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You Asked 12: streaming audio, hotel TVs, and OLED burn-in

In this installment of You Asked: What’s with the wild differences in volume loudness between streaming apps, and is there anything you can do about it? And can anything be done to disable motion smoothing on your hotel TV? And are floor model or display model TVs a smart buy?

Balancing streaming audio

A man watches a movies on a Samsung HW Q990B.
Digital Trends

The first question comes from Dan — a good friend and former videographer and editor at Digital Trends — who asked: Why are some streaming apps so much quieter than others? And is there anything that we can do to balance the audio levels between them?

I’ve been seeing this question asked the way Dan asked it, but this same issue causes some folks to wonder if something is wrong with their system, like in this email from Shahnoor, who wrote:

I’ve got an LG TV 2021 model, and I bought a Sony soundbar. The soundbar is great, but when watching Netflix or movies ,the audio is so quiet. I’ve heard that using a soundbar that is a completely different make from the TV can affect the quality of the sound. Is there any truth to it?

First, while using a brand of soundbar that differs from the brand of TV you use can sometimes limit your access to some high-level features, using different brands is not going to cause the kind of audio frustrations you are experiencing.

The issue with Netflix being quieter than other sources you watch is the same issue that’s frustrating Dan. The baseline loudness level among streaming apps — and even between apps and other audio sources in your system — is a problem for everyone. And I’m afraid we have limited tools to fix it.

I suppose the real problem here is that there is no standard to which content providers are held. The way Netflix encodes audio is different than how Hulu encodes audio, which is different from how Disney encodes audio, which is different from how Max encodes audio. And to make matters more frustrating, there are different layers within the audio preparation process that contribute to this.

Are you ready to go down a rabbit hole? I promise we’ll do the quick tour here.

It starts with the content creation. Hollywood movies have dramatically different audio than network TV shows, which is different than content made by creators on YouTube, and so on. So, as streaming services amass their library, they’re already getting a dizzying array of various audio formats and quality. It goes deeper than that, but we’re keeping it surface-level here.

From there, the amount of compression applied is different from one streaming service to another. And, again, your cable or satellite provider uses varying levels and qualities of audio compression, too. And when I speak of compression, I’m talking about both dynamic range compression — control over how loud the loudest part of a show or movie is and how quiet the quietest part is — as well as file size compression, which in turn affects not only the audio fidelity (or sound quality), but also the overall loudness of the audio track. Generally, the more compressed the audio file is, the louder its baseline level is going to be.

Ironically, some streaming services use dynamic range compression (DRC) in an effort to make the experience better. Some folks hate wild swings in loudness, or they have trouble hearing the dialogue, so they crank up the volume, and then a loud moment comes on and they are blown out of the room by action sequence sound effects, or a big explosion sound effect. So, to help mitigate that, they’ll make everything more or less the same volume.

And, as I mentioned before, how each streaming service decides to deliver that audio stream is different.

You might think that if something is available in Dolby or DTS, be it stereo or surround sound, there would be some standards applied. But while DTS provides some standards, it also allows for a great deal of artistic license for the content creators. And then the streaming services do what they will with the audio they get.

Adding to this already complex situation are factors that are on the user end. There are different audio settings available in each app, as well as audio settings available within the source device, be that the TV itself, a streaming box, a cable box, etc. And then there are audio options on the playback device, be that the TV speakers, a soundbar, or an A/V receiver.

Now that you know how complicated it is, you can imagine that it would be very difficult to solve the problem, since, as users, we have limited control over so many factors. But what I can do is point you toward a few things that you can try that may help.

First, experiment with the audio settings within the app itself. Let’s take Hulu, for example. Hulu lets you decide between stereo and 5.1 surround. It also lets you choose the quality of the audio, from low, to medium, to high. It also lets you turn volume leveling on or off, which will at least help keep content on Hulu from swinging wildly from too loud to too quiet.

You can do this on a per-app basis and experiment to see if you can get an app that is generally too quiet — or generally too loud — to be more in line with other apps you use frequently. It’s a heavy lift. But if you’re willing to experiment, you may come up with a setting you like.

Then there are the audio settings in your TV, and the audio settings in your audio device, if it is separate from the TV. Every brand calls it something different, but the tech is the same: onboard dynamic range compression and/or volume leveling. This will help the TV speakers, but it won’t help a soundbar connected via HDMI or optical cable. For that, you’ll want to turn on the dynamic range compression or volume leveling feature in your soundbar or receiver.

But you know what would be so much better? If there was a volume normalization message in the metadata of a digital audio stream, no matter the type or format, that helped audio devices manage loudness without necessarily stripping out dynamics. I, too, want to have Hulu start out at the same volume as YouTube and Netflix, but I don’t want to give up the dynamics of the sound for that, which is what DRC and volume leveling force you to do.

Hotel TV settings

A TV on the wall of the Public Hotel in New York City.
Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

A question from Dan: Are there any tricks to changing the motion smoothing on hotel TVs that don’t obviously give you access to the settings menu?

There are some tricks, but most of them have to do with getting around the hotel’s effort to limit your access to the TV settings, and they don’t always work.

