Get a dumpster surround sound system to play from my Macbook?
June 4, 2007 3:26 PM   Subscribe

How can I get surround sound from my Macbook to this nice five speaker system I found in the trash?

I found a Boston BA7800 computer surround sound system in the trash. It's in great shape, I've hooked everything up and everything seems to work, but I don't know how to get surround sound to it from my Macbook. Ideally I'd like to be able to play DVDs with surround sound from my Macbook.

Here's how it's set up: the system is "4.1 surround" (front and rear speakers and a subwoofer) and has no optical input or surround sound decoder, It just has two mini-jacks, one of which feeds through to the front speakers and one of which feeds through to the rear speakers. There is no way to get it to play from one jack to all four speakers, it's just Stereo and Stereo. I'm assuming that this thing was designed to work with computers that have surround sound audio cards, but I'm on a laptop.

Now, when I found the system, it had with it a USB Xitel MD-Port AN1, which I have researched and I can use as a 2nd audio output. I have plugged it into my Macbook and can see and use it as an audio device. So I'm thinking, Bang! Two stereo outputs to two stereo inputs... Surround Sound!

Software-wise though, I haven't figured out how to make this happen yet. From the Sound prefPane I can have the system output audio from EITHER the built-in audio output OR the USB device, but not both at once so I can have audio on the Front speakers or the Back speakers, but not both at once, and definitely not both playing different audio, as I would need to work out to play surround sound from DVDs, which is my primary goal.

Can anybody help me? I'm interested in either software or (inexpensive) hardware options. I've googled extensively and found a wealth of options and products, but none seemed to make sense for my somewhat unusual needs.
posted by raygan to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
OK, first thing to know is that if your source doesn't produce surround sound, then there's no way to hear surround sound. That means your stereo mp3s will never produce surround sound on any computer - because they don't have 5 tracks. They have two tracks, a left and a right.

The sources that produce surround sound are generally DVDs (movies or audio DVDs) and a very few computer games. In 4.1 surround, the DVD contains (or the game produces) 5 tracks of audio, one for each speaker and one for the subwoofer. Generally surround is at least 5.1, there is a 'front center speaker as well.

Now if your macbook is recent, it has S/PDIF digital optical audio out. The kicker here is that it has no Toslink square digital optical audio out jack. Instead, it conceals its optical audio out in the Mini headphone jack. You need a special cable to get it out, which Griffin appears to have discontinued. Anyway this cable will produce a digital Toslink output which can be 5.1 surround if the source is in 5.1 (say, you are using DVD to play a DVD of Pirates of the Caribbean, or Gladiator, or something with a 5.1 soundtrack.)

You then need a small box to convert your digital audio Toslink to 6 RCA jacks. I found that item by reading here; there are a number of other kludges proposed there.

But basically it appears to me that if your surround sound system doesn't accept Toslink, this basically is going to cost more than it would to get a surround sound system that does. Your other idea, to somehow route two of the channels to the built-in output and the other two to the USB device, I'm pretty sure is impossible because of the inherent hardware limitations of the way the Macbook produces sound.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:00 PM on June 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

In your Applications folder is a sound control program; it's not in your regular control panel. I don't remember what it's called. You should be able to remap your 3D sound channels onto any device, so you can have front left and right through the standard out, and then rear left and right through the Xitel card. I haven't worked with this myself, but I believe you'll be able to remap 5.1 multichannel sound to the 4.1 channels you do have in a fairly reasonable way. It may let you mirror stereo signals into surround sound for more presence as well.

Note that even if you buy a TOSlink-to-5.1 adapter for your Mac, you will only get stereo through the optical jack. It's just a stereo jack. It can play in analog or in digital, and if you're in digital mode it can pass through a pre-compressed 5.1 or 6.1 signal from a DVD, but the Mac does not see it as a multichannel device. Buying an external decoder will let you decode that passthrough bitstream, but not all the cheap external units even understand how to do a phantom center, which you need, as you only have 4.1 speakers.

Instead, what you want is to use the Mac's own Core Audio stuff to map 3D onto the four sound channels you have. By doing it this way, you get multichannel/surround with everything, not just DVDs.
posted by Malor at 4:41 PM on June 4, 2007

You can use the Griffin FireWave ($63 at Amazon) to connect a Mac with a firewire port to an analog surround sound system. However, like ikkyu2 mentioned, a surround sound system that supports digital audio is really the way to go.
posted by RichardP at 4:47 PM on June 4, 2007

The application Malor is referring to is the rather deceptively named "Audio MIDI". Use the "Configure Speakers" option in the Audio panel to map speakers to particular audio channels.
posted by RichardP at 4:51 PM on June 4, 2007

If you buy an external decoder, you can use it only with DVDs, and you're not guaranteed it can handle a phantom center properly.

