Murky Mumbling—Why More People Are Turning On Movie Subtitles

If you find you need to turn on subtitles to understand the dialogue in movies you’re watching on home video, it probably isn’t your hearing: it’s the increasing trend in Hollywood sound design toward buried dialogue audio and actors’ increasing tendency to mumble.

Christopher Nolan, whose films have a reputation for incomprehensible dialogue, said in an interview “We made the decision a couple of films ago that we weren’t going to mix films for substandard theatres.” And what is “substandard”? Well, in many cases that means anything less than Dolby Atmos, which allows up to 128 independent audio tracks, plus metadata for moving sound sources in a scene. When this gets mixed down to two channel stereo for a typical television, a huge amount of audio information is lost, even though it is well known that most humans have no more than two ears.

At least that pesky dialogue isn’t interfering with the explosions!


It’s interesting to turn on the subtitles for a movie you’ve already seen and notice dialogue you did not know existed.


We have also noticed the trend toward darkness (the literal kind) of entire movies, and increasing brightness in ‘settings’ doesn’t improve the situation - just washes it out. Many scenes can be barely seen at all. We always need audio subtitles and notice that HDR increases the brightness of the entire screen whenever the white subtitles appear. They re-darken during those moments between subtitle presence. Weird.

As well, when it comes to audio - more so during commercials - the speech is so fast and filled with neo-neo-colloquialisms, that we often have no idea what is being said (thankfully, most commercials lack closed captions). Funny, too, that there are still plenty of commercials on paid streaming platforms.


I used to compensate by increasing the gain in my center channel, but that isn’t working as well anymore. I have Atmos, but stuff that is streamed is often downgraded both in video resolution as well as audio encoding. Thanks, Amazon, Peacock, et. al…

This is why I still buy 4k disks for movies I really care about.


Some Yamaha sound bars have a “Clear Voice” feature that makes buried speech more intelligible. It works pretty well in my experience.

And as @TrinityWaters mentioned, discs are vastly superior to streaming when viewing (and listening to) high bandwidth content.