Why is it hard to hear TV Dialogue? Solutions for Better TV Audio.

Poorly lit actor covering his mouth with his hands indicating the difficulties associated with hearing speech on TV.

Hello, I’m Penelope Woods, a Masters Qualified Audiologist, passionate hearing health advocate and founder of A Better Ear.

In my daily clinical practice, I often hear patients report that they’re finding it hard to hear TV dialogue. It’s a common issue faced by many, and I understand the frustration. In this article, we’ll explore the reasons behind this difficulty and offer practical solutions to help you enjoy your favourite shows and movies again.

The evolution of technology has sparked a profound revolution within the film and TV industry, ushering in unprecedented depth in sound capture and reproduction. This has unlocked a realm of sophistication and nuance, transforming each scene into a meticulously composed soundscape. A generation ago, simple sounds such as a door slamming were singular elements. Today, sound designers are responsible for creating a layered performance. This performance features a multitude of sounds, from the turn of a handle, the creak of the door, the ambient noises within or near the room, atmospheric music, even the sounds of characters moving, breathing, and conversing.

This enhancement in sound design aligns with the rising trend of more ‘naturalistic’ performances. In these performances, actors deliver their lines with a softer, more ‘lifelike’ tone, often involving elements of ‘mumbling’ or whispering. These factors can contribute to making dialogue harder to discern – just like in real life. Consequently, even viewers with robust hearing sometimes find themselves asking “what did they say?”.

Why are Accents so Hard to Hear?

Take, for instance, the ever-popular English murder mystery – the challenge here becomes even more formidable. Accents and dialects introduce an added layer of complexity to the auditory experience. While they enhance the authenticity of the character and setting, they pose challenges for those unfamiliar with these specific speech patterns and pronunciation. This unfamiliarity can lead to difficulty in comprehending certain words or phrases, requiring increased listening effort, and increased cognitive load as viewers strive to decode the dialogue. As a result, viewers often find they can’t make out what’s being said with accents on the tele.

Therefore, the once simple task of understanding what’s being said, has transformed into a considerable challenge. As sound design, accents, and delivery methods have become more complex, and as viewing audiences and listening environments have grown more diverse, it’s now a tougher job. The art and science of creating and consuming media have expanded, increasing the demands on the viewer’s hearing.

That’s the situation from the perspective of film and TV production. Now, let’s delve into the science behind this phenomenon.

Speech Frequencies

Human speech frequencies typically fall between 500 Hz and 8000 Hz. Lower frequencies, around 500 Hz, correspond to deeper tones such as a deep baritone voice, while higher frequencies, reaching up to 8000 Hz, correspond to sharper tones, like the excited squeal of your grandchildren. Critical speech sounds that help distinguish one word from another similar sounding word, like “sh,” “t,” “th,” and “f,” occur in this higher range. These high-frequency consonant sounds are easily compromised by competing noise, which results in less clarity.

The Case of Clear News Presenters

Have you ever noticed how news presenters seem easier to understand? That’s because they are speaking directly into the camera, there is minimal background noise, and their well-lit faces are clearly visible. Our brains use both sounds and visual clues to understand speech. When one of these elements is missing or tough to make out, understanding what’s being said becomes more difficult.

Seeing a person’s face when they talk helps us comprehend their intention and meaning, especially in noisy places. This process is referred to by Audiologists as audio-visual integration. Additionally, the expressions on a person’s face gives us clues about their emotions, helping us figure out their purpose, feelings, and meaning of what they are saying. All of this greatly improves how we communicate with each other.

The Brain’s Role in Hearing

“Speech in noise processing” is an essential function of our auditory system. It helps us differentiate between various sounds, particularly when we need to separate speech from background noise. This skill is incredibly important when we’re watching TV, due to the complex blend of sounds we’re hearing. Think about the sound palate for a moment; spoken word from different actors, different genders, sometimes with accents, background music (occupying range of frequencies), multiple stereo sound effects (filling out the periphery), plus all the environmental sounds of your home viewing environment. Then we have the viewer, just trying to hear what people are saying!

Speech tests conducted by audiologists can reveal a lot about our capacity to process speech in noise. In the ‘Speech in Noise Test’, your ability to focus on speech whilst supressing background noise is assessed. Think of the last time you tried to follow a conversation in a noisy pub – it can be challenging! It’s similar when trying to discern what the actors are saying in an “atmospheric” scene.

If you’re finding it difficult to hear what’s being said on TV, this could be a sign that your brain is having a hard time processing speech in noise. In such cases, consulting an audiologist could be beneficial. They may recommend hearing aids equipped with features designed to enhance speech clarity, or even suggest assistive listening devices, such as a Bluetooth TV streamer.

