February 21, 2008

Settings, speakers could improve DVDs' sound

Q: The sound on rented VCR tapes and DVDs is usually so poor, I can barely hear the dialogue, even with my TV sound turned up to the maximum. Sometimes it is impossible to hear across the room, even when the air conditioner is off. Sometimes the background music overpowers the dialogue.

This happens with rented DVDs and videos, but never with programs I tape from broadcasts via basic cable (no converter box).

Broadcast sound is always adequate.

What might cause this? Is this because of the size of my TV (13 inches)? Would a larger TV solve the problem? How can I improve the movie sound without spending big bucks?
--Alice Bratter

A: Hi-fi videotapes and DVDs are recorded at sound levels meant for the home theater experience. This means they have wide dynamic range, meaning soft sounds are soft and loud sounds can get very loud. When you have the TV turned up enough for the dialogue to be plainly audible, the sound effects and background music are louder. In your case, it sounds like this is pushing your 13-inch TV's speaker and amplifier beyond their limits. With a more advanced TV or a separate sound system, this would not happen.

Analog TV broadcasts have a less dynamic range, so the sound levels of dialogue, music and sound effects are relatively even. That's why you don't have this problem with TV broadcasts and recordings made from them.

Note that I said, "analog TV broadcasts." Digital broadcasts use Dolby Digital, the same system used on DVDs. I often receive e-mails from readers complaining that the volume of HDTV programs is much lower than regular TV, and they have to turn the TV way up to hear them. When they switch back to an analog channel, they are blown out of their chairs by the increased volume.

You can improve the sound of your DVDs without spending anything. If you look in your DVD player's audio menu, you will see a setting called "Midnight Mode," "Dynamic Range Control" or "Dialogue Enhancer." If you turn this setting on, it will reduce the dynamic range and make the sound more even, like TV broadcasts. You will be able to hear the dialogue more clearly at your preferred volume.

With rented VHS tapes, you are out of luck, as VCRs do not have this setting. You can use a pair of computer speakers as an extremely inexpensive sound system for your VCR. Get a pair of powered computer speakers and a stereo male RCA to stereo female miniplug adapter. (You can get the adapter online or at Radio Shack for less than $5.)

Connect the miniplug to the computer speakers and the RCA connectors to the stereo outputs on the VCR. The VCR will send sound through the computer speakers, which will be louder and clearer than your TV and will play in stereo. If you change channels on your VCR, you can enjoy better television sound through the speakers.

Remember that you won't be able to change the volume with the TV's or VCR's remote controls. To use them with your DVD player, you can get a switch box or simply move the connections from the VCR's audio outputs to the DVD player's audio outputs.

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