TV Secret

There are two equally important aspects to all televisions: the video, and the sound. Hard to enjoy (“enjoy”?) American Idol without sound, and Transformers V: Transformerer is an incomprehensible mess without visuals.

Here’s the thing, despite over a decade of flat panel TV development, TV sound is as bad now as it’s ever been.

But why?

Physics. While all sorts of magic is possible to squeeze two million pixels into something barely thicker than a pencil, sound goes by a different set of rules. The same thinness that drove you to buy that shiny TV, also contributes to its lackluster sound.

Many of you know what I’m talking about. You’re painfully aware of how bad your TV sounds. Others of you might not have noticed. Ask yourself this: have you ever had to turn the volume way up to hear a line of dialog? Ever had miss entire sections of plot because there was so much going on on-screen that the jumbled mess was unintelligible? These are prime examples of bad audio.

The sound you hear is compressions and rarefactions in the air (the soundwaves), produced by a small moving object called a driver. To produce deep bass sounds, the driver either has to be very large, or have lots of power behind it. To produce very high sounds, the driver should ideally be fairly small. With enough processing and amplifier power, fairly small drivers can produce surprisingly decent sound. Modern TVs have none of these features.

The style of the TV is paramount, and the engineers in charge of the audio are forced to work within the constraints of the styling team (with few, if any, modifications. The front bezel is sacrosanct, so few TVs have speaker drivers on the front anymore (Sony’s recent X900 series a notable exception). This leaves to places to put the drivers: on the bottom, or on the back.

There is no worse place to put a speaker driver than the back of a TV. Think about how someone sounds if they’re talking with their back to you. Not very clear, right? High frequency sounds are very directional. Sure, if your TV is near or mounted on the wall, some of the high frequency sounds will bounce back towards you (and in fact, this is how TVs with rear-firing speakers are designed to work). However, if the TV is out further in a room, you’re out of luck.

Down-firing speakers can be a little better, as they’ll often have plastic guides to direct some of the sound towards you (sort of like cupping your hands in front of your mouth). In other cases, they might be angled forward slightly so you can get some of the sound headed towards you.

In neither case are the drivers very big. Everyone jokes at how bad clock radios sound, but TV speakers aren’t much bigger. In many cases, they’re smaller.

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Worse, there’s no money spent on the audio amplifier. If you threw 100-watts at a 2-inch driver, and did some fancy EQ processing on it, you could get it to sound reasonably good. TVs have a fraction of that, precluding the ability to play well, or have a reasonably flat frequency response.

This is why we, and every other TV review website, recommends you get separate audio to go with your TV. Any audio. An argument could be made that any soundbar will sound better than every TV. Not least because the drivers are actually pointed at your ears but even a cheap subwoofer will offer more bass than the minuscule drivers in a modern television.

And the thing is, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a soundbar that sounds pretty good.

Yamaha YAS 101Take Yamaha’s YAS-101. It’s $250 and has a small, built-in subwoofer. It’s got 4.1/5 review rating from 233 reviews. You can even use your TV’s remote. A version with a wireless subwoofer is $400.

Or, if you want to step up a bit and get some incredible sound, Atlantic Technology’s H-PAS PowerBar 235 doesn’t even need a subwoofer, such is it’s clever design. It’s got a 4.3/5 on Amazon. I’ve heard this bar a few times, and it’s damn impressive what such a small soundbar can do. It’s $800.

Audioengine A5plus

If you’re looking for something that might work for music as well, check out Audioengine’s A5+ speakers. These small powered bookshelf speakers offer incredible bass and all-around great sound. All you need to do is run an analog audio cable from your TV to the speakers. Not all TVs have this, so if yours only has optical out, this $18 adapter will do the trick. The A5+ look amazing in bamboo.

Another option, and a significant improvement in sound quality, is a receiver and speakers. There are infinite choices for this, but they don’t have to be expensive. The Onkyo TX-NR414 is only $230 right now on Amazon, down from a list price of $500. This receiver, with a 4.1/5 review rating from 96 reviews, has six HDMI inputs and 80 watts per channel.

For speakers, Polk’s RM 705 system has for tiny satellites with 0.5-inch polymer/silk dome tweeters and 2.5-inch composite cone mid-range drivers. The sub’s 8-inch composite cone is powered by a 50-watt amp. They’ve got a 4.5/5 average review rating on Amazon from 162 reviews.

Energy Take ClassicOr, you can’t go wrong with the $400 Energy Take Classics. Small satellites with a decent sub, they’ve got a 4.7/5 rating average on Amazon from an incredible 377 reviews. Speaking of reviews, a few outlets are reporting that the Monoprice versions that look the same, also sound the same. We haven’t tested them ourselves, but if you’re looking to save a few dollars, they might be worth checking out. They’re only $270.

If you’ll notice, the most expensive system above clocks in at under $800. The cheapest is $250. The amount of time it takes to set up one of these systems ranges from seconds (HDMI), to a few minutes (HDMI plus speaker wires).

So knowing that, it’s kind of mind boggling how Bose is able to charge $5,000 to $7,000 for a mid-sized TV and sound system that should cost, at most, $2,000 combined. But if you believe in Bose, I’m sure they’ll be happy to take your money.



Geoff Morrison @TechWriterGeoff
Geoff’s book is now in paperback!


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