Is The Conflict Of Legacy Audio Technologies Failing Flat-Panel TVs Over?

September 24, 2008 by  
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Any discussion of incorporating newer, sophisticated audio technologies into
DTVs has to first accept the common understanding that the audio experience within
most flat-panel TVs today is quite poor. To most consumers, flat-panel TVs often fail
(some miserably) in an attempt to deliver a quality audio experience at par with the
quality of the on-screen video. Audio output, as measured in watts per channel, is usually
tepid, marred oftentimes by poor overall audio clarity and noise. Moreover, volume
control, mute and tone control are typically the extent of audio features – hardly cutting
edge in this day of whiz-bang home theaters and sophisticated audio processing.

It’s not difficult to offer anecdotal proof of this general consensus on the state of
television audio. Consumer opinions, reflected through product reviews on major retailer
Websites and other sources, routinely chastise the audio quality of flat-panel televisions:

“The sound quality is like a cheap portable radio,” – consumer review on
Circuit City website, commenting on major manufacturer’s current 32-inch LCD.

Importantly, the consumer electronics industry leadership are lamenting the
current status of audio and are publicizing the need for the industry to provide the
consumer with a better auditory experience.

“Our Industry is failing TV buyers. They are missing the best way to
experience their new TV — with great audio,”
– Gary Shapiro,
president, Consumer Electronics Association, May/June 2006.

Not surprisingly, the consumer media also often point out the inherent
shortcomings of flat-panel TV audio systems:

“..the stereo speaker sounded so tinny they almost demand you buy a
separate sound system ….”
– Miami Herald, March 2006 product
review.

A common reaction to this situation is: Who cares about the audio experience from
the DTV itself? If people want good audio, they’re going to connect the TV to a home
theater receiver
and a set of more adept speakers. Sounds reasonable, but, statistically, is this really the case? Not according to the Consumer Electronics Association, whose studies found that only about one in four televisions are connected to a home theater system. Moreover, as flat-panel TVs migrate from primary living room/home theater settings and into bedrooms and secondary rooms in the home, it’s more likely that these TVs, smaller than their larger counterparts in the home theater room, will not benefit from the connection to a home theater system. Given this reality, the need for audio quality improvement and feature differentiation becomes even more critical.

So why don’t most flat-panel TVs offer even a marginal-quality sound experience? There are several reasons. For starters, the early development of flat-panel TVs thus far has, rightly, been guided by the video experience, as video quality improves with each generation of Plasma and LCD display technology. Relatedly, the manufacturers were primarily challenged with adapting display technologies into ever-growing screen widths, all the while focusing on improving manufacturing and lowering costs.

In this environment, audio has understandably taken the back seat. Crack open many flat-panel TVs today, and you’ll largely find that the audio technology inside is a remnant from rapidly fading days of CRT televisions. One key problem area is in audio amplification. Traditional analog amplifiers (A/B amplification), while fine solutions for CRT systems, are poor design choices for flat-panel TVs. This is because designers must make such severe concessions for the slim product form factors that they greatly limit the audio output power and resulting quality. Class A/B amplification generates tremendous heat, causing unique design challenges, and requiring bulky heat sinks that further introduce severe design problems. Most flat-panel TVs are challenged enough with power and heat issues just from the video system alone. As a result, it’s common to encounter many flat-panel televisions that offer only about 10 watts-per-channel – hardly enough power to offer a decent experience!

Although some of the referenced comments are more relevant to older models of flat screen televisions, the audio quality technology in the newer flat screen television models has made dramatic advancements. You will find better audio output in the higher-end, more expensive model Plasma and LCD televisions, and this audio technology will eventually make its way into the lower-end and less expensive models. Just as television viewing technology and standards have greatly improved, you expect the audio quality to improve as well.