It’s Not Just Your Ears — Streaming Audio is Getting Worse





Are you having trouble hearing dialogue on your television? You’re not alone, and it’s likely not an issue with your ears. 

Films with a theatrical release are created to be played with the big screen sound in mind, finely tuned to sound crisp and clear on an abundance of high-quality speakers. As much as you spend on your home theater setup, it doesn’t compare to the speaker quality and quantity differences, according to an in-depth look by The New York Times earlier this month.

Audio must be condensed to play on smaller televisions, tablets, and smartphone speakers. However, this compromises the clarity of the sound. Audio is “down mixed” to compress sounds through smaller, weaker speakers, Optimus Audio Engineer Marina Killion told The New York Times. Flat-screen televisions “hide” their speakers, sending sounds away from viewers, not towards them.

Background noises and dialogue compete, which makes deciphering what the characters are saying difficult. Audio on streaming services doesn’t have sound limit regulations, which can cause inconsistent volumes even within the same app. 

These problems sum up something we’ve all dealt with – even if we’re not always fully aware. The sound quality is getting worse, which means a lot of us are relying more on subtitles. The worst part: Experts are saying the problem is getting worse.

Preply surveyed 1,500 Americans’ viewing habits and found 51% of people used subtitles. The study also shows 58% of audiences are using subtitles more often than last year. Breaking the participants by generations revealed 96% of Gen Z viewers have them switched on, up 26% from 2022.

The results were mixed across streaming platforms. The survey shows that 52% of Americans use subtitles more often on Netflix than on other streaming services. YouTube and TikTok members use subtitles 46% of the time.

More than 61% of Americans watch content with subtitles turned on because they cannot hear the dialogue over the background music, while 81% said they use subtitles to understand the content better. In addition, 70% of participants said subtitles help them understand accents, specifically deeming Scottish the most difficult for Americans to understand. 

Subtitles are also helping people learn new languages or expand their watchlist to foreign content. Preply’s survey shows 44% of language learners use subtitles to help them study.

Until sound technicians develop a new way to compress sounds without losing quality, adding an external speaker system such as a sound bar can help. A better quality speaker facing the viewer will direct sounds towards them, not away.

Dolby, for instance, said on Monday that its bringing its new FlexConnect technology to allow for you to more easily pair a TCL television with wireless speakers for better sound.

Another option is to use a dialogue enhancer. While unavailable on all streaming services, this feature can help diminish volume differences and decrease distortion. Amazon Prime Video already offers dialogue boosters in a limited capacity. Look for it under the language options and boost to high. 

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