I started writing a how-to and it turned into an excessively long rant including how much Sony’s UI engineers make me want to never buy a product from them again and/or hit them with something blunt. It’s rather pointlessly self-indulgent, so here’s the bottom line: Make sure “BD/DVD Audio Output Format (HDMI)” is set to “Linear PCM,” not “Bitstream.” It’s the opposite if what I’d expected, but it’s the only way to get 7.1 sound (or extreme high-definition audio, such as on Akira) out of a PS3 playing a Blu-ray disc.
[Addendum: A software update has now rendered the PS3 capable of outputting the bitstream data of fancier audio formats, so this is no longer necessary, although it's still useful to know if your surround sound system can't handle fancier Dolby/DTS sound but can handle fancier PCM audio.]
Despite being a relatively major tech geek I didn’t even touch the next-gen video format wars until more or less the week Sony finally plunged the dagger of fat wads of cash into HD-DVD’s heart, at which point I went and got a 1080p TV and a blu-ray player so I could start buying unnecessarily high resolution anime. I decided on a PS3 as the player, despite the extravagant cost, because at the time it was one of the best for the price (still in the running) and I could consolidate some old game systems, too. I’m thankful, because it later allowed me to play Valkyria Chronicles, of which I will speak on another occasion.
(Side note: Given that a decent amount of modern anime is produced for HDTV you’d think that there would be more high-def stuff on the market, even more so since the US is now in the same friggin’ region as Japan so all they need to do is slap a subtitle track on it and sell it for half what it goes for in Japan. Instead, we get mostly nothing, and the one company that is doing this, Honneamise/Bandai, is pulling the biggest pricing screw since their one-episode-per-disc Blue Subarmine 6 release.)
More recently I upgraded my aging 5.1 sound system to a 7.1 that supports all the fancy new HDMI-only formats. It took a while to get the thing calibrated properly, but it does sound quite nice… except I couldn’t seem to get it to actually recognize more than 5 channels.
Um… Why Isn’t This Working
After some frustrating fiddling with buttons and a lot longer asking Google questions than I’d have liked, I finally figured out (and given that all I could locate were confusing forum threads, I will repeat for posterity), how to get your PS3 to properly output the really fancy high-res, 7.1 channel soundtracks (assuming, of course, that you have the rest of the necessary hardware).
The Magic Setting
When setting up your PS3, you probably went through the “Sound Settings” sub-tab and set it to output all the formats your sound rig can handle. So far so good. What you may have missed (or, as I did, misinterpreted) is in the “Video Settings“ sub-tab, there is an option for “BD/DVD Audio Output Format (HDMI).”
Now, since my sound receiver knows how to decode DTS Master Audio and Dolby TruHD and all those other high-falutin’ acronyms, I assumed I wanted to set this to “Bitstream,” so that it would spit the audio out exactly as-is off the disc and let my receiver handle it from there.
This is wrong.
In fact, the cryptic warning the PS3 gives you when you select Bitstream (“If you select [Bitstream], some protions of audio from the BD may not be played.”) means the following: The PS3 will not output bistream audio in any of the highest-definition formats. It will instead fall back to the (comparatively) primitive old-style 5.1 audio (in, I assume, one of the lower-fi flavors) and output that. Meaning no fancy 7.1 channel sound and/or lower quality. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, but it’s not exactly obvious.
If, instead, you set it to Linear PCM, you will get the full-definition, 7.1 channel sound. With this setting, the PS3 does the decoding itself, then just feeds the appropriate uncompressed audio stream out over HDMI. When setting it up initially, I’d assumed that due to copy protection (HDCP=evil) you wouldn’t get the best sound out if you used the Linear PCM setting, but I guess it’s not an issue since both devices have to be HDCP aware for it to work at all.
You also want to make sure you don’t have “BD/DVD Dymanic Range Control” turned on (I forget what it defaulted to, but knowing Sony probably “on”). If you’ve got hardware fancy enough to care about any of this you probably already knew that.
While I’m not enough of an audio geek to know whether letting the PS3 do the work rather than a capable receiver is a good thing (since, so far as I know, anything capable of handling 7.1-channel PCM audio over HDMI could), it does seem a little weird that Sony didn’t leave it as an option.
On the plus side, set this way the PS3 will tell you the bitrate and exact format of the audio it’s converting, which is kinda neat. I notice that some Blu-ray discs now have a higher bitrate in the audio stream than most DVDs have in the video.