CES: Curing TV’s worst disease: shouting-advertiser syndrome

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LAS VEGAS -- Dolby established itself in consumers’ minds back in the heyday of cassette tapes, when its technology helped silence that annoying tape hiss. Since then it has expanded into numerous fields, including surround sound and digital cinema. This year, however, it’s getting back to its noise-suppressing roots with something called ‘Dolby Volume.’ It may be the most valuable contribution Dolby has ever made to our ears, if it works as advertised.

Dolby Volume is what sound engineers call a ‘leveler,’ which means it evens out the volume of an audio signal. Television viewers will immediately recognize the genius here. TVs today let users set a consistent amount of amplification, but not a consistent volume. With Dolby keeping the audio at a consistent volume, commercials should no longer sound twice as loud as the programs they’re embedded into. You could watch an action movie without cranking up the volume whenever the explosions stopped and the dialogue resumed. Headphones wouldn’t pose such a threat to your hearing.

The company claims that its approach is the most sophisticated yet because it can analyze the various elements of the input signal and keep them in balance as it raises or lowers the overall volume. It also says the signal processing can improve the quality of low-volume signals, bringing out voices and adding clarity. I haven’t heard the demo yet, so I can’t say how well it works. And even if Dolby succeeds in keeping a lid on overall volume, advertisers may still find a way to make their pitches seem louder (e.g., by doing the same tricks with compression that rock bands do). Nevertheless, I want to believe. Dolby is demonstrating the technology here in prototype products from Olevia (an HDTV) and Onkyo (a receiver). Toshiba, meanwhile, said it would be the first major manufacturer to incorporate Dolby Volume in TVs, specifically, in the Regza ZV650 line that’s coming out in April.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.