best sound system for hearing movie dialogue
March 11, 2013 1:17 PM   Subscribe

Ever since the DVD age began, I've noticed that music and sound effects in movies are always WAY louder than the dialogue. It's really annoying. Will a properly configured surround sound system fix this? What is the right way to set up surround sound speakers? Are sound bars any good?

I've never gone through the trouble to properly set up my surround sound speakers. Whenever I've had surround sound systems in the past, I've put all the speakers next to each other, beneath my TV set. However, when watching movies, it's always annoyed me how much louder the music and sound effects were than the dialogue. I figured this was happening because I didn't set up my speakers properly. A few years ago, I switched to this sound bar. However, I've noticed the same problem : loud music and sound effects, soft dialogue.

Will a properly configured surround sound system fix this problem? If so, what's the right way to set up the speakers? All the diagrams I've seen put the rear speakers in back of the viewers. This is impractical for me : my sofa sits flush against the back wall of my living room. So if I mounted the rear speakers on the wall, they'd be roughly on top of the viewers' heads. In order to put the rear speakers behind the viewers, I'd have to move the sofa out from the wall somehow and keep it there. Not ideal. Doesn't everyone else have this problem? I don't think I've ever been in a living room where the sofa was in the middle of the floor.

Alternatively, will a decent sound bar solve this problem? I'm not happy with mine, mostly because of this music/effects vs. dialogue problem. Also, the volume doesn't go up high enough.

Finally, if neither a properly configured surround sound system nor a sound bar will make movie dialogue more audible, what will? I'm really sick of turning up the volume so I can hear dialogue, and then having to keep my hand on the remote so I can turn the volume down once the music/effects start. Doesn't anybody else have neighbors?
posted by Afroblanco to Technology (12 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Not clear on something: When you had the more elaborate surround system, did it have a center speaker? Generally, dialogue is delivered through the center channel; if you don't have a center speaker, it'll end up being very muffled. My receiver's menus include an option on where to send the center channel - into a speaker (which I don't have) or into the front-left and front-right speakers. Once I made that change, dialogue popped back into audible territory.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:21 PM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

The key thing you need is a center channel. That speaker usually sits directly under your television, and all of the dialog is generally routed through it.

For the rear speakers, you could leave your couch flush against the wall if you were willing to mount them on the wall. That'll depend on the size and shape of the speakers though. For rear speakers that look like tiny bookshelf speakers, you'll probably need to buy stands to put next to the couch on each side.
posted by Oktober at 1:22 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

There are long answers and short answers to this question. One shortish answer is that most of your problems could be solved by boosting the center channel (most of the dialogue gets routed to that channel) relative to the other channels. So: forget the rear speakers (you don't need them for good sound--although they're nice for the "OMG he's BEHIND me!" effect if your room allows it). Get a nice high-quality center speaker, and two nice high-quality front speakers of the same brand. Add a subwoofer if desired. Then do the proper set-up with your amp (if it comes with one of those remote microphone doodads for automatic tuning, use it--it's very easy). If you still don't like what you're getting (with the center channel just underneath or just above the TV screen and the fronts either side) then you can go into your audio settings and boost the center relative to the fronts. That really should fix your problem.

You will find that there are just some films that are badly mixed (or mixed deliberately to drown the audio). I tend to find--for what reason I cannot tell--that audio tends to be a little buried in the mix in BBC TV productions.

Oh, and by the way, you can do all this without the center speaker, too. Just use the two fronts (and the optional sub) and tell your amp that you're using a "phantom center" (or that you just have "no center"--whatever term it uses). It'll route the center channel info via the fronts. Again, though, the same principle applies: adjust the volume of the center channel signal until you're happy with it relative to the rest.
posted by yoink at 1:25 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

if you don't have a center speaker, it'll end up being very muffled.

This, by the way, is only true if the receiver is unaware that there is no center speaker. If it's merrily sending a signal to the center speaker speaker-posts and there's no speaker plugged in there then, sure, you'll have muffled dialogue. But if the amp/receiver knows there's no center and is sending that channel to the Front L&R the dialogue should sound fine.
posted by yoink at 1:27 PM on March 11, 2013

Your DVD player probably has some sort of Dynamic Range Compression that is currently turned off. Turn it on, you'll have to look in the manual to figure out how.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 1:28 PM on March 11, 2013

You could find a sound bar that has dynamic range control/compression (DRC). This evens out the dialogue/effects balance.

