In this article I report success and failure with Dolby 5.1 surround sound on various streaming players. There is no single best streaming player, I conclude, at least not among the streaming players that I tested. The results are puzzling.
The first step of course is to work out whether, with some combination of content provider and streaming player, I am actually getting Dolby 5.1 surround sound. The main way to know for sure is by watching the screen of the surround-sound amplifier.
I am using a Pioneer surround-sound amplifier (model SX-218). With this particular amplifier, you might see either of these displays. Neither of the displayed messages mentions the characters “5.1”. But after quite a bit of experimentation I have worked out the actual meaning of the two displayed messages.
|This means the amplifier is not receiving a Dolby 5.1 signal|
|This means the amplifier is receiving a Dolby 5.1 signal|
Having worked out how to decode the message displayed on the screen of the surround sound amplifier, I then tried a variety of combinations of content provider and streaming player. Here are the results.
The streaming players that I used were a Sony Blu-ray player (model BDP-S5100, firmware M15.R.0197), a Roku stick (model 3500X, firmware 7.1.0), and an Amazon Fire TV stick (firmware 184.108.40.206). Each had its most current firmware installed.
|Sony Blu-ray player||Roku stick||Fire TV stick|
|Ex Machina via Amazon video||Dolby 5.1||stereo||Dolby 5.1|
|Top Gun via Amazon video||Dolby 5.1||stereo||Dolby 5.1|
|Archer via Netflix||Dolby 5.1||stereo||stereo|
|Hawaii Five-0 via Netflix||Dolby 5.1||stereo||Dolby 5.1|
|Pompei via Vudu||Dolby 5.1||stereo||no Vudu app|
|Divergent via Vudu||Dolby 5.1||stereo||no Vudu app|
|Game of Thrones via HBO Now||no HBO Now app||Dolby 5.1||stereo|
|Jurassic World via HBO Now||no HBO Now app||Dolby 5.1||stereo|
Let’s start with Amazon video. If you want Dolby 5.1 from Amazon Video, the Roku player is no good. It only passed stereo (not Dolby 5.1) to the surround sound amplifier. The other two players worked fine with Amazon video.
The results were almost the same with Netflix. The Roku stick was no good for Dolby 5.1 on Netflix. Oddly, however, while the Fire TV stick worked for Dolby 5.1 for Hawaii Five-0, it delivered only stereo for Archer. The Blu-ray player delivered Dolby 5.1 for both programs.
The next experiment was Vudu. The Roku player was again a disappointment, delivering only stereo for two different movies. The Blu-ray player delivered Dolby 5.1 for both movies. The Fire TV Stick was a disappointment because it does not even have a Vudu app.
At this point you might conclude that the best way to go for surround-sound viewing is the Blu-ray player. And that there is no point to even bothering to purchase and install a Roku stick. But now let’s look at HBO Now. The Blu-ray player does not have an HBO Now app. The Roku stick, which failed to deliver Dolby 5.1 for any of the previously mentioned content providers, unexpectedly shines. It provides Game of Thrones and Jurassic World with Dolby 5.1, while the Fire TV stick only delivers stereo.
So as things now stand, if you want to watch Game of Thrones with Dolby 5.1, you would have to get a Roku stick. For many other programs, the Blu-ray player or Fire TV stick would be the way to go. But perhaps most disappointingly, not one of the three streaming devices worked across all of the test programs.
I’m going to contact Amazon to see if someone there will be willing to address the various failures of the Fire TV stick to pass along the Dolby 5.1 signal for HBO Now and for one of the Netflix programs. And I’m going to contact Roku to see if someone there will be willing to address the various failures of the Roku stick to pass along the Dolby 5.1 signal for Amazon video and Netflix and Vudu. (Note that on the Roku web site, they promise that the stick supports Dolby 5.1 for Amazon video and Netflix and Vudu.) If there is any progress I will post a followup.
Now let’s talk about one more thing that these companies need to do.
Every streaming device (for example Roku or Fire TV stick) needs to have a built-in test that can be used for testing Dolby 5.1 in the surround sound system. In a streaming media stick, for example, I ought to be able to go to “settings” and “audio” and click on a test button that will play a Dolby 5.1 signal with a voice saying “left front” and “middle” and “right surround” and so on, with the voice coming out of the respective speaker.
In a similar way, every content provider (for example Amazon video or Netflix or HBO Now) needs to provide a test program for testing Dolby 5.1 in the streaming device and in the surround sound system. You would play the program and you could then listen to see if you hear the voice saying “left front” and “middle” and “right surround” and so on, with the voice coming out of the respective speaker.