“Advanced” audio does not benefit most viewers
Please note I’m no audio expert, the following is based on my own experience and my own reading over the years.
Multiple channel audio, whether it be 5.1 or 7.1, has become the norm. At face value this seems to be a very good thing. For the average viewer though it only results in an inferior experience. The majority do not have the equipment to benefit from it.
Modern films and television shows are being spoiled for viewers by sound mixing that doesn’t work well on televisions that aren’t connected up to sound systems that can reproduce the recorded sound as intended.
Many complain that televisions have got so thin that they have no room for proper speakers but this isn’t the only problem. Too many sets cannot deal with the extra surround sound streams more readily made available in recent years. Forcing audio channels that were meant to be kept far apart into the same space makes for audio that is difficult to hear as the various elements intermingle and compete with each other.
It’s a common example for the music to be too loud compared to the dialogue, a situation only made worse when the two occur simultaneously. A certain amount of this is, as I understand it, due to the mixing during editing but it is equally the result of what equipment is used in the home.
People love the idea of surround sound but many, even if they can afford the proper set-up, are unwilling to allow for the space the various speakers take up and/or the positioning required. Manufacturers therefore have tried their best to try and replicate true surround sound with technological tricks. They can do a reasonable job but since these pseudo surround systems are fed audio streams intended for, and therefore mixed for, a proper system the various elements often clash and the listener ends up missing out.
Changing the setup/installation process for PVR/DVRs (e.g. Tivo, Sky+), games consoles, DVD/Blu-ray players and their like might be part of the solution. On first use they should simply ask how many speakers are connected and set the default audio accordingly. It’s a safe bet to say most people hate these processes and they try to get through them as quickly as possible. When confronted with a menu full of technical jargon “next” and “Finish” are often the most comforting option buttons on screen. In the end this tends to result in all the default settings being selected.
Additionally I think it might be helpful if the main menu on films and TV box sets highlighted which player sound option is currently selected rather than having to select he “Audio” menu to find out.
The most helpful change to me though would be for them to by default select a more basic 2.0 stereo. I’m willing to bet most people never touch the “Audio” menu and just select “Play Movie”/”Play All”. I’ve (obviously) never personally checked, but I suspect it’s fairly likely that a survey of released titles would result in the majority being set to “5.1 surround”. I’ve never seen 7.1 being default but if there is a surround sound option available it is usually selected. The newer the film/show the more likely this is the case.
Some may argue that the default being 5.1 is a good thing as too many would miss out due their own laziness/reluctance but if no consideration is taken to deal with the inability to reproduce the experience in the average home then it doesn’t matter how fantastic sound can be, most will never hear it.