Sound differences between HD and regular channels, using an indoor antenna to get HDTV

Sound Advice
By Don Lindich

Week 41, 2007

Q:   I  recently purchased a new Phillips 47″ LCD TV from Costco and  had their installation service install it.    I have an HD DVR converter box from Comcast and everything is connected with new HDMI cables.   I love it except there is  a very large  sound difference between the regular digital channels and the HD channels.   When I go from a regular channel to an HD channel,  the sound is much lower.    Everything works great with a stunning HD picture once I re-adjust the sound.

I have called the Phillips, Comcast and Costco tech support reps and no one can help me, although Phillips and Costco guys want to point to Comcast.    I am thinking about insisting Comcast give me a new box, but I hate to lose some saved DVR concerts.

Before I strain myself taking the TV back to Costco, thought I would give you a shout after seeing your column in a local newspaper. Enjoy your blog very much.
-Larry Grigsby, Santa Cruz, Ca.
A:   No one is at fault here… not Comcast, Philips, or Costco.    What you are experiencing  is typical and happens to everyone I know, myself included.    HD signals play at lower levels compared to other channels.   For example, on my system with Dish Network when I am watching HD and go to a non-HD channel, the jump in volume just about sends me out of my chair, it is so much louder.   When I go from a standard channel to an HD channel, it is playing so softly that I can barely hear it.   Either way, I am reaching for the volume button whenever I  change between  HD channels to standard channels.

The reasons this happens is because HDTV sound is broadcast in Dolby Digital, which is different than the system used for standard television.    Dolby Digital has  more dynamic range, meaning it can preproduce a  range of sounds from soft to loud.   The starting volume  level is lower to accomodate this expanded range.

I’m afraid you are stuck with  the varying volume  until  all of the  channels are broadcast in HD or the cable and satellite systems decide to  raise the reference broadcast volume of HD channels, if they are able to do so at all.   I am going to do some research on this and report more on my blog and in a future column.

Q:   I am finally ready to take the plunge into the HDTV world with a new plasma HDTV.   I have basic cable and HD programming is not included.   My solution is the Zenith Silver Sensor antenna which you have recommended in the past.   With my expanded basic cable and this indoor antenna, will I still enjoy the benefits of HDTV as I would with an upgraded Digital/HDTV cable or satellite package?   Would I have access to all HD programming such as ESPN, Fox Sports Net PGH, Discovery and the local HD channels?

-Geoff Graeb, Scott Township, PA

A:    With this setup  you will get whatever you currently  get with cable, and broadcast HD channels from CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, etc. tuned from the antenna.   You will not get ESPN HD, Discovery HD, or the other HD channels as they are sent over cable, not the airwaves for the antenna to receive.   Personally, if you get the TV I’d look to get the HD cable or satellite.   It’s worth paying a bit more to get all those channels and really enjoy HDTV.

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