How Can I Avoid Turning Up the Volume to Hear Movie Dialogue?

The effects of dynamic volume control are illustrated in this diagram from Audyssey.

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Q When watching a movie, I often have to turn the volume up to hear the dialogue but then find that the action scenes are too loud and have to turn it down again. My speakers are all from the same product line, so I know they are meant to play well together. I also use the automatic room correction on my Pioneer VSX-914-K AV receiver to adjust levels and distances for the speakers. Is the volume issue due to the way movies are mixed these days? —Ricky Meadows / via e-mail Ricky Meadows / via e-mail

A The majority of movie soundtrack mixes are focused on maintaining clear dialogue. Even loud explosions and other effects in action films shouldn’t do anything to take away from dialogue intelligibility. In some situations, however, music and effects in soundtracks with wide dynamics might come off as overly aggressive. In this case, if you are listening to Dolby Digital or DTS source material, you should turn on the receiver’s Dynamic Range Control (DRC) function. This setting, which usually has low, medium, and high presets, lets your AVR maintain consistency of the overall volume level when watching movies by boosting low-level elements in the soundtrack and taming the louder ones.

Many recent AVRs also include more sophisticated volume compensation schemes such as Dolby Volume, THX Loudness Plus, or Audyssey Dynamic Volume, so you may want to consider a receiver upgrade at some point. With any form of volume compensation, you won’t get to experience the soundtrack’s full impact, but it will let you watch movies late at night without disturbing others in the home.

Along with experimenting with your receiver’s DRC settings, I’d also recommend that you manually check that the speaker levels dialed in by its automatic calibration feature are correct. You’ll need to use an SPL meter to do this—you can buy a handheld one for under $50 from RadioShack (tip: set it for Slow Response and C-weighting), though there are also a few inexpensive and reasonably accurate smartphone apps that will do the job. Turn on the receiver’s manual level-calibration function and cycle through the test tones, measuring the relative decibel level for each speaker. The output of the front and surround speakers should be closely matched. If that’s not the case, and one or more speakers measure notably louder than the others, you should tweak the output for all speakers until the levels are balanced.

utopianemo's picture

I had the same issue and from what I've read, it seems to be common. Another solution is to turn the center channel up in the mix. I have mine set on +3, which also seems to be about enough for a lot of people with this issue.

stodgers's picture

I've been doing this too, but I find that in some movies, it still doesn't compensate. I think I need to do as one of the other commentors suggested and look at where the signal is bouncing of from.

wxmanrocks's picture

My wife has to wear two hearing aids, and while I can normally live with what my AVR has automatically set up for volume levels for all my channels, this does not work for her when watching most movies. So I had to manually tweak my center channel. I actually found it more enjoyable now that I've upped the volume on the center channel.

Deus02's picture

For years now, the small center channel models that most manufacturers offer is in the relatively limited frequency range and the overall size that really can't compete with full range floor standers especially with lossless audio of Blu-Ray discs. Instead of constantly tinkering with volume, if it is physically possible and your pocket book doesn't mind, I would seriously look at the larger full range 3-way center channel models available from some manufacturers such as Axiom, Paradigm, Legacy and others that can now compete with their L/R brethren very well.

Even though you are listening to primarily the human voice, the ability to operate within the full spectrum of sound will significantly improve overall dialogue performance without having to constantly adjust volume levels. I have an Axiom VP180, a large center by any standards, however, the moment I hooked it up and balanced it with my L/R floor standers, my dialogue clarity issues were over.

dnoonie's picture


I too had the same issue until I treated my front speaker first reflection points, the ceiling was a critical one.

Since then I have also treated second reflection points and all corners with bass absorption.

The first reflection points made a huge difference in clarity.

Treatment of second reflection points widened my sound stage and gave me a much wider sweet spot.

Corner treatment with bass absorbers did wonders for bass clarity and also seemed to widen my sound stage more.

Now I need a way to block the rest of the house from the theater room. I'm considering decorative "barn door" or a ceiling mounted track with sliding doors with acoustic treatment on the doors.

Happy listening!

TheNuthouse's picture

I have seen this problem with many home theater systems that employ the auto speaker setup. To often the microphone and system algorithms incorporated into the receiver do not tune the system as well as it could be for the individual listener or the room type in which you view your movies. In some cases they do not even make the correct assessment as to rather you are using a sub-sat speaker system or full range. This could not only reduce the overall sound quality, but actually damage your speaker system. They tend to be a point of convenience for easier setup for someone unfamiliar or unwilling to manually fine tune the system setup. Admittedly some AVR's practically need an engineering degree from MIT to setup correctly. However, I believe that learning how and employing an individualized setup for your AVR and speaker system will add more overall enjoyment to your surround sound movie experience.


The Nuthouse