The Problem with Today’s TVs

Back in the day, the most complicated thing about a TV was getting the aerial in the right position to get static-free images, and sometimes getting the vertical hold steady. You turned on a TV, selected a channel, and watched it. The picture wasn’t great, but it was what we had.

Then TVs started getting fancier. I lived in France in the late 1990s, when widescreen (16:9) TVs became popular – especially because the country was hosting the World Cup – and these massive devices weren’t very different from previous generations. By then, you could connect a VCR, or a satellite box (cable was rare in France), but TVs were still pretty much the same as they were in the 1970s, just with bigger screens and better picture quality. (Interestingly, the US seems to have missed that step in the evolution of TVs, instead catching up when HD arrived.)

When HD TVs came around, everything changed. Not only because of the image quality but also because TVs started becoming “smart.” Now, with 4K HDR TVs that have their own operating systems, and can run apps, TVs have become very complicated.

It’s not complicated to watch something on a TV, if all you’re using is the TV. You either get your content over the air (now digital, for much better quality), or over cable or satellite. You can stream content using apps on the TV, or you can connect a Blu-Ray player and watch films.

But this is where it gets complicated. I recently decided to set up a dedicated TV room in my home. It’s not a big room, about 5m long and 3m wide, but it’s great for my partner and I to watch TV in comfort. I have a 60″ LG TV that I mounted on a tall TV stand, and bought a Sonos Beam soundbar. One of my desires was to simplify my TV hardware; I’m selling my AV receiver, because I no longer want the hassle of that big box and speakers. Even though their sound is better than the soundbar, the hassle factor made me want to go small. (I long ago gave up faffing around with surround sound.)

I also bought an Apple TV 4K (I had a 4th generation Apple TV, from 2015), and a UHD Blu-Ray player. I don’t plan to buy many 4K Blu-Rays, but I did want to watch Planet Earth 2 and Blue Planet 2 in 4K.

And that’s where the problems began. It’s fair to say that with the Sonos soundbar, setup is quite simple. My TV has HDMI-ARC – the first of many abbreviations I’ll use in this article – which means that it can play sound coming from the TV, or from other devices connected to it. But the audio track on the Planet Earth 2 Blu-Rays is encoded in DTS, one of the two main ways of encoding multi-channel audio. Alas, the Sonos Beam does not support DTS, but rather handles Dolby Digital, and here’s where my problems began. When playing the discs, there was no sound.

Understanding the plethora of settings on a TV these days is impossible. There are so many settings that you don’t need, or that shouldn’t be turned on, that if you do look through your TVs settings you’ll be lost. (The producer and director of the recent film Roma, which is available on Netflix, published an article explaining which settings to turn off for viewing the film in the beast possible quality, and Tom Cruise recently went on a crusade explaining how to turn off motion smoothing.)

I tried adjusting some of the sound settings on the Blu-Ray player – it is able to decode both DTS and Dolby Digital – but I was still met with silence. I looked in the TV settings, and couldn’t find anything either. I spent about an hour Googling my issue, trying to piece together disparate bits of information, notably on the Sonos forums, but it was difficult. The manual for the Blu-Ray player was no help, nor were the on-screen descriptions of the settings. As for the TV, its manual has nothing more than information on safety and how to connect cables. None of it settings are explained.

Finally, I found a bewildering combination of settings on the Blu-Ray player and the TV that resulted in sound, but the frustration made me realize that as much as I want to simplify my TV room, this will never be possible.

There seems to be a convergence toward streaming as the optimal way to watch TV. When you stream via a TV, or an Apple TV or other streamer, the content you watch is compatible with your device, and all you need is to connect an HDMI cable to be able to get images on your TV. You don’t have to worry about the various audio formats, and certainly not the video format (I remember the issues around NTSC, PAL, and SECAM, which were mutually incompatible). But, unlike with music, not everything is available to stream. I don’t plan to buy many 4K Blu-Rays; the amazing footage of Planet Earth 2 and Blue Planet 2 are best seen in that resolution, but for most movies or TV series I don’t really care.

As TVs become smarter, users become more and more confused. Doing anything more than streaming is complex, and requires a great deal of understanding of obscure formats. The TV industry is killing itself, or, more correctly, killing off content that isn’t streamed. This will lead to fewer people buying AV receivers and surround sound systems, and the audio-video hardware industry will suffer. In exchange, things will be simpler if we just stream, but if we want to see something that’s not streamable, then we may be out of luck.

9 thoughts on “The Problem with Today’s TVs

  1. I agree 100 percent. I’ve been wanting to upgrade my TV and sound for a while, but every time I start the research I just get more confused. I hate making a major purchase only to regret it soon after, so I’ve bought nothing so far and continue to live with a mediocre movie experience. I’ll figure it out one day, but it shouldn’t be this hard.

