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.