Home Theater, “HD” Audio, and What I Don’t Understand

I find the whole home theater thing a huge frustration. The number of cables I have to use to connect a blu-ray player, an Apple TV and a satellite TV box is astounding. The amount of time I had to spend to set everything up and getting it working correctly is also far more than it takes to set up a new computer. But I’m getting increasingly confused. Something happened recently, and I can’t figure out what is going on.

I bought a blu-ray player for my son’s birthday in October. It was a Sony, and there was a promotion through which I sent in a proof of purchase and got three free movies on blu-ray. Nothing extraordinary, but one of them (Gran Torino) was a movie that I had wanted to see. I’ve noticed since that, with all three movies, I can only get stereo sound; I don’t get any kind of surround sound. The movies have sound in either Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD, and, as far as I can tell from my documentation, my blu-ray player (bought a year ago) supports these formats. However, it seems that they only support the multi-channel audio through HDMI.

My amp – also a Sony – doesn’t seem to work with audio coming over HDMI, so I have everything going in digitally via co-axial cable or Toslink. Because of this, if I understand correctly, I can only get stereo sound with blu-ray disks. (My amp does seem to recognize that it’s getting 6 channels, displaying, for example, “DTS 3/2.1″ on its LCD when the sound starts.) Does this mean that my amp – about three years old – is already obsolete? I’m certainly not going to buy any more blu-ray discs if I only get stereo sound; the picture quality is better than DVD, but not by that much (here in France, DVDs are 576 px, compared to 480 in the US).

What irks me most, though, is that these new patented sound formats are forcing people to upgrade their equipment to be able to use new media. All DVDs have options between stereo and 5.1 sound; why don’t these blu-ray discs offer another 5.1 sound format that is compatible with older devices? Also, as I look at new Sony AV amps, I see that not all of them support these “HD” formats, and one has to go to a fairly high price to get such support.

I’m quite confused. Why are blu-rays being sold that provide an inferior sound experience? I only have a few – a box set of Band of Brothers, which has 5.1 sound that I can here, some classical music DVDs, which all have 5.1 sound options that work for me, and these three new ones that I got for free.

If anyone could help me better understand why I’m not able to get decent sound, I’d appreciate it.

Follow-up: After a few hours searching, I came across a forum post discussing a solution to the same problem. I reset the sound fields on my amp (whatever that means), and it is now playing the 5.1 track. In another forum, I saw the following:

If a disc has a TrueHD track it has to also contain a DD 5.1 track too. This can be either visible on the menus or hidden so it looks like there isn’t one. Either way the player will simply use the DD 5.1 track for legacy outputs, it doesn’t down-convert.

So apparently there is backwards compatibility, even though it’s not clearly indicated on the discs’ boxes.

Here are the devices I have. Should anyone search via Google for the same issue, this might help them find a solution. The blu-ray player is a Sony BDP-S360, and the amp is a Sony HT-DDW890.

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10 replies
  1. Chucky says:

    “If anyone could help me better understand why I’m not able to get decent sound, I’d appreciate it.”

    I could be wrong, but I believe you are experiencing the normal failures of living on the bleeding edge.

    In other words, you are buying equipment which is rapidly obsoleted, and you must keep buying new equipment to stay current.

    The reason I could be wrong is because I’m still using a 15 year old analog amplifier to drive my otherwise modern home theater. Every year or so, I take a fresh look at the audio situation, decide final standards haven’t been settled upon yet, and keep using old-fashioned stereo until they do get settled.

    Reply
    • kirk says:

      I’m actually not on the bleeding edge. My amp is three years old, and I only bought a blu-ray player last year when the price became affordable.

      What I don’t get is why the discs I have gotten only offer these “HD” audio formats, and not formats that are compatible with older equipment. Why would they want to offer a sub-standard experience (at least as far as audio is concerned) to people who upgrade to blu-ray players? After all, there is a lot of money staked on the blu-ray format.

      Reply
  2. Chucky says:

    “I’m actually not on the bleeding edge. My amp is three years old”

    In my book, needing a new amp every three years is bleeding edge. Amps should last a while.

    You write:

    “My amp – also a Sony – doesn’t seem to work with audio coming over HDMI”

    Isn’t that our real answer?

