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AV Receiver Listening Modes Explained: Onkyo, Denon & Yamaha

Updated: March 20, 2020

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.

What Is an AV Receiver Listening Mode?

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:

  • Anthem: listening mode
  • Arcam: decoding mode
  • Denon: sound mode
  • Marantz: sound mode
  • Onkyo: listening mode
  • Pioneer: listening mode
  • Sony: sound field
  • Yamaha: sound program

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.

Audio Encoding vs Audio Decoding

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:

  • LPCM
  • Dolby Digital
  • DTS
  • 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 formats added:

  • Dolby Atmos
  • DTS:X

These aren't actually codecs. They are object-based data streams that are added on top of the codecs listed above.

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

Audio codecs on a Blu-ray 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

Audio Decoding on the AV Receiver

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. 

What Is Bitstream on A Blu-ray Player?

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.

Decoders and Post Decoding Formats for The Yamaha RX-V685 AV ReceiverDecoders and Post Decoding Formats for The Yamaha RX-V685 AV Receiver

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.

Decoding on the Player - Bitstream vs LPCM

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.

Audio Processing and Listening Modes

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.

DTS-HD Master Audio on an AV receiver front displayDTS-HD Master Audio on An AV Receiver Front Display

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:

Selecting DTS Neural:X with a DTS-HD Master Audio SoundtrackSelecting DTS Neural:X with A DTS-HD Master Audio Soundtrack

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:

  • Stereo: downmixes everything to your front left and right speakers (plus subwoofer)
  • DTS-HD MSTR: this just plays the soundtrack as intended
  • DTS-HD + Dolby Surround: as with Neural:X, this will upscale to fit your speaker layout
  • DTS-HD + Neural:X: the one that is selected
  • Multi Ch Stereo: plays a stereo mix across your complete speaker system
  • Mono Movie: makes everything mono
  • Virtual: creates a virtual 3D effect with no height speakers

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. 

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.

Remember, some DSP modes will only be available for certain sources and audio formats.

Onkyo AV Receiver Listening Modes

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.

Onkyo TX-RZ840 AV ReceiverOnkyo TX-RZ840 AV Receiver
Image Credit: Onkyo
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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.

Listening Modes (Decoders):

  • Dolby Digital: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby Digital audio & received via bitstream (HDMI/Optical/Coaxial)
  • Dolby Digital Plus: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby Digital Plus audio & received via bitstream (HDMI only)
  • Dolby TrueHD: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby TrueHD audio & received via bitstream (HDMI only)
  • Dolby Atmos: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby Atmos audio & received via bitstream (HDMI only). Can also be used on speaker systems with various speaker layouts - including 2.0/2.1, 3.0/3.1, 4.0/4.1, 5.0/5.1, 6.0/6.1, 7.0/7.1, 2.0.2/2.1.2 and 3.0.2/3.1.2
  • DTS: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS audio & received via bitstream (HDMI/Optical/Coaxial) 
  • DTS Express: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS Express audio & received via bitstream (HDMI only)
  • ES Discrete: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS-ES Discrete audio & received via bitstream (HDMI/Optical/Coaxial)
  • ES Matrix: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS-ES Matrix audio & received via bitstream (HDMI/Optical/Coaxial)
  • DTS 96/24: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS 96/24 audio & received via bitstream (HDMI/Optical/Coaxial)
  • DTS-HD HR: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS-HD High Resolution Audio & received via bitstream (HDMI only)
  • DTS-HD MSTR: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS-HD Master Audio & received via bitstream (HDMI only)
  • DTS:X: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS:X audio & received via bitstream (HDMI only)
  • DSD: used when receiving DSD audio via HDMI

Upmixing Listening Modes (Post Decoding):

  • Dolby Surround: expands 2-channel or 5.1 audio to play over systems with more speakers e.g. 7.1 or 5.1.2
  • DTS Neural:X: expands 2-channel or 5.1 audio to play over systems with more speakers e.g. 7.1 or 5.1.2

General Listening Modes (Post Decoding):

  • 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. The sound is reproduced using the same number of channels as in the source material.
  • 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.
  • Mono: the center speaker outputs the sound in mono. If there is no center speaker, the mono sound comes from the front left/right speakers (analog or PCM audio only).
  • Multich: for audio recorded in multichannel PCM.
  • Orchestra: for classical or operatic music. Uses the surround speakers to simulate the natural reverberation of a hall.
  • 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.
  • Studio-Mix: for pop or rock music. Creates a soundstage like being in a club.
  • 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 like it was in a large room or 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.
  • 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.

