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AV Receiver Listening Modes Explained: Onkyo, Denon & More.

No matter which AV receiver you have - Onkyo, Yamaha, Denon, Sony - each will have a number of audio processing modes for you to choose from.

DTS Neural:X, Dolby Atmos - maybe Dolby TrueHD? If you've just bought yourself a shiny new receiver and are flicking through the manual, it won't be long before you come across these terms.

Unless you have taken some time to study home theater surround audio formats, you might be somewhat confused by all these audio types. Don't be too downhearted, it's not too bad once you give it some thought.

In this article, I will look at the various AV audio formats and audio modes you get on your equipment. Let us try to understand the difference between them all.

AV Receiver Listening Modes Explained

Audio Encoding vs Audio Decoding

The first issue to be clear about when I talk about home theater audio types is the difference between audio encoding and decoding. Once you get this straight the subject becomes much clearer.

Audio encoding is the method that stores the audio on a DVD or Blu-ray disc. For Blu-ray discs, there are seven supported codecs:

  • LPCM
  • Dolby Digital
  • DTS 5.1
  • Dolby Digital Plus
  • DTS-HD High Resolution Audio
  • Dolby TrueHD
  • DTS-HD Master Audio

With the new Ultra HD Blu-ray specification, there have been two new optional audio codecs added:

  • Dolby Atmos
  • DTS:X

You won't find all these formats on every Blu-ray disc. But if you look on the back of the box you will see which soundtracks are available for that disc. 

Blu-ray codecs

The important thing to understand is that these are the encoded formats. Something needs to decode this audio before you can hear it.

Very simply, audio decoding is the process of reading the digital data and turning it into audio that you can hear. If your hardware doesn't support the decoding of a particular audio format, then you won't be able to play that version of the soundtrack.

The main soundtrack on a DVD or Blu-ray disc will always be a mandatory audio type that all hardware will support. So, you will never be in the situation where you cannot hear the sound from a disc that you buy.

For more detailed information on all these codecs, go to the article on understanding Blu-ray audio codecs

Audio Decoding on the AV Receiver

The decoding process is usually done by the AV receiver, which will have audio decoders built-in.

The specifications of the AV receiver should include details of the AV audio decoders it has. This will allow you to know which Blu-ray soundtracks it will support. 

Decoders for the Yamaha RX-V365 AV Receiver Decoders for the Yamaha RX-V365 AV Receiver

If it has a DTS decoder, then it will accept a DTS 5.1 soundtrack and play it in 5.1 surround sound. The front panel display should show 'DTS 5.1' (or similar) when it detects the incoming signal.

Likewise, if a receiver has onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD audio, then it will be able to receive this signal type directly from a Blu-ray player. It will decode it and then send the audio to the speakers.

The settings of the player will have an option to set the audio output to bitstream. This means it sends the encoded data to the AV receiver for it to decode. 

Decoding on the Player - Bitstream vs LPCM

The alternative is that the DVD/Blu-ray player decodes the soundtrack. Rather than the AV receiver.

This is an important point. If your AV receiver doesn't support the decoding of a particular format on the disc, it may be that your Blu-ray player does.

The player can decode the soundtrack, and then send the audio to the AV receiver as LPCM (also known as PCM). All AV receivers will be able to play this back. It will sound exactly the same as when the AV receiver does the decoding.

In this case, the audio output settings of the player should be set to PCM. Some brands may use a different term.

Before you buy an AV receiver or Blu-ray player, you can check which audio decoding it supports. Then you can be sure of the Blu-ray soundtracks you will be able to play.

By the way, if you are looking for a new AV receiver at the moment, you might be interested in my article on 'the best AV receivers in 2017'. Or you might not!

Audio Processing, Sound and Listening Modes

So, what has all this got to do with audio sound modes? Well, your AV receiver will support many listening modes. Some manufacturers call them different things. Denon, for example, uses the term sound mode.

Some of these listening modes will involve the direct decoding and playback of the encoded audio from the disc. For example, there might be a Dolby Atmos mode. The AV receiver will often automatically select this when it receives a Dolby Atmos bitstream from the player. If not, you can manually select the Dolby Atmos sound mode.

As well as onboard decoders, AV receivers will also come with further audio processing options. Often called DSP, or Digital Signal Processing. These extra audio processing features add extra playback options.

You may not notice a difference between these. There is a fine line between an AV receiver decoding a signal and processing a signal. This is because AV receivers make the process transparent, with as little intervention from the user as possible.

So, when you play a soundtrack that is directly decoded by the AV receiver, the receiver will detect and playback that audio stream.

For example, the AV receiver detects an incoming DTS:X signal. The front panel display will show as ‘DTS:X’, and the audio is sent to the surround speakers using this format. It will usually default to the listening mode for the audio type.

AV Receiver displaying DTS:X listening mode

However, on your AV receiver, there will also be other forms of audio processing - or listening modes. You can use these to tell the receiver how to play back the audio. Therefore, the audio is processed after decoding. In the example of DTS:X above, I can change the ‘DTS:X’ listening mode to a different one. To ‘All Channel Stereo’ for instance. This would play the DTS:X soundtrack in stereo around all the speakers in your system.

