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Having problems with TV background music?

The vast majority of people really enjoy the full auto-visual experience that is television. However if you are one of those who find background music hard to separate from voices, there are steps you can take.

Do you know someone who cannot hear the birds singing?  Photograph: Shutterstock
Do you know someone who cannot hear the birds singing? Photograph: Shutterstock
published on UK Free TV

Ancient technology

From the large crowds that you find at places like Ephesus and Miletus, I know I am not the only one interested with the lives of the ancient Greeks. It is fascinating to know that even back in the Mycenaean era (1600-1100BC) people were building vast theatres. I find it humbling that 3,500 years ago human ingenuity was being used to construct arenas for the provision of entertainment to large crowds of people.

Something that continues today with television.

How music works

If you have seen series such as Howard Goodall's "How Music Works" you will know that music is enjoyed on many levels, such as Melody, Rhythm , Harmony and Bass.

The human condition allows us to communicate emotional states with music, and modern TV production makes great use of this. TV sounds has long since been stereo (the NICAM system in the 1980s) and HD programmes often use six-speaker "surround" sound to give a cinema-like audio experience.

Going back over 45 years to documentaries such as Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, music is used to communicate emotional states to mix with in-vision and overlay voices.

Can you not hear the birds singing?

If you are having problems hearing the sound on a TV programme, you may wish to consider that the problem is not the people who make the programmes!

For most viewers, the mixing of music and speed is not a problem. Quite a few people experience a form of mild hearing loss which makes it harder and harder to distinguish voice from other sounds.

This could be a temporary form, which your doctor can fix.

Age-related hearing loss. Because hearing loss is a gradual process people are often unaware that it has happened.

The large river in Egypt? Denial

Discounting the idea that you might be a a misanthropic psychopath, some studies have shown that as many as a third of people with hearing loss are hiding it from others or themselves.

Data from Hearing Loss Tomorrow -

However, for a significant minority of people, this can cause problems. Generally speaking this is more likely as people age.

UK All hearing loss: 3,721,000 Working age + 6,390,500 Retirement age = 10,111,500 Total

Can I find out now if I have hearing loss?

Yes, watch this video. Unless you have an great sound system attached to your PC, you might need to use enclosed headphones to get it work properly.

What can someone with hearing loss do?

If you have undiagnosed problems, please go and see your GP. If you live in the UK you will get free treatment, and this can include hearing aids. For the 5% of those with hearing loss who need it, you can also have certain operations.

Access to ENT (Ear Nose and Throat) Specialists at hospital is always via your GP.

For more details on what you might expect see

Practicable things to try

  • use the "tone" controls on the television set to promote the frequencies in speech (which are 85 to 255 Hz) and decrease the rest. This might be a cause of "turning down the treble".
  • use the on-screen subtitles to help pick out the voice when it seems unclear.
  • Also, most modern sets have an "auto audio" type facility, often on a button on the remote control that will flip though settings like "music" and "movies" and "speech". These are usually just graphic-equaliser settings, but you might find that you need to actually disable this facility.
  • You boost over 1kHz to compensate for the way you hear the sound, rather then turning up the volume, which is what would seem the obvious thing to try if you can't hear.
  • If a programme is broadcast in "Surround Sound" – often called 5.1 sound – you may be able to boost just the "dialogue speaker" (the one at the front centre), and even mute the left and right ones. Certainly worth trying for movies.

Help with Which system?
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what is the difference between normal Co-axial cable and satellite grade? Can I2
i will never be able to get Sky reception (my house is surrounded by trees) an3
Do I need to get an aerial or can I connect my old sky dish straight to an aeri4
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In this section
When you can't quite hear the TV, subtitles are critical1

Sunday, 2 November 2014

5:43 PM

Michael: The idea that 'apparently' the BBC puts in music etc to provide 'jobs for the boys' makes no sense. Not only are many BBC productions made by outside companies (so they are spending extra money because?), but other channels do exactly the same thing. Programme makers want their programme to be as effective as possible, and music is an important way of achieving this.

Peter Dolman: I think your right - the sort of effects and music would work well in a large space and good speakers perhaps dont work with small speakers, and the effect is often a jumbled mashup.

KMJ,Derby: A good question, and in fact they do, although you might need some extra kit. In fact I was demonstrating lots of soundbars and other systems at work yesterday, and was surprised at just how many outputs/inputs manufacturers do supply, considering that most people will never use them.

I suspect what you mean are classic analogue RCA left/right phono's to attach to any old stero system? RCA outputs vanished from TV's a couple of years back, but there is still an analogue output which you can use, the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Pretty much every TV should have one, and while they are no great shakes when it comes to quality, they are easy to connect, and the cables are as cheap as chips. The one I bought to connect my Ipod to RCA's was from Poundland. You can buy bluetooth adapters very cheaply as well, so you could even do without the wires. Even if you had a really cheap home cinema system that just uses a scart, you could use an adapter.