  2. It’s not only TV’s it is just about anything electronic anymore. I am a retired Systems Supervisor and have been in electronics, radio, and computers since the late 50’s even I am lost so I cannot imagine how the normal consumer must be. We just bought a new Prius Hybrid Plug In and I have never seen anything as overdone with useless technology that unfortunately detracts from the fact that it is a great vehicle. Our last Prius was a 2005 which was a pure pleasure to drive and simple to operate. The 2018 is a great improvement but very confusing with many programable features that are just simply not needed. It has two clocks, a system clock and a regular clock which do not talk to each other and need to be set separately and with all the technology that is built into the car it can’t even set time by itself. I have a cheap alarm clock that never needs to be touched, sets itself and changes to daylight savings and back automatically. If they can build all this technology into a vehicle there should be a simple mode you can select so you don’t have to mess with all of the stuff you really don’t need. It is very easy to change something that you did not intend to change and it can take days to try and figure out what you did. I have a stack of User Manuals you would not believe.

  3. Sonos is a great piece of kit, in one sense, but does require constant attention: updates, changes in features and settings, re-sync to your music library, modifying firewall settings, re-connecting to your wi-fi, etc. etc. Often when I turn it on the first thing it wants is to be updated — surely, just when you are about to use it, is the WRONG time to introduce 10 minutes of delay? (BTW, are you listening too, Microsoft?). When that’s all done the sound is great, the flexibility is excellent and all’s well.

    Whatever happened to the simplicity of lowering a stylus onto a record? It seems that no leading designers aim for simplicity any more, at least not since Steve Job’s demise.

  4. Agree 100%. That’s also one of the reasons i don’t own a TV. Instead, i have a projector hooked up to my (Windows) PC and couldn’t be happier. Streaming works, watching video disks works, watching any video file with my player of choice just works. The only thing that’s somewhat of a pain is the software Blu-Ray player that sporadically just stops working. (Of course, it’s the most modern piece in the equation, and the only proprietary piece of software that cost any money.)

    In terms of sound, i don’t have to worry one bit about the used codec, the software handles everything. I can plug in my analog stereo and even mix it with a dedicated 5.1 audio system, if i so desire; the software and audio drivers do all the decoding and mixing.

    I know that this system isn’t really for everybody (as i don’t have “regular TV content”, and i have to use my mouse as main input device), but to me these things aren’t really downsides.

  5. I’m with Roger – so many electronics are set up to do far more than the overwhelming majority of users need. What those overly complex designs in effect do is render the unit LESS functional for the average user.
    As for TV’s I just purchased a 4K set that has more settings on it than I would ever be able to keep up with. I appreciate the flexibility it affords for video quality – but my eyesight is only so sophisticated….One now needs to adjust the set for Standard definition High Definition Ultra High Definition HDR 10 Dolby Vision etc etc etc.
    I have read Kirk’s recommendations regarding returning to a more simple (minimalist) approach to audio. The Sonos Beam seems to be a good replacement for my full fledged AVR with 5 speakers. I have 5 sets of those systems (varying in age) that I have collected over the past 30 years or so. Only 1 system is what one could call “up to date”.
    Truth be known if it were not for Kirk’s podcasts and articles on digital technology – I would be far more confused than I am now.

  6. Thanks, Kirk. This is the first thing I’ve seen that addresses my technical gripes. I only wish the manufacturers were listening and reading as I do believe this issue will grow in volume. At least I hope it does. I suspect anyone over 50 would be grateful for more simplicity.

  7. My solution to this exact problem has been to abandon discs and Blu ray entirely. I have a 4K Apple TV hooked up to my TV and the Apple TV is connected to a HomePod for sound. Everything works beautifully and between iTunes, Netflix, Prime and iPlayer I have all the content I could ever want without ever touching a disc.

    • Yes, but you have the bandwidth to do that; not everyone does. And not all content is available digitally. In my case, I don’t plan to buy many discs, but I did want to see Planet Earth II, and have the hardware to potentially play other discs in the future. (I hadn’t bought a movie or TV series on disc in more than five years.)

      • Yes, good point. It’s easy to forget that once you have reliable high speed internet. I thought the same thing initially and I do have a Blu ray player. The clincher for me was that when I bought a new TV I forgot to connect the Blu ray player and didn’t realise for at least 6 months…. Weird that Planet Earth II isn’t on iTunes, it is in the UK, but I guess it’s one of those annoying regional things.
        I definitely agree with your assessment that TV’s are far more complicated than they need to be. It seems ridiculous that the only interaction I have with the actual TV is switching it on – I literally never see any of the other stuff that it can apparently do (badly I suspect).

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