If you’re having trouble hearing the dialogue on TV, a soundbar is usually the best and cheapest solution. Not only will a soundbar improve your TV’s audio quality, but it will give you the option to boost dialogue or normalize volume levels.
It’s a timeless complaint—you can’t hear the dialogue on your TV, and cranking up the volume doesn’t really help. Everybody runs into this situation at some point in their life. Thankfully, there are several things you can do to fix this problem.
Televisions are thinner and lighter than ever before. They can’t accommodate large speakers, so they produce a very thin and tinny sound. Turning up the volume should help, but instead, the audio distorts and resonates inside the lightweight TV, creating a blanket that muffles the dialogue.
Plus, modern TVs usually point their speakers away from the viewer. And as you may know, speakers sound best when they’re pointed at your ears, not the floor or the wall.
But TVs aren’t the only problem. Movies tend to have very “quiet” dialogue because they’re intended for a theatrical setting. The dialogue may sound crystal-clear in a movie theater with a proper Dolby Atmos setup, but it sounds murky or quiet when played through a TV’s stereo speakers. (New shows are also trending in this direction, for better or worse.)
We should also acknowledge that hearing loss and tinnitus are fairly common, especially among men. Mild hearing loss may reduce your ability to hear certain frequencies, including the high and mid-high frequencies that give voices their clarity. And while tinnitus doesn’t contribute to hearing loss, severe tinnitus can interfere with your hearing.
Your TV’s speakers will never sound amazing. But if you play with your TV’s settings, you might be able to boost dialogue in shows and movies. It’s worth a shot, and if you’re happy with the results, you can avoid buying a soundbar or a pair of headphones.
Open your TV’s settings and navigate to “Audio.” Before you tinker with anything, look for a “surround sound” option and make sure that it’s disabled. Platforms like Netflix are really bad at guessing which audio format you need, and by disabling this setting, we can ensure that you’re only getting stereo audio.
Now, check your TV’s settings for “audio presets” or “listening modes.” If you’re lucky, you’ll see an option titled “dialogue boost” or “clear voices.” Enable this option if it’s available. You could also try adjusting your TV’s EQ—a boost in the mid-highs is your best bet (though not all TVs have this option).
Are you using a streaming stick? Dig through its audio settings to disable surround sound, and see if it offers some kind of dialogue boost mode. Don’t skip this step, as there’s a decent chance that your streaming stick (rather than your TV) is the root of the problem. (Android TV is the worst offender, in my experience.)
You may also find a “loudness normalization,” “Auto Volume,” or “TruVolume” mode on your smart TV. This setting reduces the dynamic range of a show or movie—the quiet parts get louder, but the loud parts get quieter. I suggest that you give this setting a quick test, but you may not like how it sounds. (Night Mode can also normalize volume levels, by the way.)
After taking these steps, dialogue should sound clearer on your TV. But the improvement may not be enough. If you’re still unhappy, I suggest buying a soundbar.
Again, modern TVs have pretty awful speakers. The quickest and easiest fix is a soundbar—nearly any soundbar will provide an immediate improvement in sound quality and dialogue clarity, even if it’s a cheaper model.
People are intimidated by soundbars, but really, they’re very easy to set up. Most soundbars connect to your TV via HDMI, optical cable, or Bluetooth. I suggest using HDMI, as it provides the smoothest experience and delivers the highest-quality audio. (Don’t worry, soundbars usually have an extra HDMI input, which makes up for the one you lose on your TV.)
Once you plug in a soundbar, you don’t need to do any setup. That said, you may want to read the instruction manual to see if there are any settings to boost dialogue.
If you buy a soundbar with virtualized Dolby Atmos, be sure to enable surround sound on your TV, streaming sticks, and game consoles. Virtualized Dolby Atmos mimics a surround sound system, and it may provide greater audio clarity than stereo.
Any brand of soundbar will work with your TV. That said, a soundbar from your TV’s manufacturer will provide the smoothest experience. If you’re on a budget, I suggest avoiding no-name brands and buying a soundbar from VIZIO or YAMAHA, as these brands tend to offer the best quality at a sub-$200 price.
Note that some soundbars come with additional speakers, which will further improve your TV’s audio quality. Also, brands like Bose, Sonos, Sony, and Klipsch sell add-on speakers for select soundbars.
Some people have no trouble hearing dialogue when their TV’s volume is cranked. But let’s face the facts; turning up the volume isn’t always an option. Your spouse or family may not appreciate the noise, and if you have children, you may find yourself bending over backwards to avoid profanity.
Most smart TVs support Bluetooth, and they’ll work with any pair of Bluetooth headphones or earbuds you’ve got lying around. For a more seamless experience, I suggest using a set of RF headphones—they deliver better audio quality than Bluetooth with much less latency. Plus, RF headphones don’t have the awkward pairing process the plagues Bluetooth devices.
You could also try a wireless neck speaker. Basically, it’s a speaker that sits around your shoulders and directs audio toward your ears. Neck speakers are more comfortable than headphones, and they allow you to hear your surroundings without bothering the people around you.
Do you regularly watch movies at home? If so, consider building a home theater. It may sound like a big investment, but the components you use in a home theater are easy to upgrade and resell. Plus, you can start small and slowly build your way to something incredible—nobody’s forcing you to come out with guns blazing, and even the most basic setup will give you a better viewing experience.
Since we’re starting small, let’s focus on the audio. You’ll need an A/V receiver and a set of passive speakers. This stuff can be purchased new or used. If you shop on eBay, hit up a garage sale, or stroll through a thrift store, you might be able to set things up for $150 or less.
The A/V receiver is basically the brains of your home theater. It features multiple HDMI ports for all your devices, plus audio inputs for CD players, record players, and so on. Your A/V receiver may also feature Bluetooth or Wi-Fi audio support, which allows you to stream audio from your phone to your home theater’s speakers.
Because the A/V receiver provides amplification, you can (and usually should) use passive speakers in your home theater. Passive speakers don’t require power from an outlet, and they’re usually more affordable than active speakers. (Note that passive speakers haven’t changed much over the last few decades, so they’re easy to find at any thrift store, garage sale, or flea market.)
The only hard part is the wiring. You’ll need a spool of speaker wire to connect all the speakers with your A/V receiver. You may also need some cable runners to keep everything nice and tidy. (If you’re feeling bold, you could run these wires through your walls.)
If you choose to go down this route, I suggest buying a modern A/V receiver that supports 4K video and HDMI ARC (to save you from upgrading later). You should also pay close attention to the number of audio channels supported by a receiver—if you want something simple, a 5.2-channel system is fine. It’ll provide plenty of upgradability and support Dolby Atmos surround sound.
You can buy home theater speakers from anywhere. It’s usually best to start simple, so my advice is to buy a pair of bookshelf speakers from a brand like Klipsch. Adding a center-channel speaker to the mix will give dialogue a lot more clarity, but a simple pair of speakers may be all you need.
And as I previously stated, you can buy used speakers at any flea market, thrift store, or garage sale. Keep an eye out for speakers that feel dense or heavy, as this is usually a sign of quality.