How to hear TV if you are a deaf adder – in search of clear speech

Watching tv with headphones

How to hear TV is a GadgetGuy guide that explores how hearing-impaired people can better hear their TV programs.

We explore two scenarios – individual listening where higher volume is not an issue and with company that does not want to be blasted out of the room.

What is hearing impairment?

Hearing impairment is not usually about volume, although that is part of it. Where kids may hear sounds well below 20dB (decibels), hearing impairment may creep up to 35dB or more (disabling hearing loss).

Most hearing impairment is more about the gradual loss of frequency response. Perfect hearing is from about 20Hz (Hertz – you can’t hear, more feel, this low bass) to 20kHz (kilohertz – again, you cannot hear this, but it fills in the sound, making it crisp and directional). An average adult with good hearing is closer to 150Hz to 17kHz.

That frequency response covers:

  • Low Bass: 16/20-40Hz – which you can often feel more in your body that you hear in your ears
  • Mid Bass: 40-100Hz – if this is intact, you will be getting just about all the musically important bass
  • Upper Bass: 100 to 200Hz – most small sound devices, like portable Bluetooth speakers, start here
  • Mid: 200-4kHz– this is where the action is, it covers the human voice and is the area where our ears are most sensitive … even as we age.
  • Upper Treble: 4-10kHz – this defines the character of the sound. Its absence makes the sound dull.
  • Dog whistle – top octave: 10-20kHz – you can’t generally hear this, but you know if it is missing. Its presence improves the sense of direction in the sound and provides a feeling of “air”, a reality as though the music were really there, rather than merely reproduced.

A hearing loss audiogram measures frequency response at different decibel levels. Hearing loss may mean low-frequency response levels creep up from 20Hz to 1kHz, and high levels drop from 20kHz to as low as 8kHz. Oh, and each ear usually has a different level of impairment, meaning stereo (sound from both ears) is unequal.

Frequency loss usually means that bass sounds muted or muddy, and treble disappears with consonants like j, u, z, f, s, and th simply unintelligible. For example, ‘s’ (5-7kHz) becomes Sssssssibilance (hiss) in vocals. 

The correct solution for hearing impairment is to have an audiology test and get hearing aids that reinforce some of the frequencies you have lost. But be aware that hearing aids are more to hear clear speech – they won’t enable you to hear a symphony orchestra as intended.

What is clear speech?

People usually speak at 150Hz-6kHz (men) and 350Hz-8kHz (women). The most critical part for clear speech (intelligibility) is a narrow band from about 1-4kHz.

Most TVs have the bare minimum stereo 2.0 speakers covering 200Hz (low-mid) to 10kHz (low treble) but lack finer frequency control – an equaliser (EQ).

Headphone option – 3.5mm (with a long cable)

You would think that adding headphones to a TV would be the answer. Yes, it can be for individual listening but plugging in to a headphone socket on most TVs cuts the TV speakers and soundbar sound off.

Some TV brands/models like Sony and LG have sound settings that allow both headphones and TV speakers (not the soundbar) to operate simultaneously. Or it may enable Digital Audio Out (Optical or Toslink) and the TV speakers (see the next section). That is fine if others don’t mind listening to TV speakers (or are not spoilt by a good soundbar).

And you need a long cable to go to your favourite chair. Some headphones like the Philips Wireless HiFi Headphone plug an FM transmitter into the TV’s 3.5mm socket and cut the cable to the rechargeable headphones. Philips also has an Optical and 3.5mm pair with 20 hours of listening.

Tip – Headphones may have a 20Hz-20kHz frequency response, but as there is no equaliser (EQ) to boost clear voice, all you are doing is increasing volume – not the best answer.

Headphone option with EQ

Some wireless TV headphones have EQ that allows for clear sound, not excess volume. For example, Sennheiser has an extensive range of transmitters (plug into the 3.5mm or Optical socket if your TV supports it) and headsets – stethoscope type to hi-res, open-back, over-the-ear headphones.

These are excellent as they include separate left and right ear adjustments, clear speech, and different profiles to suit low-to-high impairments.

Your 3.5mm headphones (almost any brand/type) plug into a small portable rechargeable receiver that can give several hours of listening time – no cable.

Caveat – the 3.5mm or Audio Out optical socket must not cut off the TV speakers if you want group listening.

