Not long ago, a reader wrote to us asking for help with a common problem: Due to hearing loss, she was having a hard time watching television. Even with the volume at maximum level, she couldn't quite make out the dialogue. What could she do?
For me, the issue hit close to home.
In the later years of his life, my dad struggled to understand what was being said on TV shows. When I called or visited him, the TV was often at full blast. And yet, he complained, that really didn't help him follow the on-screen conversations. It simply added another layer of commotion.
"We see this issue quite a bit, especially with our older patients," says Dr. Meredith Scharf of Manhattan Audiological Services in New York. "It's not just volume; it's clarity any time there's a high background level of noise. It can be with speech and conversations, as well as with TV."
These days, the problem is also compounded by a quirk of modern TVs. Unlike old-school "tube" sets, which had deep, wide cabinets, today's super-slim models leave little room for powerful speakers systems. That doesn't mean you must resign yourself to life without your favorite programs, though. Here are a few things that might help improve the TV sound on your set.
While the thought of playing around with your TV's settings might make you uncomfortable, you should know that almost all models have an option that will return you to the manufacturer's default settings if you're unhappy with the results.
To begin, go into the TV's menu, click the icon or label for Settings, and look for an item labeled Audio or Sound.
Now look for the available pre-sets. Some TVs have a setting specifically designed to enhance dialogue, for example. You might also find a "night" mode, which flattens out the volume, pitting the actors' voices against the show's sound effects. If you turn it off, you might find it easier to hear what's being said.
Some TVs try to create a surround-sound effect with a more diffuse soundfield. In that case, switching the TV to Stereo or Normal might help. If the set decodes multichannel sound, such as Dolby Digital or DTS, you may be able to boost the volume of the center-channel speaker, which contains dialogue, and then reduce the volume levels of the other speakers.
And if the TV has a "User" mode, it may have an equalizer (EQ) that lets you adjust various frequencies. "Many older adults experience high-frequency sensorineural hearing loss, which can affect the clarity of the program," Scharf explains. "An increase in volume alone will not help." If that's the case, try lowering the bass and lower mid-range and boosting the upper midrange and higher frequencies, where voices are typically found, to compensate. Sometimes there are EQ pre-sets that automatically do the same thing. They're all worth trying.
Wireless Headphones and Headsets
Some TVs are outfitted with two-way Bluetooth, which lets you send the sound straight to a pair of wireless headphones. If your set lacks this feature, you can purchase a system with a transmitter that plugs into your TV and a set of headphones with a built-in receiver. The headphones typically work using infrared (IR) or radio frequencies (RF). Some models, such as Sennheiser’s RS 195, have a speech-enhancement mode that boosts the dialogue while lowering background noise.
There are also stethoscope-style headphones, called stethosets or TV listeners, designed to enhance TV sound for those with hearing loss. They, too, work by boosting the frequencies common to dialogue. TV Ears is probably the best-known manufacturer, though other companies, including Sennheiser, make stethoset-style systems. These generally use a small base unit with a transmitter you connect to the TV and a pair of horseshoe-shaped earphones with a receiver. For homes with more than one person suffering from hearing loss, you can also find TV speakers outfitted with the same technology.
Sound Bar Speakers
Sound bar speakers are a great way to improve TV sound and a few claim to have built-in voice-enhancement technologies. We do not test those features in our labs, so I can't vouch for their effectiveness, but you may want to give them a try. For example, the Sonos Playbar speaker, a bit pricey at $700, has a "Speech Enhancement" setting that reportedly boosts the audio frequencies associated with the human voice. Sony's HT-ST7 7.1-channel sound bar speaker and subwoofer combo ($1,000) has a "voice" button to boost dialogue levels. And we recently learned about a new model from Zvox—the $250 AccuVoice AV200 TV Speaker—that's designed specifically to improve dialogue intelligibility. According to the company, the AccuVoice feature tries to mimic the function of a hearing aid by isolating voice frequencies and lifting them out of background sounds.
For those who already use a hearing aid, a room loop (also known as an induction loop) is another option. This technology is often deployed in Broadway theaters and movie houses, but it can be set up on a smaller scale in your home. By connecting an amplifier to your TV's audio output and running a wire around the perimeter of the room, you distribute electromagnetic TV signals that can be picked up by a tiny receiver (called a T coil or telephone coil) built into most hearing aids. One benefit to this approach is that multiple listeners can tune in, provided they each have a compatible receiver in their hearing aids. Another plus: You get good reception no matter where you are in the room, so you don't have to worry about moving around.
As a last resort, you can always turn on the closed caption function in the settings on your TV or cable box and read the dialogue as it scrolls across your screen. My dad found that helpful. My wife and I did, too—when our son was an infant and we wanted to watch TV while he slept. In fact, a 2006 survey in the United Kingdom revealed that 80 percent of the TV viewers who use closed captions do so for reasons other than hearing loss. It works well, for example, for shows with rapid-fire dialogue or in rooms filled with people shouting about an awards ceremony or a sporting event. We found that it works best for pre-recorded shows, though. When it comes to live programs, transcribing on the fly can often produce comical results.
As we get older, many of us struggle to hear onscreen conversations, especially in movies or TVs shows with lots of additional sounds. It's always a good idea to get your hearing checked by an audiologist or other specialist. And if you've tried any of the remedies mentioned above, or perhaps have a few tricks of your own to improve TV sound, let us know in the comments section below.
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