Bio picture of Penelope Woods, Audiologist and founder of A Better Ear.
Hearing Health Advocate and Tinnitus Specialist, Penelope Woods.

Practical Solutions

There are several ways to improve your TV audio experience. Let’s check them out!

Subtitles: A Helpful Tool

Many people are already using this strategy, but if you haven’t thought about it yet, try using subtitles or closed captions. This could be a great choice for shows with dialogue heavy plots or hushed talking. According to Netflix, 40% of its viewers regularly use subtitles. They can prove to be quite beneficial, especially in situations where you can hear the music but the voices on TV aren’t coming through as clearly. (It’s also a great strategy if you tend to have the TV a bit louder and someone’s trying to sleep.)

Equalizer Settings for Clear Voice on TV

Nearly all TVs these days come equipped with a range of sound quality options. You might find a dedicated equalizer in the audio settings or pre-set modes for different scenarios like speech, music, or sports. Experiment with adjusting these settings to see if it improves your listening experience. Keep in mind, you’ll want to amplify the frequencies associated with human speech—typically those in the mid to high range—to make dialogue clearer and easier to hear. Turning of the sub-woofer, if you have one, can also help by removing additional low frequencies that tend to ‘muddy’ speech.

Improve your listening environment

Open plan living, although popular, allows sound to bounce around more reducing the clarity of the signal. Improve the sound of your room by introducing more soft furnishings such as curtains, carpets, and upholstered furniture. These absorb sound and diminish echo. Correct positioning of your speakers can also make a difference. Ideally, they should be at ear level, directed towards the seating area and be within 2-3 meters of you. Additionally, using a soundbar or an external speaker system can elevate the overall audio quality.

Consider also other sources of sound. Given our understanding of how the brain separates speech from background noise, if you’re closer to the kitchen than the TV speakers, a few tweaks to your setup could make a big difference. When you’re watching TV, it’s beneficial to minimise background noise. For example, switching off loud appliances, like the dishwasher, can help.

The Role of Hearing Loss

Alright, now let’s address the elephant in the TV room.

Everything we’ve discussed up to this point remains relevant, but it’s essential to understand that, given equal circumstances, someone with untreated hearing loss is going to face more challenges. They will experience increased listening effort, greater fatigue, and reduced enjoyment compared to someone without hearing loss.

It’s not all about hearing aids

Please don’t feel pressured into believing it’s solely about investing in hearing aids. Certainly, as an audiologist, I am well-acquainted with scientific research which highlights why best-practice hearing rehabilitation including hearing devices is the ideal course of action. However, it’s crucial to remember that every patient is unique, and not everyone is ready, willing, or motivated to adopt hearing aids.

If this resonates with you, take heart. Numerous dedicated assisted listening devices are available to enhance your TV dialogue experience. Consider options like the Sennheiser RS 195 stereo headphones or the Audeara A-02 TV Bundle—a product from a local Brisbane company! (Incidentally, both of these options are available to eligible pensioner and DVA card holders for $0 under the Hearing Services Program). Alternatively, you may explore other offerings such as Nuheara IQbuds2 MAX with a Bluetooth Transmitter. There are literally dozens of options now available.

Direct Streaming via a Bluetooth

If you’re having trouble and already use hearing aids, a Bluetooth TV streamer could make a significant difference for you. Devices such as the Phonak TV Connector can stream audio directly to your hearing aids, effectively transforming them into wireless stereo headsets. This helps to minimise room noise, focus on dialogue, and improve your TV viewing experience. Plus, you can adjust the balance between room noise and streaming audio. This ensures you can remain engaged in those spontaneous conversations that often arise when watching TV with loved ones.

Seek Professional Help

While these tips are designed to enhance your TV listening experience, it’s crucial to consider the broader picture of your hearing health. Struggling to hear people talking on TV could indicate an underlying hearing loss, which might necessitate professional evaluation and intervention.

As an independent Audiologist who established my own clinic to blend expertise with empathy, I’m deeply committed to patient-centred care. If you suspect that your hearing isn’t what it used to be, it’s advisable to seek assistance from a trusted hearing health care provider who follows best practices. Addressing your hearing loss can lead to improved mood, reduced feelings of isolation, and stronger social connections with your loved ones.

Remember, seeking help for your hearing health demonstrates consideration not only for yourself but also for those around you. It’s not just about personal well-being; it’s about uplifting everyone’s quality of life.

All information is general in nature. Consider your personal circumstances and seek a personalised consultation.