A 17-year-old TV sounds better than any modern set – Which? lab test

When reviewing the latest flatscreen TVs, we, at Which?, nearly always take umbrage with their poor sound. Old CRT sets simply offered better audio quality, or at least that’s how we remembered it. So we decided put our own claim to the test; just to be sure.

In a unique snapshot test, we found that modern flatscreen TVs do indeed lag far behind the ‘big box’ CRT TVs in the sound stakes – however, the gap is starting to close.

TV reviews – our verdict on the latest LED, LCD and plasma sets

TV Sound-Tech Blog final

What’s wrong with TV sound?

While TV picture quality standards have risen steadily in recent years, modern TV sound quality has remained underwhelming. We put three CRT TVs through our 2013 sound quality test to see how they fared and then pitted them head-to-head against three of the best similarly-sized flatscreens we’ve tested for audio in 2013.

As you can see from our infographic, the older CRT TVs quite comfortably beat the flatscreens. We’ve converted the data to percentages so you can see the difference at a glance.

A 17-year old Nokia TV still sounded great

The Sony KV-28FD1E, one of the best TVs we’ve ever tested for audio, absolutely smashed our best sounding LCD of 2013, the B&O Beoplay V-40, in the head-to-head.

Samsung’s flagship UE40F8000 was easily outpeformed by the Nokia FB72B2 (yes, Nokia used to make TVs), and in fact this 17-year-old CRT TV beat all the flatscreens we selected.

Both the Nokia and the Sony CRTs scored highly for sound in their day, but we also threw in a curveball – the Philips 32W9309 was a great TV, but not among the best CRTs for sound.

Interestingly, the Sony KDL-47W805A was able to pip the Philips – just. The sound quality gap is closing, but the flatscreens still have a way to go yet to rival the CRTs.

Which? expert verdict – ‘suffering from poor audio? Get yourself a sound bar’

Andrew LaughlinIf TV audio technology improves, flatscreen TVs may one day have sound quality on the same level as CRTs – but you have to consider the practicalities. CRTs were hulking giants with oodles of space for great speakers, and that’s just not currently possible in a TV less than an inch thick.

While sound has got worse on modern TVs, we’ve gained in other areas – a 32-inch CRT could easily cost over £1,500, but now you can buy a 50-inch flatscreen for half that price. Sound bar or home cinema systems are available to improve your TV’s sound, often at affordable prices.

So, TVs don’t sound like they used to, but they don’t look like they used to, either – and you just try mounting a CRT on your wall and see how far you get…
Andrew Laughlin, Senior Researcher/Writer

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26 replies

  1. “often at affordable prices.” not sure about that ?
    All the ones Which have recommended seem to cost a huge fraction of our Samsung 42″ TV, and far more than the LG 22″ one we use in the kitchen.
    I know we could just use an old hifi system – but not exactly practical and very few have the necessary digital audio input.

    1. Hi Rob,

      I agree home cinema systems and soundbars can be expensive but our cheapest Best Buy soundbar is £119. Given how much TVs have come down in price over the last decade that seems a fair amount to pay to top up your TV sound.

    2. Why should we have to top up our TV sound in the first place? You’re paying wongling great wads of dosh for something, it should just work right out of the box. There’s no way, for example, that my 99 year old mum would be able to set up even a simple sound bar even if she knew she needed one, and I suspect that even students with degrees will not initially suspect that having bought a TV they now have to buy a sound system (Unless the degrees were in audio tech, and then maybe, just maybe…).

    3. Well I agree that people are used to having sound integrated with their TVs, but good sound isn’t conducive with flat screens. How many computer monitors come with speakers and the few that do also sound crap. People listen to music using their Laptop speakers: be assured, that sound is even worse.

      Back in the days of CRTs when a 32″ set took up the space of an arm chair, there was ample room for a decent speaker installation (not that they always had such). If you can design a speaker that will sound good that fits inside a flat TV, you’ll make yourself a fortune. So it’s either crap sound or get a separate box. It’s a technological barrier, not poor design/manufacture.

    4. Actually I’d say it’s a technological dead end that any intelligent planner should have identified in advance.

      Flat screen=lousy sound. What’s the solution? Well not to simply issue TVs with lousy sound, that’s for sure. Firstly why do the screens have to be so flat? I’d be quite happy with a depth of 5″ if it meant better sound. Alternatively they could supply the flat screen with a pair of separate speakers pre-attached to screen that the user could then situate wherever suited them.

      Simply setting yourself a spec and then sacrificing anything else that gets in the way of that spec, now that’s a barrier.

    5. I agree with your comments and am bemused that someone will spend upwards of £500 on a soundbar to improve the sound of their expensive TV. It is now past time that manufacturers spent time and money developing their audio instead of wasting their money improving their super HD pictures beyond what the human eye can see.

      I have my TV volume set at 12 and at 10 after midnight. Who uses the top volume of 100?

    6. What is the point of manufacturers providing such high levels of sound volume if the quality of that sound is so poor – and why should people have to invest in separate speakers to overcome the design weakness of expensive TV sets, just because manufacturers have chosen to make TV sets thinner and thinner. If you are a Hi Fi buff, perhaps you expect to buy all the separate components and then configure them and wire them up round the room to optimise the listening experience. However, most people probably want to unpack the item from its box, plug it in and listen – in this respect we are reasonably well catered for. The TV situation could end up going down the Hi Fi route, the way things are going, but all for the wrong reasons i.e. because people are wanting decent sound quality to try and match the picture quality.

  2. Well..DUH! We all KNOW that.

    So? Get a sound bar, as the author said. That’s true.

