Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - September 1, 2023

"I can hear you now!"

Having trouble understanding the dialogue in the movie theater ... or maybe while streaming content on your home TV? If so, being of a "certain age" might be part of the problem.
However, people of all ages are complaining. This past month, the New York Times published "Can't Hear the Dialogue in Your Streaming Show? You're Not Alone." And TV and movie site, Slashfilm.com, posted, "Here's Why Movie Dialogue Has Gotten More Difficult To Understand."

There are many similarly-titled articles, but those two cover the bases. The former discusses potential problems with our home entertainment systems, while the latter addresses sources in the movie-making industry.

Electronics stores feature countless huge screens showing action movies, fast-paced sports, or mesmerizing nature scenes. The goal is to "wow" us into buying. Videos featuring normal dialogue are unlikely to do that, and so, aren't shown.

Those big screens are typically paired with tiny speakers pointed out of the back or toward the floor. (Is it just me, or is it harder to understand people who are facing away from you when they speak?)

An accessory "sound bar" might help, but that pursuit of "wow" probably tilted us toward units that shine while reproducing explosions or screeching tires during car chases.

So in both design and selection, dialogue performance was never a consideration, making it unsurprising that the performance during on-screen conversations are less than stellar.

And there are plenty of problems in content generation as well.

At one time, most actors arrived at the movie set trained to enunciate for their roles in the theater. Today that's rare. Some directors even discourage clear speech. Their reasoning is that our every-day lives involve soft-spoken mumblers, so we should expect such characters in movies.

A seemingly paradoxical source of problems is new technology. When dialogue was recorded on just a few analog tracks, directors paid close attention to the quality. But todayís multi-channel digital recordings have prompted directors to believe they will find what is needed on one of the tracks, so why expend any extra effort? And if that fails, digital processing might save the day.

This attitude creates a related effect. Sound editors spend so much time tweaking the poorly-recorded dialogue that they no longer hear it as a first-time listener does. Once a person knows what is being said, it is more easily understood.

Movies that create strong feelings are more enjoyable, and music provides a reliable prod to our emotions. But loud music, coupled with audio editors who already know the dialogue by heart, means speech drowned by music has become common.

Some directors love to raise movie goers out of their seats with what the industry calls "ear-bleeding" - meaning LOUD - sound. Audience complaints have caused some theater operators to lower the audio levels. But that also lowers the dialogue as well, reducing intelligibility.

Contrary to expectations, a show viewed on a Blu-ray disk or from a streaming site might produce different experiences. Compressing content allows streamers to broadcast more shows. But it's the video that tends to impress viewers, prompting disproportionate audio compression.

All these things, when taken together, means the dialogue that glues the plot line together is often less than first-rate.

But there are some signs of change. For example, Amazon Prime has been experimenting with dialogue-enhancing software options on its streaming service.

While there is nothing consumers can do about any of this when they go to the theater, they probably have some tools available when watching at home.

- Closed captioning is available on many programs. During portions of a program where the visuals aren't critical, activating this option is effective. It even helps on some of my favorite British programs when Iím having trouble with "British" English.

- Placing the home entertainment unit where it doesn't have to compete with people talking is extremely helpful.

- Don't limit yourself to the power, mute, volume, and content selection buttons on the remote. Even low-end systems come with sound adjustment choices that can alter the experience. The "settings" menu generally offers one of two options. Some offer both.

One type involves a selection of modes, often with almost-meaningless names like "standard," "home," "amplified," "theater," etc. Trying each setting while replaying a scene with hard-to-understand dialogue is an easy way to determine what works best.

The other type has an "equalizer" option - a more versatile version of the bass/treble controls of years ago. Husband Art explained that humans can hear sounds with frequencies between 20 Hertz and 20,000 Hertz. While the human voice typically falls in the 100 to 8,000 Hertz range, it's the consonants that largely determine how intelligible speech is. The critical frequencies for them lie between 1,000 and 4,000 Hertz. An equalizer can cause the system to boost these.

Some sets might only have relative terms such as "low," "medium," and "high." On those, it will help to push the "medium" range up or put the others down a bit or both. Experiment!

What prompted my dive into the intelligibility question was our recent visit to the local IMAX theater to see "Oppenheimer" with daughter Mariya and her wife Miriam. After, I told Mariya that the sound was so loud it hurt my ears, yet I still wasnít able to understand a lot of the dialogue. She said she had the same experience.

One of the articles mentioned that Christopher Nolan, the director of "Oppenheimer," is noted for movies with dialogue difficult to understand.

Art asked Mariya if she's ever played with the equalizer settings on her TV. "Ooooh ... sure ... sometimes," she replied. When he asked why, she said: "Cuz sometimes the dialogue is too quiet vs the rest of the sound."

Spot on!

We can't alter our experiences in movie theaters, but at home we may benefit from a bit of experimenting. Then, the iconic Verizon commercial phrase becomes, "I can hear you now!"

Left: Mariya, Art, Miriam and I outside the theater after watching "Oppenheimer." Right: Two television sound equalizer displays. The top one illustrates a setting that will enhance speech, while the lower one is better suited to the sounds typically encountered in action movies. These two have the frequencies - Hz - on the horizontal scale and the intensity on the vertical scale. The latter is measured in decibels (dB). 6 dB is equivalent to 4X louder and -6dB to 1/4 as loud.

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