Why the conversations on Netflix and other sites don’t quite make sense

„what did he tell?”.

Those are the most talked about words in my house. No matter how much my wife and I turn up the volume on the television, it is very difficult to understand the actors in the movies and series that are constantly being broadcast. Finally, it is common to have subtitles, even if there are no hearing problems.

We are not alone. In the streaming era, as video consumption shifts from theaters to content for TVs, tablets and smartphones, making dialogue crisp and clear has become a huge challenge. According to studiesAbout 50 percent of Americans –And most of the youth— They often watch videos with subtitles, especially when it is difficult for them to understand what the actors are saying.

„It’s getting worse,” says Si Lewis, who has run Hidden Connections, a home entertainment system installation company in Alameda, California, for nearly 40 years. „My customers have trouble hearing conversations, and many of them use subtitles.”

Stupid dialogue in TV shows and movies is now a hotly debated problem, and technology and media companies have already begun testing solutions such as speech-enhancing software algorithms. (I will come to this later.)

The problem is complicated by the myriad factors at play. In large film productions, professional sound mixers calibrate audio levels for traditional theaters, which have rugged speaker systems capable of producing a variety of sounds, from spoken words to loud gunfire. However, when that content is streamed through an app to a TV, smartphone or tablet, the audio is already „mixed” or compressed to send sounds through small, relatively weak speakers, explained Marina Gillian, an engineer in audio from Media Production. Optimus Corporation.

It doesn’t help that the design of televisions is becoming slimmer and more minimal. To emphasize the image, many modern flat TVs hide speakers, thereby directing sound away from the viewer’s ears, Lewis said.

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There are also problems characteristic of continuous broadcasting. Unlike television shows, which must comply with regulations prohibiting exceeding certain ratings, streaming apps are not governed by those regulations, Killian said. That means sound can vary greatly from app to app and show to show, so if you’re watching a show on Amazon Prime Video and then switch to a movie on Netflix, you may have to adjust the volume multiple times. People say.

„The Internet is like the Wild West,” Gillian said.

Subtitles are far from the best solution to all of these, so you can try some resources like add-ons for your home entertainment system and voice-enhancing features.

Decades ago, television conversation was heard loud and clear. It was obvious where the speakers were on the TV: behind a plastic grill embedded in the front of the TV, where they could send sound directly to you. Nowadays, even the most expensive televisions have speakers that are small and crammed into the back or bottom of the screen.

„A TV is supposed to be a TV, but it doesn’t deliver sound,” says Paul Pease, director of audio platform engineering at Sonos, a Santa Barbara, California-based speaker technology company. „They’re very thin, they’re low, and they’re not facing the public.”

Anyone with a modern TV can benefit from connecting a standalone speaker, such as a sound bar or stick-shaped speaker. I’ve tried many sound bars over the last decade and they’ve improved a lot. Ranging in price from $80 to $900, they are more affordable than multi-speaker surround sound systems and easier to install.

I tested the Sonos Arc a few weeks ago. With deep bass and crisp dialogue, it produced better sound quality than my TV’s built-in speakers.

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The Sonos Arc is expensive, retailing for $900. However, it’s one of the few soundbars on the market with a Voice Enhancement feature, which has a button you press in the Sonos app to make words easier to understand. It made a difference in understanding the talking villain in the latest James Bond movie. No time to die.

But the Sonos soundbar’s speech enhancer reached its limit with the jarring dialogues of the Netflix show, The Witcher. I can’t understand lines of dialogue like „We’re looking for a girl and a warlock, she with gray hair and a patriotic face, he a pale, unmannered brute.”

Again, I’m not sure any speaker can help with that. I left off the subtitles for that show.

Not everyone wants to spend a lot of money to fix the sound on a TV that already costs hundreds of dollars. Fortunately, some tech companies are starting to incorporate their own chat developers into their streaming apps.

In April, Amazon rolled out an accessibility feature called „Dialogue Boost” for a limited number of shows and movies on its Prime Video streaming app. To use it, you need to open the language options and select „English dialogue boost: high”. I tested the tool Jack RyanEspecially spy series with male actors with deep and unintelligible voices.

With dialogue enhancement on (and the Sonos sound bar turned off), I picked out scenes that were hard to hear and thought about what the actors said. I watched each scene again with subtitles to check my answers.

Early in the show, I thought an actor said, „That’s right, she had the ring you gave me… I thought you two were trying to patch things up.”

The actor actually said, „Oh, I’m sorry, you’re still wearing the ring … I thought you two were trying to work out your issues.”

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Another scene I had good luck with was a phone conversation between Jack Ryan and his old boss planning to meet. After checking my results, I was happy to realize that I got all the words right.

A few minutes later, Jack Ryan’s boss, James Greer, muttered a phrase I couldn’t guess: „Yeah, they used it in Karachi before I left.” Even dialogue enhancers cannot correct an actor’s lack of diction.

The Sonos Arc soundbar was useful for listening to conversations during movies and TV shows most of the time without a voice amplifier. The voice enhancer made it easier to hear the words in certain situations, such as scenes with actors with very low voices, which was useful for the deaf. For everyone else, the good news is that installing a cheap speaker without a conversation mode will go a long way.

Amazon’s Conversation Enhancer isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s better than nothing and a good start. I would love to see such features in other streaming apps. A Netflix spokesperson said the company has no plans to release a similar tool.

My last piece of advice is negative: don’t do anything with your TV’s sound settings. Lewis said that modern TVs have software that automatically calibrates the volume, and if you change settings in one show, the audio may not work in the next.

If all else fails, of course, there are subtitles.

Brian X. Sen A leading consumer technology columnist for The Times. He reviews products and writes an article called Tech Fix. Before joining the Times in 2011, he reported on the wireless industry for Apple and Wired. Brian X. Other Works of Sen

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