A Simple Setting
“Something’s Not Right.”
The idea of a movie theater level experience at home is exciting. The chance to get gloriously better sound from our movies, and even our normal TV viewing is something many of us want. Access to the processors and speakers and other hardware necessary for us as consumers to realize this has gotten very easy and affordable over the last several decades. So now we go out, we buy the systems, we put it all together, we fire up our Blu-Ray player, drop in the disc and press play. And the magic happens.
Or perhaps it doesn’t.
Yes, you got sound. Yes, the speakers are all playing. Yes, it sounds so much better than the television speakers.
But there is a strong possibility that you are not actually hearing the soundtrack as it was intended. There is a very strong possibility you have NEVER heard your system do what you bought it to do; it’s the unfortunate truth about factory settings. The best sound system really isn’t as plug-and-play as we’ve been led to believe. I could talk at length about speaker placement, seating locations, speaker delays and levels, audio calibration, sound processing settings; all of those things are crucial to sound reproduction, but what I’m addressing is something far simpler.
Let’s just cover sound signals very briefly. When stereo sound evolved into stereo surround (Dolby Stereo, or what we referred to in home systems as Dolby Surround), the soundtrack had to be able to play on both older stereo-only systems as well as surround systems. The surround information was matrixed into the stereo track (left and right channels) so that all the sound information played through stereo speakers, but could be decoded and steered to play back in surround speaker systems. With our cable and satellite boxes and Hi-Fi VCRs, that information was passed on with the red/white (L/R) analog connections. Some set-top boxes (and yes, Laser Disc) offered a digital style output besides the analog ones. The digital signal was transmitted in a PCM format (same as on a CD), cleaner, less susceptible to noise and interference. Then, in 1992, Dolby introduced a massive leap in theater sound, the multi-channel stereo recording, known as Dolby Digital. Thanks to first Laser Disc, and then in 1996 to the launch of DVD, the full glory of 5.1 surround sound made it into homes.
The issue is those pesky factory settings I mentioned; you may have missed one setting in your player that governs whether you’ve actually been sending the proper sound signal to your processor. This setting is a game-changer; and yet, I rarely, if ever, hear it being discussed anywhere.
Here’s the thing. Every digital surround encoded signal still has to be backward compatible to stereo-only or older matrixed surround systems. In nearly every single disc player and set-top box, there is a setting that dictates which digital signal is being transmitted. If your source device is set to the PCM digital signal, you have NEVER heard discrete, multi-channel Dolby Digital surround sound. NEVER.
If you own, for example, any Sony video disc player (even any iteration of Playstation), and you did not manually go into the menu and change the default setting from PCM to Bitstream (or Dolby Digital), then you have only ever heard the old stereo audio track. Every Sony player is set to PCM out-of-the-box – for over twenty years! Even on more modern players, the HDMI output may be set to run a downmix audio track compatible with older systems, which defeats the incredible Dolby and DTS HD master tracks on Blu-Rays and 4k discs.
It behooves you to check the settings in your set-top box or disc player and even the default audio format being output by your smart TV to your surround system to be sure you are sending/receiving the full digital signal. Over and over and over again, I would find myself correcting this setting on existing customer systems where I had been called in to update hardware or to help improve their systems. That one, simple change offers a vastly different performance. The soundstage is brighter, clearer, more enveloping, more exciting. That one change delivers the type of experience you thought you had purchased.
One simple setting.
Now go check for yourself. Enjoy!