Clear TV dialogue -- soundbar, or home theater system?

Thomas Veil

macrumors 68030
Original poster
Feb 14, 2004
2,633
8,794
OBJECTIVE reality
As I get up there in years (late 50s), my hearing sure isn't what it used to be. Making out the dialogue on TV is difficult sometimes.

So when I recently joined the 21st century and bought an HDTV, I was disappointed to find that the sound was even worse than it was on my old CRT...and that was nothing to write home about. From what I see on the internet, bad audio on HDTVs is a fairly common complaint.

So I'm pondering either a soundbar or a 5.1 system. I have no particular models in mind at this time. But in the opinion of one columnist I read, home theater systems (as opposed to soundbars) are virtually always the better choice for someone wanting clear center channel dialogue.

Before I delve further, I thought I'd see what the MacRumors community has to say on that. Has anybody else looked at it from this angle (center channel clarity)? Frankly, I don't need a speaker in every corner, and I like the simplicity of a soundbar. But will a soundbar give me clearer dialogue?

BTW, I'm under no delusions that, with my hearing loss, I'll never have to rely on closed captioning. It's just that I think a newer, better TV should involve a step up, not down, in audio quality.
 

Shrink

macrumors G3
Feb 26, 2011
8,931
1,606
New England, USA
As I get up there in years (late 50s), my hearing sure isn't what it used to be. Making out the dialogue on TV is difficult sometimes.

So when I recently joined the 21st century and bought an HDTV, I was disappointed to find that the sound was even worse than it was on my old CRT...and that was nothing to write home about. From what I see on the internet, bad audio on HDTVs is a fairly common complaint.

So I'm pondering either a soundbar or a 5.1 system. I have no particular models in mind at this time. But in the opinion of one columnist I read, home theater systems (as opposed to soundbars) are virtually always the better choice for someone wanting clear center channel dialogue.

Before I delve further, I thought I'd see what the MacRumors community has to say on that. Has anybody else looked at it from this angle (center channel clarity)? Frankly, I don't need a speaker in every corner, and I like the simplicity of a soundbar. But will a soundbar give me clearer dialogue?

BTW, I'm under no delusions that, with my hearing loss, I'll never have to rely on closed captioning. It's just that I think a newer, better TV should involve a step up, not down, in audio quality.
First...I am not an audiophile by any stretch of the imagination...but I am old, youngster.

I'm sure the audiophiles will tell you, quite correctly, that a 5.1 (or 7.1) system will give you far better sound quality and control than a sound bar.

I, being an audio-boob, have a sound bar with which I am perfectly pleased. It has several output settings, and I find that the clarity is absolutely fine with several of the settings.

So, if you want very high quality sound, with all kinds of output adjustments and controls...get a surround sound system. But I find that the sound bar gives me excellent dialogue clarity, which it appears is what you seek.:D

And next time you post...could you speak up a little! :p

;)
 

jdag

macrumors 6502a
Jun 15, 2012
835
213
Generally, a quality set of speakers and AV receiver will be better sounding than a soundbar. Generally.

But there are tons of lousy 5.1 home theater-in-a-box packages out there that are definitively not of great quality and I would avoid them almost as a rule.

If you are going 5.1 then I'd suggest 1st determining budget, then speakers, and the AV receiver.

Also, keep in mind that going with a more complex setup means you also will have more complexity in controlling the system (multiple remotes or a programmable universal remote, more cables, speaker wiring, etc.).

What is your budget?
 

Mrbobb

macrumors 601
Aug 27, 2012
4,989
194
Flat TV built-ins tend to be horrendous, so ANY external will be an improvement.

If u have the dough, the space for them, a real sound system is the most flexible and versatile.

OTOH for plug&play folks, perhaps a sound bar will suffice.
 

old-wiz

macrumors G3
Mar 26, 2008
8,315
225
West Suburban Boston Ma
Flat TV built-ins tend to be horrendous, so ANY external will be an improvement.

If u have the dough, the space for them, a real sound system is the most flexible and versatile.

OTOH for plug&play folks, perhaps a sound bar will suffice.
The super thin TVs they are selling now have very little room for any decent speakers.
 

Thomas Veil

macrumors 68030
Original poster
Feb 14, 2004
2,633
8,794
OBJECTIVE reality
So, if you want very high quality sound, with all kinds of output adjustments and controls...get a surround sound system. But I find that the sound bar gives me excellent dialogue clarity, which it appears is what you seek.:D

And next time you post...could you speak up a little! :p

;)
SOUNDS GOOD TO ME! ;) NO PUN INTENDED.

Generally, a quality set of speakers and AV receiver will be better sounding than a soundbar. Generally.

But there are tons of lousy 5.1 home theater-in-a-box packages out there that are definitively not of great quality and I would avoid them almost as a rule.

