My TV's audio isn't great – will a soundbar help?

My TV's audio isn't great – will a soundbar help?

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I have a Toshiba 32L3753DB TV, which is OK, but the sound needs help. I bought an Otone Audio Ltd Soundbase, which does amplify the sound, but it over-emphasises the bass and cannot be adjusted. Is there a soundbar or other addition that will allow me to adjust the bass and treble? Keith

It looks as though bass and treble controls have gone out of fashion. They certainly featured on the now-discontinued Sony CT60 and similar soundbars, using up and down buttons on the remote control.

Today, digital signal processors (DSPs) offer a range of effects instead. One is usually called something like TV and provides a pass-through of the TV sound. The alternative effects include Film, Music and Voice on the Cambridge Audio TV2 soundbase, while the Samsung K450 offers Cinema, Sports, Clear Voice, Music and Night Mode. You get the idea …

And while you’re complaining about the Otone Soundbase’s boomy bass, this may appeal to users who watch blockbuster movies or play action games. Soundbars are sold to people who want loud explosions and don’t mind the windows rattling. People who prefer Eine kleine Nachtmusik are probably still listening to the hi-fis they bought in a previous century.

Soundbars and bases

Loudspeakers create sounds by moving lots of air around, usually by vibrating a paper or plastic cone in a box. This wasn’t a problem when TV sets used giant cathode ray tubes. It became a problem with flat LCD screens because you can’t put a loudspeaker that’s, say, 5-10cm deep in a screen that is 3-4cm deep, or less. TV sound quality took a dive, and people turned to soundbars and soundbases to get better results.

Soundbars are long bars that contain two or usually more small loudspeakers (tweeters) to provide the treble and mid-range. They work with a much larger loudspeaker in a separate box, a subwoofer, which provides the bass. Low frequency sounds are not very directional so the placement doesn’t matter too much.

Soundbases are large and flat, so you can stand your TV on them. They typically have two or three small speakers at the front, and one or sometimes two woofers pointing downwards. Soundbases are tidy and only need one mains plug.

Soundbars contain two or usually more small loudspeakers (tweeters) to provide the treble and mid-range.



Soundbars contain two or usually more small loudspeakers (tweeters) to provide the treble and mid-range. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer

Of course, everybody calls everything a soundbar nowadays, but you’d probably have been happier with a soundbar instead of a soundbase. Soundbar buyers have to decide where to put the subwoofer that generates the bass. Manufacturers usually provide a volume control, so they can balance the sound to suit their placement and room acoustics. Too loud? Turn it down.

Tweaking

From reviews, the Otone appears to be a decent product at the price. Trusted Reviews mentioned “boomy bass” as one of its “cons”, but you might be able to improve the sound.

Like most TVs, the Toshiba provides sound settings in its menu system. It has an “equaliser mode” that I suspect doesn’t provide simple bass and treble controls, but it’s worth a look.

Also, there are two ways to connect the Otone to your TV: standard RCA audio cables and an SPDIF optical port. You’re probably using the RCA cable supplied with the unit, but you could buy an SPDIF cable and see if it works better.

You might also get an improvement by isolating the soundbase from its platform. Hi-fi companies offer products to do this, but try sticking four blobs of Blu-Tack to the underside, where its feet/pads are. That’s how I often stick studio monitors to spiked stands.

Try a hi-fi?

When you mentioned “or other addition”, you might have been thinking of a graphic equaliser. That’s not the way to go. However, I know you have a Denon UD-M31 receiver (because I asked), and you could use that instead of your soundbase. Your Toshiba TV supports System Audio Control (it’s under More in the system settings) so this should work well.

I expect the Denon has a better amplifier than the Otone, and you may well have better loudspeakers. The problem might be finding a good place to put them.

You could Blu-Tack your speakers to spiked stands on either side of the screen. Stands are going out of fashion, so you may be able to find some cheap second-hand ones locally. Alternatively, you could mount the speakers on wall-brackets, or Blu-Tack them to the TV stand.

Incidentally, the M31 has a phono socket – technically, it’s a full-frequency pre-out terminal – to feed an active subwoofer (one that has its own amplifier). If you needed more bass, that would be the way to go.

Tech dilemma

If tweaking fails, you may need to buy a new soundbar, rather than a new soundbase. The good news is that prices have fallen since I last looked, when my “anchor price” was around £250. Today, there are soundbars for less than £50, and I’ve seen one (not recommended) discounted to less than £20. The problem is finding one with tone controls.

As it is, you have an advanced TV with loads of features, including Dolby Audio and DTS TruSurround, DTS 2.0 and DTS-HD. You’ve paired it with a soundbase that can’t exploit them.

The dilemma is that you should really buy a modern soundbar with an HDMI port to connect to your TV. Unfortunately, these seem more likely to offer DSP effects than tone controls.

It’s hard to tell because the sales pitches rarely mention tone controls, and even more rarely mention treble. The stress is on the bass.

It might be hard to find something with the controls you want at a price you want to pay, unless readers chip in with some recommendations in the comments.

Possible options

I found two “big brand” soundbars with treble controls: the Hitachi 240W 2.1Ch Sound Bar and the JVC TH-D337B.

The Hitachi 240W’s manual (PDF) confirms that you can control the treble using the TRB+/- buttons on the very small remote control. JVC declines to provide a manual for the TH-D227B, directing you to Currys PC World. Currys doesn’t list it but says the £59.99 JVC TH-D227B 2.0 Compact Sound Bar (ie, without the subwoofer) has “adjustable bass & treble”.

You can buy the Hitachi 240W on Amazon.co.uk for £119.90. However, Argos has what seems to be the same thing, listed as the Hitachi 280W 2.1Ch Sound Bar for £89.99. This looks like a bargain. (When I searched for Hitachi’s product number, AXS240BTU, the Argos version was the top hit.) Your TV should work with its HDMI ARC port.

The JVC TH-D337B has a wired subwoofer and no HDMI port for £99.99 plus £8.99 UK delivery. That is less of a bargain.

Also see …

At the time of writing, the Best Seller in Amazon’s soundbar category was Majority’s Snowdon Soundbar with Built-In Subwoofer, apparently reduced from £119.95 to £45.95. This is another soundbar with no separate subwoofer. Technically, it’s much like your Otone – RCA cable supplied, no HDMI. However, a negative review on Amazon complains that it sounds “tinny” rather than “boomy”.

Still, the sales blurb says: “with the easy to use remote, you can change the treble and bass settings at the click of a button”, though this only seems to apply in music mode.

Instead, have a look at the £79.99 LuguLake Soundbar Speaker System. This has a soundbar that can be twisted apart to work as two vertical speakers, plus a monster subwoofer/controller with built-in radio. The subwoofer has flashing lights and a thumping bass that make it look ideal for teenage parties. However, you can turn the lights off and the bass can be controlled from the remote. Better still, there are two proper knobs on the back, to control the bass and the treble. The drawbacks include the lack of both HDMI and SPDIF ports.

The LuguLake is an oddity, but Amazon.co.uk reviewers love it (86% give it five stars). If tempted, US-based CooLoserTech has a very useful unboxing and demo on YouTube.

The Hitachi soundbar at Argos may be your best buy, always assuming it’s the AXS240BTU. It’s a sensible choice. But the LuguLake will appeal to children of all ages.

Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com



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