The soundtracks of films and series suffer from a significant difference in volume between action scenes and dialogues. This difference in dynamic is also very present during advertisements on TV. When watching TV at night or in an apartment, this often means having to constantly adjust the volume of the amplifier or the sound bar so as not to disturb the neighbors or risk waking the children. If you don’t constantly adjust the volume it might increase suddenly or you may not be able to hear dialogue and surround effects properly.
Fortunately, most AV receivers and sound bars offer features dedicated to night-time listening to balance the dynamics and allow you to enjoy consistent volume, regardless of the scene. These include the Audyssey Dynamic mode for Marantz and Denon, the Late Night mode for Onkyo and the Dynamic Range Control mode for Pioneer. But how do you use these dynamic equalizers? Are they really effective and do they negatively affect the natural aspect of the sound?
What are the dynamics of a soundtrack?
The dynamics of a song or a soundtrack represent the difference between the maximum perceived volume and the minimum volume. The dynamics of an instrument therefore correspond to the difference between the loudest and softest note that the musician is able to produce. It is specific to each instrument. For example, that of a harpsichord is much lower than that of a classical piano. This dynamic range is the same in home theater, where it is expressed between the quietest and the loudest scenes of movies and series. To reinforce immersion and naturalness, directors establish a significant dynamic gap between intimate, whispering scenes and dialogue and action scenes, during which the soundtrack is at its peak. This can lead to a difference of several decibels from one scene to another, just like in real life. Depending on the conditions, you cannot reproduce the entire dynamic range without disturbing those around you. This is why AV receivers and soundbars incorporate different modes to reduce this difference in volume.
Dynamic range compression technologies
Each AV receiver or soundbar manufacturer has their own technologies and methods to allow the listener to enjoy the full richness of explosive soundtracks at low listening levels, without waking their children or neighbors. Here is a summary of the main technologies currently in use.
Denon, Marantz and Onkyo
- Audyssey Dynamic Volume: volume peaks are limited to maximum and minimum levels determined by the user. Differences in volume are reduced in real time by reducing loud parts, such as explosions, and emphasizing quiet parts so that they can be heard. This mode thus solves the problem of large variations in the volume level between TV shows, movies and other content during quiet and loud passages. Also, if the playback volume is adjusted automatically, the perceived bass response, tonal balance, surround sound and dialogue clarity remain the same.
- Audyssey Dynamic EQ: quite similar to a loudness function, this process works mainly at low listening volumes. Like the famous loudness function, it reinforces the bass level of the main speakers and the subwoofer, but also that of the surround speakers, to offer the listener a detailed soundstage at low volume. The volume of dialogues is also adjusted. To do this, an algorithm selects the right distortion frequency and surround sound levels appropriate to the listening volume so that the sound is reproduced as it was created, regardless of the volume and not just at the reference level. This mode can be configured in 4 levels, from 0dB to 15dB depending on the rdesired dynamic range reduction.
- Dynamic Range Control Mode: this mode allows you to take full advantage of the different sound effects on Dolby Digital sources, even at low volumes. It compresses the dynamic range so that the quieter sounds are audible and the louder ones aren’t distorted or too powerful. However, this function is only compatible with Dolby Digital sources.
- Midnight mode: This mode is very similar to the D-Range Control mode, but has the advantage of being compatible with formats other than Dolby Digital. It allows you to achieve excellent sound effects with all your movies and series, even at low volume. The level of the surround speakers can also be increased for more realistic sound at low volume.
- YPAO volume: When the YPAO volume is turned on on your Yamaha AV receiver, the bass and treble level is automatically adjusted according to the listening volume, so that you can enjoy natural sound even at low volume. To properly use the YPAO volume, it is necessary to have performed a YPAO calibration using the microphone supplied with your Yamaha amplifier.
- Adaptive DRC: this mode automatically adjusts the dynamic range of the reproduction (from maximum to minimum) according to the volume of the receiver. When activated, the dynamics are reduced when the volume is low and widen when you increase the volume of the receiver. It allows you to maintain great dynamics when listening at high volume in the middle of the day, and automatically reduce volume differences during night listening sessions.
- Late Night: this function is an alternative to the Audyssey Dynamic EQ and Audyssey Dynamic Volume modes already installed on Onkyo amplifiers. It reduces the dynamic range of content recorded in Dolby Digital, Dolby TrueHD, and Dolby Digital Plus so that quiet footage can be heard properly when listening at low volume. However, due to the fact it only works with certain Dolby Audio formats, using Audyssey modes is often preferable.
What are Dialogue and Voice modes?
The dynamic range compression technologies listed above are very effective in providing a relaxed night-time listening experience for your movies, TV shows and series. However, the sound can sometimes lack texture and realism because all the effects and the soundtrack are at the same level. One solution to enjoy a more natural dynamic without having to constantly adjust the volume is to use the dialogue or voice modes of the receivers and soundbars. These will increase the level of the center speaker or the vocals, without modifying the overall dynamics of the film. Therefore, you can decrease the volume so that the action scenes don’t blare, while still maintaining a very good perception of the dialogue.
On an AV receiver, it is also possible to manually increase the level of the center speaker by a few dB so that the adjustment is perfectly adapted to your room and your hearing perception. It is often the preferred solution for many movie lovers.
The Audyssey Dynamic, Late Night, Adaptive DRC, Volume YPAO and Midnight modes are the simplest solution to reduce the dynamic range and enjoy an optimal perception of the different effects as well as dialogues during evening home theater sessions at low volume. However, the dialogue and voice modes or manual center speaker adjustment can be useful for maintaining the best perception of dialogue, while preserving the dynamics of the soundtrack.