are a few ways of doing this – and I mention some others below – but one of the easiest and cheapest ways is to send the sound to your existing hi-fi system.
Of course, if you don't already own a hi-fi system, then it's not so cheap and easy. But, if you do, it's a great way to improve the sound of your TV.
There are a couple of ways to approach this, but the main thing to check is if the amplifier for your hi-fi can accept external audio sources.
If it does, then you can either:
Or, if your amplifier has more than one input, you might want to use a combination of the two.
If you are connecting an external device like a Blu-ray player then the connection process will look something like this:
Most decent hi-fi amps will have connections on the rear for connecting CD players and other sound sources. They will usually be analog stereo RCA connections.
In that case, you can make a simple connection with one cable - from the TV to the amplifier.
If your TV has a digital output, and your amplifier only has an analog input, then you will need to buy an optical to analog stereo audio converter box.
These aren't too expensive and will allow you to connect a digital audio output into an analog audio input.
Once you have all this connected, you will hear the sound from your TV over your hi-fi speakers. Much better!
Just bear in mind that some compact hi-fi systems might not have any inputs for accepting audio from external devices.
By the way, don't forget to turn down the volume of your TV speakers. You don't want the sound coming from two different places.
Some TVs give you an option to disable the speakers in the sound menu.
If you want some more detail on all this, take a look at my guide to using stereo receivers in your home theater.
Another option for getting better sound from your TV is to buy a soundbar.
Soundbars are compact units with a built-in amplifier and speakers.
All you need to do is connect the audio output from your TV into the soundbar – and you will get a much better-balanced sound in your room. Louder too!
Most soundbars will receive the audio from your TV via an optical or HDMI ARC connection. Before you buy a soundbar, make sure you check that your TV has the correct audio output options.
Some higher-end soundbars also have multiple audio inputs. This can allow you to connect a games console or Blu-ray player directly into the soundbar.
Picking up the point from earlier, if you are trying to improve the dialogue from your TV, then you can buy soundbars that have dedicated center speakers.
Many soundbars are stereo only. This is generally fine and will produce a stereo sound much like the stereo speakers on your TV – except with better quality, of course.
However, if you want to improve dialogue, then a soundbar with a center speaker should give more separation to the sound that you hear in the room.
For example, the popular Sonos Beam pictured above has a center channel speaker built into the unit.
To get the full benefit of the center channel, you need to send a Dolby Digital multichannel soundtrack to the soundbar from your source. You might need to enable this in the audio output menu of the source device.
Some soundbars may have processing like the virtual surround sound I mentioned earlier. This can create a multichannel experience from a stereo soundtrack.
This will make sure the dialogue remains centered while the music and effects play from the left and right speakers.
If the soundbar supports Dolby Surround, then even better. This Dolby processing mode works really well for converting stereo to multichannel.
Some soundbar systems even come with subwoofers and dedicated rear surround speakers.
If you want to know more about this, I have a full guide to the best soundbars for your TV. I give more detailed buying advice and a few suggestions for the best brands to buy.
Last, but not least, we have a full surround sound system.
If you really want the best sound experience in your room, then you can install a surround sound system that will knock your socks off.
You have the choice of buying an all-in-one home theater system – which comes with the amplifier and speakers all in one complete package.
Or, if you are feeling really brave, you can buy an AV receiver (which is the amplifier) and a separate package of surround sound speakers.
There's no right or wrong way to go here.
Buying separate components will generally give you the best sound quality. And allow you to upgrade individual parts of your system in the future.
An all-in-one system will often be cheaper and easier to install. But you may need to replace the whole system if you want something better in the future.
For all these options, you have cheaper budget options and high-end audiophile systems. The choice is yours.
Whichever way you go, the main advantage of a speaker system with dedicated surround sound speakers is you get more control over the sound.
5.1 soundtracks will play as intended – without the need to downmix them to stereo. And, stereo soundtracks can be upmixed to surround sound too. These can sound excellent and will give you a much better audio experience.
You also have a dedicated center speaker which gives you full control over the dialogue level. Because it has so much separation from the other speakers, you will find it much easier to hear the dialogue in any show.
However, if not, you can easily raise the volume of the center channel so that it is a bit louder than the left and right speakers.
If you're not sure that you want a full surround sound system with all those speakers around your room, you do have another option.
You can buy an AV receiver and just connect it to your front left, center and front right speakers. This is known as a 3.0 speaker system.
You get the advantages of a dedicated center speaker, but less hardware to install in your room.
Of course, you can also add a subwoofer to this and run a 3.1 system too.
If you want to know more about all this, I have a few detailed guides on all of these options. So, depending on which type of system you want to build, check out the following guides:
If you are having problems hearing the dialogue on your TV, you are not alone. It's a very common issue with many people.
There are several reasons why this is the case, but one of the main issues is that it's very hard to get a good full sound from TV speakers.
The speakers on a modern flat screen television are always going to struggle to get the sound that the picture deserves.
The flat design means there simply isn't any room for speakers of a decent size and quality. Unfortunately, it's a simple fact that larger speakers will sound better (of course, some large speakers sound better than others too!).
You need to be able to drive some air to get a well-balanced sound – and tiny TV speakers just aren't up to the job.
However, it's not all bad news. If you really want to improve the sound of your TV, then you have several ways to do it.
And, if tweaking the sound options in your TV menu doesn't get what you want, then you have several great ways to upgrade to a better sound experience.
Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has worked as a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment.