The lights are on
Update #2: We have good news for those of you using Astro Gaming A50s or that company's MixAmp Pro. We received a statement with instructions on how to get surround sound out of your Xbox One immediately.
"Microsoft’s decision to drop Dolby encoding on their SPDIF output at launch does have ramifications for ASTRO’s products," a representative told us via email. "While our products do not process DTS signals, we do have on-board Dolby encoding in both our A50 Wireless Transmitter as well as our Wired MixAmp Pro. An Xbox One gamer will need to select Stereo output for game audio, but our MixAmps will process that stereo signal with Dolby ProLogic II and encode it with Dolby Headphone – *the* gold standard for simulated 7.1 Surround Sound for gaming headphones. So have no fear gamers, your ASTRO’s will still provide a Dolby Digital Surround experience no matter what your console choice."
Note that Microsoft has promised that Dolby output via optical cable will be patched in after launch. It has not been dropped entirely.
Update: Microsoft's Albert Penello has taken to addressed the absence of Dolby Digital output via optical cable at launch. Penello is a regular NeoGAF user, and visited the forums to assuage some concern over the matter.
"Dolby Digital is coming post launch," he writes. "This was a SW scheduling issue pure and simple, and I know people are disappointed, but we will have it. Anyone with an HDMI receiver should be fine, as we pass the uncompressed 5.1 and 7.1 through HDMI as well as DTS. Even if you have a Dolby only HDMI receiver (which I'm not sure exists), you will still get 5.1 or 7.1 sound since those receivers should accept uncompressed surround. For the Dolby only headsets, my understanding is that these will work but you will only get stereo audio since we only pass Stereo and DTS through the optical port. I have not tested this myself, but I'm told it works. Regardless, I understand this is an inconvenience, but again we're going to have Dolby coming."
This is unrelated to the HDMI-IN "Surround Sound" beta. To clarify, we default HDMI-IN audio to be converted to Stereo. However, we do have a feature you can access in TV settings/Troubleshooting that enables Surround Sound in "beta" form. If you check the box, and you get Surround, you're golden. We found some inconsistencies in STB's during testing and decided to disable it by default to insure a good initial setup experience for people."
If this is the first console launch you've actively followed, no doubt you've been surprised by the features that will be patched in later. Since the ability to update hardware over the internet has become a reality, so has the fact that consoles come out of the oven before they're cooked all the way through.
For months, we’ve been tracking the state of audio on next-generation consoles. The road has been rocky, as the PlayStation 4 still doesn’t support Sony-branded wireless headsets (USB chat is working, though), and Xbox One requires a proprietary connector for chat. One thing we thought was in the clear was getting game audio from the consoles to headsets. We’ve got some bad news.
If you’re connecting via HDMI, everything’s in the clear. You’ve got uncompressed stereo, 5.1, 7.1, and DTS options. For most scenarios, this is perfect. (Protip: don’t expect to get anything more than 2-channel audio by running a digital optical cable from your TV. Most of them are throttled down, but check your display manual for details. Pass-through sounds like a great option until you hear it.)
We spoke with DTS, who shared some exciting news about how a new protocol makes configuring things easy for S/PDIF (digital optical) output and legacy devices. It works across all sources (games, audio, movies) with no popping or clicking, and it means that you won’t have to cycle through your different options when moving between media types.
The problem arises when you try to use a device that only has a Dolby decoder. This is where most gaming headsets fit. I use Astro devices, for instance. My A50s likely will not generate surround sound, as I’ll be forced to use the uncompressed audio option (DTS won’t work).
Many other headsets stick to Dolby for simulated surround sound (using a 5.1 or 7.1 signal to create positional audio out of only two drivers). We looked at the product information for Polk's Microsoft-licensed N1 Surround Bar, and the literature states that it connects via digital optical cable and offers Dolby Digital (and not DTS).
We’ve reached out to Microsoft to help us understand how this decision was made on the platform side and whether there is hope for a console update. We've also reached out to Astro and Turtle Beach to learn about how this will impact those of us on the consumer side. We’ll update as we know more.