Getting 5.1 Audio from your Mac

After working with our audio guy in his surround sound studio, I started wondering exactly how I could get a robust surround sound setup in my edit suite. Final Cut Pro X has ridiculously straightforward surround sound panning, and I figured it was about time I took advantage of that. Researching the matter however was not only fruitless, but fairly frustrating.

There are plenty of multi-channel audio interfaces out there, ranging up over $1000 for Thunderbolt enabled ones. The problem I kept coming across however was that these had limited or weird compatibility. Running out of Logic or Pro Tools they were infinitely configurable, but outside of that support was either spotty or non-existent. I thought that it surely couldn’t be this complicated to get system-wide surround sound. Google was no help whatsoever. In one of my deep forum-trawls hgowver, I came across this:

This is a Zalman USB 5.1 sound card. It claimed Mac compatibility and best of all, this was about $6. Once it arrived, I set it up and configured it – this is fairly easy as the configuration is done in Applications>Utilities>Audio Midi Setup. Simply select the card, change it to 5.1, and you can easily click the speakers to make sure they’re all where they’re meant to be. The Zalman had one glaring problem however – adjusting the audio level required using little tiny gain dials on the side, as MacOS couldn’t control the level with the hardware volume buttons.

Seeing the issue, but having very cheaply established a proof of concept, I ordered an Asus Xonar U5 – a USB sound interface with a handy big knob on the top for the audio level.

The configuration was the same as the Zalman, the device was detected and set up was a breeze. However, I noticed something very interesting with this device – when I turned the knob the MacOS system sound level popped up on the screen. So I hit the volume buttons on my keyboard – success! Basically it works as if the speakers were hooked up directly to a system audio output. The knob is basically a handy but probably largely ornamental feature.

The Asus has four stereo outputs and one mic input. One stereo output is a dedicated headphones socket, and the other three correspond with the standard PC 5.1 outputs – Left/Right, Rear Left/Right, and Centre/Sub. With an older amp, one could connect these via analogue inputs (RCA or 6.5”) and use a full set of studio monitors. As this has been a bit experimental until now, I have used the L/R to output to my two studio monitors, and the rear and centre/sub are hooked directly into an old set of Logitech speakers – that 5.1 set that literally everyone had because they were so cheap. Whilst probably not “studio” quality sound, it’s real surround and allows me to mix in surround sound if I did so desire.

Here you can see the Asus on my desk. Excuse the messy shelves in the background – still sorting through old gear! The unit is small and very light, though it seems to have enough weight (and nice, sticky rubber feet) that it won’t move around if handled or if there’s a little bit of weight in the attached cables. The total cost was about $100AUD, but well worth it. Asus also have a 7.1 model that is MacOS supported if 7.1 floats your boat – basically adds centre side speakers. This can be set to your default system audio, meaning DVDs, Final Cut Pro, Quicktime, Logic etc all has access to full 5.1 sound, all the time. Given that it is cheap and doesn’t require a driver is basically the icing on the cake. If you need 5.1 audio out of MacOS for professional apps, this is a good starting place.


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