“The sound and music are 50 per cent of the entertainment in a movie”. George Lucas said that, but it seems unlikely he was talking about the television in your front room when he said it.
The problem, of course, is inherent in flatscreen TVs themselves. Everyone wants their nice new telly to be as slim as possible – but that makes the job of getting worthwhile sound out of them almost impossible. There’s just nowhere in that big, flat, glass-and-plastic and super-resonant frame to fit worthwhile speakers of a decent size – and consequently the sound your TV makes is as weedy, insubstantial and impoverished as the pictures it makes are detailed, bright and bold.
This cruel dichotomy used to be true 100 per cent of the time. These days, it’s true just 95 per cent of the time. Some TV manufacturers have started fitting bespoke audio systems to their flagship screens – Philips with Bowers & Wilkins sound, for example, or Panasonic with Technics. But these TVs tend to come at quite a cost to reflect the fact their sound is, by flatscreen TV standards, actually pretty good.
The rest of us, who only paid real-world money for our new telly, have to put up with sound that’s halfway between ‘tissue-paper and comb’ and ‘wasp trapped in a glass bottle’. Or do we?
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Now’s the time to consider a soundbar
The whole soundbar market grew out of an acknowledgement that TV sound is far from satisfactory. Now it’s possible to choose from a range of soundbars from a whole range of manufacturers, of varying sizes and prices, all of which are ready to take the audio effort away from your television and do things properly instead. We quite recently tested Sennheiser’s extraordinary Ambeo soundbar (a super-rare ten out of ten verdict) and, while it’s comfortably the best soundbar around in performance terms and capable of delivering a really convincing Dolby Atmos impression of cinematic height and width to your sound, it costs well over £2,000. Which could conceivably be plenty more than you paid for your TV in the first place.
And besides, the Sennheiser’s massive. For most people, the point of a soundbar is for it to fit neatly and unobtrusively beneath the TV screen, so that you get unity of point-source for images and sound – quite often soundbars are accompanied by a subwoofer (ideally wireless) too, to bring some Hollywood-style low-end wallop to your audio presentation. By the way, don’t worry about a subwoofer spoiling the minimalist aspect of the soundbar solution – because bass frequencies aren’t directional, your subwoofer can be hidden out of sight yet still do its big, bassy thing.
Your less-than-£500 options
There are any number of very decent soundbars, with or without subwoofers, that do exactly what you want them too, and without costing an arm and a leg. The JBL Bar Studio, for example, is a deft and capable listen, and can be had for less than £100 if you shop around. Or you should give proper consideration to the Sonos Beam (£399), which is an extremely adept soundbar, has no real need of a subwoofer thanks to the robustness of its sound, and can also form the centre channel of a complete, wireless home cinema surround-sound system.
Level up to surround sound
A surround-sound system is at the opposite end of the scale, of course. A soundbar is for those who realise their 4K TV sounds rotten but don’t want to get carried away when trying to improve it, while a surround-sound system is for those who are only too happy to get carried away.
No matter if you watch movies via a streaming service or a good old DVD or Blu-ray disc, there’s a strong possibility the sound will be available in a multichannel mix. This, at the very least, means discrete audio information for five individual channels – one in the centre, near the screen to handle all the dialogue, one to the left and one to the right either side of it, and a couple of channels at the rear completing the ‘surround’ aspect of the sound. Often there is a subwoofer channel too, charged with filling in all those low frequencies the movie industry is so fond of.
Yes, setting up a 5.1-channel surround-sound system is relatively costly, and hardly the most elegant interior decor design statement you can make – but if you want to be truly immersed and transported by your home cinema experience, it’s really the only way forward. You’ll need a multichannel amplifier and five speakers to start with – although it’s probably sensible to buy amplification that has additional channels. Who knows? Once the home cinema bug has bitten, you might be desperate to get some Dolby Atmos height channels in the ceiling…
As an ideal (and relatively affordable) toe in the true home cinema water, start by checking out Denon’s AVR-X2600H multichannel amp – at around £400 it represents great value, and has a surfeit of inputs and outputs (so you can go the whole Dolby Atmos hog at some point, should you wish). Pair it with Q Acoustics’ excellent (and compact, and equally good value) 3010i 5.1 speaker package for the sort of surround sound presentation that’ll blow your socks off.
Or stick with your existing system
Or you could conceivably make a big improvement to your TV’s sound without spending any money whatsoever. If you have an existing music system, whether it’s an all-in-one or an old-school collection of separates, the chances are it will have auxiliary inputs. These are likely to be digital (optical, most probably) or analogue – so if your TV has corresponding outputs, you need only connect them together in order to enjoy your TV sound through your music system. Just remember to tell your TV how you want its audio to be output – somewhere in the depths of its set-up menus the option will be there.
In short, then, you don’t have to suffer in – well, not so much silence as in woeful audio quality. There are a number of ways to bring the sound your TV makes into line with the pictures it produces – and you don’t have to break the bank to do so. Unless you really, really want to.
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