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Can't hear TV dialogue? I changed these 3 things to dramatically improve audio

Some easy adjustments can greatly affect how those important talk scenes sound.
Written by Chris Bayer, Editor
Sony Bravia X90L TV with bright flowers on screen
Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Say you're watching an edgy new streaming series and find yourself turning up the volume for every scene where two actors are engaged in a dramatic dialogue. It seems like both characters are whispering -- until an explosion happens on screen, and the sound is the opposite, almost deafening.

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What is up with that? It's not just the imbalanced proportion of sound that bothers you, and it's not that your hearing is going bad. Keep reading, and you might find an easy fix for improving (and balancing) your TV's audio quality.

In the scenario above, my first recommendation would be to turn on your closed captions. However, while enabling video subtitles is an obvious solution for understanding the dialogue, some people find on-screen text to be clunky and distracting. If you can't stand reading scripts on your screen, try the following solutions.

1. Experiment with these audio settings

Excessive bass can hinder speech clarity, making words seem muffled or buried. Instead of adjusting individual bass and treble controls, begin by trying out the preset sound modes. Use your remote to locate the TV's Audio or Sound section. While watching a TV show or movie with substantial dialogue, cycle through the modes to determine which option provides the best (or clearest) sound quality -- such as Movie, User, or Standard.

Also: TV running slow? I changed these 6 settings to instantly speed up the performance

If you find that the dialogue is still unclear, try a Dialog, News, or Speech Boost mode, if available. Sometimes, it even helps to disable audio enhancements, such as Bass Boost or Surround, which may negatively impact dialogue clarity. Lastly, consider slightly increasing the treble to enhance speech intelligibility.

Keep in mind that every TV and room has unique acoustics, so it's worth experimenting with various settings to find what works best in your environment. 

2. Adjust volume leveling

Volume leveling, also known as dynamic range compression, can be a useful tool and is found on most modern sets. By reducing the difference between the loudest and quietest sounds, volume leveling makes it easier to understand dialogue, especially in productions where the volume may vary significantly between action scenes and conversations.

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This feature maintains a more consistent volume level throughout your content, preventing sudden spikes in sound that can be jarring or discomforting. Volume leveling is especially beneficial when watching TV at low volumes, such as at night when the kids are in bed. It prevents quiet sounds from becoming inaudible and would-be stentorian sounds from becoming overbearing.

Perhaps the best use of volume leveling is to mitigate the baked-in extra loudness of commercials (if you're watching cable). Ever notice that? It drives me batty when commercial ads are super loud, which is most of the time. Volume leveling helps.

3) Consider your speakers

Factory TV speakers are typically not the best. Even some of the most expensive models house their speakers on the back of the panel, facing downward, so make sure that your speakers are not obscured or blocked.

If you've modified the audio settings as described above -- and you've adjusted the position of your TV to account for acoustics in the room -- but you're still getting muffled or distorted sound quality, it may be time to make an investment. 

While not a free or no-cost hack, soundbars and soundbases are a reasonably affordable option. A soundbar is an elongated, slim speaker designed to be placed underneath or mounted on the wall below your TV to enhance your audio output and create a more immersive experience. Opting for a soundbar can save you the expense of purchasing a new TV with a high-end built-in sound system. Many modern soundbars include a separate wireless subwoofer or an integrated bass driver to further elevate richness and depth.

Also: The best soundbars of 2024: Expert tested and recommended

Affordable options like the Roku Streambar offer HDMI connections and an integrated 4K streamer, while brands like Vizio provide a range of soundbar choices. Soundbars specifically designed to enhance dialogue clarity, such as Zvox's AccuVoice series, can make speech crisper and clearer.

Soundbases serve a similar purpose, providing a larger speaker that sits beneath the TV. They typically include powerful bass drivers, eliminating the need for a separate subwoofer. Make sure to choose a soundbase that supports at least Dolby Digital or DTS 5.1 audio streams. Selecting the right soundbar or soundbase can transform your TV's audio into a more enjoyable home theater experience.

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