How to Get Surround Sound From Your Mac

Configure the right settings for your media source

Using your Mac as a Home Theater PC (HTPC) is a relatively straightforward process. Simply hook up your Mac to your HDTV, and settle in to watch your favorite movies or TV shows. Some users are unaware, however, that they can configure their Macs for surround sound. Here's a look at how to set up your Mac to take advantage of surround sound in movies and TV shows.

The information in this article applies to any 64-bit Intel-based Mac running OS X 10.7.5 or later.

iMac used with home theater.
Robert Daly / Getty Images

Understanding the Mac's Surround Sound Capabilities

A Mac computer can pass AC3 files, the file format used for Dolby Digital, directly to its optical audio output. Macs also can send surround sound via an HDMI connection, and even use AirPlay to send surround information to an Apple TV.

The process can be as simple as plugging in an AV receiver with surround sound decoders or hooking up an Apple TV up to an AV receiver.

Before you get started, however, you'll need to configure a few settings on your Mac, depending on whether your source material comes from iTunes, a DVD player, the VLC media player, an AppleTV, or other options.

For example, if you put a DVD into your Mac and use either Apple's DVD Player or VLC, a free, open-source, cross-platform multimedia player, to watch the DVD, then the AC3 track, if present, will automatically be sent to your Mac's optical audio output.

But if you want to play that DVD using DVD Player and send the audio and video to your Apple TV via AirPlay, Apple doesn't support this specific configuration. You can, however, use the VLC media player to play DVD media and other video files on your Mac.

How to Configure VLC

If you have a video file on your Mac that includes an AC3 channel, and you use the VLC media player to view the video, you can send the AC3 information to your Mac's optical audio output or AirPlay, but you'll first need to configure VLC to pass the AC3 information. Here's how:

  1. Download and install VLC, if you haven't already.

  2. From Applications, launch VLC.

  3. From the File menu, select Open File.

  4. Select the video file you want to watch from the standard Open dialog box, and then select Open.

  5. If the video starts up on its own, hit 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 DeviceBuilt-in Output, depending on the version of VLC you're using and your Mac's model.

  7. Start your video by selecting the Play button on the VLC controller.

  8. The audio will now pass through your Mac's optical output to your AV receiver.

Configure VLC to Use AirPlay

  1. Follow instructions one through five above for configuring the VLC media player.

  2. From the Apple menu bar, select the AirPlay icon.

  3. From the dropdown list, select Apple TV to turn on AirPlay.

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

  5. When you start your video, the audio should play through your Apple TV.

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

If you don't hear surround sound, make sure the video is playing the right soundtrack. From the VLC menu, select Audio > Audio Track. If there are multiple audio tracks, look for one designated as surround. If none is designated as surround, try each track to see which one is the surround track.

iTunes and Surround Sound

iTunes supports surround-sound playback, though most music and TV shows in the iTunes Store don't contain surround information. However, movies you purchase or rent usually do include surround information.

iTunes can pass the surround channels to your AV receiver via your Mac's optical audio connections. 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).

By default, iTunes will always try to use the surround channel when available, but to make sure, start the movie and then select the speech bubble icon located at the bottom right of the playback controls. 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

Apple DVD Player can also make use of surround channels if they're present on the DVD.

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

  1. Launch DVD Player.

  2. From the DVD Player menu, select Preferences.

  3. Select the Disc Setup tab.

  4. Use the Audio output dropdown menu to change the audio output to your surround speakers or the built-in digital output.

  5. Close DVD Player preferences.

  6. Play your DVD via the DVD Player app and enjoy the surround channels.