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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 11 Issue 3
March 2017
No Sound? Sound Too Low? Try These Ideas

The problem

It can be difficult enough to get good quality sound from a computer, so it's especially vexing when the sound is too low or entirely off for no obvious reason. Here is my advice on how to explore the most common causes.


There are a number of different things that control or affect your computer's sound volume, including:

  • The system volume level
  • The volume level in the particular program or website you're using, e.g., iTunes, YouTube, Skype, etc.
  • The sound level or quality of the recording or live transmission you're listening to
  • Which sound output device is currently chosen
  • The sound buttons and volume knob on some keyboards
  • Whether anything is plugged into the speaker port
  • Your external wired speakers or headset
  • Your Bluetooth (wireless) speakers or headset
  • Your internal speakers
Read on for my advice on how to troubleshoot each of these.

The system volume level

This is the main volume control for your computer. There is usually a little on-screen "speaker" icon that you can click to reveal and adjust the volume level, as well as a window you can open to get more detailed options in your Control Panel (Windows) or System Preferences (Macintosh). Make sure that the "mute" option is off and that the volume level is reasonable. Unless you're running a meeting or workshop and need to fill a room with sound, or you're working with a very faint sound source, keep the volume below maximum to start.

The volume level in the particular program or website

This setting will be in the window (or in the Options, Settings, or Preferences) of the particular software (like iTunes, Skype, etc.) or website (YouTube, CNN, etc.) that you're using. It may be a horizontal or vertical "slider," or another little speaker icon. Make sure that "mute" is off, and set this volume level to maximum or 100%. That will keep things simple, and gives your system volume level more control.

The sound level or quality of the recording or live transmission

If the sound you're listening to is faint or poor quality, then there is not much you can do. It's rare, but some sources give you a choice of sound quality, but most of the time your only option is to turn up your system volume.

If you're using an internet connection (e.g., Skype, YouTube, streaming music, etc.), switching your computer from wireless to a wired internet connection might boost the sound (and video) quality, but it will need to be close enough to your modem or router to plug in a network cable.

Using closed captions to better understand speech

If the sound you're listening to includes someone speaking, some systems like YouTube may give you the option to display closed captions, which can help you follow what's being said by reading the on-screen text.

If you're talking on Skype, and you (or the person you're talking to) is using Windows 7 or later, or Skype for Web, in 2015 Microsoft added a "Skype Translator" option that can help by mechanically generating closed captions plus spoken language translation during your live conversation. Like all speech-to-text technology, the clearer and more distinct the speech, the better the result.

Which sound output device is currently chosen?

Click the "Sound" icon in the Windows Control Panel or the Macintosh System Preferences to find out which Playback or Output device is currently chosen. If no sound is coming out of your speakers, this setting may reveal that your computer is trying to use another physical device (like the wrong speakers or a forgotten headset) or even a "virtual" sound output device (like the LogMeIn Sound Driver). If it's not set to the right sound output device, correct it and see if that solves the problem.

It can also help to power that device off and on again, and Restart your computer.

The sound buttons and volume knob on some keyboards

Many keyboards have built-in sound functions, including mute, volume-down, and volume-up keys, and some even have a volume knob. If they work, they usually change the system volume, which can be more convenient than finding the volume control on your screen and clicking it with your mouse.

Is anything is plugged into the speaker port?

If you plug external speakers or a headset into your speaker jack, your computer's internal circuitry will not only send its sound out through that port, it will also immediately cut the sound to your internal speakers (if any). So, if you prefer to use your internal speakers but you're not getting any sound from them, make sure that nothing is plugged into your speaker port.

Sometimes a computer port can get a little corrosion on its metal contacts. If you unplug and re-plug the cable going into that port a number of times, that can scrape the corrosion off and make the external device start working again. It is normal to hear pops and crackles from your speakers as you do this.

Also, don't confuse the microphone port with the speaker port. Most computers label the speaker port with a "headset" icon that looks like an upside-down "U" that might also resemble a horseshoe or omega symbol, and some just use the word "Out." Many Windows desktops also use green-colored plastic to mark the speaker port.

Your external wired speakers or headset

If you are using external wired speakers, make sure that:
  • They are plugged into the speaker port (not the microphone port).
  • They are connected to a power source, i.e., that their power cable is plugged into a working outlet. For battery-powered speakers, make sure the batteries have a charge, and that the battery contacts are not corroded.
  • The power button is on.
  • The volume knob is turned up to a reasonable (but not maximum) level. On many speakers, the knob is also the power switch.
  • The wires between the various speaker components (woofers, tweeters, amplifier, etc.) are all connected properly.
  • If the speakers have an electrical safety fuse, make sure that it hasn't blown.
If you're using an external wired headset or headphones, make sure that:
  • Its cable is plugged into the speaker port.
  • Its volume dial (if any) is turned up.
  • For a headset, also check that its mute switch is off, so when you speak into the microphone your voice will be heard.
It's also a good idea to have spare speakers or another headset on hand that you can use to figure out whether your primary device has stopped working, or whether the problem lies with your computer's speaker port.

Your Bluetooth (wireless) speakers or headset

Similarly, if you have paired your computer with Bluetooth speakers or a headset, make sure that:
  • Your Bluetooth device is the current choice for your computer's sound output,
  • It has a working power source,
  • Its volume is up, and
  • It is close enough to your computer to function (typically 30 feet or less).
Your internal speakers

Most laptops and all modern Macintoshes have internal speakers, but many Windows desktop computers don't. If your computer has internal speakers, it is possible that they have simply stopped working, perhaps due to a loose wire or other problem. If you have eliminated all other possibilities, you should consider having a technician take a look.

  • Multiple layers of volume controls may be interacting to control your computer's volume level.
  • Sound level problems can be caused by a combination of software and hardware settings, so don't assume that there can only be a single cause.
  • Be methodical in your troubleshooting.
  • If you have a sound problem and solve it, write down the steps involved so that next time you'll be able to cover the same ground more efficiently.
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2017 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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