If you are going 5.1 then I'd suggest 1st determining budget, then speakers, and the AV receiver.

Also, keep in mind that going with a more complex setup means you also will have more complexity in controlling the system (multiple remotes or a programmable universal remote, more cables, speaker wiring, etc.).

What is your budget?
Low. Hopefully below $500 or so. For that kind of money, seems like to put together an even halfway decent theater system, I'd have to rely on an older surround receiver I have, and put all of that money into speakers. And I'd still have to contend with the wiring, remotes, etc. that you mention.

It's starting to appear to me that for the same money, I could probably get a decent soundbar, don't you think?
 

jdag

macrumors 6502a
Jun 15, 2012
835
213
SOUNDS GOOD TO ME! ;) NO PUN INTENDED.

Low. Hopefully below $500 or so. For that kind of money, seems like to put together an even halfway decent theater system, I'd have to rely on an older surround receiver I have, and put all of that money into speakers. And I'd still have to contend with the wiring, remotes, etc. that you mention.

It's starting to appear to me that for the same money, I could probably get a decent soundbar, don't you think?
Yeah, $500 for a new 5.1 system is going to be very limited. Unless you look for used equipment.

But for $500, there are a good number of soundbar options that you might like. Again, soundbars are much simpler too.

All the typical electronics companies you'd think of have soundbars (Sony, LG, Samsung, etc.).

Then there are more audio-specific companies (Sonos, Yamaha, Bose, Harmon Kardon, etc.) that offer higher-cost solutions.

A friend of mine has a ZVox and it sounds pretty darn good for about $300-$350. You can also add a subwoofer to it.
 

Mrbobb

macrumors 601
Aug 27, 2012
4,989
194
It's starting to appear to me that for the same money, I could probably get a decent soundbar, don't you think?
Specially if you don't feel like running cables to the surrounds/subwoofer.

I'd insist on a remote and individually controllable channels. Plus if it comes with several presets: Dialogs, Movies, Concert etc. A built-in bluetooth for music only would be super nice.
 

blanka

macrumors 68000
Jul 30, 2012
1,549
3
A good center speaker is the best. I have a 30 cm deep one! It kind of mis-matches with the shallow screen, but it gives terrific sound.
The real thing to check though, is whether you can do level calibration! I put the center on +5dB, the main reason for me is that we can watch movies with the bias to the talk, and don't wake up the kids with all the special effects and heavy sound tracks. We have a 3.0 setup, with 2 large floor standing speakers, whose bass-drivers are larger than most 5.1 set subwoofer ones, and a huge center speaker. The rear ones are moved to the office as desk speakers.

If you have a good media player (I have a Mini that does ALL, tuning terrestrial, BR playback, DVD playback, iTunes music, MKV movies etc.), actually the old surround receivers are excellent. The only benefit you have with new ones is to switch more than 3 (HDMI) sources, which I do not care about. As for sound quality: the old Onkyo I have does DTS-core 1536Kb/s, and nobody will hear the difference with DTS-HD/MA. And OSX does not output MA over HDMI anyway, so another reason not to need the latest receivers.

I programmed the Onkyo remote to do Apple-Remote commands, so I can operate the Mini and receiver with 1 remote.

If you go soundbar, it really comes to the question: does it have 3 seperate channels and can you adjust their balance. If it has some custom weird mixing algorithm that does a one-method-fits-all kind of processing on all original 5.1 channels then I would skip it.
 

rayward

macrumors 68000
Mar 13, 2007
1,614
56
Houston, TX
Low. Hopefully below $500 or so. For that kind of money, seems like to put together an even halfway decent theater system, I'd have to rely on an older surround receiver I have, and put all of that money into speakers. And I'd still have to contend with the wiring, remotes, etc. that you mention.

It's starting to appear to me that for the same money, I could probably get a decent soundbar, don't you think?
Just my 2 cents: if you already have a receiver, you could simply use that to drive a pair of front speakers. You'll get better sound quality than from a sound bar as they suffer from the same size issue as the TV's built-ins, compared to stand-alone speakers.

I am unable to have surround sound at home because I'm in a loft so I cannot run the wires and the sound would be a mess in that unfocused area. I opted for the receiver and two speakers option, and it's great - especially as the speakers are powered by the receiver, so there's no addition power lines etc. I don't even need a subwoofer.
 

jdag

macrumors 6502a
Jun 15, 2012
835
213
Just my 2 cents: if you already have a receiver, you could simply use that to drive a pair of front speakers. You'll get better sound quality than from a sound bar as they suffer from the same size issue as the TV's built-ins, compared to stand-alone speakers.

