Do I need a soundbar or receiver to boost dialog volume? - AVS Forum | Home Theater Discussions And Reviews
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post #1 of 13 Old 11-28-2019, 10:25 PM - Thread Starter
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Do I need a soundbar or receiver to boost dialog volume?

I often have trouble understanding TV dialog, due to a combination of high frequency hearing loss and low dialog volume in common TV sources. My understanding is that dialog is often encoded in the center channel of 5.1 (and higher) audio, so I want to bring up the relative volume of that component, when driving my 2 channel stereo.

I have 5 HDMI sources (PC running streaming apps, Roku (am replacing a Roku Express by a modern Roku Ultra), Android TV, DVD player, and I may get cable or satellite).

I have an old non-smart but still working well 1080p HDTV that only has two lousy speakers. The only other audio output is a headphone jack, that I have used to input into a 40 year old analog hifi (which has pretty good sound quality), sometimes with a used pro-grade graphic equalizer in between. When I use the hifi and graphic equalizer, it helps a fair bit, but what I really need to do is to boost the relative volume of the center channel.

I want to do this at minimum cost, without degrading sound quality.

So far I have found out three ways to do this, all fairly expensive.

1. Buy a reasonably good quality AV 5.1 (or more) receiver, and 3 (or more) good quality speakers. Turn up the center channel volume. Quite expensive.

2. Buy a soundbar that passes through the HDMI signal, plays the sound, and has a control that lets me boost the center channel volume. Fairly expensive - I think I need at least a $350 souondbar to match what my hifi produces from the current setup.

3. Buy an HDMI sound extractor (e.g., from Monoprice), and use it to feed a fancy surround sound audio system. Again expensive.

Is there a cheap pass-through HDMI device that will just extract the 5.1 sound from an HDMI input, boost the center channel, and output it into analog stereo I can feed my hifi, or re-encode it onto the output HDMI?

Alternately, is there something I can do inside any of the listed sources that will boost the contribution from the center channel?

Alternately, could I buy some type of fairly good surround sound headphones that have center sound channel adjustment? This is tempting, and I'm willing to spend $100-$150 on reasonably GOOD quality headphones. Ear buds don't fit my ears - I would need on-ear or over-ear headphones, and my head is fairly narrow for an adult, so about 2/3 of the headphones I've tried can't be adjusted to fit. I don't know enough to figure out what would work.

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post #2 of 13 Old 12-01-2019, 10:03 PM
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Dang, I was hoping someone else had answers, because this topic is interesting to me too. My mother-in-law would greatly benefit from a simple and preferably cheap LCR soundbar with boostable center channel, but I'm not sure such a thing exists.
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post #3 of 13 Old 12-02-2019, 04:53 PM
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Unfortunately, I don't believe simply boosting center channel volume is adequate. My receiver allows just that, and I do keep it higher than the front left and right. "Louder" is a poor substitute for "clarity," however.

Deleted a lot of stuff that didn't answer your question.
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post #4 of 13 Old 12-02-2019, 08:33 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jaywalker1 View Post
Unfortunately, I don't believe simply boosting center channel volume is adequate. My receiver allows just that, and I do keep it higher than the front left and right. "Louder" is a poor substitute for "clarity," however.

Deleted a lot of stuff that didn't answer your question.

That makes sense, unfortunately. You have to have a nice discrete center to get enough clarity to be worth boosting, and that's assuming the audio mix is clear in the first place. Which is fine for me, but not as fine for the mother-in-law. Subtitles it is.
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post #5 of 13 Old 12-03-2019, 08:52 AM
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I agree that just boosting the center channel is not enough. What you also need is to have tone controls so that you can boost the treble response to make the dialog more clear and easier to understand. Unfortunately, most soundbars do not have tone controls.


I have a Definitive Technology W Studio soundbar that has a separate volume control for the center channel, and while that helps, it does not solve the problem of getting clear, easy to understand dialog. I wish I had tone controls. That would solve the problem for me.


The tinny sounding crappy speakers in my TV actually produce dialog that is easier to understand than my expensive soundbar. Overall, the soundbar sounds better, and I use it all the time, however, the dialog from my TV's built-in speakers is clearer and easier to understand because the tinny crappy speakers in my TV have a lot more treble response than my soundbar.
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post #6 of 13 Old 12-03-2019, 08:22 PM
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Talking

Quote:
Originally Posted by MRG1 View Post
I often have trouble understanding TV dialog, due to a combination of high frequency hearing loss and low dialog volume in common TV sources. My understanding is that dialog is often encoded in the center channel of 5.1 (and higher) audio, so I want to bring up the relative volume of that component, when driving my 2 channel stereo.

I have 5 HDMI sources (PC running streaming apps, Roku (am replacing a Roku Express by a modern Roku Ultra), Android TV, DVD player, and I may get cable or satellite).

