Poor audio balance? Streaming players might not help


Watching a movie on Netflix can be a hassle, especially when it comes to an audio setup. My off-brand television, while reliable and suitable in my budget-conscious living room, struggles constantly with finding the right balance between action sequences and dialogue. The conversations between actors can sound so quiet that I have to turn up the volume to nearly maximum before I hear the boom of a special effect so loud that it nearly blows my head off.

This problem, tackled thoroughly in a discussion on Reddit today, is actually a symptom of a really common issue: for the sake of encoding and loading efficiency, streaming players like Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Hulu Plus are generally coded to a strict audio setup as that can sound wonky for systems that aren’t compatible.

Netflix, which remains the at forefront of audio capabilities for streaming services, has all media encoded in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 and even 7.1 encoding on select titles (allowing for more sophisticated audio channels and that “surround sound” feel). Amazon Instant trails behind with just 5.1, and Hulu Plus is relegated to traditional stereo. These systems have limited audio options to help accommodate a variety of systems, so there’s very little within the software to combat an audio imbalance.

Worse, if there aren’t systems in place on the hardware side, such as a fully encoded sound system or even a dynamic range compression option that auto-balances the sound, there’s not much that can be done. To some extent, the medium the stream is accessed on (say, an Xbox 360 versus a new Roku player), can help or hinder your experience dependent on whether the hardware supports the audio. But all told, unless there’s a more balanced audio system in place on the TV, the sound out that you hear will be a done deal.

To put it simply: get to know the audio system that you have and what sorts of options are hidden in those menus. You never know when you might find something that will make those booms less, well, boomy.

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