I am unable to have surround sound at home because I'm in a loft so I cannot run the wires and the sound would be a mess in that unfocused area. I opted for the receiver and two speakers option, and it's great - especially as the speakers are powered by the receiver, so there's no addition power lines etc. I don't even need a subwoofer.
Again, if you do this, you will be happy with the sound...but keep in mind the complexity and budget for a universal remote (such as a Logitech Harmony 650).

http://www.logitech.com/en-us/product/harmony-remote-650?crid=60
 

takeshi74

macrumors 601
Feb 9, 2011
4,974
68
So I'm pondering either a soundbar or a 5.1 system. I have no particular models in mind at this time. But in the opinion of one columnist I read, home theater systems (as opposed to soundbars) are virtually always the better choice for someone wanting clear center channel dialogue.
Sound is always a highly subjective matter and you need to get out there and audition the options. There are certainly a lot of good sound bars out there to choose from. We just can't tell you if you'd be happier with a sound bar or a 5.1 system. From the sound of your OP it doesn't sound like you're looking for the edge that a full 5.1 system would offer. I wouldn't recommend relying on broad generalizations such as "home theater systems are virtually always the better choice". While it's true that from a purely audio quality perspective odds are that a home theater system will produce better sound it's not always the only consideration for all people.

I'm not an audiophile myself but I do have a 5.1 home theater and probably wouldn't use the same approach in my bedroom. At the moment we're putting up with the TV's built-in speakers but will probably use a high end soundbar as a solution as I have no interest in dealing with a receiver and all the various wires required even for just a stereo setup -- much less all that required for 3.0 or more. I have no desire for surround sound in the bedroom. However, I'm not happy with what the TV's own speakers produce. If your priorities and concerns are similar then I'd recommend researching the sound bars out there and seeing if they offer the audio quality you're looking for with your given budget.

It's just that I think a newer, better TV should involve a step up, not down, in audio quality.
Newer != better. Flat panel TV's just have less space for high end audio components. One has to choose based on one's priorities instead of just assuming. If you are going to operate on assumption, I'd recommend assuming that no TV's built in speakers are going to be "decent" (also a subjective matter). They're typically an afterthought and the priority is given to the thinness that consumers are demanding.
 
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TrentS

macrumors 6502
Sep 24, 2011
491
238
Overland Park, Kansas
It's Fun To h(ear)

I'd suggest you first go to Best Buy or Walmart, and pick up a decently priced sound bar system. If for whatever reason you are not satisfied with the sound output, you can just return it or exchange it for another sound bar brand.

If you are a bit hard of hearing, I don't think your ears would warrant a high end quality sound system, which could end up costing you more than what it would be worth to you, and your ears might not notice the difference anyway.

;) ;) ;)
 

brentsg

macrumors 68040
Oct 15, 2008
3,485
855
You can argue that soundbars are more convenient or price competitive, but there's simply no way that they are going to be superior to discrete speakers where you have a dedicated center channel in its own enclosure.

edit: as it pertains to voice
 

Mrbobb

macrumors 601
Aug 27, 2012
4,989
194
but there's simply no way that they are going to be superior to discrete speakers where you have a dedicated center channel in its own enclosure.
And looseless compression is superior to mp3 and yet the masses have chosen mp3. In real life, convenience do matter.

For OP, OK a dedicated center channels, great, but ONLY if he's listening to discrete 6 channels material. Plain stereo, the center channels stay unused, and don't talk to me about Pro Logic, it's horrible.
 

brentsg

macrumors 68040
Oct 15, 2008
3,485
855
And looseless compression is superior to mp3 and yet the masses have chosen mp3. In real life, convenience do matter.

For OP, OK a dedicated center channels, great, but ONLY if he's listening to discrete 6 channels material. Plain stereo, the center channels stay unused, and don't talk to me about Pro Logic, it's horrible.
When you reach a point where you have to decide whether to improve your speaker configuration or turn on subtitles to watch a movie, convenience matters less.
 

Thomas Veil

macrumors 68030
Original poster
Feb 14, 2004
2,633
8,794
OBJECTIVE reality
I'd suggest you first go to Best Buy or Walmart, and pick up a decently priced sound bar system. If for whatever reason you are not satisfied with the sound output, you can just return it or exchange it for another sound bar brand.

If you are a bit hard of hearing, I don't think your ears would warrant a high end quality sound system, which could end up costing you more than what it would be worth to you, and your ears might not notice the difference anyway.

;) ;) ;)
I'm leaning towards the soundbar solution right now, and this one seems to be getting pretty good reviews. I might try it out later this week, after the Christmas festivities are over.

Edit: And a "thank you" to everyone who offered advice. Merry Christmas to you all.
 
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LV426

macrumors 6502a
Jan 22, 2013
963
441
Just a little anecdote here...

I have a fairly pricey Sony 5.1 channel AV amplifier that has a number of different sound modes: movies, music, stereo direct, with various sub-options like theatre simulations.

Most of those are gimmicks. Like, who really wants their living room to sound like a church? Most of the time, I just leave it on one setting because I'm not interested in fiddling about with settings.