I have an old non-smart but still working well 1080p HDTV that only has two lousy speakers. The only other audio output is a headphone jack, that I have used to input into a 40 year old analog hifi (which has pretty good sound quality), sometimes with a used pro-grade graphic equalizer in between. When I use the hifi and graphic equalizer, it helps a fair bit, but what I really need to do is to boost the relative volume of the center channel.

I want to do this at minimum cost, without degrading sound quality.

So far I have found out three ways to do this, all fairly expensive.

1. Buy a reasonably good quality AV 5.1 (or more) receiver, and 3 (or more) good quality speakers. Turn up the center channel volume. Quite expensive.

2. Buy a soundbar that passes through the HDMI signal, plays the sound, and has a control that lets me boost the center channel volume. Fairly expensive - I think I need at least a $350 souondbar to match what my hifi produces from the current setup.

3. Buy an HDMI sound extractor (e.g., from Monoprice), and use it to feed a fancy surround sound audio system. Again expensive.

Is there a cheap pass-through HDMI device that will just extract the 5.1 sound from an HDMI input, boost the center channel, and output it into analog stereo I can feed my hifi, or re-encode it onto the output HDMI?

Alternately, is there something I can do inside any of the listed sources that will boost the contribution from the center channel?

Alternately, could I buy some type of fairly good surround sound headphones that have center sound channel adjustment? This is tempting, and I'm willing to spend $100-$150 on reasonably GOOD quality headphones. Ear buds don't fit my ears - I would need on-ear or over-ear headphones, and my head is fairly narrow for an adult, so about 2/3 of the headphones I've tried can't be adjusted to fit. I don't know enough to figure out what would work.

Everyone who commented had correct pieces of your solution. I am in your position with hearing damage/roll off + tinnitus and had to improve Center channel audio to help. I don’t believe it will be as expensive as you think. First, headphones won’t help because they don’t break out and eq jthe center channel. Second, my experiences with sound bars has been horrible. As pointed out, they are not only not versatile but also just trouble prone. Read the soundbar threads and every model is filled with people with problems with them. Since you are hdmi based at the present time you are halfway home and your solution will also be a simplification of your arrangement. You need a receiver (AVR) and since you already have stereo speakers, only one more for the center channel. The AVR can be anything - 5.1 to 7.1 thats on sale. I happened to buy Pioneer but any name brand will be good these days. (I was so impressed with the AVR I bought for the main tv I bought a second smaller one on sale for under $300 to use in a future cave). Then you need a good center speaker. Browsing around here You will read 80 - 90% of the tv intelligence is in the center channel, so you don’t want to skimp there. On sale for $150 up should do it. When reading the amazingly complex manuals for these versatile AVRs, you will see in the ‘hooking up speakers‘ section that you then tell it you have a L + C + R and the AVR then handles all decoding and speaker assignments. You will then see you can trim both the volume And the graphic eq for each Speaker. That will solve your problem. Take note, all your sources will plug into the AVR which becomes your selector, and the output plugs into the TV/ARC HDMI input. That simplifies your setup. Hope this is what you needed!
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post #7 of 13 Old 12-04-2019, 04:57 PM - Thread Starter
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Thanks guys! You've been very helpful.

It makes sense that the original sound source has to be clear - garbage-in-garbage-out.

I almost bought a new Denon 650H receiver during Costco's Black Friday sale , though even on sale it seemed expensive - comparable to a new big screen TV better than mine (mine is 32", with 1080p resolution). Then I did my due diligence, and found that roughly half the reviews of Denon receivers said they sounded wonderful, and the other half or so said the receiver had failed quite rapidly, like under a year. Oh dear.

OK, my current receiver is failing too - i.e., the phono input and the tape inputs doesn't work. (If I wanted to continue to use it, I should buy a phono pre-amp). But it is about 40 years old. Failing in under a year?? That's crazy.

Someone at a high end hifi store told me all the "reasonably" priced receivers are unreliable, even from most of the brands that were great 40 years ago. Maybe he's biased, because he sells much more expensive stuff, but in Denon's case, the reviews bear him out. He told me I could also use a "headphone amplifier" - but admitted they cost more than AV receivers, because relatively few are sold.

How about this approach: Suppose I buy new or used HDTV that has audio outputs for 5.1 sound. Can any of them be configured to boost center channel, and do a reasonable job of frequency equalization, to boost the upper frequencies, without needing a separate receiver? How do I find out which TVs can do that? Any ideas?

I guess I could also buy a used 1080p era AV receiver, or soundbar. Now that Black Friday is over, people might be rushing to get rid of pre-4K generations of AV gear.

Or - I could buy an HDMI sound extractor, and send the sound from the center channel through my graphic equalizer to an amplified speaker, and send the front L and R channels to my old hifi. Maybe that is the cheapest and simplest approach.

This is all getting so messy and complicated. Surely a LOT of people want this sort of thing. I'm not the only person who has trouble making out conversations, especially on channels like CW that often make the background louder than the voices. It should be easy, simple, and cheap.