I’m not sure why you would want to do that, but, you could!

Many AV receivers also allow you to set a default sound mode for a particular input. You would set this to how you would like to play the audio from this input. You might set the receiver to always play stereo TV audio using DTS Neural:X. This will use all your surround sound speakers even though the incoming audio is only stereo.

However, you can change these listening modes at any time to suit the type of audio. To make sure you hear music through the traditional 2 front left/right speakers, you might switch to a stereo listening mode. Or, you may feel adventurous and select Dolby Surround to hear this stereo music track as 5.1 surround sound.

You will only be able to select some listening modes for certain types of audio. The manual will tell you which audio input formats work with which listening modes. 

Examples of AV Receiver Sound Modes and DSP Programs

I thought it might be useful to take a closer look at a couple of AV receivers to see which audio modes they have. It’s easier to understand how it all fits together this way.

Look out for the sound modes which are decoders for a specific audio format, and the DSP modes which allow you to alter what you hear in the room. Bear in mind, different makes and models may have different processing modes. Also, some DSP modes will only be available for certain sources and sound types.

Onkyo AV Receiver Listening Modes

Onkyo TX-RZ820 AV Receiver

The following is a list of the listening modes on the Onkyo TX-RZ820 AV Receiver. This is a fairly high-end AV receiver which is THX certified. This means it comes with some THX listening modes which aren’t available on all models:

Decoders/Listening Modes:

  • Dolby Digital: used when receiving Dolby Digital audio via bitstream (HDMI/Optical/Coaxial).
  • Dolby Digital Plus: used when receiving Dolby Digital Plus audio via bitstream (HDMI only).
  • Dolby TrueHD: used when receiving Dolby TrueHD audio via bitstream (HDMI only).
  • Dolby Atmos: used when receiving Dolby Atmos audio via bitstream (HDMI only).
  • DTS: used when receiving DTS audio via bitstream (HDMI/Optical/Coaxial). 
  • DTS Express: used when receiving DTS Express audio via bitstream (HDMI only).
  • ES Discrete: used when receiving DTS-ES Discrete audio via bitstream (HDMI/Optical/Coaxial). 
  • ES Matrix: used when receiving DTS-ES Matrix audio via bitstream (HDMI/Optical/Coaxial).
  • DTS 96/24: used when receiving DTS 96/24 audio via bitstream (HDMI/Optical/Coaxial). 
  • DTS-HD HR: used when receiving DTS-HD High Resolution Audio via bitstream (HDMI only).
  • DTS-HD MSTR: used when receiving DTS-HD Master Audio via bitstream (HDMI only).
  • DTS:X: used when receiving DTS:X audio via bitstream (HDMI only). 
  • DSD: used when receiving DSD audio via HDMI.

Post Decoding Formats:

  • Dolby Surround: expands 2-channel or 5.1 audio to playback over 5.1 or 7.1 speaker systems.
  • DTS Neural:X: expands 2-channel or 5.1 audio to playback over 5.1 or 7.1 speaker systems.

General Listening Modes:

  • Multich: for audio recorded in multichannel PCM.
  • AllCh Stereo: for background music. Creates a stereo image across the surround speakers.
  • Direct: shuts down some processing in the unit for a cleaner audio signal.
  • Pure Audio: similar to Direct but goes further. Switches off the display and analog video circuitry. Only HDMI video can be displayed on the screen when this is enabled.
  • Stereo: outputs audio from the front left and right speakers plus the subwoofer.
  • Mono: the left and right front speakers output the sound in mono (analog or PCM audio only).
  • Full Mono: all speakers output the same sound in mono.
  • Game-Action: for games with a lot of action.
  • Game-Rock: for games with rock content.
  • Game-RPG: for role-playing games.
  • Game-Sports: for games involving sports. 
  • Orchestra: for classical or operatic music. Uses the surround speakers to simulate the natural reverberation of a hall.
  • Studio-Mix: for pop or rock music. Creates a soundstage like being in a club.
  • TV Logic: for TV shows produced in a TV studio. Uses surround effects to brings clarity to voices.
  • Unplugged: for acoustic instruments, vocals and jazz. Highlights the front stereo image.
  • T-D: this theater-dimensional mode creates the effect of surround sound even if there are only 2 or 3 speakers.
  • THX Cinema: for playing a soundtrack intended for a movie theater.
  • THX Games: for playing back game audio in a surround sound environment.
  • THX Music: for music sources with a higher recording quality than movies.
  • THX Select Cinema: expands movie soundtracks recorded in 5.1 or 7.1. Uses THX Advanced Speaker Array (ASA) technology to optimize the surround sound environment.
  • THX Select Games: uses THX ASA technology to create a 360-degree sound field for game audio recorded in a multichannel format.
  • THX Select Music: uses THX ASA technology to create a broad sound field for music recorded in 5.1.

Denon AV Receiver Sound Modes 

Denon AVR-X4300H AV Receiver

Denon uses the term 'sound modes' in their documentation. Although they mean the same thing as listening modes with the Onkyo receivers.