First off. It seems that some hotels have decided that motion smoothing being on is in their best interests. In the same way they believe that the standard picture preset is going to appeal to more of their guests, they probably also have data that suggests more people want motion smoothing on than those who don’t. And since they know folks like to mess with their TVs if they allow it, hotels are getting increasingly clever about locking down certain TV settings. They’ll let you turn the closed captions on and off , but if you want to change the picture profile or the motion smoothing? It’s a toss-up, depending on where you’re staying.

With most hotel TVs, pressing the menu button doesn’t get you the TV’s menu — it gets you the hotel infotainment system’s menu, where you can rent on-demand movies, as well as make dinner reservations or whatever. Some of them even let you access Netflix or other popular streaming services. So, the first move is to experiment with pressing buttons that — well, you don’t know what they do until you press them. My favorite is the mysterious three-line button.

If you’re lucky, you can find the motion smoothing from there and turn it off. If, however, none of those buttons get you to the TV’s settings menu, try using the buttons on the TV. Sometimes, one of those buttons will take you right to the settings menu. And you can work your way to motion smoothing from there.

Sometimes you can yank the Ethernet cable from the back of the TV, or from the box they zip-tie to the back of the TV. This basically disables the hotel’s lockdown system, and you might be able to get in the backdoor that way.

But sometimes, you’re just flat out of luck and you can’t access the menu or turn off the motion smoothing. I hate it because turning off motion smoothing on a hotel TVs is one of my favorite hobbies — second only to connecting a Chromecast with Google TV, even though they very clearly would prefer I not.  That’s fun. Except when I fail. That’s not fun.

But in those situations where I just can’t stand to watch the hotel TV? I just watch TV on my laptop.

Burn-in worries

An artistic image of a fork and knife shown in a purple gradient on a Sony X95L mini-LED.
Sony X95L Zeke Jones / Digital Trends

Roy writes: I have a tough dilemma. I now have an LG 75-inch Nano90 and I want to upgrade. My plan all along is to get the Sony A95L, but I am afraid that OLED is not the TV for me.

My family and I mostly watch the news channels, sports, and kids channels every day for hours. As you know, those channels have banners. Especially the news channels with the big red banner. The last thing I want do is to limit myself or my family on how and when to watch the TV. Like I said, I have always wanted an OLED TV and I hate compromise, but I can’t ignore the burn-in issue.

Should I go with the A95L that I always wanted or go with the X95L?

You know I am an OLED fan, and I think burn-in risk is ever decreasing in liability. However, based on what you’ve told me, I’m going to recommend the X95L.

There are two reasons. One: I get the sense that if you get that OLED TV, you’re going to be worried. Nobody should live in worry about their TV, or feel like they should police their family’s viewing behavior. Also, you’re watching news, sports, and kids channels, and, frankly, that sounds like a waste of OLED’s talent to me. I mean, the sports would benefit some, I suppose.

But OLED really shines when it’s doing cinematic content — and not just movies, but really well-shot shows on streaming services, too. This TV sounds like it’s gonna be a workhorse of a family TV, and that’s awesome. I think the X95L is the better choice. It is a fabulous TV, and despite a little bit of compromise you make to picture quality — which honestly, isn’t a ton — that X95L is gonna be a big upgrade, and it’s gonna blow you away. That small compromise in picture quality may be offset by the fact that you are getting a bigger TV, since the X95L only comes in an 85-inch size, while the biggest Samsung S95C is 77 inches and the LG G3 tops out at 83 inches.

Floor models

Floor models TVs on display in a Best Buy.
Best Buy

Paul asks: How long are floor models usually on display before they’re sold?

I can only speak to my retail experience, which was a very long time ago. Back then, floor models stayed on the floor until it was time to clear them out for the next year’s TVs or until they failed. You can always ask the manager how long a floor model was out, and for how long they ran their TVs each day to calculate the total hours it was on. But I would say if you were going to buy a floor model, never buy an OLED floor model, and don’t buy a floor model TV that may have sat in the sun.

Don’t buy one unless you get the full warranty. And don’t buy it unless you get an awesome price — so awesome that you won’t be upset if it only lasts two to three years.

Back in the day, I was all about the floor-model TVs. I scored an awesome JVC 32-inch and Toshiba 36-inch TV off the floor of Incredible Universe, and those things ran for a long, long time with zero problems. I think you’ll be OK with most LED-backlit TVs of decent quality. But those savings better be way better than the best Black Friday sales price.

Eye strain and blue light

A picture settings menu on a Sony A95L QD-OLED.
Zeke Jones / Digital Trends

As someone who’s on screens all day long, I suffer from eye fatigue. Do you think it’s a good idea to install an LCD strip on the back of my TV to make it easier on the eyes?

Yes. Or just turn a lamp on in the room. Any kind of bias light that keeps your pupils from having to dilate and constrict severely is a good idea.

Bonus question: Would you recommend wearing blue light glasses to prevent eye strain, especially since TVs seem to be getting brighter and brighter? Or is the whole blue light thing not really a thing?

The whole blue light thing is definitely a thing. There are plenty of studies to show that blue light can cause eye strain and it can affect sleep cycles. I would say, pick a warmer picture mode – don’t use standard or vivid or sports; use movie or cinema or filmmaker mode. But also, many new TVs have blue-light abatement settings built in that you could use. So, you could use glasses, but why not shut the blue light down at the source?

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Caleb Denison
Digital Trends Editor at Large Caleb Denison is a sought-after writer, speaker, and television correspondent with unmatched…
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