Unless you buy a really nasty TV (cheap stuff like Bush, Celcus, etc) they should have a digital optical output. They have been around for years, and if you've got a decent sound system from the 1980's onwards, there is a good chance you've got one in the back. A cable could cost as little as £3. Pretty much every soundbar on the planet seems to have a digital optical connection, and you can get TOSLINK convertors, to turn digital into analogue. They start on ebay at around £25.

I've suggested both these solutions to customers who have older audio systems, or CD midi systems that they can also use with their TV. However, much as you might want to use that old hifi system with its huge speakers, your wife might have other ideas! If you've just bought a lovely slim TV with very thin bezels, having a hulking great pair of speakers beside them is not going to look great. Even if I find a reasonably priced amp for the very decent 1970's Technic speakers in my loft, I have no idea where I would put them. Customers have spoken of their 'mancave', but I can only dream of such a place...

Home Cinema systems were all the rage about 6-7 years ago, but strangely lots of customers would use them for just that - playing films. They admitted that they seldom used the system for ordinary TV programmes. Now that they are now far less popular, soundbars have become the main product, whereas we would stock just three different models back then.

Of course we now listen to music differently as well. The only CD players we use are the one in the car, and the one my 10 year old got as a present some years back. However, my wife, myself and now my daughter all have Ipods, so dont use the CD player parts any more, just the speakers. And thats the trend generally. Soundbars all have bluetooth in them, and increasingly both people like Samsung and Sonos are offering much more portable speakers using wifi, etc, so your TV sound system becomes part of a household speaker network.

Its worth pointing out that the cost of a TV 10 years ago was far more than it is now. Even if you buy a soundbar with a new TV (and you can often get a deal of some sort from the manufacturer), you are probably paying less for both of those togeather than you did a decade or more ago, and the sound from even an entry 120w soundbar is still much better than the TV speakers of 20 years ago.

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MikeB's 2,579 posts GB flag
Monday, 3 November 2014
Mike Davison

2:07 PM

KMJ,Derby: TV sound has always been the poor relation and probably only had a performance peak during the colour CRT era when cabinets became necessarily large. The best sound I ever heard was on holiday in Germany from a Nordmende 26" set. The next was probably from a 1970 Philips K70 set I had which had a good side facing decent size loudspeaker AND a forward facing tweeter. It even had a tone control. It also had an extension speaker DIN socket which would allow both or extension only depending on orientation of the DIN plug. More recent sets were a Hitachi 28" 16:9 IDTV which had Dolby Prologic sound and extension speaker connections which died around 2006 replaced by a 32" LCD Mirai which was tolerable but my current Toshiba 40" has had to be relegated to display only as some of the female presenters at BBC Leeds were horribly sibilant and the sound in general was worse than the 60's table models. An AV amp has solved all sound problems.

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Mike Davison's 127 posts GB flag
Mike's: mapM's Freeview map terrainM's terrain plot wavesM's frequency data M's Freeview Detailed Coverage
Wednesday, 5 November 2014

2:51 PM

Actually, the BBC reported not so long ago that they were getting complaints of this sort, about factual programmes whose content the listeners said didn't need 'enhancement' (or jollification). They also got complaints from makers/presenters, or whatever the right word is, about such additions which they were not aware would be made. It doesn't happen with heavyweights, like Attenborough, Cox.

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Michael's 41 posts GB flag
Friday, 7 November 2014

12:55 PM

I look forward to the day, in a few decades probably, when the option to attenuate or simply switch off the music track completely is commonplace. I wonder, does poor judgement/taste on the part of TV directors lead to equally poor/unoriginal/irritating music being commissioned, or does the poor music that already exists just lead to more of the same being created?

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Ben's 28 posts GB flag

5:12 PM

One question.

If I connect a sound bar to the TV digital output will the sound from Sky box, DVD, Now tv box automaticly come from the sound bar, or dose it mean fiddling around with another remote? Also dose the TV volume control the sound bar out put?

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Ian's 497 posts GB flag
Ian's: mapI's Freeview map terrainI's terrain plot wavesI's frequency data I's Freeview Detailed Coverage

5:42 PM

Ian: It depends....

OK - assuming you've got a standard soundbar with digital optical input, then whatever audio signal comes into the TV via Sky, DVD etc should all come out to the soundbar via the optical. On a lot of TV's (make model of both TV and soundbar would help), you need to tell the TV that you want to use the digital optical, rather than internal speakers, etc. Digital Optical is a good sound, but its not very smart, so you'll probably need to use the soundbars own remote to change the volume, although a decent TV will allow you to use offsets for each device, so that the volume from the Sky box, DVD etc are broadly the same.

If your soundbar has both HDMI and digital optical, then you've got more choices. You can link the TV and the soundbar using HDMI, if you have ARC on the TV (if its 3D, then thats a yes). This means just one cable (its should be 3D capable), a better quality sound, and potentially, you can just use the TV remote (at least for volume control). If its the same brand, then they should work fine, using whats called HDMI-CEC HDMI-CEC standard: How to find out if your device is HDMI CEC capable? . Even if its not the same brand, you might as well have a go!

