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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky

Volume 17 Issue 10

October 2023

Are Your Computer Speakers Too Soft?

The Problem

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in a Zoom meeting on your computer or listening to some music or watching a video, but even after you’ve turned up the volume, the sound still isn’t very loud.


Assuming that your speakers aren’t muted or turned off, that there isn’t a hardware problem with your speakers, or that the source of the sound isn’t very soft to begin with, the answer is probably that the volume level you hear is actually a combination of two or three separate volume controls, so in order to increase the resulting volume you’ll probably have to find and adjust those other controls.


How many volume controls does your computer have?


This depends on your computer’s hardware. In general:


A computer with built-in speakers has 2 volume controls:


  • The “system-level” (or central) volume control
  • and the volume control in whatever software you’re using.


A computer with external speakers has 3 volume controls:


  • The “system-level” (or central) volume control,
  • the volume control in whatever software you’re using,
  • and the volume knob on the external speakers that you’ve connected to your computer.


Note that:


  • All recent desktop Macintoshes (iMac, Mac mini, etc.) and laptops (MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro) have built-in speakers.
  • Most desktop Windows PCs (where the monitor is separate) don’t have built-in speakers, so in order to produce any sound you’ll need to connect external speakers.
  • “All-in-one” desktop Windows PCs (where the computer and the monitor are a single device) typically have built-in speakers.
  • Some external monitors also contain speakers.
  • There are two types of external speakers: Some plug in to your computer’s audio port with a wire while others are cordless, and many of those use the Bluetooth protocol.
  • Any reference here to external speakers will also apply to headsets (one or two speakers plus a microphone) or headphones (two speakers, one for each ear, but no microphone).
  • The software you’re using could be anything that produces sound or music or video, including Apple Music or iTunes, Pandora, Skype, Spotify, VLC, Windows Media Player, Zoom, etc. Or you might be in a web browser (Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Mozille Firefox, etc.) on a website that produces sound, including Amazon Prime, CNN, TED.com, Facebook, Hulu, Netflix, TikTok, Vimeo, YouTube, etc.


How do these separate volume controls combine to make the resulting volume?


Although the technical details are a little complicated and can vary depending on your hardware and software (e.g., some volume controls are linear, some are logarithmic, and others are nonlinear), here’s a simple way to understand how they combine:


If you think of each volume level as a percentage from 0% (silent) to 100% (maximum) expressed as a decimal number from 0.0 to 1.0, multiplying the volume levels together will give you a simplified calculation of the resulting volume. The actual volume you hear may be louder.


For example:


  • If your computer has 2 volume controls, both at 50% (half-level), your simple effective volume would be: 0.5 x 0.5 = 0.25 = 25% of maximum.
  • If your computer has 3 volume controls, all at 50%, your simple effective volume would be: 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 = 0.125 = 12.5% of maximum.


Note that:


  • If one of your volume levels is at 0%, then no matter what the other levels are, you will get no sound.
  • If one of your volume levels is at 100%, then it won’t affect the resulting volume unless you lower it.


Where is the system volume control located?


On Macintosh:


  • Click the little “speaker” icon in the menu bar at the top of your monitor among the icons to the right.
  • You can also lower, raise, or mute the system volume using 3 special keys on your keyboard labeled with variations of “speaker” icons.


On Windows:


  • Click the little “speaker” icon in the Taskbar at the lower right of your monitor.
  • Some keyboards have 3 special keys (labeled with variations of “speaker” icons) that also let you mute, lower, or raise the system volume.


Where is the volume control in whatever software you’re using?


This varies widely, depending on the program you’re in. In general, look for a little “speaker” icon in the program’s window, which may also have a volume level “slider” control next to it.


Note that:


  • In Netflix, Vimeo, YouTube and others: You may have to “wave” your mouse cursor over the video to reveal the controls across the bottom, one of which will be the little speaker icon.
  • You may also have to “hover” your mouse cursor over the speaker icon to reveal the slider.


Troubleshooting speakers


Here are a few suggestions:


  • If your computer has multiple speakers (internal vs. external vs. ones built into an external monitor), only one can be active at a time, so if the currently selected one is the one that you expect, you will need to switch to the one you want to use. Also, each set of speakers may separately remember their own independent volume level, so switching between speakers may also implicitly change that volume level.
  • Some external Bluetooth speakers also let you plug them into your computer with an audio cable. If it’s not loud enough via Bluetooth, plugging it in may well give you much louder and better sound.
  • Wired external speakers may make audible “scratchy” or “crackle” noises. Try unplugging and re-plugging the audio cable where it goes into your computer, as well as turning the volume knob up and down. Both of those techniques can “scrape off” corrosion that might have built up in the metal contacts.
  • If you aren’t happy with the sound quality, try raising one volume level and lowering another to see if that helps.


My advice


Having multiple volume controls that get combined together can be very confusing. I recommend:

  • With only one set of speakers connected, adjust your computer’s system-level volume to whatever is comfortable. Some people like 100%, others 75% or 50%.
  • Keep your various programs’ software-level volumes at 100%, which simplifies the situation a bit.
  • If you use external speakers, plug them in next and adjust the knob to a comfortable level. You probably won’t need to go above 50% or 75%.


Mobile devices


  • iPhone & iPad: In general, each volume control is independent, i.e., they don’t combine together as they do on a Windows or Macintosh computer. Note also that if you flip the “Ring/Silent” switch on the edge of the device to reveal its little patch of orange, that will turn on “Silent mode,” which silences some sounds, but not all.
  • Android: You’re likely to find that there is one system volume level that controls most mobile apps, but some models let you choose different volume levels for individual apps.


Where to go from here


As always, if this seems too complicated to manage on your own, I recommend that you find someone you know and trust to help you.


In the searches below, replace “X” with “windows,” “macintosh,” “iPhone,” “iPad,” or “Android” as appropriate.


  • google: X change speakers
  • google: X multiple volume control
  • google: X multiply volume levels together
  • google: X multiple volume controls

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) 2023 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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