Why You Can’t Hear TV Dialogue

Here's why so many people find they need subtitles for every show they watch.
Why Can't I Hear My TV
Courtesy Everett Collection

Show of hands; who plays everything they watch at home — be it indie movies, prestige TV shows, or big blockbusters — with subtitles?

As streaming has grown to dominate how people watch TV, subtitles have only become more commonplace. And while the primary benefit of that is increasing accessibility, it’s also been used by consumers to address what feels like a growing problem: dialogue is getting harder and harder to hear.

Practically everyone has an experience of watching something, only to get caught on a line you can’t decipher, forcing you to turn subtitles on for clarity. For this writer, as with many others, the most egregious example of this was in 2020, when Christopher Nolan’s famously unintelligible “Tenet” was released on HBO Max, to a resounding chorus of “What are they even saying?”

But the reason why dialogue is harder to hear these days is just as hard to pin down; is it just that people have become used to using subtitles while streaming and now struggle without them, or has something else changed?

Whichever way, companies and streamers have begun to catch onto how prevalent audio troubles are for their consumers. Last month, Amazon Prime Video released a new “Dialogue Boost” feature: an AI-powered function that increases the volume of dialogue relative to background music and effects. If you’re watching a war movie, for example, Dialogue Boost would theoretically help you hear the soldiers speaking, and then protect your ears when an explosion happens.

In an ideal world, AI probably wouldn’t be the only solution to make the people on your TV screen easy to understand, so if you’re tired of subtitles but don’t want to surrender your show’s sound mixing to the algorithm, it’s probably helpful to understand the reasons behind this phenomenon, because it’s caused by a few different factors. 

One of the simplest reasons that dialogue might be getting harder for you to hear is your TV set itself. As the actual physical TVs have thinned in the era of HD screens, most internal speakers are now built at the bottom of the set or backward from the rear; that means that the sound isn’t directly going to you, and may be getting dampened or absorbed by the set’s surroundings.

The other main culprit is one that specifically impacts movies on TV screens, which is part of the reason why “Tenet,” which the majority of people watched on streaming, was so hard for people to understand. Nowadays, especially when working on major blockbusters or event films, sound mixers often design the film’s audio for a large number of speakers, like you would get in a theater. Surround Sound and Dolby Atmos formats, for example, can use five or more speakers to create a more immersive viewing experience.

That makes for a sound mix that’s awesome to hear in a theater, but when you translate it to your living room, problems can often arise. That immersive, high-quality sound mix ends up getting scaled down and compressed on lower-end TV speakers, which makes the dialogue sound quieter than it would in a theatrical setting.

So how do you fix all this? Fortunately, many companies offer settings that can help you alter the volume levels of your TV audio, though you usually need to explore their menus in order to find and turn them on. Samsung TVs have an Amplify feature that increases the volume of mid and high pitch sounds, increasing vocals compared to music or sound effects. Sony TVs have a similar feature called Dialogue; both can be found by going to the settings menu, finding the sound section, clicking sound mode, and then turning on the specific feature.

Roku TVs operate a bit differently with a “Dialogue Enhancement” feature that increases the volume of speech separately from background audio. LG TVs have a similar feature to Amazon Prime’s new Dialogue Boost with AI Acoustic Tuning and AI Sound, which analyzes the acoustics of your space to help modulate dialogue.

If that still doesn’t make whatever’s coming out of Robert Pattinson’s mouth in “Tenet” or “Batman” legible to you, you can also invest in external tech. An external soundbar is a good idea, especially if you want to watch a film with surround sound or ensure the highest quality audio experience, but those can be pricey; if you have a good pair of bluetooth headphones, that’s another option.

Or you can just keep your close captioning on the screen, if you’re able to get past that one-inch tall barrier.

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