There's been some confusion about whether the Xbox One can play cable TV in surround sound. It can. There's a catch—a presumably temporary one.
As I wrote in the New York Times last week and as we mentioned in our review of the console, the Xbox One will downgrade any surround sound audio that comes from a devices connected via its HDMI-in port to stereo. It does this by default.
That's odd and it's clearly not what Microsoft wants, since they actually are shipping the Xbox One with a TV surround sound option. That option is buried under a bunch of menus. It's labeled as being in "beta", though any user can access it and Microsoft intends to improve it.
Here's how to find it:
Why'd they bury it there? Because it's not ready for prime time, according to Microsoft:
— Albert Penello (@albertpenello) November 20, 2013
I've used the beta option, and I can confirm that it does mix stereo back into surround sound. My Xbox One has a cable box plugged into it and is itself plugged into a 5.1 Bose surround sound system that then connects to my TV. After selecting this beta option, I was able to watch Time Warner Cable in surround through the Xbox One. It's worth the hassle if you're interested in using Microsoft's voice-activated TV listings and if you'd like to be able to multitask and watch cable TV in a picture-in-picture mode while playing an Xbox One game or using the system's apps.
Sorry, audiophiles, but I can't tell you how well the beta mixes the audio back into surround. I just know that you'll hear some rear-channel audio again once you do that.
To be clear about all this:
- The Xbox One will run any of its own stuff—games, videos, movies in surround sound.
- The Xbox One will bump down the audio coming from devices plugged into its HDMI-in port—i.e. cable boxes (we haven't tested it with game consoles)—from surround sound to stereo
- The Surround Sound Beta option will bump that stereo audio to some form of surround
- You could try putting your cable box's audio through your surround sound system and then plug that system into the Xbox One. But if you, like me, use your surround sound system to swap between multiple connected devices, then that set-up would require all your video signals, even from other gaming consoles, to pass through a powered-on Xbox One before reaching your TV. Not ideal for a variety of reasons.
- You could try splitting your HDMI signal, something we've not been able to test.