Why does Amazon taunt me with surround sound?

Despite a label of 5.1 surround I only ever get stereo sound from Amazon Prime. I mange to get surround from other providers and devices, just not Amazon. Is it one of those annoying licensing issues, perhaps a language mismatch, or is it a technical deficiency? I’m determined to find out.

The answer I got from Amazon support is perplexing… but more on that later.

My equipment

I joined the world of big screen TVs in 2015 when I bought a LG 49UBB20V. I was determining how to get streaming video but not enjoying the complexity of getting a good internet connection to my TV, finding the right media player device, and finding the right connectors. As questionable as they may be, a Smart TV made it easy for me — at least I thought at the time.

I have this TV connected to a Yamaha RX-V457 receiver via optical cable. I’ve never had any problems with this amplifier before. I presume it does full surround, but I only have the front left/right and center channels connected. For completeness, this is hooked up to a set a of Magnat speakers, though I’m quite positive they aren’t involved in my problem.

I don’t really need full surround, I just like having the center channel so speech comes through clearly. It’s been a trend over the years that voice is being lost more and more in the stereo mixes. It appears studios assume the listener has surround sound and give the stereo mix over to their intern.

The Netflix issue

When I first started watching Netflix I was disappointed that few shows offered surround sound. I have a strong suspicion this is due to licensing. I’m signed up in Germany, and this greatly reduces the selection I have on Netflix.

Worse, it appears to limit the language selection I have. German audio and subtitles are always available. Even German 5.1 is sometimes available even when English 5.1 is not. It’s a definite downgrade from renting DVDs which always have the proper English surround sound. The DVD player is connected with a coaxial digital cable to the same receiver.

The newer the show the more likely it was to offer surround. All Netflix exclusives offer it. But I was so used to shows not offering it that I didn’t really notice that the ones that did were still not playing in surround. They were coming across as 2-channel to my receiver.

What gives?

For whatever reason the LG TV has a default “Speaker” setting of “LG Sound System”. It sounds reasonable, but what it does it convert all surround sound to stereo. I had to switch this to “External Speaker”. The option makes no sense since the system only has external speakers.

I had a similar problem with the PS3. It apparently tries to detect audio support over the HDMI connection, but the TV won’t report anything useful. I had to go into the PS3 settings and choose an override, forcing it to believe one of the surround protocols was supported. It unfortunately never remembered this setting on reboot.

The Amazon issue

I previously wrote that the Amazon app on this TV is kind of crappy. While some things have improved the fundamental problems remain. If there is any blip in the internet connection it loses audio sync and never recovers. It frequently freezes while starting a show as well. And it never plays surround sound!

This is the type of nonsense I was hoping to avoid by getting a smart TV with an integrated app. I just never suspected Amazon would be shipping such a broken app with it.

In any case, they appear to have the same licensing problems as Netflix, some shows just don’t offer surround sound in English. Actually, very few shows appeared to offer surround. In the last year this appears to have changed, and at least the Amazon productions offer surround. But it never works. I always get stuck in stereo output.

The ugly part

It’s hard to get information on what format of audio is being used on Netflix or Amazon. It was only through forums and press releases that I found they support “Dolby Digital Plus”. On Netflix I could partially confirm this in their help section, but for Amazon I cannot find any official notice.

My searching also reveal that many people have a problem with Amazon not playing surround sound. At least I’m not alone.

My device supports Dobly Digital EX and Dolby Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Digital Plus is not in the list, but the newer Yamaha receivers also don’t list it; they only show “Dolby Digital”. Yet Netflix works.

According to Wikipedia, Dobly Digital Plus is a functional superset of Dolby Digital. Decoders are mandated (by the standard apparently) to be able to convert to the old format without doing any re-encoding. I presume this is just a repackaging of the bitstreams. I’m not sure what standard mandates this though, since the “Plus” spec came out after the “EX” devices were built. I’m also not sure where this downgrade happens, in the video app, on the TV, or on the receiver.

Even though Netflix works I didn’t assume my equipment was setup right. I tried many combinations of settings, but nothing seemed to help. I sure wish I was technically inclined enough to figure this out.

