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Upgrading and Repairing PCs Tip #13: Troubleshooting PC Audio Problems

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Although Plug and Play (PnP) PCI and PCIe sound cards and integrated audio have eliminated the troublesome hardware resource conflicts that once made adding audio to a PC a big headache, there are still many possible sources of frustration with recording or playback. In this excerpt from the 22nd edition of Scott Mueller's Upgrading and Repairing PCs, Scott helps you troubleshoot your audio hardware.

Find more tips from Upgrading and Repairing PCs here.

From the book

Sound Card and Onboard Audio Problems

Like the common cold, sound hardware problems have common symptoms. Use the following sections to diagnose your problem.

No Sound

If you don’t hear anything from your computer, consider these solutions:

  • Are the speakers connected? Check that the speakers are plugged in to the sound card’s stereo line out or speaker jack (not the line in or microphone jack).
  • Are the speakers receiving power? Check that the power “brick” or power cord is plugged in securely and that the speakers are turned on.
  • Are the speakers stereo? Check that the plug inserted into the jack is a stereo plug, not mono.
  • Are the mixer settings correct? The mixer controls the volume settings for various sound devices, such as the microphone or the CD player. There might be separate controls for both recording and playback. Increase the master volume or speaker volume when you are in the play mode. With some audio hardware, you might need to use a proprietary mixer program (typically installed as part of the sound card or integrated audio setup) to have complete control of speakers, headphones, and microphones.
  • If the Mute option is selected in your sound mixer, you won’t hear anything. Depending on the speaker type and sound source type, you might need to switch from analog to digital sound for some types of sound output. Make sure that the correct digital audio volume controls are enabled in your audio device’s mixer control.
  • Use any setup or diagnostic software provided with your audio hardware or integrated sound to test and adjust the volume of the adapter. Such software usually includes sample sounds used to test the adapter.
  • Turn off your computer for 1 minute, and then turn it back on. A hard reset (as opposed to pressing the Reset button or pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete) might clear the problem.
  • If your computer game lacks sound, check that it is designed to work with your audio adapter. For example, some legacy (DOS-based) and early Windows games might require Sound Blaster compatibility that modern versions of Windows no longer support. Refer to the section earlier in this chapter titled “Legacy Audio Support Through Virtualization.”
  • If you’re using motherboard-integrated audio, ensure that the onboard audio is enabled (check the BIOS Setup program) and that the proper drivers and player program have been installed (check the Windows Control Panel).
  • If you’re using motherboard-integrated audio that employs a removable header cable (such as with some SPDIF optical or four/six-channel analog speaker configurations), ensure that the header cable is properly connected to the motherboard.
  • Note that a few high-end cards have a connector for additional power; be sure to connect the appropriate power lead to ensure that the card will operate.

Volume Is Low

If you can barely hear your sound, try these solutions:

  • Are the speakers plugged into the proper jack? Speakers require a higher level of drive signal than headphones. Again, adjust the volume level in your mixer application.
  • Are the mixer settings too low? Again, adjust the volume level in your mixer.
  • Is the initial volume too low? If your audio adapter has an external volume control, check to ensure that it is not turned down too low.
  • Are the speakers too weak? Some speakers might need more power than your audio adapter can produce. Try other speakers, or put a stereo amplifier between your sound card and speakers.

Some Speakers Don’t Play

If you hear sound coming from some speakers, but not others, check the following:

  • Mono plug in the stereo jack—A common mistake is to use a mono plug in the sound card’s speaker or stereo out jack. Seen from the side, a stereo connector has two darker stripes. A mono connector has only one stripe.
  • No power to speakers—Check the AC adapter’s connection to the electrical outlet.
  • Loose speaker connection to some speakers—When possible, use keyed and color-coded connectors to avoid mistakes.
  • Speakers not set to same volume—Some speakers use separate volume controls on each speaker. Balance them for best results. Separate speaker volume controls can be an advantage if one speaker must be farther away from the user than the other.
  • Loose speaker jack—If you find that plugging in your speaker to the jack properly doesn’t produce sound but pulling the plug halfway out or “jimmying” it around in its hole can temporarily correct the problem, you’re on the road to a speaker jack failure. To avoid damage to the speaker jack, be sure you insert the plug straight in, not at an angle.
  • Incorrect sound mixer settings—Most systems assume that you are using two-channel (stereophonic) sound, even if you have plugged in four or more speakers. Select the correct speaker type with the Windows Speaker icon or a third-party sound mixer.
  • Additional speakers connected to the wrong jacks—Be sure you connect the additional speakers needed for four-channel, six-channel, or eight-channel audio to the correct jacks. If you connect them to line in or microphone jacks, they won’t work.
  • Incorrect balance settings—The volume control also adjusts the balance between the left and right speakers. If you hear audio from the left speakers only or the right speakers only, the balance control needs to be centered with the Windows Speaker icon or a third-party sound mixer.

