Why Is Everyone on TV Mumbling?

Picture this. You and your sweetie snuggle up on the couch with your popcorn and favorite beverages, ready to watch the latest release on Netflix. But a few minutes into the movie, you both have puzzled looks on your faces. You turn to your partner and ask, “What did he say?”  Your partner looks confused too and replies, “I’m not sure.”

One of you has hearing loss and wears hearing aids and one of you doesn’t. Surely one of you should be able to hear what you think sounds like the “muddy” movie dialogue. Right?

Wrong. This is an all-too-common scenario that plays out in living rooms every day, and not just among older couples with hearing loss. According to a survey conducted by Vox, about 57% of YouTube viewers feel like they need to use subtitles to understand what the characters in the video they’re watching are saying.  As an aside, only 2% of the individuals surveyed identified as being deaf or hard of hearing.

So, what’s going on?

Like many things in our modern world, the answer is complicated and technology plays a big part in this issue. For example, microphones were originally large and actors had to talk into them to be heard. Today’s microphones are smaller, wireless and more of them are used to capture performances. The good news is these smaller microphones allow actors to be more natural in their performances. They can speak softer and the mic still picks up what they are saying.

But natural sound doesn’t always equate to sound you can understand, or intelligible speech. Some actors just naturally mumble, and if that’s the case, a dialogue editor may have to make their speech more intelligible. But even with an editor’s help, some dialogue can be hard to understand and you can only turn the volume up so loud before it becomes distorted.

Plus, the videos we watch on television or on our phones aren’t sound mixed for such environments. They’re mixed for state-of-the-art theatres with 3-D sound systems. Then, someone has to take that sound and adapt it to small media, like your television.

This is complicated by the fact that today’s televisions are very thin and have tiny speakers in order to fit in this format. These speakers are also usually on the back of the TV, meaning the sound is probably being projected into the TV or a wall rather than being projected into a room at listeners.

All this makes the dialogue in your favorite programs harder than ever to hear and understand. Fortunately, there are some things you can do.

First, and probably easiest, be sure closed captioning or subtitles are turned on on your TV. They can help clarify exactly what’s being said in the program you’re watching. Closed captioning allows you to hear and read speech on the television screen, making the dialogue available for everyone in the family. All digital televisions with screens greater than 13″ must offer closed captioning per the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This is a great option for people with hearing loss because it may already exist on your television. If you haven’t used it previously, there should be a button on your remote control with a “CC” icon. Typically, you can switch it off and on.

Second, you can buy additional speakers for your TV to help boost the sound in the room. These are often referred to as “sound bars” if they are long and narrow to sit in front of your television.  There are also speakers that can be utilized close to where you are sitting.

Third, if you wear hearing aids, have your audiologist check them to be sure they’re working at peak performance.

In addition, some patients’ hearing needs an extra “boost” so they can fully enjoy television programming without blasting the rest of the family out of the house. The good news is that there are some television-specific assistive listening devices that not only can help the patient hear their favorite programs, but can make the experience more enjoyable for others in the home.

More specifically, TV listening devices include those that stream sound directly through the hearing aids utilizing a Bluetooth connection or those that boost sound using headphones. Many of the major hearing aid brands, such as Widex, ReSound and Phonak, offer devices that connect to their hearing aids using Bluetooth technology or frequency-modulated (FM) systems.

Advantages include:

  • Hearing aids equipped with Bluetooth technology can receive a signal directly from a TV device, smartphone or another Bluetooth-enabled device directly to the hearing aids. The hearing aids just need to be paired with the transmitting device. Then, with the press of a button, wireless streaming can occur.
  • By delivering the sound directly to the individual’s hearing aids, the overall sound quality improves, and background noise in the room is reduced.
  • The individual with hearing loss can control the volume they personally hear independent of the volume of the television’s speakers.
  • Family members with different degrees of hearing ability can enjoy television together.

Intermediary streaming devices often use an FM or Bluetooth signal and then send it to the hearing aids via another wireless connection.

If you don’t wear hearing aids but have trouble hearing the television, TV earphones may be an option. One popular brand is TV Ears. These types of devices include a transmitting base which plugs directly into the TV’s headphone jack. The listener wears a headset. TV Ears uses infrared light to transmit the sound signal from the transmission base to the earphones. The individual wearing the headset must position the base within the line of sight of the headset at all times so that the infrared signal can communicate with the headset. There are controls on the headset so the wearer may adjust the volume and tone of the sound delivered to their ears. One transmission base can deliver signals to several headsets, which can be controlled independently by each user.

So, if you’ve been thinking everyone is mumbling, you may be right. It seems there may be more mumbling going on than in the past. But if you wear hearing aids, be sure to talk with your audiologist. There are several good options available to help you enjoy television programming.

Schedule an appointment with a doctoral-level audiologist.