Problems hearing your TV? The causes explained

Siski Green / 29 May 2013 ( 19 August 2019 )

Can't hear the TV? Problems hearing the sound might not be down to your hearing.

You turn on the TV but it's impossible to catch everything that's being said. So you turn it up. Still you find it hard to follow. Are you going deaf? Not necessarily. There are several other potential causes of your problem.

The BBC, in conjunction with the Royal Institute for the Deaf and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer Association, did a study to determine the likely causes of problems viewers have with understanding what's being said on TV. They found numerous possible causes, which are outlined below, along with other factors you should take into account.

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The presenter's speech rate or clarity

The BBC survey found that an actor or presenter's speech clarity was one of the main factors for reducing comprehension. Mumbling and muttering on the part of actors or presenters was one cause, as well as muffled voices.

The actor or presenter's accent or dialect

The study also revealed that it's not just older people who don't always understand what's being said on TV - 70% of the adult population surveyed said they'd had trouble at one time or another, compared to 76% of UK adults aged over 65. People of all ages often had problems identifying words or phrases used that were unfamiliar to their own, ie with unfamiliar dialects or accents.

The programme's audio recording

A Danish study looked at why viewers might have problems with hearing what was on the TV and found that the major factor was how a recording was made. For a street scene being filmed for TV, for example, a sound technician needs to be able to include background noise or music without it interfering with what the viewer really needs to hear – the dialogue. And just as you can find good quality recordings of music, sometimes a TV programme's sound is simply not as good as that of another – and that causes problems.

Background music

More and more, producers are using music to TV programmes to add a sense of drama. The problem is that the more sounds your ears have to filter out, whether that's music or traffic, the more difficult it is for you to decipher what's actually being said. One particular programme, BBC Two's Wonders of the Universe with Brian Cox got a record number of complaints regarding loud background music. The BBC found that reducing background music by just 4 decibels made a 'considerable difference' to viewers who found it difficult to hear what was being said. So the producers remixed the sound with a lower decibel level as a result of their findings.

Background noise

Even with the best audio recording, sometimes background noises interfere with what you really want to hear. A news reporter describes an event while standing at an airport, so although he or she might be completely audible for most of the time a plane taking off or landing could make part of their speech unintelligible.

Your TV set

A very basic, cheap TV system will not have the same quality of sound output as a more advanced system. The more you can control your sound system, with adjustable bass levels and a background noise reduction system, for example, the better you'll be able to hear what's being said on TV.

5 ways to improve your TV's sound

Your own background noise

If your neighbour is mowing the lawn, you might think you just need to turn the sound up to hear better over the noise. But unfortunately the problem is not so easily solved because your ear can still pick up the sound of the mower regardless of how loud you have the TV. Although you can't move your ears as a dog or cat does towards a sound, you do have an ability to 'tune in' to certain sounds. If you are trying to focus on what's being said on TV but there is background noise your ear and brain have to work harder than if there's no background noise.

If you are worried that you may have hearing loss

See your GP. You may simply have wax build-up or have suffered some damage to your ear that is causing the problem. And if you do have hearing loss, you can discuss the possibility of finding a hearing aid that would work best for you.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.