Watching ‘Talk To Me’ served as a harsh reminder that TV audio sucks – but the remedy is reassuring

A movie still of Talk To Me's lead character
(Image credit: A24)

When David Lynch said that “films are 50 per cent visual and 50 per cent sound... sometimes sound even overplays the visual”, he wasn’t specifying the importance of sound design in horror movies alone; the genre is, however, where audio often makes an enormous, movie-defining impact... if your TV set-up lets it.

Recently I was staying away from home and took the opportunity to watch Aussie horror hit Talk To Me. (And consider this my commendation to catch it if you haven’t already... and like horror movies.) I’d caught it in the cinema last year, and now I was streaming it on Netflix. Was I put off by the TV (a pretty modern 55-inch Sony LCD) not being hooked up to a soundbar or surround sound system? Only as much as I was perturbed by listening to Four Tet through a very cheap, appropriately tinny-sounding speaker whilst cooking earlier that evening, which is to say… not at all. Not all of us tech reviewers are 24/7 snobs, you know! 

That said, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d watched a horror – or any movie, really – through a TV’s built-in speakers, and honestly I’d forgotten how, well, bad it could be. Indeed, this movie-watching experience served as a harsh reminder of how little the flatscreen TVs of today and their inherently lifeless built-in speakers do justice to shows and movies, particularly those that major in sound design. But, on the bright side, it was also a welcome reassurance of how little one can spend nowadays to get an audio boost that will make all the difference.

That is to say that I'm writing this for those who depend on TV speakers, either unaware or simply in need of a reminder that a much better movie night is actually pretty accessible. And if you’re sat there thinking your thousand-pound-plus telly sounds good enough – a pretty reasonable assumption, really – I’m afraid to say it probably isn’t much, or even any, better than a budget TV on the sound front (unless it has an above-par integrated audio system as the Sony A95L does, natch).

So, back to my Saturday night getaway: it took only 20 minutes of the movie to be convinced I was being shortchanged of its intent. Most home TV set-ups, or even home cinema systems, naturally won’t be sophisticated enough to replicate the impact of a cinema’s sound system and to treat Cornel Wilczek’s score with absolute reverence, but it’s pretty obvious when you are missing out on a crucial aspect of a movie, whether you've seen it before or not, and in this instance it was a big one.

The movie’s opening scene is a heady mix of house-party beats, banging on doors and slicing kitchen knives to rack audience nerves from the get-go as the pre-title sequence bolts towards a gut-punching climax, and I needed to turn up the volume to make the audio even remotely imposing. Even then, the music, dialogue and sound effects were fighting for space in an airless, piercing soundfield, making for an uncomfortable listen. Then, in the build-up to the first ‘game’, the sinister backing music is barely audible in places, and in others not nearly as present or dynamically surging enough to be effectively menacing. I could go on...

Its visuals are so strong that Talk To Me can carry an unwavering eeriness even when silent – and kudos to cinematographer Aaron McLisky and makeup artist Bec Buratto and the wider SFX team for that – but it was clear I wasn’t getting nearly the whole picture. I wasn’t caught up in what I knew were suffocating scenes, lest I tried. Were I forced to settle for this set-up for life (or actually, just another few movies), I'd be as distressed as Mia (Sophie Wilde) looks in the movie still above.

Put a modestly priced soundbar (I’m talking a few hundred pounds) in the mix, as I did on my return, and Talk To Me’s intended intensity – the vice-like grip over its audience that its audiovisual proficiency works so hard for – is at least communicated due to the bar’s greater clarity and crispness, finer detail and dynamic punch and elasticity. Even if, yes, those elements, and the overall sonic effect, can be considerably more exaggerated by more premium (pricier) set-ups. That ominous sub-bass had presence and the gory sound effects jumped out of the mix with potency, all lifting the visuals and making a big difference to how it scared.

If I had a pound for every TV review posted on over the years that highly recommends a soundbar (of relative value) be partnered with the set under scrutiny, I’d be well on my way to owning a less modest TV sound system! 

But even the cheapest soundbars recommended by our TV and AV editor, the £79 / $100 / AU$170 Hisense HS214 and smidgeon-pricier Sony HT-SF150, offer a worthwhile upgrade over 'naked' flatscreens, with the latter offering the space and bass to convey the drama that typical TV speakers cannot. To quote our Sony HT-SF150 review, “streaming the opening scene of [war drama] Unbroken from Netflix with the soundbar in Cinema mode, there's a tangible breadth to the soundstage as the planes fly past and dramatic contrast as we switch between locations within the aircraft. Each explosion has a threatening weight that few TVs can match…” 

Spending this little won’t encase you in theatrical sound as it has been designed to be heard, but it’ll bring you closer than you might realise – and it’s onward and upward for movie nights from there. 


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Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10 years in the hi-fi industry, she has been fortunate enough to travel the world to report on the biggest and most exciting brands in hi-fi and consumer tech (and has had the jetlag and hangovers to remember them by). In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.