But... I've been watching Twin Peaks on Apple TV lately, and it sounds absolutely atrocious in any other mode other than 2 channel stereo direct. In this mode the dialogue from the centre speaker is lovely and crisp. In all other modes, it sounds like the actors have cotton wool in their mouths.

Grrr.
 

JJ71

macrumors newbie
Oct 7, 2012
14
2
I have 7.1, 5.1 and 3.1 in different rooms. There are all much better than TV speakers. Really the center channel is the most important thing for movies and TV. But I think sound bars can make a lot of sense too. In fact I probably would have used a sound bar in the 3.1 room had I not already started off with a decent pair of stereo speakers.

Here is a good roundup of 6 candidates:

http://www.soundandvision.com/content/soundbar-roundup

Either way you go you'll be much happier than using the TV speakers!
 

Michael CM1

macrumors 603
Feb 4, 2008
5,677
273
A good center speaker is the best. I have a 30 cm deep one! It kind of mis-matches with the shallow screen, but it gives terrific sound.
The real thing to check though, is whether you can do level calibration! I put the center on +5dB, the main reason for me is that we can watch movies with the bias to the talk, and don't wake up the kids with all the special effects and heavy sound tracks. We have a 3.0 setup, with 2 large floor standing speakers, whose bass-drivers are larger than most 5.1 set subwoofer ones, and a huge center speaker. The rear ones are moved to the office as desk speakers.

If you have a good media player (I have a Mini that does ALL, tuning terrestrial, BR playback, DVD playback, iTunes music, MKV movies etc.), actually the old surround receivers are excellent. The only benefit you have with new ones is to switch more than 3 (HDMI) sources, which I do not care about. As for sound quality: the old Onkyo I have does DTS-core 1536Kb/s, and nobody will hear the difference with DTS-HD/MA. And OSX does not output MA over HDMI anyway, so another reason not to need the latest receivers.

I programmed the Onkyo remote to do Apple-Remote commands, so I can operate the Mini and receiver with 1 remote.

If you go soundbar, it really comes to the question: does it have 3 seperate channels and can you adjust their balance. If it has some custom weird mixing algorithm that does a one-method-fits-all kind of processing on all original 5.1 channels then I would skip it.
Calibration is definitely a key, along with a quality speaker and quality mixing on the studio's part. I find it tricky on my 5.1 system to get everything balanced right. I'd like to hear what people are saying without Boom Goes the Dynamite on every sound effect. DTS seems to be much better at localizing voices to the center channel, BUT we're on an Apple TV forum. (Fix that, Apple)

So basically you've got to start with decent equipment and then work on calibration. I'm still using a Cerwin Vega center speaker I got like 20 years ago, and it still sounds good. I still haven't borrowed my dad's microphone you can use to set up some systems, which makes his sound a lot closer to optimum. But his Bose system's subwoofer will run the faint of heart out of the room if the subwoofer isn't managed well.
 

fanchee

macrumors 6502a
Nov 23, 2009
540
20
This thread has been useful, as I'm looking into a solution and have been wondering about the soundbar vs receiver. It just gets so overwhelming for someone who knows very little other than my TV doesn't sound great. I find I have to turn the volume WAY up especially to hear dialogue on blu ray movies. Then when music plays on the same blu ray, it'll blow us out of the room. Frustrating, for sure!
 

westrock2000

macrumors 6502a
Oct 18, 2013
524
22
It's just that I think a newer, better TV should involve a step up, not down, in audio quality.
One of the biggest selling points of TV's now-a-days is the "thinness".

While technology has been able to shrink down electronics at an amazing rate, something is has had less success at is changing the way sound works.

When it comes to sound you need a volume of air. You can use electronics to tweak out the lack of air, but it always comes at a cost to pushing the limits of the hardware and/or the signal.

A soundbar would probably be just fine for you. The smallish speakers will not put out the bass, which might drown out the mid-range (spoken) anyways.

I also concur that keeping the sound in Stereo is the best way to make voices intelligible. I do this at night time a lot when I having problems understanding the words, but I do not want to wake people up.
 

rlu929s

macrumors regular
May 17, 2011
132
2
I used to have a 7.1 system that I was very proud of, but as I've gotten older practicality has set in and I wanted to simplify. I went with a LG sound bar with wireless sub and it's been great. Granted you don't have the surround experience, but (to me) it sounds good and I always have a movie theater up the road. It really depends on what you want? You can snag a sound bar very cheap.
 

thekb

macrumors 6502a
May 8, 2010
629
23
My hearing's fine and I have to turn on subtitles sometimes, or else constantly raise and lower the volume to be able to hear dialog, without bursting my eardrums in the action scenes.

They need to include an audio track mixed with much higher dialog volume so you can understand what is being said. It's frankly obnoxious and IMO a relatively recent phenomenon.
 
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