Last edited by MRG1; 12-04-2019 at 05:05 PM.
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post #8 of 13 Old 12-04-2019, 06:35 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MRG1 View Post
Someone at a high end hifi store told me all the "reasonably" priced receivers are unreliable, even from most of the brands that were great 40 years ago.
I'm in the same boat. My 22-year-old Harman/Kardon just started exhibiting amp/pre-amp problems in one channel. Fix it or buy something new?


Having read the same reviews you have, I've decided on a new Yamaha, which has a reputation for better longevity. To add to that, I'll buy it at Crutchfield, which has both a generous return policy and tech support. The Yamaha RX-V385 is still on sale.

@DavAbq nailed the soundbar issue for me. The Yamaha YAS-207 I bought (and returned) was pretty simple and I hoped it work work. The sound wasn't bad, and for $200 on sale it would have been fine, except for the poor HDMI handshake issues (picture from streaming, sound from set top box). I decided to stay with the simpler AVR and left, center, front speakers.


Alternatively, you could try to have your current receiver fixed; it's trite, but they really were made better back then.
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post #9 of 13 Old 12-04-2019, 10:48 PM
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As for receivers, keep checking for used. I found a used recent-model Pioneer Elite 4K receiver. Because some high end audio people are crazy (no offense!) and cycle through really good equipment at a shocking rate. Maybe you'll get a good deal on higher-end gear. It happens.



But as for models, I'd go with Yamaha or Onkyo, where you might be able to get a good price used. Yeah, I know I bought a Pioneer but that's essentially a rebranded Onkyo. I once had a trusty Denon that lived with me for many, many years and did me no wrong, but then it died spectacularly and took my speakers with it. I've since heard Denon and catastrophic receiver death mentioned elsewhere, so I'm not such a fan anymore. But every manufacturer can also make a lemon or two, so don't read too much into it.


Ask for help in the appropriate receiver forum though, not in the soundbar forum.
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post #10 of 13 Old 12-05-2019, 01:31 AM - Thread Starter
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Some n.1 soundbars are advertised as having "adjustable tone". Would they probably do the job, or is "adjustable tone" not specific enough?
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post #11 of 13 Old 12-05-2019, 10:16 AM
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Originally Posted by MRG1 View Post
Some n.1 soundbars are advertised as having "adjustable tone". Would they probably do the job, or is "adjustable tone" not specific enough?

Hard to say without seeing it. If I read that I'd expect bass and treble control knobs (or just a volume knob on the subwoofer, which is more likely), and that won't cut it.
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post #12 of 13 Old 12-05-2019, 08:57 PM
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Originally Posted by MRG1 View Post
Thanks guys! You've been very helpful.

-snip-
How about this approach: Suppose I buy new or used HDTV that has audio outputs for 5.1 sound. Can any of them be configured to boost center channel, and do a reasonable job of frequency equalization, to boost the upper frequencies, without needing a separate receiver? How do I find out which TVs can do that? Any ideas?

I guess I could also buy a used 1080p era AV receiver, or soundbar. Now that Black Friday is over, people might be rushing to get rid of pre-4K generations of AV gear.

Or - I could buy an HDMI sound extractor, and send the sound from the center channel through my graphic equalizer to an amplified speaker, and send the front L and R channels to my old hifi. Maybe that is the cheapest and simplest approach.
i think that trajectory would work fine. The trick is finding 5.1 line outputs as you said. Most AVRs have them, of course. But then you have the high level outputs too. A few days ago I was searching for hifi and stereo stores in chicago. Most of the hits were used equipment. I’m sure if you called a couple you would find someone who would work with you on finding what you need, even if its just an old AVR and ship it to you.
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post #13 of 13 Old Yesterday, 04:55 PM - Thread Starter
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i think that trajectory would work fine. The trick is finding 5.1 line outputs as you said. Most AVRs have them, of course. But then you have the high level outputs too. A few days ago I was searching for hifi and stereo stores in chicago. Most of the hits were used equipment. I’m sure if you called a couple you would find someone who would work with you on finding what you need, even if its just an old AVR and ship it to you.
I did some searching at Best Buy, Craigslist, and eBay.

Also, at least at the Best Buy level, there aren't any soundbars with variable center channel boost and adequate tone adjustment to clarify voice for me.

A Best Buy rep told me that none of the TVs they sell have the kind of center channel boost and tone adjustment I want. A few \might have 5.1 analog outputs, but they are way too expensive.

A\phono pre-amp costs most of the cost of a used 1080P era AVR which has one, along with HDMI inputs, and center channel boost and tone adjustment (even if I decide I want one with Bluetooth, so I can, I hope, use wireless headphones), ] and adding a used decent speaker to use for the center channel, may be the best option. If I want 4K passthrough, for upwards compatibility with a hypothetical future 4K TV or projector purchase, that adds $100-$150 extra to the AVR - for a device that does a lot more than I need.

All of these cost a fair bit. But I will keep looking at the sound extractor + amplified speaker + my graphic equalizer option.

I guess another route would be to install an HDMI capture card in my desktop PC - but that is getting too complicated, plus my PC has a noisy hard drive, and I'd have to worry about HDCP problems.

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