Headphone option – Bluetooth (BT)

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of rechargeable BT headphones. The ability to use these is more dependent on your TV supporting a BT connection. But in general, if you connect via BT, it will cut off sound to the TV speakers and or soundbar, so it is for individual listening only.

Few BT earphones or headphones have an EQ on pre-sets onboard. Some have an Android or iOS app that allows you to set the headphones with different pre-sets or EQs.

But there is a device called AirFly Pro that plugs into a 3.5mm headphone socket on the TV and allows two BT headphones to connect to it. It is not perfect as it can sometimes cause lip-sync issues (sound out of sync), but overall, at $80, it is worth considering if you want two people to listen via BT headphones.

AirFly Pro

Caveat – Only use a BT headset if it has an EQ for clear speech. Another minor issue is that noise-cancelling can cause undue ear pressure, so its best to turn that off if you have it.

Soundbar option – a good start but not the best

If you are hearing impaired, adding at least a 3.0 soundbar with Left, Right, and Centre speakers can reinforce clear speech. Look for brands that have ‘gain’ controls for clear speech/dialogue to ramp the centre channel up even more.

Depending on your hearing loss (low or high), add a sub-woofer to make it 3.1 handles from 20-100Hz (deep and mid-bass) to reduce that muddy sound.

I have a Samsung 2020 Samsung HW-Q900A 7.1.4, and it has a remote control setting for ‘centre’ that leaves the overall volume alone but ramps up the centre speaker. The new Sonos Beam 5.0 also has a great EQ app that really helps clear speech.

Tip – Simply increasing volume will not make speech any clearer.

Soundbar issues – headphones don’t work

So far, we have spoken about the TV being the sound source from over-the-air TV, digital catch up or Netflix streaming. All TVs (including Dolby Atmos capable) downmix any sound signal to 2.0 speakers – few have 3.0 speakers.

But what happens if you use a soundbar or connect other HDMI devices like a Blue-ray or media server to it?

The answer is simple – the soundbar processes the sound – it does not pass an audio signal to the TV. Using a 3.5mm, optical out cable or BT will not work as the TV does not have the sound signal in the first place.

Logically you can forgo the soundbar and plug external HDMI devices into the TV, and your headphone solution will work. But if you bought a soundbar, you want better quality sound.

Caveat – If the sound signal passes through to the soundbar, headphones won’t work.

How to hear TV – Other ways

All rely on getting a signal from 3.5mm, optical or BT. As you have seen, these are fine for individual listening but variously impact the ability for group listening – and so far, all kill your HDMI connected soundbar.

Hearing aid companies will offer you hearing aids with Wi-Fi, BT or other connectivity to a base station that needs a TV connection – via the above methods.

A few reminders

  • Using 3.5mm, Optical out or BT will usually stop TV sound unless there is a specific TV setting
  • It is not more volume you need but better reinforcement of the clear speech frequencies. Hence headphones without an app and EQ fail on that count
  • The best solution so far comes from Sennheiser, which has a dedicated transmitter that can alter hearing profiles. The Philips solutions are suitable for milder impairment.

And none of these ways addresses 5.1 surround sound or 3D spatial sounds like Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 or higher. Headphones are and can only be 2.0 stereo if driven from the TV. To get spatial sound requires far more processing power and expense.

GadgetGuy’s take

Take it from me – hearing impairment sucks. It means a loss of enjoyment of audio and video content. So much so that a Spotify account becomes useless. Why bother with Dolby Atmos anymore? Why can’t that news announcer more clearly enunciate their words? And my wife threatens to kill me every time I ask her to repeat something.

In reality, it is not them – it is you!

Impairment creeps up on you. In your youth, you enjoy headbanging heavy metal and the next decade (or three), it simply becomes annoying. Not because you don’t like the music (you loved Uriah Heap in the 70s), but because that loss of frequency response means it does not evoke the same reaction.

As I have had to review some high-end audio gear, I now know more about EQs, bit-rates and all those things needed to bring back music enjoyment. You can begin to enjoy it again.

This guide is as practical as I can make it. If you want to watch TV and hear what is being said instead of losing plot or punchline, EQ headphones are the answer if your TV supports dual headphone and TV speaker sound. I have not found a soundbar solution yet.

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