Rich Warren: Can't stay quiet about television sound levels

Rich Warren: Can't stay quiet about television sound levels

One of our online readers decries fluctuating TV sound levels.

"Here's our problem: watching videos we rent or stream we're constantly lowering and raising the volume because the range is so wide, ostensibly for dramatic impact; whispering in the trees cuts to sirens and car chases with an enervating regularity. So it isn't exactly that we want to change relative volume between dialog and sound effects/background noise, but to modify the sound output entirely so that all of the audio remains within a comfortable range. This might mean dialog goes up and sound effects/background goes down, but in relation to the entire range rather than just to each other. Does technology exist to achieve what I'm asking for and can you direct me toward it?"

Having worked in broadcasting my entire adult life, dynamic range always presents a conundrum. To complicate matters, I work for a classical radio station that faces far more difficult dynamic range issues than contemporary music and talk radio. We strive to maintain the dynamic range within a piece of music, but at the same time try to ensure that overall loudness of different selections sounds about the same.

That is basically your issue with TV sound.

Of course, with radio, if you're listening while jogging or driving in a car, the ambient noise level often drowns out the softer portions of the music, which is truly a problem with the range between pianissimo and fortissimo in classical music.

To further complicate matters, the FCC restricts the bandwidth of radio and TV stations, which means the volume levels must fall within a given range. This is less so with digital television, since the digitally encoded audio does not significantly alter the bandwidth.

Thus, all radio stations and TV stations use some electronic means to regulate the sound levels of their broadcasts.

Recently, the government passed a law regulating relative loudness levels of TV programming versus commercials, because commercials always sounded louder. Broadcasters compressed the commercials more than the program audio. It does not apply to DVDs and some Internet sources.

While the absolute sound pressure level might be the same as the maximum program level, the commercials were compressed to be consistently at the maximum level. This provides some background for your question.

Most TV sets include a setting that partially deals with this. To find it, burrow into the audio setup menu. There often is a setting called "late night" or something similar that reduces dynamic range and evens out the levels between different sources.

Some home theater systems and cable set-top boxes include a similar feature. Some TVs label audio selections based on program type. Try each of these to hear which might work.

Ultimately, the problem lacks an absolute solution. Networks and broadcasters each set their own standards within legal and technical limits.

While conscientious broadcast engineers may attempt to even out levels from the station's different program sources, that's not easy. Automation replaced many engineers so there are fewer human ears in the chain to make adjustments.

There are few, if any, standards for programming streamed on the Internet, and few if any engineers to monitor it.

While there are general standards for DVDs, few producers observe them.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at

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