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My iMac, Macbook Pro, and Mac Mini all have only one stereo audio output each - none of them have digital audio output either (though perhaps other models do?).

  • Does OS X support surround sound?

  • Are there surround sound output devices (USB, presumably) for OS X, or does the HDMI output (via displaylink adaptor) of later models support surround sound?

  • Does iTunes, Quicktime, or any other video software output surround sound for SD or HD movies, assuming you have an appropriate output device?

I know this could be three separate questions, but the base question I'm really interested in knowing is:

  • Can I use a Mac as my primary entertainment device and easily get surround sound out of it for most applications, or is it going to be limited and/or difficult to set up?

I currently use a windows PC for my TV Tuner, Blueray, DVD, and Netflix all of which support surround sound, and they simply all work together without problems. Is the Mac any easier or harder to do this with?

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Possibly related: 5.1 surround sound via optical out without receiver –  Diago Mar 29 '12 at 13:22
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Are you sure you don't have optical? Most modern Macs do, using Mini toslink –  jmlumpkin Mar 29 '12 at 13:48
    
@jmlumpkin Good question! I've asked it here since I don't honestly know: apple.stackexchange.com/q/46605/219 but the initial answer looks like many (most?) macs since 2006 include it. –  Adam Davis Mar 29 '12 at 13:59
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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

In terms of hardware, according to Mactracker, Mac Minis (and most other Macs) since early 2006 come with a 3.5-mm analog/optical combo jack and models since mid 2010 also come with an HDMI port, both of which should support multichannel audio if your source material provides it. You can find the specs for your own Mac by clicking the "This Mac" item in the left-hand pane.

Specs for the current (Mid 2011) Mac Mini say:

HDMI port supports multichannel audio output

and for most of the other models, as an alternative to the 3.5-mm analog/optical combo jack, this Apple support page says that you can also use a mini Display port to HDMI adapter to receive multichannel audio and video (though I'm not sure what software support for this would be like):

These computers supply multichannel audio (up to 8 channels) and video signals over Mini DisplayPort:

MacBook (Mid 2010) and later

MacBook Air (Late 2010) and later

MacBook Pro (Mid 2010) and later

Mac mini (Mid 2010) and later

iMac (Late 2009) and later

Mac Pro (Mid 2010)

To connect your television or other HDMI devices to your Mac, use select third-party Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapters that conform to the VESA v1.1a DisplayPort Interoperability Guidelines

Depending on the software player, it should be just a question of connecting the HDMI/optical output to your recevier and getting multichannel output. I use XBMC and get 5.1 surround sound output (AC3 or DTS) over HDMI, and I believe the latest "Eden" release supports 7.1. It also does blu-ray (rips only, I assume), DVD and has an excellent plug-in system which includes Netflix. Alternatively, Plex is an another alternative and will do much the same thing. Once you get your media set up, both will work pretty much out-of-the-box.

As for a TV tuner, Elgato's EyeTV looks very good.

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Most Macs have supported optical output for a while. But if yours did not, what you can do is buy an external one (via USB or FireWire) and by so, you'll be able to connect to you surround system. I know Hercules has some good ones.

To answer your applications question:

I know following applications support multichannel playback (only if you have mulitchannel sources ofcourse!) :

  • QuickTime (and QuickTime HD trailers)
  • iTunes
  • Front Row
  • VLC

Also you will not get surround from the following:

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

If you want to setup iTunes Movies and DVD player to be able to handle surround sound, I suggest you take a look at the Apple Support pages.

So, yes, it's easy to set up surround sound, once you've the required equipment.

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The first line of this is incorrect, most Macs from 2006 on support surround by mini toslink or even more recently, HDMI –  jmlumpkin Mar 29 '12 at 13:54
    
Ok, sorry. I'll remove it. Thanks for the help! –  Michiel Mar 29 '12 at 13:58
    
hope you don't mind my edit, tried to make it slightly clearer –  jmlumpkin Mar 29 '12 at 14:08
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DVD Player and iTunes movies do support surround sound pass-through, so if you connect with digital audio to a receiver that can decode the surround sound signal, you'll have surround sound. In iTunes, you need to click the audio menu in the video player control (looks like a cartoon speech bubble) to choose the surround track. –  joelseph Mar 29 '12 at 14:11
    
not at all mate :) as a matter of fact, I have to correct myself while I was looking for a more in depth answer! –  Michiel Mar 29 '12 at 14:16
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To directly answer your base question, it is actually very easy to set up surround sound and use a Mac as a primary entertainment device. The Mac is just as easy to do this with. A lot of people do this, especially with Mac Minis. Up until recently, I had a 2009 Mini doing this, with optical out directly to my Onkyo receiver. I ordered the cable from Monoprice, plugged it in, and in many cases, the OS automatically knows to do optical audio.

You also may want to look into a central app to manage all this for you, like Plex. Plex lets you access your media (including iTunes, Netflix, etc), and is especially made for the Mac, using Mac OS specific APIs and libraries.

Just remember, your source must contain multiple channels to get the full effect of this. Otherwise, the audio will work just fine out to your receiver, just not in surround (unless your receiver is changing it)

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