December 21, 2014

How To Access Alternate Audio Tracks And Subtitles On An Apple TV

After our TiVo died, our family has turned to the Apple TV more and more. I’ve encoded some movies using Handbrake but wasn’t sure how to access alternative audio tracks (commentary, etc) or subtitles, and an Internet search was less than helpful. It turns out its fairly simple once you know the trick!

A New Hope

I have long used a Series 3 TiVo as my cable tuner, and we often used it for Netflix or Amazon video on demand as well. But it gave up the ghost the other day and I haven’t replaced it yet. Since my ancient and beautiful Sony XBR tube HDTV lacks a QAM tuner, we can only watch Apple TV or DVDs, but that’s increasingly what we want to watch anyway.

The Apple TV is great for watching programs from Netflix and our own private iTunes library. I’ve got many ripped DVDs stored in there, as well as some programs recorded from live TV. There are some things you just can’t get from a streaming service, and Handbrake is a great help there!

For example, I recently downloaded all three “Despecialized” Star Wars movies. Since I own the DVD, I think I’m in the clear legally! These are truly the greatest copies of Star Wars, with the best available video and audio and none of the retro crap George Lucas decided to add over the last decade.

The Empire Strikes Back

I used handbrake to convert the three Star Wars films for compatibility with iTunes and the Apple TV (they were in MKV and AVCHD containers). While I was working on this, I decided to include some of the great alternate audio tracks included in the Despecialized distribution: The original surround mix, a 5.1 mix based on the Laserdisc, and even the mono theatrical mix!

Although the resulting files play fine, I was unsure of how to actually access them on the Apple TV. A web search was no help – it appears Apple really dropped the ball documenting this!

But I did find one valuable hint: Holding down the center button on the Apple remote brings up a menu listing chapters as well as subtitles and alternate audio, if available. But the commenter noted that he couldn’t actually access the alternate tracks!

Hold the center “select” button to access the chapter/subtitle/audio menu

Return of the Jedi

Once I popped up the chapter/subtitle/audio menu on the Apple TV, I quickly discovered the trick to access these features. Although one would think a right- or left-arrow would jump to the next menu, Apple apparently didn’t implement this simple method. Instead, one has to navigate to the top, then right-arrow to the next menu, and then select a subtitle or alternate audio track!

Play a movie from your iTunes library with chapters, subtitles, or alternate audio tracks, and a menu becomes available allowing you to select them.

Hold the “select” button to access this menu, if any chapter markers have been set in the source video file

The first time you hold the “select” button on the Apple remote, it will interrupt the movie and bring up a menu of options. It defaults to a list of all the chapter marks set in the source video file, with the current chapter selected.

Scroll to the top, then right-arrow to access this menu of subtitle options

Scroll to the top of the chapter menu and it becomes possible to access the subtitle or audio menus, if either of these are present in the source file. If you click one, you will be returned to the movie with that feature turned on.

The holy grail: Alternate audio tracks are selectable!

From the top of the list, click right again and you can access the audio menu. This is a list of the alternate audio tracks encoded in the video file. They aren’t helpfully named, but selecting one does seem to activate it. I’m not 100% sure that the Apple TV is passing the correct AAC 5.1 surround mix to my receiver but it sounds like it does. And the commentary track works great, too!

The Apple TV seems to “remember” which track was selected last time, so continuing the movie later will bring the same audio track and subtitle setting.

Note that this menu will not appear at all if no chapters, subtitles, or alternate audio tracks are encoded in the file. And each menu will simply disappear if there would be no content. Unless you go through the effort to encode alternate audio, you won’t even see the option here!

Stephen’s Stance

The user interface for selecting alternate audio and subtitles on the Apple TV is laughably rough, but it works. Hold down the select button, scroll to the top, then scroll right and you can access these features if they are present. Let’s hope Apple improves this in future iOS versions!