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Problems hearing your TV? The causes explained

Siski Green / 22 December 2020 ( 30 June 2022 )

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

Remote control being used with TV in the background
There are several potential causes of not being able to hear the TV

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.

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.

How to improve your TV sound

The latest televisions are so slim that it's just impossible to fit decent speakers in them. The result is that, while picture quality has improved dramatically in recent years, the latest TVs actually sound worse than the big, boxy ones that came before them.

The good news is that it's easy to fix this with an affordable upgrade. You'll get a bigger, better sound and dialogue becomes much clearer. You can even get cinema-style surround sound in the comfort of your living room.

Get a soundbar

Soundbars are long, slim speaker bars are designed to sit below your TV, whether it’s wall-mounted or sat on a cabinet. They give you proper stereo sound without adding clutter.

If you want extra bass you can add a subwoofer. This is a separate bass speaker that can be stowed anywhere in the room – some are even designed to fit under the sofa.

Soundbars often also have built-in Bluetooth so you can play music from your phone or tablet wirelessly through its speakers when you're not watching TV.

Some high-end soundbars are called sound projectors because they contain lots of small, focused speakers. These bounce beams of sound off the walls and ceilings very precisely to create surround sound effects.

Thanks to this clever technology, sound can appear to be coming from behind you, even though the speaker is in front of you.

Buy a sound base

This works much like a soundbar but it's a different shape. It's a box more like the size of a DVD player. Your television sits on top of it.

That extra depth means more room for speakers, which aids the performance especially when it comes to low bass sounds.

Invest in surround sound

True surround sound gives you cinema-style ‘it's behind you’ moments by placing speakers exactly there - behind you.

The norm is called a 5.1 system. At the front you have a pair of speakers, one on the left and one on the right. Then there's a front speaker in the centre that's used especially for dialogue. Behind you there's another pair of speakers, one on each side.

That’s the five; the ‘point one’ is a subwoofer speaker to add bass oomph.

This sounds like a lot of clutter but many of the latest speaker systems connect wirelessly so you won't need cables trailing all over the floor. You will still need to plug the speakers into the mains though.

If you want to go beyond 5.1 more speakers and more subwoofers can be teamed to give you an even bigger sound and more precise surround sound effects.

One recent innovation is 3D sound such as Dolby Atmos which adds speakers beside you, either mounted in the ceiling or floor-standing speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling.

Sound effects come from all around you, even from above and below.

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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.