Some Types of Sounds Play, But Others Don’t

If you can hear CDs but not WAV or MP3 digital music, or you can play WAV and MP3 but not CD or MIDI files, check the following:

  • Low volume or mute settings for some audio types—Some audio mixers have separate volume controls for WAV/MP3, MIDI, CD digital, CD audio, and other sound types and sources. Unmute any audio types you play back, and adjust the volume as desired. In Windows 7 and newer, you can set different volume levels for individual apps, such as Windows Media Player and YouTube. To do so, adjust the system volume to maximum, then adjust the volume control in each application as desired.

Scratchy Sound

Scratchy or static-filled sound can be caused by several problems. Improving the sound can be as simple as rearranging your hardware components. The following list suggests possible solutions to the problem of scratchy sound:

  • Interference from other cards—The sound card might be picking up electrical interference from other expansion cards inside the PC. Move the audio card to an expansion slot as far away as possible from other cards.
  • Dirty cable connector or jack—Unplug each connector and wipe it, and then reconnect it.
  • Interference from CRT display—The speakers can pick up electrical noise from your monitor. Move them farther away. Never place subwoofers near the monitor because their powerful magnets can interfere with the picture. Put them on the floor to maximize low-frequency transmission.
  • Some games don’t play at all or have poor-quality sound—If you notice sound problems such as stuttering voices, static, or a lack of audio on some games but not others, check with the game vendor for a software patch or with the sound card vendor for updated drivers. If you use Creative ALchemy for 3D audio, look up the settings for your game at the Creative Labs ALchemy website. If the game uses DirectX under Windows XP or older versions, run the DXDIAG diagnostics program from the Windows Run dialog. Click Start, click Run, type dxdiag, and click OK. (Windows Vista and newer versions also include DXDIAG, but they do not support hardware audio acceleration.) In DXDIAG, click the Sound tab. Adjust the slider for Hardware Sound Acceleration Level down one notch from Full (the default) to Standard, click Save All Information, and exit. Retry the game. If the problem persists, adjust the Hardware Sound Acceleration Level to Basic. If other games have performance problems after you adjust the Hardware Sound Acceleration Level, be sure to reset it to Full before playing those games.

Your Computer Won’t Start

If your computer won’t start at all after you installed a new sound card, you might not have inserted the sound card completely into its slot. Turn off the PC and then press firmly on the card until it is seated correctly.

If you can’t start your computer after installing a new sound card and its drivers, you can use the Windows “bootlog” feature to record every event during startup; this file records which hardware drivers are loaded during startup and indicates whether the file loaded successfully, didn’t load successfully, or froze the computer. See the documentation for your version of Windows for details on how to create a bootlog when necessary.

Advanced Features

If you are having problems playing DVD audio, playing MP3 files, or using SPDIF connections, make sure of the following:

  • You have enabled the hardware resources on the sound card.
  • You are using the correct playback program.
  • Your mixer has the correct volume control setting for the device.
  • You have enabled digital playback (if you are using coaxial or optical SPDIF output).
  • Your cabling is correct for the device.

Other Problems

A good way to solve problems of all types with PnP cards and integrated hardware, a PnP BIOS, and Windows is to use the Device Manager to remove the sound card or integrated audio, restart the system, and enable the card’s components to be redetected. This installs a “fresh” copy of the software and reinserts Registry entries.

If reinstalling the current driver with this method doesn’t improve your results, download and install updated drivers for your sound card or integrated audio.

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