If you look at what the Denon AVR-X4300H AV Receiver offers, you can see that it has many of the same options regarding decoders. One major difference is it will support Auro-3D if you perform an upgrade. There are fewer DSP modes than the Onkyo, but enough choice if you enjoy experimenting with these settings.

Decoders/Listening Modes:

  • Dolby Digital
  • Dolby TrueHD
  • Dolby Digital Plus
  • Dolby Atmos
  • DTS Surround
  • DTS-ES Matrix 6.1
  • DTS-ES Discrete 6.1
  • DTS 96/24
  • DTS-HD
  • DTS Express
  • DTS:X
  • Auro-3D (available via an upgrade)
  • Auro-2D Surround (available via an upgrade)

Post Decoding Formats:

  • Dolby Surround
  • DTS Neural:X

Sound Modes:

  • Multi-Channel In: for playing multi-channel PCM/DSD sources
  • Multi-Channel Stereo: for stereo sound using all speakers
  • Rock Arena: simulates a live concert in an arena
  • Jazz Club: simulates an intimate jazz club
  • Mono Movie: creates a surround effect from a mono source
  • Video Game: creates a dynamic surround effect for gaming
  • Matrix: adds a surround sound effect to stereo music
  • Virtual: creates a surround effect for stereo speaker systems and headphones
  • Auto: switches automatically to the correct mode depending on the input
  • Stereo: plays 2-channel stereo (with subwoofer if available)
  • Direct: plays audio as recorded in the source
  • Pure Direct: higher quality than ‘Direct’. Disables display and analog video.

Yamaha AV Receiver Sound Programs

Yamaha RX-A3070 AV Receiver

Yamaha has their own angle when it comes to decoders and DSP. The list of decoders is similar, but they have quite a few DSP programs under the banner of Cinema DSP. The idea is you apply a Cinema DSP program to the audio you are listening to, and it will try to recreate that audio as if you were in a particular hall, room or space.

The higher-end models also have Cinema DSP HD³, which uses more reflection data for an even more realistic effect.

These are the sound decoders and programs that come with the Yamaha RX-A3070 AV receiver:

Decoders

  • Dolby Atmos
  • Dolby TrueHD
  • Dolby Digital Plus
  • Dolby Digital
  • DTS:X
  • DTS-HD Master Audio
  • DTS-HD High Resolution Audio
  • DTS Express
  • DTS 96/24
  • DTS-ES Matrix 6.1
  • DTS-ES Discrete 6.1
  • DTS Digital Surround

Post Decoding Formats:

  • Dolby Surround
  • DTS Neural:X
  • DTS Neo:6 Music
  • DTS Neo:6 Cinema

Stereo Sound Programs:

  • 2ch Stereo: for mixing down multichannel sources to stereo.
  • 9ch Stereo: for sending sound to all speakers. Ideal for background music.

Movie Sound Programs:

  • Standard: emphasizes the surround sound without disturbing the original positioning
  • Spectacle: delivers a wide dynamic range and expansive soundscape
  • Sci-Fi: for Sci-Fi and SFX movies. Clear separation between voice, effects and music.
  • Adventure: for action and adventure movies. Less reverberation and an expanded sound field left and right.
  • Drama: for drama, musicals and comedies. Provides a gentle echo for a wide stereophonic sound.
  • Mono Movie: creates a surround sound experience for old mono movies.
  • Enhanced: creates a sound field that emphasizes 3D object-audio.

Entertainment Sound Programs:

  • Sports: for sports and light entertainment TV. Centers the voice and highlights the atmosphere.
  • Action Game: for action gaming audio. Emphasizes effects to make the player feel right at the center of the action.
  • Roleplaying Game: for roleplaying and adventure games. Adds depth to the sound field to emphasize background music and special effects.
  • Music Video: for pop, rock and jazz concerts. Reproduces the feel of a hall and emphasizes the rhythm. 
  • Recital/Opera: reproduces the feel of a concert hall with emphasis on the depth and clarity of the human voice.

Music Sound Programs:

  • Hall in Munich: reproduces a Munich concert hall with 2,500 seats and a wooden interior.
  • Hall in Vienna: creates a Vienna concert hall with 1,700 seats and a shoebox shape.
  • Hall in Amsterdam: simulates a large Amsterdam concert hall with 2,200 seats and a shoe box shape.
  • Church in Freiburg: reproduces a stone church with a long and narrow shape.
  • Church in Royaumont: simulates the dining hall of a Gothic monastery.
  • Chamber: reproduces a wide space with a high ceiling.
  • Village Vanguard: simulates a small jazz club in New York.
  • Warehouse Loft: simulates a concrete warehouse.
  • Cellar Club: reproduces an intimate concert venue with a low ceiling.
  • The Roxy Theater: creates a 460-seat rock music venue.
  • The Bottom Line: simulates a 300-seat jazz venue in New York.

Conclusion 

There are many audio listening modes available on an AV receiver.

Some of these are the result of decoding the audio directly from the disc, and some are there to process the audio to suit your speaker setup. If you take a little time to understand the various options you have, then you will be able to get the best out of our receiver and speaker system.

If you want some more information on the different types of audio formats, go to the guide to surround sound formats for more details.


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