The Life of a Programmer


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?

Please join me on Discord to discuss, or ping me on Mastadon.

Why does Amazon taunt me with surround sound?

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