How to Hear Dialogue Better When Watching TV Shows and Movies

Black Beam placed under a television; black Sub placed on the floor

They say actions speak louder than words, but that’s cold comfort when you’re straining to hear the dialogue on your favorite TV show. Smart, snappy, and (most of all) intelligible dialogue is the backbone of the best films and shows, but the wrong audio setup can make it hard to parse key conversations between characters.

There are a number of ways to tackle this issue, from tweaking your TV’s audio settings to investing in a proper home theater system. We’ve put together a guide with five steps toward improving and upgrading your TV’s sound, so that you’ll never have to settle for subtitles again.

1. Check the audio settings on your streaming service

If the dialogue in your streamed film or TV show sounds muffled, start by checking the audio settings on your streaming service. Though most streaming services can automatically detect and adjust to the audio capabilities of your device, this doesn’t always work as intended.

For example, many Netflix titles support streaming in high-fidelity audio or Dolby Atmos. But you can’t stream surround sound audio through just any old device — you’ll need a system that supports it, too. Netflix isn’t always great at realizing this, and it may default to 5.1 surround sound even when it doesn’t detect an appropriate 5.1 system. This mismatch may result in subpar sound, so always be sure to check that the audio settings on your streaming service match your setup’s capabilities.

Downmixing is usually a fairly precise process, but it can sometimes result in dialogue that sounds a bit garbled or undermixed. As such, it’s best to make sure that your streaming service’s audio settings match your device’s capabilities. The built-in speakers on your laptop or TV may only support stereo output, so chances are you’ll have to upgrade to a 5.1 or 7.1 surround-sound setup before you can enjoy high-quality streamed audio.

Tip: Look for speech-enhanced versions of your favorite titles

Even if there’s nothing technically wrong with your audio levels, you may want to give the dialogue a bit of extra boost. Maybe you’re watching an action movie with massive explosions and hushed dialogue, or maybe your ears are battling with heavy accents.

If so, we have good news: some services, like Amazon Prime, offer speech-enhanced versions of certain content titles. Check to see if there’s one for your favorite show before streaming.

2. Check your TV settings

If everything looks good with the audio settings on your streaming service, your next stop should be the settings menu on your TV. This is true even if you aren’t using your TV’s built-in speakers, as the audio output settings on your TV can also be responsible for gumming up the sounds emanating from your home theater setup.

When it comes to muddy and unintelligible dialogue, the lowest frequencies are often the biggest offenders. The same bass frequencies that add a deep, rich oomph to explosions and orchestral soundtracks can make it nearly impossible to decipher what someone is saying. That’s because most human speech actually falls in the midrange of frequencies, and these can be drowned out if the bass is overemphasized.

So, it may well be that the bass frequencies on your TV are set too high. But instead of fine-tuning the individual frequencies, you might want to first try out some different preset audio modes to see if one solves the issue. Many TVs come with audio modes that specifically emphasize the human voice. Look for a setting labeled “Speech” or “Dialogue”; if you can’t find one, try out other presets that increase the midrange frequencies in your TV’s audio.

Some TVs even offer a feature called dynamic range compression, which essentially levels out sound differences so that quiet sounds are louder and louder sounds are quieter. This can make dialogue louder and more intelligible without actually having to turn the volume up on your TV. Sure, a dramatic cymbal crash or explosion may not have the same chest-rumbling effect, but at least you’ll be able to follow along (and avoid complaints from your neighbors).

Man listening to white Ace headphones
Family watching TV with white Beam, Sub Mini, and Era 100 pair

3. Add a soundbar

Your TV’s speakers can only take you so far. These built-in speakers tend to be quite small and capable of handling only a limited range of frequencies. If your goal is audio with the highest degree of clarity and detail, consider adding a soundbar.

Even from a position directly beneath your TV, a soundbar can create multidimensional audio that immerses you in sound as if it’s coming from all directions. Some premium soundbars, like Sonos Arc, feature Dolby Atmos technology that fires sound in all directions, bringing more clarity to dialogue even if it’s merely a whisper.

Short of adding actual surround sound speakers to your home theater setup, a soundbar is the best way to achieve cinematic sound at home. It’s also a great option if you’re limited on space and prefer a setup without the need for hard wiring, as many soundbars are designed to fit right in whether they’re placed atop furniture or mounted on the wall.

4. Expand the sound with rear speakers

If you’re ready to permanently stomp out the problem of unintelligible audio — and add dramatic clarity to every other part of your audio experience — a multi-speaker setup is the logical next step. A soundbar serves as a perfect basis for this type of setup. From there, you can add a pair of rear speakers and a subwoofer for a true surround sound experience.

Surround sound, as its name implies, describes an audio setup that immerses you in sound from multiple angles — left, right, front, back, and above. A surround sound system with Dolby Atmos expands this immersive experience even further, firing sounds skyward so that they reflect off the ceiling and come raining down from above. You can achieve a realistic, spatial audio experience with just a soundbar, but nothing beats a full home theater setup complete with rear speakers.

Man watching TV with a black Arc and Sonos Ace headphones

Try using headphones

Of course, investing in an entire home theater system may not be in the cards. Or perhaps you live in a place with neighbors or roommates who won’t take kindly to a full surround sound system. If you’re watching alone, there’s no faster route to crisp, clear dialogue than a pair of good headphones.

This is true even if you do have an existing home theater setup. For example, with Sonos Ace, you can swap the TV audio from your Sonos soundbar to your headphones for a private surround sound experience. So, if you’ve exhausted your patience with audio settings menus or simply can’t wait to dive into the latest episode of your favorite show, wirelessly connect your headphones and let the dialogue flow.

Never miss a word with Sonos

Isn’t it nice to know you’re not alone? Trouble understanding TV dialogue is a common complaint, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re hard of hearing. Every Sonos product is built to achieve stunningly clear audio, and dialogue is no exception. We turned to Oscar-winning sound engineers to help tune our home theater sets and soundbars, so that even the slightest whisper rings with clarity. And with added features like Speech Enhancement available in the Sonos app, you’ll never reach for the subtitles button again.

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