Why It’s Hard To Hear Dialogue On Streaming Content

Good news. It’s not just you. A new report from the New York Times says that the dialogue in streamed content is more difficult to understand and it’s not simply a matter of an individual’s ability to hear otherwise. According to the NYT reporting about 50% of Americans — and the “majority” of young people — watch videos with subtitles on most of the time, according to surveys, in large part because they are struggling to decipher what actors are saying.

On a personal note, I had to watch Arrow streaming through the CW app with subtitles because so much of Stephen Amel’s dialogue was under his breath to sound menacing. But I have also been finding myself using captions more and more over the past year out of frustration when watching people have normal conversations. And I’m 44 years old, not 94. Though I am admittedly old enough not to fall into the young people category.

Part of the blame for sound quality issues is centered around the design of televisions in general. The fact that designers seem more concerned with thin edges and thin lightweight screens necessitates removing high-quality speakers from sets in favor of small speakers built on the back of the screen or squeezed into the sides. That just makes it harder to hear anything no matter who you are or what you are watching. But it has been noted that broadcast-quality audio is required to be delivered at a different standard than audio that is delivered via streaming.

“When you stream that content through an app on a TV, smartphone or tablet, the audio has been “down mixed,” or compressed, to carry the sounds through tiny, relatively weak speakers,” said Marina Killion, an audio engineer at the media production company Optimus.“Online is kind of the wild, wild west”.

So the push to make TV’s thinner and more stylish and the industry working to make audio less robust is creating a problem for average consumers. And right now the only solution anybody has for it is buy more stuff. Soundbars, extra speakers, and subwoofers are becoming recommended additions to any new TV purchase but not to take sound to a new theatrical experience level. They are there to allow users to hear what the hell people are saying on Suits.

This should not be the case. The TV design issue is a case of style over substance. The average person just wants to be able to purchase a new TV and watch it and understand what is being said. I don’t think that is too much to ask. They should be able to do so without also buying a Bose sound bar or even Roku’s bargain-priced and over-performing models. Things like soundbars and extra speakers should be purchased for cinematic enjoyment not to get basic performance.

Unfortunately, I seriously doubt things will change any time soon.

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