Using true 5.1 surround sound with a MacBook

So you just got a new MacBook, have a big, powerful surround sound system, and want the two to cooperate with each other. What do you do?

One of the little known features of the MacBook, as well as all of the current Macs available, is that it can output full surround sound using the headphone jack. This is because the jack is both analog out and optical out. This makes it very easy to connect your computer to a home theater system and listen to music at the highest quality possible. With this cable, the MacBook will output full digital sound.

That takes care of making the connections, but outputting true 5.1 sound requires a few more steps.

When I went to set up my MacBook for sound, I came across two websites that have really helped. The first contains instructions to get sound from a DVD using DVD Player. That involves opening DVD Player with no disk inserted and navigating to Preferences > Disk Setup > Change Audio Output to Digital Out. Once that is done, the MacBook acts like a regular DVD player and the audio can be changed to whichever format you would like.

The second website contains more advanced instructions to output surround sound from Quicktime Player. This intrigued me, because this is what Apple uses in their HD Movie Trailers. After following the instructions, I was able to listen to properly encoded audio as a 5.1 stream. It sounded nice. Unfortunately, it did not allow me to play the Apple HD trailers through the system in full surround, and after some more research I found the reason why.

The problem lies in the way that the audio is generated. If you open any of the Apple trailers, you’ll notice that under the Movie Inspector, the audio appears as 5.1, but is encoded in AAC. What this means is that there are 6 distinct audio streams for the respective speakers. This type of audio cannot be send to a receiver through an optical connection, and therefore the audio appears as stereo. Regrettably, this problem means that these HD trailers cannot be heard in true 5.1 without the use of a separate audio card.

So, basically the MacBook can generate complete 5.1 sound, but only if the conditions are just right. For watching DVDs, it performs flawlessly, and the sound quality of iTunes songs is superb if ripped at a high bitrate. Until Apple releases trailers with single 5.1 audio streams, though, DVDs will be as advanced as it gets.
[tags]MacBook, Apple, surround sound, 5.1, optical[/tags]

One comment on “Using true 5.1 surround sound with a MacBook
  1. JC says:

    Great Post. I have some similiar info on my Home theater website/magazine. I’m going to link to your blog from mine.