Mac Rant: Optical Audio

by postbreak

I’m going to try to keep these rants to a minimum. I don’t often have problems with OSX and even when I do they tend to be minimal. This next problem brings my blood to a boil. I’m going to split this post up so if you want to avoid my opinion skip the read link however if you want to chime in on why I think the audio settings in OSX suck be my guest. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

First lets get optical audio out of the way. Incase you didn’t know current Macs such as Macbooks and Macbook Pros support optical audio through the headphone jack. They use something called a mini-toslink adapter. This converts standard a 3.5mm headphone jack into optical allowing you to connect your Mac to a receiver or surround sound system. I use optical audio because it gives you higher quality audio as well as surround sound capability. 

Here comes the real problem with optical audio. OSX locks the volume to 100% without allowing you to change it. After some searching on the internet I found a few answers. Optical audio is completely digital so there is no conceivable way to lower the audio, that would simply degrade the 1’s and 0’s going over the fiber. This makes sense however you can easily change the volume on iTunes. If I can lower the sound of iTunes or Quicktime why can’t I simply change the system audio?

Locked Audio

Another explanation is that this locked volume is considered to be a “feature”. With the system audio locked you can simply adjust the volume with your receiver right? Well sure that works but my receiver is away from my desk behind glass doors. I bet a few people are up in arms over my little rant but here is where things get interesting.

On a whim I installed Vista through bootcamp. I did this so I could play Half-Life 2 however I found something unexpected. While playing with the audio settings in Vista to get it to switch over to optical output I noticed something. With the same hardware, same receiver, different OS, I could adjust my audio output even on optical. It’s not the first time limitations have been implemented on OSX that disappear on Windows. 

Vista Audio

Now not only can I change the system audio in Vista but I could adjust the volume on a per application basis. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Mac application that could bring this level of customization however I have yet to see one that will let me unlock my optical audio settings. 

I can only hope that this level of customization comes to Leopard in an update or even Snow Leopard, if my Mac is even supported. I am nit picking like crazy but I still don’t understand why I can’t change the volume level on my keyboard while using optical audio. 

I would really like to hear what you think of this rant, let me know in the comments.