Rich Warren | Don't pin volume issues on Comcast

Rich Warren | Don't pin volume issues on Comcast

If Goldilocks visited the contemporary three bears, she would discover three sets of headphones on the table rather than porridge. She might wonder if any of them were playing at just the right volume. This reader email echoes a complaint that goes back to the advent of television:

"I have a question about the volume on my Samsung Smart TV going up every time a commercial comes on. We run across the room to grab the remote to turn it down. I've talked to Comcast about this, and of course, they say, 'Sorry we have no control over that,' which is completely false, because they can control everything from their end. I remember a few years ago, some TVs had volume control buttons for this, but they seem to have found a way around it? Is there anything that can be done or what's the news on this problem?"

First, keep the remote control with you when viewing. That's why it's a remote control.

You ask a complex question because there are many variables. In reality, Comcast doesn't control the volume within a program. It can control the volume between channels, but don't pin this issue on Comcast.

In the early days of TV, broadcasters manipulated the relative volume between commercials and programming. Decades later, the government finally ordered them to end the practice. They found a way around this new rule.

If you sit in your viewing chair with a sound pressure level meter, you will discover that the commercial registers no higher than the program. However, you're not imagining that it sounds louder. That's because the broadcaster or cable channel adjusts the volume level of the commercial to be a consistent 100 percent, while the program may have levels varying from 50 to 100 percent. Many radio stations compress their sound levels to sound louder when you're tuning across the dial. The FCC only regulates maximum levels, not compression. Advertisers also can tailor frequency response and other factors to trick the ear into perceiving a louder sound.

Local broadcasters match network practices when it comes to compressing the levels of local commercials. The cable company may compress the overall dynamic range of a channel, but it doesn't alter individual programs or commercials.

As you note, many TVs contain optional circuitry attempting to even out perceived sound levels. Sony referred to it as "late night" listening or something similar. Basically, it compressed the program sound levels to match the commercials. Reducing the dynamic range through compression reduces much of the emotional impact of the program material. I'm not certain about your Samsung, but if you burrow down through the audio menus incorporated in your TV, you may discover some audio level preference settings.

Sometimes, essential reasons dictate some compression in radio broadcasting. WFMT, a classical music station in Chicago where I work, once eschewed any compression, because classic music embodies wide dynamic range. Reducing that range interferes with the composer's artistic vision. Beethoven never envisioned his listeners driving 60 miles per hour on the Kennedy Expressway with an ambient noise level of up to 80 decibels. When he indicated a pianissimo, he wasn't considering the whoosh of the tires and purr or roar of the engine.

Even modern homes generate a fair amount of ambient noise. Thus, WFMT faced the problem of its signal disappearing on radios during soft passages. WFMT worked hard to find a compromise between natural wide dynamic range and being audible in various listening environments.

In the process, the station strove to balance the voice levels of the announcers with the music. This is a challenging task, because if the announcers set their levels too low, the compressor will try to correct speech to a louder level.

Although TV audio greatly improved with Dolby Digital sound, broadcasters pay far more attention to the picture than the sound. There's not much you can do to change that.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

Topics (2):Internet, Technology