No matter which AV receiver you have - Onkyo, Yamaha, Denon, Sony - each will have several 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 sound modes that you get on your equipment. Let us try to understand the difference between them all.
A listening mode is simply a preset that tells your AV receiver how to play the audio soundtrack that comes on your DVD or Blu-ray disc.
It may tell the receiver to play the audio exactly as it is recorded on the disc. Or, it may enable some processing to alter how your system plays the audio in some way.
For example, it may add an effect that makes it sound like you are in a large theater space. Or, it may play the soundtrack over a larger speaker layout than it was originally designed for – or downmix surround sound to stereo.
You decide how you want to hear the audio in your room by enabling these listening modes.
Not all AV receiver brands use the term 'listening mode'. Here is a list of the terms used by some of the more popular brands:
However, whatever the term used, all AV receivers will have these presets that you can use to make the audio work best for your system.
The first issue to be clear about when I talk about AV receiver listening modes 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:
With the new Ultra HD Blu-ray specification, there have been two new optional audio codecs added:
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.
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 a situation where you cannot hear the sound from a disc that you buy. I think you'll agree, this is a good thing!
For more detailed information on all these codecs, go to the article on understanding Blu-ray audio codecs.
In most cases, the decoding process is usually done by the AV receiver. An AV receiver has built-in decoders that will read the data stream sent from your DVD or Blu-ray player.
The specifications of the AV receiver will include details of the AV audio decoders that it has. This will allow you to know which Blu-ray soundtracks it will directly support.
To decode the audio on your AV receiver, you should set the audio output of the DVD or Blu-ray player to 'bitstream'.
This means that it sends the encoded data to the AV receiver for it to decode.
If the receiver 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 alternative is that the DVD/Blu-ray player decodes the soundtrack. Rather than in 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 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.
To get more detailed information on the specifications for a new AV receiver, take a look at my buying guide for the best AV receivers in 2020.
So, what has all this got to do with AV receiver listening modes?
Well, your AV receiver will support several listening modes. Remember, some manufacturers call them different things.
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. They happen after the original soundtrack is decoded.
It might be hard to notice a difference between these. It can appear to be 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 play that audio stream exactly as intended.
For example, when the AV receiver detects an incoming 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio signal. The front panel display will show as 'DTS-HD Master Audio' (or words to that effect), and the audio is sent to the surround speakers using this format.
If the soundtrack is a 5.1 mix, you will hear the movie over 5.1 speakers in your room. Even if you have a 7.1 system installed.
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 the audio.
Therefore, after the audio is decoded, you can add further processing to change how the receiver plays the sound through your speakers.
In the example of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track above, I can change the default 'DTS-HD Master Audio' listening mode to a different one.
A common scenario for a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack would be to select the DTS HD + Neural:X listening mode. As in the picture below:
This listening mode will enable DTS Neural:X on the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The result is that it will upscale the audio to match the speakers that you have connected to your receiver.
So, it will play a 5.1 mix over your 7.1 speaker system. It will add audio to your extra rear speakers.
Or, if you have height speakers installed, it will add some audio to your overhead speakers. This gives a nice 3D effect. All from the original 5.1 soundtrack.
As you can see from the picture above, I could select several other listening modes when playing the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack:
So, as you can see, I could also change the listening mode to 'Multi Channel Stereo' (known as 'All Channel Stereo' in some receivers).
I’m not sure why you would want to do that, but, you could!
The most common use for the 'Multi Channel Stereo' mode would be when you are listening to stereo audio. This will play the stereo audio image across the room. A nice effect for background music when you have people around.
Many AV receivers will allow you to set a default sound mode for a particular input and audio type. So, if I made the setting above, it would always add DTS Neural:X to any DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
This makes sense. Once you have a selection for your system, you probably won't want to change it. But, you can if you like.
For example, you might set the receiver to always play stereo TV audio using DTS Neural:X or Dolby Surround.
This will use all your surround sound speakers even though the incoming audio is only stereo. It creates a pseudo surround sound mix.
That's what I do anyway.
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 can switch back to a stereo listening mode.
Or, you may feel adventurous and select Dolby Surround to hear a 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.
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.
Remember, some DSP modes will only be available for certain sources and audio formats.
The following is a list of the listening modes on the Onkyo TX-RZ840 AV Receiver. This is a fairly high-end AV receiver which is THX certified.
This means that it comes with some THX listening modes which aren’t available on all models. Other Onkyo models will have similar listening modes, but may not be exactly the same.
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-X4500H 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.
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.
This video from Yamaha gives a brief overview of their DSP technology:
These are the sound decoders and programs that come with the Yamaha RX-A3080 AV receiver:
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.
Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has worked as a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment.