Configuring 5.1 Surround Output in Mac OS X

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This guide explains how to configure Mac OS X for 5.1 surround output.


What kind of inputs your receiver or amplifier needs

Your receiver or amplifier will need a analog multichannel input. These are typical of most modern receivers, but not typical on Home Theatre in a Box systems. The inputs are usually called:

  • Multichannel in
  • 6CH
  • DVD-Audio/SACD

What kind of outputs your soundcard needs

The device must have 6 (or more) analog output channels. A device with a single SPDIF output will not work for this application.

Connecting an external USB or FireWire multichannel soundcard

Connecting your multichannel audio device is no different then any other USB or FireWire device. Just plug it in and Mac OS X will now allow you to use the device as a 2 channel output. Most devices will have either triple 1/8" jacks, or individual RCA jacks. If you have a device with 1/8" jacks, you will need 3 1/8" to stereo RCA male cables, these are available nearly everywhere. Simple plug in the 1/8" jack into the device, and the RCA plugs into your amplifier / receiver. The outputs should be grouped like this, but not necessarily in this order:

  • Front Left & Front Right on one of the outputs.
  • Surround Left & Surround Right on another output.
  • Centre & Subwoofer on the remaining output.

Determining which output goes to what speaker is covered later in the guide. If the device has RCA outputs, simply connect the output to the corresponding input of the receiver / amplifier.

Configuring the soundcard for discrete multichannel output

Most, if not all generic USB and FireWire audio devices default to 2 channel output in Mac OS X. It is very simple to change the settings in Mac OS X to allow for multichannel audio output:

  1. Start "Audio MIDI Setup", located at /Applications/Utilities/Audio MIDI Setup
  2. Change both the "Default Output" and "System Output" to your external device. If you would like to use the device as an input, also change the "Default Input".
  3. Change "Properties for" to the external device
  4. Click on "Configure Speakers"
  5. Click on "Mulitchannel"
  6. Select "5.1 Surround"

At these point connect your device to your amplifier or receiver. If you are unsure of which output goes to what input, do the following:

  1. Have the device connected to the receiver, and the receiver set to the multichannel analog input
  2. Click on the bubble that says "left front". This will play static out of the front left output, if the static is playing out of the wrong speaker, change your connections so that the static is playing out of the front left speaker. Remember that it only plays static for a short period, and you'll have to click the bubble again.
  3. Repeat the above step for each other bubble until each bubble plays static out of the correct speaker.
  4. Click "Apply" and "Done"

Mac OS X is now configured for multichannel audio playback.

What supports multichannel playback

The following applications have been confirmed to support multichannel playback:

Applications that do not support multichannel output:

Keep in mind that you will only get multichannel sound with multichannel sources:

  • Most DVDs, when played back with VLC
  • QuickTime HD Trailers; most HD trailers have 5.1 surround encoded audio tracks.

You will NOT get surround from the following:

  • CDs
  • iTunes Music
  • iTunes Movies
  • Web content
  • dts encoded WAV files