If you have enough analog outputs for your channels, the Mac's own Core Audio should do everything you need without spending any additional money at all.

After searching a little more, though, I'm not sure you do. You appear to have only two stereo pairs out; the Xitel and the onboard sound. But you need five channels; L,R,RL,RR, and subwoofer. The Boston unit doesn't appear to do internal crossover for you.

What I'd suggest first: just try it with four channels and see if you can get any bass out of the sub. if you can't, then either you'll need something like a Firewave or an external decoder. Remember that the external decoder will work ONLY for movies, where the Firewave will work with everything.
posted by Malor at 4:58 PM on June 4, 2007

Hm, it looks like I was wrong, and that /Macintosh HD/Applications/Utilities/Audio Midi will actually do what you want it to. I can't tell for sure because my Mac isn't wired for >2 channel sound, but it sure looks like it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:02 PM on June 4, 2007

Hey, good tip about Core Audio and Audio MIDI Setup. It seems like Audio MIDI setup should do what I'm trying to do, I just haven't figured out how to make it do it yet. Maybe somebody can give me a tip.
I see that I can configure what channel to send out of what device and what output, but in the Audio Output and all the other panels in the program, I only see two channels. How can I get the channels from, for instance, a DVD source, to show up here so I can route them to the appropriate devices?
Thanks for the help so far.
posted by raygan at 7:42 PM on June 4, 2007

Right, raygan. In Audio MIDI, when I go to 'configure speakers' and then 'multichannel', I get a dropdown menu for the channels I am to configure. Unfortunately only Stereo is selectable; all the other options are greyed out.

Is that the same thing you're seeing?
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:10 PM on June 4, 2007

I don't have access to my Mac right now, but I have a multichannel USB card it recognizes, so if you guys are still stuck as of tomorrow, I can hook it up and try to figure it out. I've been told about the Audio/Midi application, but I've never actually used it, so I can't be very helpful until I've spent a little time with it.
posted by Malor at 11:05 PM on June 4, 2007

Does anyone have the answer to this same question but for a Windows laptop? Are there any cables, applications or bits of outboard electronics that output 5.1 from a DVD playing from a Windows laptop?
posted by skylar at 1:51 AM on June 5, 2007

The Turtle Beach Audio Advantage SRM is a USB soundcard that should work very nicely. It has 7.1 analog outs, a digital out with stereo left/right and DVD passthrough, and a special mini 5.1 connector for their "5.1" headphones. You just use a provided breakout cable instead of the mini-DIN if you want to connect to an amplifier or computer speakers. It's a little smaller than a pack of cards, and runs off USB power, so it doesn't add much bulk to your laptop bag.

The SRM is a rebranded version of the "Audio Advantage Roadie", which as far as I can tell has identical hardware. You can definitely use the SRM drivers with the Roadie. Everything seems to work just fine. If you spot a Roadie for cheap, it should work great, and save you some money.

I've spent quite a bit of time working with with USB sound. I've used an Audigy 2 NX (absolutely dismal sound, moderately crappy drivers), a Sonica Theater (wonderful sound, horrible drivers), and, most recently, the Roadie/SRM.

The Sonica Theater was a complete nightmare for trying to send DVD passthrough. You had to switch it into passthrough mode (losing normal sound), and it would crash every hour or two, requiring a total movie stop and restart. On top of that, only WinDVD would see the device of the several movie players I tried, and if I turned on video(!) hardware decode acceleration, it stopped working. Just a nightmare. It's my understanding that most M-Audio products are like this; technically excellent, but with very poor drivers and terrible support.

The Creative Audigy 2NX, while functional, has such horrible sound that I thought my expensive speakers just kind of sucked for music. That wasn't at all the case, and it took me nearly a year to figure out that the reason DVDs sounded great but music was horrible was because the soundcard was completely incompetent. I can't easily express to you just how dismal it sounds on good equipment; cats vomiting would probably be an improvement.

The Roadie, on the other hand, just works. It does what it's supposed to do. It handles multichannel games AND DVD playback. For music, it doesn't sound quite as good as the Sonica Theater. I think it's doing the typical 48khz hardware resample. But it sounds miles, MILES better than the 2NX, and the drivers are quite competent and work very nicely.

