Going Back to Analog For TV Sound

If you listen to all the hype in advertising for just about everything you’d think that something “digital” is just plainly better than any analog equivalent. Digital Cable TV is better than old cable TV. Digital phone service is better than traditional phone service. Digital television (DTV) is better than analog TV, right?

This is not necessarily correct. It’s funny how the collective common wisdom is impacted as much by the frequency of occurence of a message as the validity of its content. Here’s a case in point.

We have a very nice HDTV. At 42″ in diagonal measure it’s the biggest of the models that are likely to include speakers. Larger sets almost always presume that you’re going whole hog and getting into external audio, primarily for the purposes of surround sound.

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We had this TV connected to our beloved Tivo HD via HDMI. One connection for everything; audio, video, control signals. All digital. All wonderful, right? Not really.

One of the big problems with DTV/HDTV these days is audio level control. Simply stated, it’s not as simple or easy for producers of programming or broadcasters to control audio levels in the digital domain. The problem is exacerbated by the need to constantly switch from surround mixed programs to non-surround mixed commercials on the fly.

Commercials have always sounded louder on radio and TV, because they are mixed louder in an attempt to get your attention. Radio is the same way. They use multi-band compression to make the music really POP. In the process they obliterate the dynamic range. This happens on top of the fact that most popular music is mixed and mastered using compression in the first place. Suffice it to say, they err on the side of being loud.

Movies and TV shows in general don’t do this. They want to the audio to support the dramatic action in the scene, so the average audio level is much lower. Occasionally, as a signature item, they’ll mix something in very hot for dramatic breaks. CSI:Miami is the worst offender that I know of for this effect. They’ll end a shot on a dramatic pose of a character, then cut to a screaming Who music riff. It’s very effective at being dramatic. Unfortunately, it can cause the viewer to constantly adjust the volume as they watch. And that’s just annoying.

Now we have a plan to go into the depths of surround sound, but that takes money that we’ve yet to earn so we make do with the speakers in the TV for now. I’m told that the big, bad surround sound processors have compression and limiting capability to manage audio levels. That’ll be nice…one day.

For now we’ve gone back to the bad old analog way of life. We’ve connected the Tivo to the TV using analog component video cables just because it lets us have access to the audio via a pair of plain old RCA connectors.

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You see, there’s this little device that we used on the old tv. It’s a little “Volume Leveler” made by Terk. It’s intended to level the commerical breaks so that you don’t reach for the remote control every few minutes. With simple stereo RCA in and out it’s not digital, but it sure makes watching TV a lot more enjoyable.