The good news, according to Onnalee Blank, the four-time Emmy Award–winning sound mixer on Game of Thrones, is that it’s not your fault that you can’t hear well enough to follow this stuff. It’s not your TV’s fault either, or your speakers—your sound system might be lousy, but that’s not why you can’t hear the dialogue. “It has everything to do with the streaming services and how they’re choosing to air these shows,” Blank told me.
Specifically, it has everything to do with LKFS, which stands for “Loudness, K-weighted, relative to full scale” and which, for the sake of simplicity, is a unit for measuring loudness. Traditionally it’s been anchored to the dialogue. For years, going back to the golden age of broadcast television and into the pay-cable era, audio engineers had to deliver sound levels within an industry-standard LKFS, or their work would get kicked back to them. That all changed when streaming companies seized control of the industry, a period of time that rather neatly matches Game of Thrones’ run on HBO. According to Blank, Game of Thrones sounded fantastic for years, and she’s got the Emmys to prove it. Then, in 2018, just prior to the show’s final season, AT&T bought HBO’s parent company and overlaid its own uniform loudness spec, which was flatter and simpler to scale across a large library of content. But it was also, crucially, un-anchored to the dialogue.