PCM vs Bitstream For Soundbar
The PCM vs Bitstream decision for a soundbar differs from the standard PCM vs Bitstream discussion, as the introduction of a soundbar in our technical landscape obliges us to make decisions in relation to the enablement of Dolby Atmos and the channels of the soundbar (2.1 vs 3.1 and over, for example)
The settings here do not depend only on the soundbar you have. We need to analyze the entire landscape architecture, which encompasses the emission of sound and the data layer.
Bitstream, and not PCM, is the preferred option for operating consumer audio home systems with a soundbar for the emission of sound.
Bitstream is a must if you want Atmos out of your TV. Nevertheless, even if your TV supports Atmos, your soundbar should support it as well. On the TV side, you should set it to “Bitstream” as that setting basically “passes through whatever format is playing to the soundbar system.
PCM seems more suitable for games instead. This means that on a console, such as the PS4 or PS5, you should set it to PCM because that setting will furnish you with uncompressed audio from games.
But if instead of playing games on your PS4 or your PS5 you are playing a Blu-Ray, the settings are different because game audio and Blu-Ray audio have different configurations. With a Blu-Ray movie, start playing it (otherwise the options will be greyed and unavailable depending on the model) and choose the sound format “Bitstream” in the dropdown menu.
I have not used a PS2 or PS3 so I cannot tell you how to the settings there.
Therefore, regarding the discussion of PCM vs Bitstream for a soundbar, we can define that PCM is really for 2.1 ch systems and does not provide full surround sound.
Bitstream, on the other hand, will allow whatever sound system you have “passthrough” (depending of course, on what your soundbar is connected to) and allow it to have full surround sound.
Furthermore, Bitstream through the TV can take advantage of Auto Low Latency Mode and Variable Refresh Rate. So always consider the TV and not only the soundbar when defining if you can choose PCM vs Bitstream
So if you use PCM you would only have a left and right speaker, with disregard for your actual landscape architecture like if you had a 2.1ch soundbar, representing a mere left and right channel.
So do not use PCM if you have a soundbar of 3.1ch or more. Otherwise, you would be “downgraded”.
If you have a soundbar with 2.1ch that does not support Atmos, then you may go for the PCM option. If the device supports Dolby Atmos, then Bitstream should be selected.
This analysis is also valid if you are using an internal app such as Netflix.
PCM setting is only recommended to use if your sound system experiences issues on higher settings (meaning the system may not be compatible with Dolby), or if it is the only option available for the content you are currently displaying on the TV.
PCM Or Bitstream For 2.1 Soundbar
For a 2.1ch soundbar, you can use either PCM or Bitstream without any meaningful difference, unless the soundbar supports Dolby Atmos, wherein it is more convenient to choose the Bitstream format.
The advice from the paragraph above is valid only for 2.1ch soundbars. For 3.1ch and over, Bitstream will be the preferred option instead of PCM. This is because PCM will leave your configuration as if you had only a right and a left channel.
There are several nuances to this, so if you have a 2.1 multichannel fixture (left and right plus a subwoofer) better read this article where we discuss if you have to select PCM or Bitstream for 2.1 soundbar multichannel fixtures.
I am Bob. I work as an audio engineer and audio technician. I work in mastering and arranging bridges in existing songs and the arrangement and orchestration of the chorus. In Planet HiFi I test gear for a couple of days and write a review. I also write about AV topics, amplifiers, speakers, and headphones.