Sound suffers on slimmer, smaller TVs

Consumer Reports News: October 26, 2010 11:10 AM

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Plenty of TVs on the market today have beautiful HD picture quality, but sound quality is harder to come by—especially in smaller sets.

In our newest TV Ratings (available to subscribers), only 10 percent or so of all the TVs tested had very good sound, and not one was judged excellent. Most of the sets 37 inches and larger weren't terrible, earning a good score for sound, but two out of three of the smaller TVs had fair or poor sound scores. That's a sad commentary.

How bad is the sound on a TV with a fair or poor score? Let me put it to you this way: When I listened to one of the models we judged as poor, I thought it sounded like a cheap clock radio. I could understand what the people onscreen were saying, but listening to it wasn't enjoyable. I guess I could stand listening to "Good Morning America" while getting ready for work, but I sure wouldn't settle down to watch "Glee" with a TV like that.

One blog reader eloquently described her disappointment with such mediocre sound. "We just bought a 37-inch LED TV, and the picture is gorgeous, but the sound quality is so terrible that I don't even want to watch the TV," said Becky in response to a previous post on TV audio. "The sound is so tinny and hollow that I can't even bear to be in the same room with it."

We know what you mean, Becky. The TVs we judged poor or fair for sound have little fullness or resonance, resulting in that tinny, hollow effect. On many of these sets, the frequency range is so limited that they can't handle lower bass notes, which are cut off or distorted. Highs may also be rolled off, or the sound may be strident and grating. And cranking up the volume to the max often distorts the sound as well.

By contrast, good scores indicate that a TV's sound is adequate for typical TV fare—sitcoms, news, or a run-of-the-mill drama—though it lacks the full-bodied bass that lends drama to the soundtrack. Very good sound adds more bass and overall tonal richness, which provides a fuller, more satisfying listening experience, especially with music or complex soundtracks from a movie. Excellent scores, which we rarely (if ever) assign to a TV, would enhance those attributes even more.

Perhaps the main reason for acoustical mediocrity is the small size of TV cabinets. When flat panels are only a few inches thick, there's little room for bigger, better speakers. Some super-slim bigger-screen models we tested did have better sound, but that hasn’t worked its way down to kitchen-size TVs yet, where there's less room to include larger speakers with a wider frequency range.

Reader Henry B. Cohen said it's "wishful thinking or just plain silly…to expect or demand that manufacturers shoehorn in speakers yet reduce the total thickness and overall size of the panel." He added: "Let them concentrate on the picture and add your own electronics and speakers accordingly." With a larger TV used as a main set, it might be reasonable to add a home-theater system that provides surround sound or even two front speakers that give top-notch stereo.

But not everyone agrees. DaveS wants to use his sound system only when the programming makes it worthwhile. "For normal TV watching, I don't wish to use my surround sound system as it adds to energy usage and is not necessary." And Becky chimed in: "A brand-new, good-quality TV should at least have sound quality that is good enough to watch the news without external speakers."

Elias Mavros said, "Most people just want a good/great TV with good/great sound and good/great picture in one package. Self contained!" That’s especially true with a small TV that's likely to end up on a kitchen counter, desktop, or bedroom bureau. Jason D said, "I care about sound quality on smaller TVs. The 19-inch or 21-inch for my kitchen." Canice M voiced a similar sentiment: "Now a decent set of speakers in a 26-inch HDTV, that's what I would like to see."

Michael LaBorde spoke up for the mainstream viewers "who either for reasons of budget, decor, personal taste…don't want any exterior sound system," he said. They deserve sound that's "at least decent," he said, "…but the push to ever thinner TVs with tinier bezels pretty much precludes having even minimally decent sounding speakers in the set." That’s a sorry state of affairs.

In an ideal world, you could have a beautiful picture, great sound, and a sleek, slim cabinet. Well-known audio company Bose has just announced a TV designed to offer just that—but with a price tag of $5,350. In the meantime, most of us will have to live with some compromises. What's your opinion?

—Eileen McCooey

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