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Why Do Programs Sound Muddled?

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015 by | Filed Under: TV Tech

Here’s a complaint I’ve actually heard from a few people. Sylvia wrote:

“I have trouble with the sound on some TV programs not related to any hearing problem. Just because sound effects are not as they should be on numerous programs/movies. I find some show audible, others barely. This is so disconcerting.”  Sylvia wondered if some type of speakers might help the situation.

Having worked a couple of decades in television, I found this intriguing. 


First, if only some shows sound off to you, it’s probably not an issue of bad speakers on your television set.  If you only observe the problem when watching programs on one channel, there could actually be an issue with that channel or with how it is broadcast on your cable or satellite provider.  Sometimes there are issues with the auto-leveling software that keeps sound from getting too loud on a channel. If there’s a very loud sound, the program will push the audio level down, sometimes too far down and you won’t be able to hear softer sounds like dialogue clearly for a minute or two.


Some television show are mixed with very loud sound effects or music that can make it difficult to hear the dialogue. Part of the issue is that many are edited in order to sound great in an environment with surround sound. When all that audio is compressed together on less sensitive speakers, it can sound muffled. The BBC drew thousands of complaints last year over a program where viewers said they just couldn’t hear the darn dialogue.  I found messages in forums all over the Internet where people complained about muffled sound on particular programs across many cable and satellite providers.

I wanted to make sure I was on the right track, so I called on a friend who actually works with broadcast audio for a living to give me some advice. He told me that many TV sets have audio controls that will override effects on TV.  Many sets have auto-levelers designed to keep peak audio from going too high. (that just means it stops things from getting too loud so the sound won’t be distorted.)

If your TV has audio settings like Concert Hall or Movies it sets a deep dynamic range for the volumes. If you happen to have the audio set for something like “sports,” dramatic shows could sound awful.  Check the manual for your television set to see if there are specific settings.

It’s possible that purchasing a home theater system or a sound bar for your television can help with this. You’ll be able to hear a fuller dynamic range of sound. But that does mean adding another piece of technology to your life that you’ll need to become familiar with.

~ Cynthia


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26 Responses to “Why Do Programs Sound Muddled?”

  1. Marsha Kimmelman says:

    I have a fairly new Sony TV; I too “suffer” from the low to high and high to low audio almost every time I am watching television. It seems that just when the best part of the “who dunnit” is explained, the audio turns itself to low and I cannot hear it. The commercials which are so numerous, are the only parts of the program have the best audio! Something has to be done; perhaps to complain to the FCC.

  2. Thomas F says:

    I have new-ish Sharp TV hooked up to a McIntish MX 130 AV receiver that sends surround to 4 Amps. Dolby on or off, surround amps on or off, there is a muddleing of some dialogue such at it is hard to understand. The worst and most reproducible is LucyLiu on Elementary. The speakers are hi end stereophile level.
    This is notable on stand alone TVs and on brand new Samsung series 8.
    I am told may be compression at network level.
    Any fix?

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