There's some discussion of this on the catch-all Mac mini as HTPC thread, I thought it might be valuable to pull this one aspect out for further examination, to clearly lay out what's working for members, what isn't and why when it comes to dvd's and surround sound, because I suspect this one aspect of the mini likely will frustrate more people than anything else--not cracking open the case, not the single RAM slot, not the 40/80GB or 5400/4200rpm hard drive options, not the supposedly limited number of firewire or usb ports, all of which are actually easily overcome. Note also I'm not even getting into the HDTV-related aspects of the mini which may stretch the capabilities of these minis beyond where they can go. Just surround sound from a standard dvd, something even most cheap standalone dvd players can pass to a receiver to decode. I wouldn't have to jump through too many hoops to get it, would I?
Boy, was I wrong.
G5 PowerMac or 17" PB owners have digital out built in, so there's no problem for them. They can go into Apple dvd player preferences > disc setup > audio ouput > then select digital out instead of "system sound ouput." On other less expensive systems, like the iBooks, the 12" and 15" G4 Powerbooks, and the Mac mini--Apple's DVD Player preferences panel in current version 4.0 doesn't give you another option--we're stuck on "system sound output." So far so good, but little did I realize what inherent limitations lay ahead for me.
From what I knew of Macs and OS X, I knew we could stream iTunes audio through an Airport Express minijack-optical out port into a stereo receiver, but that's of no help (yet) for anything other than iTunes. I knew we could plug a minijack cable into our headphone out for audio out and divert sound output away from our internal speakers, so I'd have been willing to bet we had other output options even at this price point, as long as we were willing to buy a third-party add-on. As long as the DVD player software recognized "system sound ouput" and as long as OS X had a built-in way to detect and select a different system sound output, we'd clearly be fine. That's how Macs work, plug something in via firewire or usb and bingo, it's recognized, and it just works. In theory.
You've probably read about all sorts of Mac-compatible USB and firewire add-on sound devices and perhaps even assumed these will allow you to pass the Dolby digital or DTS audio track of a dvd out through a USB port and into your receiver through digital coax or optical cables. Seems rudimentary, I know I thought so. Plug in one of these sub-$100 USB audio devices, go to System Preferences, under Audio, surely it would show up automatically and allow you to select it for system sound output rather than the internal speakers. Would it have been nice if Apple somehow had built this digital audio pass-through capability into the mini? Sure, but I appreciate the price being kept low and I would have bought a mini anyway. I went in with my eyes open. My real surprise now, though, after looking around a bit, is how few options we actually have at the moment in terms of DD and DTS--even if we're willing to spend more money--and just how crippled Apple's DVD player turns out to be. Guess my eyes weren't that open.
What do I mean? To get started, I plugged in a USB digital audio pass-through device--one that received rave reviews in the PC community and was readily available locally from CompUSA--something called the Xitel Pro HiFi Link, $99 list. It had both optical and digital coax out, a plus in my book even though I have 3 coax and 3 optical ports on my receiver; the product also included runs of high quality coax, rca and optical cables which I'd also put to use, a USB cable, it had a nice aluminum-look surface--and a quick check of their website pre-purchase indicated it worked with OS X plug and play. The other options I considered were the M-audio USB products mentioned elsewhere on AVS by Kevin and Bruin, but those had two things against them in my book: M-audio seemed to require drivers, which might mean trouble down the road with future OS updates or with Tiger, and they weren't available locally that I could tell--not in BB, CC, Staples, etc. So I went with the Xitel, plugged the thing in to one of the USB mini ports, connected via digital coax to my Harmon Kardon receiver, went to the mini's System Preferences > Sound > and a USB audio device automatically showed up. I selected it, popped in a dvd, and bingo, very clean sound, prisitine even, but still "just" stereo PCM sound, showing up as Dolby ProLogic II on my HK. No amount of configuring DVD Player or System Preferences allowed DD or DTS through on multiple dvds. It was always PCM stereo. Turns out, after a call to Applecare tech support, that Apple software limits it to PCM stereo on the mini.
Same thing using the Xitel and an alternative software-based dvd player for the Mac--VLC. Even when you select VLC > Preferences > Audio > and tell it to "use the S/PDIF audio output when available" it seems PCM is all that's made "available" by 10.3.8 and the mini via USB. Unless I'm missing something about VLC and the mini--I find VLC confusing and buggy even on a good day--which is entirely likely. So anyone with VLC, chime in here.
So, I'm now wondering, is it that M-audio has spent the time and expense to write drivers to insert their product into the Apple software that specifically and exclusively allows their products to circumvent Apple's inherent limitations?
What has everyone else tried? Any surround sound success? It seems the only confirmed reports of digital pass through success I've found are with these M-audio USB products--the "Transit," the "Sonica Theater" and the older/hard-to-find "Sonica USB"--passing Dolby Digital surround and DTS to a receiver when playing a dvd in a mini. I believe on AVS Bruin (Ben) and Kevin have used these and gotten pass through--if so, guys, how'd you have to configure it? Do these products work with both Apple DVD player and VLC? Do all three pass DD 5.1 to 7.1 and DTS? Did you load the most current M-audio drivers and find that it then just works with 10.3.8 when you select USB audio device instead of internal speakers? Any bugs, hiccups, dropouts?
Some other questions, if anyone cares to weigh in:
1) Historically, how was anyone playing dvd's in their older (then-very-expensive) Powerbooks, displaying the video on an external monitor (easy) and passing DD or DTS to their receivers? Has everyone just been playing analog or PCM stereo audio out through their minijack? I had never thought about this before because like most on AVS I have good upscaling standalone dvd players. It's only the form factor of the mini, and its potential in a home theater, which opened this avenue for me...and made me realize I never tried to get DD or DTS out of my powerbooks.
2) Beside the G5's and 17" PB, can older G4 PowerMacs be modified to pass digital surround through to a receiver, I'm guessing yes via pci card or bus? Is the answer yes? If so, how have most done it?
3) Getting back to the mini, has anyone successfully used a USB product beside an M-audio and passed DD or DTS through? Did they work plug and play or require proprietary drivers? The Xitel cannot with Apple's DVD player and I couldn't seem to configure VLC to allow it with the mini.
4) Has anyone successfully configured any alternative software-based dvd player like VLC to pass DD or DTS audio a) by itself or b) with an external device? If so, which ones and how?
5) Are there affordable firewire devices which we should be giving consideration to which work any better with Macs than the USB ones already mentioned?
Or, is our ONLY affordable option right now the M-audio? And if so, do reports like this give you pause:
(Apologies for length. Edited to add link.)