Oh, one caveat: I don't think it has hardware Dolby Digital decode. It does have multichannel, obviously, so you can use your movie playback software's decoder. It can also pass through the bitstream to an external decoder, so you can use your laptop to drive your home theater. It can't, though, natively decode DVD audio, and I'm not sure there are any USB devices that can. (the 2NX might, but I wouldn't foist that thing on a deaf person.)

Assuming your laptop has USB 2.0 with decent drivers (nearly all laptops do), the SRM should be a good solution.

No Mac drivers, though.
posted by Malor at 6:03 AM on June 5, 2007

skylar: you can use something like a SB Extigy or Audigy 2 NX - they have a bunch of analog outs and connect over USB. Might even work on a mac.
posted by polyglot at 6:04 AM on June 5, 2007

Malor: what counts as "cheap" for the TB card you describe? I've got the shits with my Extigy having no drivers for XP-64 even though it works perfectly in linux using the generic usb-audio driver. The XP-64 usb-audio thing can't grok it and creative (bastards that they are) have no driver planned for it.

As to your quality issues - mine sounds fine. But it does have a habit of subtly (or not) clipping internally if you're not real careful with the gains; maybe that'd explain your hatred of the A2NX?
posted by polyglot at 6:43 AM on June 5, 2007

Well, the full retail price is $80 on the SRM, so 'cheap' would be up to you. I believe the hardware is identical.

As far as my hatred of the A2NX goes... that's a different soundcard than anything else in Creative's lineup. All of the Creative cards do a 48Khz resample by default. They've been improving it steadily, and they have added 44.1Khz native modes in most of the more advanced cards. The Extigy might be included, I don't know. So, over time, they've gone from sounding kinda crummy to much better; the X-Fi can actually do bitperfect with a little effort. I think your Extigy is probably either based on the Audigy 2 (fairly ok, not great) or Audigy 4(quite good), which would be why you like it.

The 2NX... that thing is so terrible you wouldn't believe it. i think what's happening is that it's doing that same 48khz resample, but it's doing a godawful job of it. You might not notice on bad speakers, but on good gear, it's like listening underwater or something. The treble is just all screwed up. And this was driving a receiver with a S/PDIF; I just assumed it would be perfect sound. Wrong! But because I thought it should be perfect, I blamed the speakers for most of a year. They had the reputation of being 'laid-back'; I figured they were laid-back to the point that I didn't like them much. They sounded fine in movies (the DD/DTS passthrough, so the 2NX couldn't mangle it), but sucked in music, and it took me ages to figure it out.

I bought a Sonica Theater with a Mac Mini, hoping it would be a good HTPC. (it wasn't.) I resold the Mni, but was stuck with the Sonica, so I hooked it up to the PC on a lark. When I first fired up some music, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I couldn't believe how much better it sounded. I wasn't expecting anything much different, having long since decided that the speakers weren't very good. But wow.... suddenly, the treble was actually there! I could, like hear cymbals and stuff! It was amazing. When I say I would rather listen to cats drown than the Audigy 2NX, my hyperbole level isn't quite as high as you might expect. :)

I haven't run the Roadie/SRM on the really big speakers, but I have decent little ones back on the computer here, and it sounds pretty good. It's not as nice as the Sonica Theater, but the drivers are actually useful. I've used it pretty extensively in gaming. It seems to need an unplug/replug cycle every few days. It'll occasionally get confused and staticy... I think I've pinned it down to driving it with a 44.1Khz kernel streaming signal at the same time as normal DirectSound (ie, running Foobar with a game going). Other than that, I've seen no particular bugs and have been quite pleased with it.

One advantage to a USB or Firewire soundcard; the Creative cards often don't work very well in high-memory situations. I'm running an X-Fi at this exact moment, and it's limiting me to 3gb of the 4 I have installed. I can remap the PCI memory above 4gb, but then the X-Fi just flat won't work... it can't DMA above the 32-bit boundary. (no real shock there, but it's still annoying.) It'll kinda-sorta run in XP64, but it's limited to stereo only with no effects.

I'm seriously thinking about switching back to the Roadie.
posted by Malor at 7:37 AM on June 5, 2007

Original poster: I have access to my Mac now. Do you still need help?
posted by Malor at 3:13 PM on June 5, 2007

Checking back one more time: OP, if you still need help, chime in soon. :)
posted by Malor at 4:15 AM on June 6, 2007

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