Jeff Berman is one of a rare breed of AV industry writers who focuses on the business side of the market. In addition to a rich history of working in retail, he has written for M&E Daily, Smart Content News, Smart Screen News, and CDSA Cyber Security News, and also worked for six years as a contributing editor for the Consumer Technology Association's annual Digital America publication.
If you own a flat-panel TV (and I suspect you do if you are reading this), then you probably know by now that one glaring weakness has been their mediocre-at-best sound quality. As many people have pointed out already, TVs have become so thin that there's just no room to put decent speakers inside of them. Not that TVs really had great sound quality to begin with, mind you. But nowadays the sound quality is often so bad that it's hard for many viewers--especially older ones with hearing difficulty--to understand what the TV weatherman is saying about an approaching hurricane or what Mark Harmon is saying on the latest episode of "NCIS." Therefore, it comes as no surprise that TV makers have been experimenting with ways to solve the issue.
Thus far, CE retailers have successfully used this sound-quality issue to make a few extra bucks by selling customers soundbars to go along with the TVs they want. Indeed, the weakness of flat-panel TV audio has played a major role in the growing popularity of soundbars, which for a few extra dollars often provide better sound than a TV's speakers. The soundbar category has even helped manufacturers that aren't widely known as audio companies--namely, LG and Samsung--gain more of a foothold in the audio category.
Nevertheless, TV makers are also looking for ways to provide improved sound directly inside the TVs, which makes complete sense when you consider that some consumers will never, ever buy a soundbar or any other speaker. One reason is because the thought of having to connect a speaker to the TV--be it wirelessly or with a wire--simply frightens many consumers. (Yes, especially in the older demographic that I will soon be part of.)
LG's approach is to incorporate Harman/Kardon-designed sound into its entire OLED and Super UHD TV line this year, LG spokeswoman Taryn Brucia told us. That includes the LG Signature OLED (G6 series, shown above), E6 series, C6 series, and B6 series in OLED models and the UHD9500 series, UH8500 series, and UH7700 series LED-backlit LCD TVs.
Describing the sound system used in the G6 and E6, LG says on its website that the TVs were designed with a "front-firing soundbar speaker system" and, "with the speakers pointing forward, not downward like many thin TVs, viewers will hear clean, detailed audio without any distortion and reflection." The soundbar system is also equipped with "extra woofers to bolster the power of the speakers."
The two LG 4K TVs (one OLED and one LCD) with Harman/Kardon sound that I tested at a Hicksville, New York, Sears store indeed sounded a hell of a lot better than the other TVs from LG, Samsung, RCA, Samsung, Seiki and Kenmore that I listened to at the store. However, it's not clear how many consumers actually see the Harman/Kardon brand name and the improved sound quality as ample reasons to select one of the LG TVs over other models. At the end of the day, most consumers care more about the picture quality of a TV than anything else.
LG didn't respond to a request for comment on the sales performance of the TVs with Harman/Kardon sound or whether there are plans to add more such models in 2017. Harman/Kardon parent company Harman International didn't immediately comment, either. We'll likely have to wait until the Consumer Electronics Show in January to find out LG's plans for 2017 TVs.
The Harman/Kardon-designed sound "adds some differentiation for LG," NPD analyst Ben Arnold said. "There have been other instances of devices (PCs and even cars) doing this type of co-branding around the sound system," he said. As just one example, Harman/Kardon previously provided sound for Toshiba laptops. "I think it steers some attention toward LG and aligns them with a well-known premium audio brand," Arnold said.
But Arnold added, "I don't know if we'll see more partnerships like this. The large TV manufacturers all have developed strong soundbar businesses; and, aside from that, they are all trying to build a larger presence in audio in wireless speakers and, in some cases, headphones. Partnering with third-party audio companies on TV sound may pose a challenge to the other effort at building a bigger name in audio. I do think it is an interesting strategy--perhaps, as so many audio brands now are considered lifestyle brands, this becomes a strategy to reach young/millennial consumers and get them to buy a TV."
In general, he said, "manufacturers are beginning to care more about the audio feature on TVs, even though they all want to drive more sales into soundbars." He went on to say, "As 4K adoption grows and the market gets consumers less focused on the most screen for the fewest amount of dollars and back to picture quality, the quality of the audio from the set must improve. I would also say that, as the larger TV companies look to build credibility in audio products like soundbars and multi-room wireless audio (Samsung, LG, and Vizio, in particular), the audio quality of the television becomes a way to demonstrate that these companies can produce quality sound. So, in my opinion, better quality audio on TV is a way for these companies to establish some more credibility overall in audio."
Since interviewing Arnold, LeEco--the Chinese company that's buying Vizio for $2 billion--announced that its initial four LeEco-branded TVs for the U.S. market will feature Harmon/Kardon sound, just like the LG models. The company demonstrated the new 4K ecotvs (available in 43-, 55-, 65- and 85-inch sizes) at a product showcase in New York on November 9th.
Sony, meanwhile, has done some experimenting of its own to improve the sound on its flat-panel TVs. Some of its premium 2014 and 2015 TV models delivered "incredible sound with larger, built-in, front-facing Hi-Res speakers, "said Maciej Mackowicz, vice president of sales and marketing for Home Entertainment and Sound at Sony Electronics. Those TVs included the X930B and X930C (shown right).
However, Mackowicz said that Sony's customers "told us they value the slim profile and thin bezel of our other TV models." Therefore, "based on this feedback, our 2016 strategy has been to deliver a good built-in sound experience with an ultra-slim and nearly frameless TV design utilizing exclusive Sony audio processing to maximize the performance of smaller, built-in speakers." In other words, Sony decided to scrap TVs with larger, built-in speakers.
Sony, of course, also offers a full line of external audio solutions that can improve the sound of one's TV, including soundbars that Mackowicz said were "specifically designed to complement our televisions visually and functionally (with integrated cable management.)."
One way that Sony and other TV makers have also tried to entice consumers into buying their TVs over rivals' models is by bundling their sets with soundbars as part of promotional offers--an offer that is essentially taken off the table when better speakers are included inside their TVs.
This brings us back to where we started. Until that day comes when a significant number of consumers suddenly start caring about quality audio as much as, if not more than, TV resolution and other video qualities, don't expect too many other TV makers to risk frightening away consumers with better speakers but thicker and heavier sets that come in at a higher price than TVs with inferior speakers.
• Would You Buy a Kenmore-Branded TV? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Evolve or Die: The Changing Face of the CE Retail Landscape at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Is the Popularity of Soundbars Good or Bad for the Audio Industry? at HomeTheaterReview.com.