Surround Sound from Apple TV and an Onkyo Receiver

I use an Apple TV (4th Generation) with a decade-old Onkyo HT-R280 receiver in a 5.1-channel surround sound system. I was not getting proper surround sound audio from the Apple TV, so I investigated the correct settings to use. There is some confusion on discussion forums about the correct settings and expected behavior, which this article attempts to clear up.

The first thing to check is the Apple TV’s audio output setting.

On the Apple TV, open the Settings app and navigate to “Video and Audio” and then “Audio Format.” You should set “Change Format” to Off. This lets tvOS choose the best format to send audio to your receiver.

In the bottom left part of the screen, the text will tell you what audio mode that tvOS is using. It might say something like,

Audio will be decoded and sent to your equipment as uncompressed multichannel LPCM.

In this case, you would not see the Dolby logo on your receiver.To make it more confusing, my receiver does display Dolby when it first turns on, but it goes away after the first sound (e.g., navigation click) plays. This can be ignored. This is because the Apple TV is already decoding the Dolby signal and sending the decoded signal to the receiver, rather than sending the Dolby signal through to the receiver.

Let’s move on to the receiver now.

If the receiver has both “A” and “B” sets of speakers, having the “B” speakers on may degrade surround sound output. On my receiver, this limits output to stereo. Use the “A” speakers only.

Next you must select the “listening mode” on the the receiver to properly play each audio channel through the corresponding speaker. My receiver has over two dozen modes which are chosen by four different buttons on the remote: Movie/TV, Music, Game, and Stereo. Only some modes are available depending on the audio signal type. The Display button will show the current mode.

With the Direct or Multichannel listening modes, when you are playing 5.1-channel audio, the sound will play from the correct speakers. You can use the handy Surroud Speaker Check app by Jeff Perrin to verify this.Apple, why isn’t this built in? Cycling with the Display button, you will see the input signal is MCH PCM 5.1.

However, if your audio source is only stereo (the input signal does not say MCH PCM 5.1 but something like PCM fs: 48kHz), these listening modes will play audio only from the front speakers. When the input is stereo, you may want to explore some of the other modes (described in the manual) which send some of the audio signal to the surround speakers.

Happily, my receiver seems to be smart enough to remember which listening mode I want for which input signal type. So I can just play some content with true surround sound and set the desired listening mode, then switch to something stereo and set the listening mode to another.

Here are my findings from a brief test of different content on my Apple TV in January 2020:

  • YouTube does not support surround sound, and you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to test your system through videos that claim to be for this purpose!

  • Apple Music audio is not in surround sound, though one of the music videos I tested with was.

  • Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and iTunes TV shows and movies all support surround sound for some content. In both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, a “5.1” icon appears next to the runtime on the summary page.

  • Hulu, at the time of writing, does not support 5.1 surround sound on Apple TV, though they do support it on some devices.

  • Apple’s Trailers app’s movie trailer for Joker (2019) was not in surround sound, but the same trailer in the iTunes Movies app was.

  • AirPlay is an interesting case. If you are using AirPlay Video to play (for example) a surround sound music video, it will play as such on the Apple TV. However if you set a Mac’s audio output device to the Apple TV, and then play the same video (so that the picture is on the Mac’s display, and the audio is going through the Apple TV), the audio will be downgraded to stereo.