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Publisher's Letter

Today’s TV – brilliant pictures, mediocre sound

One of our correspondents in this month’s Mailbag pages bemoans the fact that his latest whiz-bang flat-screen TV does not have analog audio outputs. That is part of a larger complaint that the sound quality from his huge TV set’s teeny rear-firing loudspeakers is distinctly poor.

In fact, as far as we can determine, all large LCD and plasma panel TV sets do not have any sort of analog audio outputs which you could otherwise connect to a decent stereo system. Instead, they usually have a TOSLINK optical output which is evidently intended to be connected to an audio system which has optical inputs and a digital-to-analog converter (DAC).

There are two possible reasons why modern sets lack analog audio outputs. The first is technical, in that such sets probably don’t have any analog signals anywhere in the chassis, with even the audio amplifiers being fully digital.

The second reason is marketing, in that it gives the retailer the opportunity to “up-sell” the TV buyer to a companion home-theatre sound system which might be 5.1 channels, 6 channels, 7.2 channels or you name it. That’s all very well for the retailer and it does solve the problem of poor TV sound while also providing for remote control of the sound via a universal remote.

The problem is that many people, probably most, don’t really want the extra five, six or more speaker boxes it takes to go with their big TV set. Let’s face it, many rooms are simply not suited to a surround sound system, whether the speakers be conventional black cabinets, futuristic silver towers or whatever. And when you get right down to it, most of these surround sound systems are pretty ordinary anyway; with better sound than the TV set but not outstanding.

That is what you should expect in any case because if a system costs less than $1000 yet has a large number of speakers, plus an in-built DVD player, FM tuner and other facilities, they simply cannot be top quality. A pair of good-quality full-range loudspeakers can easily exceed $1000 so a complete home-theatre system costing that or less is bound to be inferior.

Furthermore, I believe that for the vast majority of TV and video programming, surround sound is simply unnecessary. Yes, it might add something to a few “action” movies but otherwise, all those speakers are useless clutter in most lounge rooms.

That is not to say that the sound quality in today’s movies and TV dramas is not good. Some of it is very good, especially from those programs produced under the auspices of the BBC. But all you need to enjoy that magnificent wide range sound is a decent stereo amplifier and a pair of equally good full-range loudspeakers. And nor is it necessary to include a separate powered subwoofer – if the main speakers are any good. Whenever I see a subwoofer in use I know that the main speakers are probably deficient in the lower bass and probably the rest of the audible spectrum as well.

So where does that leave our correspondent with his complaint about his new TV? At the moment there is no really satisfactory answer unless you decide to purchase a top-quality stereo or home-theatre system which will cost thousands of dollars. If he already has a good-quality stereo system, the best approach to obtain good-quality sound is to build the High-Quality Stereo DAC project featured in SILICON CHIP last year.

Certainly, that solution is not available to most consumers unless an expensive commercial unit is purchased. The vast majority of people are short-changed as far as sound quality is concerned – but then that applies to all entertainment, not just TV and video. The sad fact is that most people these days simply do not know how good a high-quality sound system can be. SILICON CHIP readers are fortunate in that respect.

Leo Simpson

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