If its not ARC, but you have HDMI on both and they are the same brand (or possibly even not), then you can try the same thing, since you get the better remote control. However, although in theory the HDMI should be able to take an audio signal with no problem, the blokes at work reckon its easier to have both an optical and an HDMI connected. This shouldn't make sense, but think of it as the opitical handling the audio, and the HDMI handling the control.

Anyway, start with the optical. You cant go wrong, and if you want to get more complex later, you can always revert to it if things dont work out. BTW - your Sky box and possibly your DVD player also have optical outputs, and you can use those instead, but everything goes in, and everything goes out is normally seen as best practice, and less likely to cause a problem.

If you tell me the make/model of the TV, bar and DVD, then I have abit more to work with.

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MikeB's 2,579 posts GB flag

6:21 PM

It is not the music which is the problem, it is the shouting and screaming of a seemingly moronic audience who laugh and shriek at each and every unfunny line in so many audience participation and 'comedy' programmes. It is so intensely irritating that my choice of tv is severely restricted. This household is stuck to BBC 4, whatever is on.

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nick's 431 posts GB flag

7:40 PM

Will get back to you on Make etc, its currently under dust sheet in abandoned living room whilst new fireplace is fitted. Don't have sound bar yet was just thinking about it.

Was told that connecting via headphone socket to RCA on bar would mean tv remote would control sound makes sense to me what do you think? not bothered about 5.1 sound etc would just like sound to have more bass and less tweet.

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Ian's 497 posts GB flag
Ian's: mapI's Freeview map terrainI's terrain plot wavesI's frequency data I's Freeview Detailed Coverage

9:05 PM

Ian: If your going for a soundbar (and its by far the most popular option for customers right now), then go to a proper shop and ask some questions.

Firstly, I wouldn't use a 3.5mm jack to a RCA's if I could possibly avoid them - they are the most basic connection, and you can do far better. In theory you can control the volume via the remote, but its a bit of a rubbish option. Your not going to get 5.1 sound from a soundbar, thats not their strength, but it will be pretty good, and very neat and tidy.

Soundbars have different price levels, and that reflects the output, useablity and the connections. Firstly, dont buy a really cheap soundbar. If your getting something for fifty quid from Sainsburys, your wasting your money. For a start, they wont have a sub, and you need that base, otherwise it will sound light.

A decentish soundbar starts from about £120 - something like the Samsung 355 Buy Samsung HW-H355 2.1 Bluetooth Sound Bar with Subwoofer | John Lewis

Although nobody was very keen on the 2013 model, the 2014 is a lot better. 120w, bluetooth as standard (so you can use it as a sound system from your phone, etc), with a wired sunwoofer. You can bluetooth the bar to the TV (depends on what TV you have), so you can change the volume on the bar when you change it on the TV, although bluetooth can drop out, and I know my audio collegues like a proper cable - its just more reliable. A digital optical connection is standard. Panasonic do something very similar, although its a slightly different shape, and Sony's CT60 is similar, although only 60w and an odd shape.

In the old days, soundbars were quite high and tended to only go on the wall, but they are now much slimmer, and are much easier to put just under the screen on a stand, but remember you can only hide the sub if you've got the space.

This is a decent level, but if you spend more, then you'll get a better sound and more features. The LG 3540 is the next step Buy LG NB3540 2.1 Bluetooth Sound Bar with Wireless Subwoofer | John Lewis . 320w, so a much bigger richer sound, and a wified sub, which means you can hide it (very popular with lady customers!). Still a digital optical, and a 3.5mm jack, which is what you get for 199. I really liked LG soundbars last year - award winning, good design, and well priced.

At about £249 and above, you'll get HDMI as well. Very useful for controlling via HDMI-CEC, and of course you should be able to use ARC if you have it on the TV. Panasonic have one which is 250w…549, but 320w seems to be more common.

The Samsung 550 or the LG 4540 are around the 300 mark, and will have all of the above, and are good bits of kit. Thats the mid level, and its a popular place for customers. After that, the prices can really go up. Sonos is worth thinking about - all wifi, very flexible, and if you stream all the time, then will work very well. In often ask customers to think larger than just the one room - there is no point spending money on a system which doesn't work with whats in the rest of the house. However, everyone is now in this game - Samsung have multi-room wifi speakers, which intergrate with their soundbars, and Sonos of course have the playbar - although it is 599!

There are also soundbases, soundplates or whatever else people have named them. Very compact, and not bad, but it wont be as good a sound as a proper soundbar, which in turn wont be as good as a 5.1, etc. But also very popular.

Of course you can use pretty much anything to give better sound to a TV, but you might as well have something which gives a decent sound, doesn't take up huge amounts of space, and is vaguely attractive.

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MikeB's 2,579 posts GB flag

11:07 PM


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Ian's 497 posts GB flag
Ian's: mapI's Freeview map terrainI's terrain plot wavesI's frequency data I's Freeview Detailed Coverage
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