    I’ve been wanting a nice A/V amp for the last 5 years. But, like I say, every time I take a fresh look at the situation, I see “bleeding edge”, and decide there are better places to allocate my tech budget…

    Reply
  3. PierOz says:

    Hi Kirk,

    I’m glad you’ve eventually found a solution to this technical nightmare, I guess manufacturers are not very keen on assuring a good communication with equipment of different ages as they want us to update regularly…
    on this website: http://www.hdnumerique.com/dossiers/216_test-blu-ray-gran-torino-1.html
    it says that the Blue Ray has Dolby Digital 5.1 so it really was a problem of communication between your Blue Ray player and receiver.

    can you give the reference of your equipment?

    PS: If you decide to change your receiver, have a look at the new Yamaha line, the rx-v667 had very good review, and they’re decoding DSD natively through HDMI, great for SACD playing!

    cheers,

    Pierre

    Reply
      • PierOz says:

        Thanks Kirk.

        “My amp – also a Sony – doesn’t seem to work with audio coming over HDMI”

        Apparently your amp is HDMI ‘pass through’, meaning that it cannot handle any audio from HDMI…I found an outraged editorial there:

        http://www.01net.com/editorial/399258/le-scandale-des-amplis-home-cinema-hd-sans-le-son-hd/

        Sony ‘sound field’ is their name for surround processing, it transforms 2-channels audio in multi-channel, possibly it messed with your BD Player settings?

        I quite don’t understand why your receiver couldn’t get the DD5.1 signal. Perhaps the sound field processing was on for some reason, hence everything going back to normal once you’d reset it. Mystery…

        I don’t think your amp is obsolete, but it certainly start to show its age. unfortunately forced obsolescence is common in the entertainment and electronic industry, and not only concerning the equipment but for the artists too.

        I don’t agree with Chucky, though. all right an analogue amp should last a while (I have a NAD 325BEE and I’ve seen no reason to change it in the last 8 years) but as soon as you start dealing with digital processing, chips and all…computers or av amps…it goes very fast. Now for the price you paid for your amps you can have one that handle all HD signals through HDMI and avoid cable clutter.

        Look also at the most recent BD player and see how many have Multichannel analogue out…yep they want to sell their brand new amps…that’s for sure.

        Perhaps the most annoying thing is the lack of coherence within a given brand. for example I am very interested in DSD native processing. The BD player you bought for your son can output DSD signal natively, but none of Sony receiver can decode it (at least none in the entry to middle level). All the Yamaha in the current line decode DSD through HDMI, but none of Yam BD player can output DSD natively (they don’t even read SACD) !!
        With such a harsh competition, those big brands could get their act together.

        I have the impression that home cinema have reached a plateau with the 3D frenzy. I don’t really see new features they could add. Hopefully the manufacturers will tend to improve sound quality and decoding offering.

        Cheers,

        Pierre

        Reply
  4. Synth says:

    I have an old Yamaha with no HDMI but it does have optical Toslink inputs and it has zero problems decoding 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 audio signals coming directly from my BR or my Dish receiver or my AppleTV. I simply use HDMI to send the video signal to my HDTV.

    But, I have NOT figured out a way to pass the 5.1 audio through the HDTV and out the toslink output on the back of the HDTV to the receiver, which is supposed to be an option. It only seems to pass a stereo audio signal throught the TV.

    No big deal, but that setup would have saved me a couple toslink cables and the extra hassle of hooking them up.

    Reply
      • Synth says:

        If you have a modern receiver, it’s great! One cable to the receiver and one cable from the receiver to the TV.

        But if you don’t, it’s not.

        I was just thrilled my eight year old receiver could interpret the 5.1 audio signal coming out of the BluRay. Otherwise I’d have to buy a BR -player with analog outputs and have 6 audio cable going into the receiver instead of just one toslink cable.

        Reply
    • Charles says:

      There is no way to send HD multichannel sound to a TV through HDMI and output multichanel sound from TV to HT-Receiver through SPDI/F or TOSLink.
      Moreover sending any kind of hi-def signal to a TV is a probable loss: it will either get decoded, lost, or downgraded inside (most TV HDMI sinks are limited to 2ch@48/44kHz)

      The proper path is from STB/player to HT to TV

      Be wary of HD audio signals: if you do not send them through HDMI bypass to your HT receiver, they may not be decode in your STB/player dur to costs.
      And of course sending comporessed signal on SPDIF is limited to DD/DTS upto 7.1@48Hz

      Reply

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