How to Get Surround Sound From Your Mac

With the Right Settings, Your Mac Can Play Back Surround Sound

iMac used with home theater
Robert Daly / Getty Images

Using your Mac as an HTPC (Home Theater PC) is pretty easy, right out of the box. Hook your Mac up to your HDTV and settle in to watch your favorite movies or TV shows. There is, however, one little quirk that sometimes leads people to think their Mac can't handle movies with 5.1 surround sound.

Let's start by settling that question right off. Can your Mac make use of surround sound in movies and TV shows?

The answer is, it sure can! Your Mac can pass AC3, the file format used for Dolby Digital, directly to its optical audio output.

But it doesn’t stop there; your Mac can also send surround sound via an HDMI connection, as well as being able to make use of AirPlay to send surround information to your Apple TV.

Plug in an AV receiver that has surround sound decoders (and what AV receiver today doesn't?), or hook your Apple TV up to your AV receiver, and you have true surround sound to accompany your video pleasure.

But before you start making the popcorn, there are a few settings that need to be configured on your Mac, depending on which app you'll be using to play back the source material: iTunes, DVD Player, VLC, AirPlay/Apple TV, or other options.

DVD Player or VLC?

Where things get a little iffy is with the source material and the software used to play it back. If you pop a DVD into your Mac, and use either Apple's DVD Player or VLC to watch the DVD, then the AC3 track, if present, will automatically be sent to the Mac's optical audio output.

What could be simpler?

An issue will occur if you want to play that DVD with the Mac’s DVD Player and send the audio and video to your Apple TV; Apple doesn't support this specific configuration. There doesn't seem to be a technical reason; it appears to be blocked in the software as a concession to the movie/DVD industry, to prevent content from being watched on multiple devices.

While Apple doesn't allow the DVD Player/AirPlay combination to work, the VLC media player has no such qualms, and can be used to play both DVD media and just about any type of video file you may have stored on your Mac.

Configure VLC

If you have a video file on your Mac that includes an AC3 channel, and you use VLC to view the video, the AC3 information can be sent to your Mac's optical audio output or AirPlay, but it won't be sent automatically. You'll need to configure VLC to pass the AC3 information.

Configure VLC to Pass AC3 to the Optical Output

  1. If you haven't already, download and install VLC.
  2. Launch VLC, located in /Applications/.
  3. From the File menu, select Open File.
  4. Select the video file you wish to watch from the standard Open dialog box, and then click 'Open.'
  5. If the video starts up on its own, click the pause button in the VLC controller at the bottom of the screen.
  6. From the VLC menu, select either Audio, Audio Device, Built-in Digital Output (Encoded Output) or Audio, Audio Device, Built-in Output (depending on VLC version and Mac model).
  7. Start your video by clicking the play button on the VLC controller.
  8. The audio should now be passed through your Mac's optical output to your AV receiver.

    Configure VLC to Use AirPlay

    Follow instructions 1 through 5, above, for configuring the VLC media player.

    From the Apple menu bar, select the AirPlay icon.

    From the drop-down list, select Apple TV; this will turn AirPlay on.

    From the VLC menu, select Audio, Audio Device, AirPlay.

    Start your video; the audio should now be playing through your Apple TV.

    From the VLC menu, select Video, Fullscreen, then head over to your home entertainment center and enjoy the show.

    If you're not hearing surround sound, make sure the video you're watching is playing back the appropriate sound track. Many videos have multiple sound tracks available, usually a stereo track as well as a surround track.

    From the VLC menu, select Audio, Audio Track. If there are multiple audio tracks listed, look for one designated as surround. If you don't see a surround track, but you do see multiple audio tracks, you may need to try each one to see which is the surround track. Please note: Not all videos contain a surround track.

    Set Up iTunes to Play Surround Sound

    Generally speaking, iTunes supports playback of surround sound, though it's important to note that most music and TV shows available from the iTunes Store don't contain surround information. However, movies that are purchased or rented usually do include surround information.

    iTunes can pass the surround channels to your AV receiver via your Mac’s optical audio connections. It's important to note that your Mac just passes the surround info; it doesn't decode the channels, so your AV receiver must be able to handle the surround encoding (most AV receivers can do this without a hitch).

    1. By default, iTunes will always try to use the surround channel when available, but you can make sure by starting the movie, and then selecting the speech bubble icon located at the bottom right of the playback controls.
    2. A pop-up menu will appear, allowing you to select the audio format to pass to your AV receiver.

    Configure DVD Player to Use Surround Channels

    The DVD Player app included with OS X can also make use of surround channels, if present on the DVD.

    Before you start, you need to have the surround speakers or AV receiver already connected to your Mac and configured correctly.

    If using surround speakers, refer to the manufacturer's instructions for setup. If using your AV receiver, make sure that your Mac is connected to it via an optical connection, and that the receiver is turned on and the Mac is the selected source.

    • Launch DVD Player, and select Preferences from the DVD Player menu.
    • Select the Disc Setup tab.
    • Use the Audio output drop-down menu to change the audio output to your surround speakers or the built-in digital output.
    • Close DVD Player preferences.
    • Now when you play a DVD via the DVD Player, you should be hearing the surround channels.

    With your Mac all set, grab some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the entertainment.