In fact, it looks like your current sound bar has DRC. Look at page 34 of the manual. You also have the option of increasing the level of the center speaker.
posted by zsazsa at 1:29 PM on March 11, 2013

A while ago, i lived in a house with some friends where we had a decent surround sound system. the problem was solved so well there i never really knew how annoying it could be, but it's bothered me everywhere else since then.

The solution is to get a semi-decent surround sound receiver(craigslist is your friend!) that allows you to tweak the volume of the center channel. Many of these have settings to disable channels you're not using, or just mix them in to other channels. the one we had there, and several i've played around with did.

We had the center channel boosted, and the bass rolled off below a specific range. We'd also often turn down the sub during certain movies, or quickly crank up the center or even front left and right channels.

Some movies are just mixed poorly, but rarely did i encounter anything there you couldn't make sound fine without having to crank it just to hear the dialog. Being able to boost the center channel instantly solved the problem. And after a while we had found pretty much a "sweet spot" where the settings never even really got touched

I'd craigslist the sound bar, and then use the cash to buy a surround sound receiver on there and either some speakers too, or just get some on monoprice.

I also think dynamic range compression might not help that much. It's worth a try, but i've had several sony TVs and other gear that had it, and it would be hard to even tell in a blind "taste test" whether it was engaged or not. The instances in which it noticeably works are usually on commercial equipment, I.E. sound systems in restaurants.
posted by emptythought at 2:16 PM on March 11, 2013

I suspect that what's happening is that now you're hearing movies the way they're actually mixed -- with less compression. In the pre-DVD era, I think movie soundtracks tended to be more compressed for TV and VHS release... so there was less of a range between the quietest and loudest sounds. Digital media allow for a wider dynamic range, giving you an experience more like what you'd get in a movie theater. But sometimes a little compression helps, when you're watching a movie in your living room. Turning on the compression in your system should help.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:18 PM on March 11, 2013

Yeah, good point about the center channel. A pre/pro will let you adjust its volume bias if you like. However, with really good speakers, the problem disappears, at least for me. Check out these.
posted by jeffamaphone at 4:02 PM on March 11, 2013

Actually for surround sound you probably want different speakers. I have no recommendation there.
posted by jeffamaphone at 4:08 PM on March 11, 2013

Everybody who suggested boosting the centre channel if you can (which handles most of the dialogue) was spot on.

I can't tell if your system allows you to control this, though. To be able to tinker with the levels (and crossovers to the subwoofer) speaker-by-speaker you may need to invest in an AV receiver, in which case you might as well ditch the soundbar & get a full set of speakers.

A few random points in addition:

- surround speakers are more for the sides of the listeners, maybe a bit to the rear, like 4 o'clock & 8 o'clock. Rear speakers are a different channel. Typically, you'd use surround as the default base configuration (in a 5.1 system) and only add rears if you really want them, have the room layout for them, and if your processor supports a rear channel (eg as part of a 7.1 system).

- The simplest way I have of making dialogue audible in an instant, is to switch surround modes, eg between Dolby ProLogic II vs Prologic II Cinema. Or there's Neo:6 or basic stereo or a bunch of other options. If your equipment has different surround modes, try toggling between them - you may find that one works better than others for particular shows.

- as a general rule of thumb, your display cost "X" should roughly = the cost of your AV receiver, and your speakers should be about double X for the lot. I can't tell quite what the soundbar is worth, but I'm guessing it's maybe about half as much as your TV, in which case you've spent about 1/4 as much as you ideally would have on the speaker component of your overall system, so don't be too surprised if they underperform. The soundbar is also only giving you "pretend" surround sound using whatever algorithms & things they designed for it, so again don't be surprised if it doesn't always decode soundtracks perfectly.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:51 PM on March 11, 2013

UbuRoivas' rule of thumb is great as far as it goes, but be aware that one need not spend that much money to get reasonably good sound. You can get good-enough sound for $500-$600 and reasonably good sound for $1000 in a small space. You just have to be patient and choose components wisely.

That's not to say that you won't get noticeably better sound if you spend $3000 or more on audio, but it's definitely not necessary or anything. Almost any discrete system will be loads better than a sound bar for not a lot more money at the low end of the possible. Many would advise to start with a 2.1 system with a good receiver if your budget is limited rather than going 5.1 or 7.1 with a middling or poor receiver. I prefer a middling receiver with 5.1, but that's just a matter of taste.
posted by wierdo at 7:58 PM on March 11, 2013

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