Denon AV Receiver Sound Modes 

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

Denon AVR-X4500H AV ReceiverDenon AVR-X4500H AV Receiver
Image Credit: Denon
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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.

Sound Modes (Decoders):

  • Dolby Digital: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby Digital
  • Dolby TrueHD: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby TrueHD
  • Dolby Digital Plus: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby Digital Plus
  • Dolby Atmos: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby Atmos
  • DTS Surround: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS
  • DTS-ES Matrix 6.1: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS-ES Matrix where the extra back speaker shares the audio with the surround left and right channels
  • DTS-ES Discrete 6.1: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS-ES Discrete where the extra back speaker plays as an independent channel
  • DTS 96/24: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS 96/24
  • DTS-HD: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS-HD
  • DTS Express: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS Express
  • DTS:X: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS:X
  • Auro-3D: ideal for audio recorded in Auro-3D on systems with a height channel. Can also be used with other sources and the Auro-Matic upmixer is used to create surround sound.
  • Auro-2D Surround: ideal for audio recorded in Auro-3D on systems without a height channel. Can also be used with other sources and the Auro-Matic upmixer is used to create surround sound.

Sound Modes (Post Decoding):

  • Auto: switches automatically to the correct mode depending on the input
  • Dolby Surround: expands 2-channel or 5.1 audio to play over systems with more speakers e.g. 7.1 or 5.1.2
  • DTS Neural:X: expands 2-channel or 5.1 audio to play over systems with more speakers e.g. 7.1 or 5.1.2
  • DTS Virtual:X: creates a 3D surround effect with virtual height and surround processing. Cannot be used when height, ceiling and Dolby Atmos-Enabled speakers are connected. Doesn't work on Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD or Dolby Atmos.
  • 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
  • Stereo: plays 2-channel stereo (with subwoofer if available). Mulichannel audio is downmixed to stereo.
  • Direct: plays audio as recorded in the source
  • Pure Direct: higher quality than ‘Direct’. Disables display and analog video processing.

Yamaha AV Receiver Sound Programs

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.

Yamaha RX-A3080 AV ReceiverYamaha RX-A3080 AV Receiver
Image Credit: Yamaha
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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:

Decoders

  • Dolby Atmos: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby Atmos
  • Dolby TrueHD: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby TrueHD
  • Dolby Digital Plus: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby Digital Plus
  • Dolby Digital: exactly reproduces audio recorded in Dolby Digital
  • DTS:X: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS:X
  • DTS-HD Master Audio: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS-HD Master Audio
  • DTS-HD High Resolution Audio: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS-HD High Resolution Audio
  • DTS Express: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS Express
  • DTS 96/24: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS 96/24
  • DTS-ES Matrix 6.1: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS-ES Matrix 6.1
  • DTS-ES Discrete 6.1: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS-ES Discrete 6.1
  • DTS: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DTS Surround
  • DSD: exactly reproduces audio recorded in DSD 2.8 MHz 2-ch to 6-ch

Post Decoding Formats:

  • Dolby Surround: expands 2-channel or 5.1 audio to play over systems with more speakers e.g. 7.1 or 5.1.2
  • DTS Neural:X: expands 2-channel or 5.1 audio to play over systems with more speakers e.g. 7.1 or 5.1.2
  • DTS Neo:6 Music: uses the DTS Neo:6 or DTS-ES Matrix decoder to expand 2-channel music to the surround/surround back speakers
  • DTS Neo:6 Cinema: uses the DTS Neo:6 or DTS-ES Matrix decoder to expand 2-channel movie audio to the surround/surround back speakers

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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About Home Cinema Guide

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.