The stupid Amazon answer

While writing this I sent a support question off to Amazon. I got an answer quite quickly, but it only adds to the mystery. While they partially confirm a licensing issue, it’s the first line that’s dumbfounding:

Unsere Videos werden nur im Stereo Modus wiedergegeben. (Translated: Our videos are only played in stereo mode)

There’s no uncertainty here: there is no surround sound. If this is true it means the surround icons on the screen are just a lie. It would certainly explain why I wouldn’t get it working. But was my quest truly in vain, or has this support person just said something incorrect?

10 replies »

  1. Thank you for sharing their reply. It is difficult even finding an email address for Amazon so I’m glad you relayed their message. I’m not sure if this site was up when you wrote this piece but it seems they say only virtual surround.

    I am listening to a pair of surround sound Sony headphones using windows 10 hdmi out to an audio extractor because my display does not have optical out. It sounds fine for the money I paid for everything but the receiver for the headphones is supposed to light up when you are in surround sound to indicate such. Not sure if it is my headphone arrangement or Amazon streaming…

    Anyhow… take care.

    • I believe I might be getting surround now as well . I have all new equipment though (Nvidia shield TV and a new Pioneer receiver).

  2. The lack of PC streaming support is annoying (to me, at least, since I use a media PC and don’t want to add another Fire Stick to the mix just to get 5.1). Netflix’s player does support 5.1 on a PC.

  3. LG55C7 (one month old) + Yamaha RX663 with the same problem: at startup no surround (= no dialogue) in Netflix or Amazon, but YouTube is ok. After restart it works. What’s the problem here?

    • Sound + Smart TVs + Receivers just seems like a voodoo combination. My newest TV plus receiver brand I had before also does weird things. if I clikc “Auto” it detects stereo, despite being surround. If I click surround it choose surround (I hope it’s choosing proper surround, and not an emulated one from stereo).

    • +1 to mororay.

      Just yesterday (Dec 2018), I watched an old, remastered episode of Star Trek TNG on Amazon Prime Video via our Roku Premier Plus to my Onkyo TX-NR515 AVR via HDMI v1.4 cables and got Dolby Digital Plus from the source (so 5.1 channels out to my delicious sounding Klipsch speakers). No sound processing; just straight decoding of the Dolby soundtrack from Amazon.

      So the OP’s problems could be anywhere in the vodoo mix, meaning anything like:

      a) content that isn’t encoded in surround formats
      b) components or a configuration that isn’t compatible with the sound format (*)
      c) downmixing the surround sound to stero (**)

      I’ve heard some horrible”vodoo” setups. Like, why on Earth would someone Chromecast a show from their web browser to their Smart TV? There is a terribly inefficient way to watch content and some sleuthing geeks have found out that such setups end up transcoding the content, which is terrible. [0] Just because “it works” doesn’t mean it will be all that you want. Also, the OP said, “Yamaha RX-V457 receiver via optical cable”. Why optical? Is that Yamaha configured to do bitstream or decode? And this optical cable is connected to the LG TV on the other end?? What’s the end of it configured for input?

      Get a good AVR and setup that can tell you _exactly_ what the source is giving you and supports all the formats that you expect to hear.

      (*) yes you read that right. The original Roku boxes could only bitstream Dolby/ DTS, not decode it. Check your manufacturer’s documentation on supported formats. Even HDMI cables are not all the same, and I don’t mean gold plated versus silver ones but that older HDMI <1.4, for example, cannot handle the bandwidth of uncompressed Dolby TrueHD.
      (**) this could be a mis-configuration anywhere in the "vodoo" setup: the Roku, the AVR, etc.

  4. I have a Samsung smart TV,I just when to audio set up and change the speakers from tv to receiver using HDMI cables,now I can enjoy 5.1 from Amazon prime video

  5. Could simply be an EDID problem. Your input devices read the default EDID of your TV (stereo) and send the appropriate signal. Either change the way you’ve set it up, e.g. from Device >TV>Receiver to Device>Receiver>TV or hack the service menu of your TV (using Anymote on a phone with an IR blaster) and change the TV’s ID to AC3 or DTS. Hope this helps.

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