    However, what he failed to point out, or emphasize, is that one cannot put the same size “speakers” anywhere on a flat screen that could be put into a larger “box,” so to speak, which is what the old CRTs were.

    1. What’s a soundbar? Is it like RAM in a computer, where you open the thing up, and hope that what you’re sticking in is in the right place?

    2. It’s just a fancy name for a box that produces stereo sound for a flat screen TV if you can find where to plug it in..

      You may know it better as a ‘loudspeaker’.

  3. The logic that a big box provides room for decent speakers is self-evident; however, there is no technical reason that a decent amplifier in your flat screen, with the ability to directly drive decent external speakers, (as opposed to having to use an external Hi-Fi system) should not be possible.

    1. Agree Ron even without upgrading the in-built amp speaker outputs ( and a switch) would be a big step forward.
      In the “old days” this was a big no-no due to floating mains chassis’s etc.

    2. With flat screen TVs having been around for several years now, it is about time that the manufacturers focussed on improving the sound quality to catch up with all the gains made in picture quality. If this means combining the sound components of several years ago with up-to-date picture technology, then many of us would be happy with that, so we can enjoy a more balanced video / audio experience – at least until the sound technology advances.

  4. I find it amazing that we spend enormous sums on getting a large screen – often with a great HD picture – but the sound is barely mediocre and usually unacceptable.

    The sound from TV and DVDs is usually top notch, but most don’t hear it.

    I suggest that the TV makers start making HD TVs with great quality picture and no speakers. Those narrow flat designs are not conducive to great sound, even at the top end of the range. This will help them make lighter and thinner LEDs than now.

    We then have the choice of how good we want our sound, from simple powered mono speaker to a full 7.1 surround sound system. The majority of TVs already come with digital optical or phono sound outputs. A few have Bluetooth ability.

    A speaker system could double for TV, radio, Internet radio or bluetooth connected with a mobile, tablet or laptop for sound that matches your system. And it wouldn’t become redundant when your TV is replaced. You could even have just wireless headphones or earphones to give you that freedom to move around the house and still follow your program. Saves annoying the neighbours late at night too!

  5. Sound quality is very important to me, but it’s easy to get decent sound quality out of a TV if you also have a hi-fi. Simply connect the headphone output of the TV (will normally shut off its puny speakers automatically) to the Aux. input of the hi-fi (nearly all have such an input – if not, use external CD input, etc.)

    Alternatively, a reasonable pair of PC speakers and amplifier will do the trick – they’re cheap enough.

    I don’t watch live TV myself – my Blu-Ray player picks up the iPlayer, YouTube etc. from my home wi-fi so I connected the audio out of the player to my hi-fi and the HDMI out to a flatty I acquired for a song because its internal speakers had blown – its previous owner is deaf!

    1. Much better to use the ‘line-out’ rather than the “headphone output of the TV”, to connect to the HiFi or PC speakers. This way you bypass the TV amplifier and should be clearer sound.

      I plug my Panasonic line-out into my 2-1 surround sound system, and just mute the TV sound.

    2. Probably because they’re in too much of a hurry to get to market, or maybe, just maybe…

      So they can charge you even more to make them better

  6. Some years ago a flat speaker was under developement. There was talk of wall mounted pictures doubling up as speakers even using window glass. It was said that this would remove bulky Hi-Fi speakers from the room. If this system works then the TV screen itself could be the speaker. What happened? I assume this was some sort of transducer mounted on the surface and vibrating that surface.

    1. Basically, they all sounded crap. ‘Flat’ and ‘speakers’ just don’t mix. About the nearest achievement at great sound from flat speakers were the Quad Electrostatics; they were big and quite thick. And they were very expensive.

  7. The Prices of the top HD Plasma,LED & OLED has dropped dramatically in the last couple of years so i don’t see any problem in expanding your viewing and listening experience with the addition of a Sound Bar/Sub combo Which in my experience is a cheap option if you want to use your visual device to it’s full potential ! Surely that’s the very reason for your purchase ….. I have a £1000 Onkyo 7.1 channel Amp with a £900 full set of Kef 3005 Speakers sitting in their boxes collecting dust, As i now feel a Decent Playbar & Wireless Sub Will do the Job …… Without all of the messy wires,

  8. The clue is in the title…Tele VISION. The tech in a flat screen is designed to give the best VIEWING experience, not aural. I agree with terfar above, you don’t moan about spending £1000 on a laptop that doesn’t have great sound because you bought it for its computing power, not its speakers.

    Today the same goes for a TV, if you’re not happy with the sound quality, either buy a separate sound system or spend more on a tv that has higher quality sound system included.

    1. That might be a solution to the problem, but the original point being made is that sound quality has deteriorated significantly since the introduction of flat screen TVs, as audio technology trails the advances in picture quality. It would be possible for manufacturers to overcome this, but TV sets would need to be about twice as thick as they are now (still very slim compared to CRT sets). This might be an issue if putting the set on a wall, but perhaps not otherwise – and the extra cost would probably be quite small. So perhaps manufacturers ought to offer their sets with two options – ultra slim, with poor sound or a bit thicker to accommodate speakers that will match those that were supplied years ago. Not everyone wants to go down the separates route.

    2. That’s one of the most ridiculous correlations I’ve ever seen.

      Cinema = Cinematograph. When was the last time you went to a cinema with no loudspeakers?

      Sound is a prerequisite for television viewing, it’s just taken as read. If you’re going to take every word in the language at it’s face value you’re in for a really tricky ride.

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