When you watch a movie in a theater, it (usually) sounds great in surround sound. Dialog is clear, and action scenes are appropriately explosive. But when you play that same movie through your home theater, you might find yourself constantly reaching for the volume remote. Either you can’t hear the dialog at all, or a sudden action scene starts rattling your walls and disturbing your neighbors.
If you’re finding yourself in this situation frequently, there can be a couple of different causes. One common issue may be with how your sound system is set up or calibrated, but it can also be due to how the audio was mixed by the people who created it. Below are a few strategies you can try to improve your movie-watching experience without having to keep your finger on the volume button.
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Adjust Your Audio System’s Center Channel
Most modern movies are mixed in 5.1 surround sound: two front channels on the left and right, two in the back, one subwoofer, and one center channel for dialog. It’s this last one that can cause problems if not adjusted properly. While the side and rear speakers generally convey all the ambient sound effects and music in the soundtrack, the center channel is devoted to dialog. If a character is saying something, it’s probably coming through this speaker.
If you have a surround sound system, you can adjust this center channel independently. Try turning this channel up to see if you can hear the dialog more clearly. Some movies deliberately mix spoken conversations at a lower level than loud explosions so that the booms have more of an impact in a theater, where the sound system is better and you don’t have neighbors to disturb. But turning up the center channel can help close that gap so you can turn the overall volume down while still hearing what people are saying.
On soundbars, there is often a way to adjust the level of center (and all) channels to better suit your space, or some sort of “dialog” mode that increases the center channel volume for you. How to do so and how much it adjusts the volume will depend on what bar you own.
Enable Your System’s Version of Night Mode
Some sound systems, TVs, or even streaming boxes come with an additional feature that can help fix this issue. It’s sometimes called Night Mode, Night Sound, or a variation of the more confusing but technically accurate term, “dynamic range compression.” They all do roughly the same thing: they bring the loudest and the quietest sounds closer together. These modes are specifically designed to make it less disruptive for your family or neighbors when you watch loud movies at night.
This feature is going to change the audio in ways the creators didn’t intend, and you might not want to leave it on all the time. It’s a handy feature when you’re putting on some random Marvel movie on a Tuesday night, but remember to turn it off if you’re planning to have people over when you watch Dune on opening night.
Upgrade Your Sound System to Something Better Than Stereo
If you don’t have a center speaker, then it might be worth upgrading to a better audio system. You don’t even necessarily have to get an expensive system–there are many soundbars for every budget. That said, if you have only a stereo soundbar, then all the audio from your movies is getting pumped into left and right channels, and that can be a problem.
Since stereo systems don’t have a dedicated center speaker, the dialog audio will have to go to the left and right speakers. Most stereo systems will reduce the volume of the center channel before sending it to each speaker. However, if the dialog was already quieter than the rest of the movie’s soundtrack, then the result can be a poor mix where you can’t hear dialog very well.
When you look for a better sound system, try to get something that at least has a 3.1 setup. This refers to three speakers–left, right, and center–as well as one subwoofer. A 5.1 surround system. which adds two surround speakers, is even better in terms of immersion, but anything that adds a center channel will be a great improvement to your home theater.
Consider the Acoustics of Your Room
Most people don’t think too much about how sound bounces around their living room, because it’s not really the priority for a room you want to relax in. However, the room you’re in can have a huge impact on how you hear the movies you’re watching. If you have a lot of hardwood and bare walls, for example, the sound from your speakers can bounce around more easily and feel even louder. And potentially disturb your neighbors even more.
We don’t expect anyone to start installing acoustic panels in their living room just to dampen the sounds from a movie, but there are simpler adjustments that can help. Air conditioning systems, for example, can be very loud, but people tend to tune out these noises when they hear them every day.
If you find yourself turning the TV up to overpower the AC, a fan, or a loud computer or console in the area, then you could try moving the TV away from those noises. You can also try turning off loud appliances while you’re watching. With less sound competition, you can turn the TV down a bit more and still have an easier time hearing the dialog.
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