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General Television Purchasing Advice

Sound Quality: 

Many flat panel TV’s sold today have lousy sound.  Customers are often looking for the largest screen size that will fit their existing cabinet, TV niche, or wall space.  Manufacturers have figured out that large speakers eat-up valuable real estate, ensuring that these customers will buy some competitor’s TV with a 1” bigger screen and teensy-tiny speakers.  Front-facing 1” x 5” speakers are the best case scenario;  some manufacturers even mount down-facing or rear-facing speakers.  Others mount speaker drivers to the front bezel and hope the sound will radiate through the sealed plastic panel…  Not!  In the worst cases, the speakers are mounted behind the LCD display, with the sound coming to the front through narrow plastic ducts.  Anyone who ever made a toilet paper tube kazoo can guess what this sounds like.  Turning the volume higher on any of these sets only increases the distortion, making it even harder to follow the dialogue.  This is obviously more of a problem for us older folks with limited hearing.

So, we often hear that people love the picture on their new TV but have to read the news anchor’s lips.  When they return to the dealer to ask/complain about the sound, they are invariably advised to buy a surround sound system.  This is not the best solution.  The thing that makes a system “surround sound” is all the extraneous noise coming from the rear speakers.  The dialogue is only reproduced by the center channel, and sometimes by the left and right front channels.  Everything behind you will be car chases, street noises, jangling keys, explosions, and stuff hitting the ground.  This does put you “in the middle of the action,” but it also makes it hard to follow the dialogue.  This is why people find they have to turn the volume up to hear the actors and then back down for the chase scene. 
Adding surround sound also increases the complexity of a system.  You end up with one more remote, and more components that must be turned on and off and switched to whatever you want to watch.  In short, surround sound is great for those times that you have a couple of hours to go into a room, crank it up, and immerse yourself in the movie theater experience.  It’s not so good if someone in the family just wants to watch Oprah or the weather or Saturday morning cartoons without first acquiring an engineering degree.

Cheesy sound from flat-panel TV’s has led to the rise of a new product category:  the “sound bar.”  This is a narrow rectangular speaker cabinet that mounts underneath the flat panel TV.  It has its own amplifiers, so it’s self-contained and ready to hook up to the TV.  If the TV has “variable” audio outputs, ie. outputs that turn up and down with the TV volume, then the sound bar is easy to operate.  If not, you have to use the sound bar’s remote to change the volume - another small pain.  These sound bars also cost a few hundred dollars, but the improved sound quality may justify the expense.
Computer speakers make a great bargain-basement external sound system.  They already contain everything you need, except for a cable to connect the two RCA jacks from the back of the TV to the mini-phone jack on the computer speakers.  Look around the house; you probably got this cable with your old camcorder.  If not, “The Shack” can hook you up.  Borrow your computer speakers to try it.  Even if they are the wrong color for your décor, you will find out if the improved sound is worth the trouble.

As usual, the best advice is to listen to the TV before you buy it.  Also check the audio outputs on the back of the set.  They may be labeled “variable” or “fixed.”  If not, the SETUP or AUDIO menu on the TV may allow you to select either fixed or variable audio outputs.  Variable outputs allow you to control the volume of an external sound system with the TV’s volume control.  With fixed audio outputs, you will have to control the volume with whatever control is on the sound system.