Sound Card and Speaker Troubleshooting
Warning! You must unplug your ATX power supply from the wall before working inside the case.
Copyright 2010 by Morris Rosenthal
All Rights Reserved
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PC Sound Card Problems - Driver and Device Manager
Note that these steps correspond with decision points on the flowchart and are reached directly by clicking on the diamond symbols. The text below cannot be read sequentially.
Do you get any audio out of the PC other than beeps on power-up? The beeps you hear on power-up are not part of the PC's sound system, they are generated by a tiny piezoelectric speaker on the motherboard that is included strictly for diagnostic codes. If you are getting any other audio from the PC, music, chimes, etc, the sound hardware hasn't failed, so you can proceed to the sound performance flowchart. I just posted a page that looks at some laptop sound problem issues.
Is sound enabled in the operating system? In Windows, the basic "Sounds" menu is found in Control Panel. Sound events that have little speakers next to them are enabled. Enable sounds for some actions that you recognize (like "exit program" or "minimize") and see if your speakers work now. Note that operating system sounds don't need to be enabled for music CDs or games to work, but if you're here, we're starting off with the assumption that you aren't getting any sound out of the speakers at all.
Are the speakers plugged in to a power source? The volume control on speakers usually serves as an on/off as well. There are some super cheap speakers that don't offer amplification, in which case there won't be any power cord, but don't expect much in terms of volume or quality. Really ancient speakers may be powered by batteries rather than a transformer, so if your speakers don't have a power cord, double check that they don't have a hatch for batteries.
HaveThe oldest sound cards have a manual volume dial, as do most external speakers. Manual volume dials should be adjusted to somewhere in the middle of the range, not all the way to one extreme or the other. Did you check? Check again. You don't want to invite a friend over to help with your sound problem, only to find the volume is manually turned down.
DoesHave you loaded the best driver for the sound card? The best driver means the most recent driver, so check the manufacturer's website for an update, because your sound card may have been sitting on a shelf for a year before you bought it. If the sound is integrated on the motherboard, check for an update at your motherboard manufacturer's web site.
Does Device Manager register the sound card or integrated motherboard audio and report that the device is working properly? Even if you don't have the proper driver, Device Manager will probably identify it as a sound controller. Before you start stripping down the system or chase off to conflict resolution, make sure the adapter is seated in the motherboard slot.
If the Device Manager reports a resource conflict between any of the audio devices and another device, look through all of your device reports and figure out where the conflict is. It may be resolvable by changing the settings in Device Manager, or it may take aggressive reshuffling of adapters. If you get a "!," "?" or "i" on the sound controller in Device Manager, proceed to Conflict Resolution.
Check your documentation or the symbols on the sound card to make sure you actually have the speakers plugged into the proper jack. On high-end sound cards with front and rear speaker jacks, try the front speaker jack first. Check that your audio patch cables are all plugged firmly into the proper jacks and that the cables aren't damaged. If you have USB speakers, they don't jack directly into the sound card.
If you are using USB speakers or a full USB sound card, try connecting them to a different USB port. USB ports often break inside the PC when the cords are jerked or tripped over. If you can't get the USB sound device to function on the PC, test it on any other PC or laptop. If it works on another computer, you know that the problem is either that all of your USB ports have failed, which would usually mean the USB controller on the motherboard popped, that the driver software is incompatible, or that you didn't find a "mute" in the OS.
Software volume controls are the #1 problem with sound, and a real pain to figure out if multiple people use the system. Aside from the primary volume control often found in your system tray, there are various other mixer panels and volume adjustments that get installed with the driver and are offered in various applications. All of these can cause a complete absence of sound if the "mute" box is checked. I don't have any magic method for finding the mixer panel or any additional volume controls in a typical system. The Multimedia icon in Control Panel is a good place to start.
Does your sound system work properly with everything except music CDs? If so, proceed to CD and DVD Playback diagnostics. One good test is to try the speakers and cables on another system, or another device with a speaker jack, like a portable radio. Make sure you first turn the speaker volume control all the way down in case the output is already amplified. If your speakers and cables don't work anywhere, try swapping the cables to find out which is faulty. If the speakers and cables are good, either the sound card is blown or you didn't look hard enough for a hidden mute in software.
If Device Manager only registers the sound card when you strip out all the adapters except the video card, it's definitely a conflict. If it's a new build or a new sound card, make sure you followed the installation instructions, which may have specified that you must install the software before installing the hardware. If that was the case and you did it backwards, remove the sound card, uninstall the software through Windows Control Panel > Add/Remove Programs, and start over. If you have another sound card lying around, it's a good time to replace the sound card; otherwise proceed to Conflict Resolution.
If your only audio support is built into the motherboard, make sure it's enabled in CMOS Setup. If you are using a sound card, make sure any motherboard audio is disabled in CMOS Setup. The easiest way to replace a motherboard integrated sound card is to pick up USB speakers (the sound card is built into the speakers) or a full USB sound hub. The only potential problem with these is if you have an older CD or DVD drive that doesn't support DAE (Digital Audio Extraction). Without DAE, USB sound devices won't be able to play music CDs.
If you can't get the operating system to recognize an installed sound card, which is sure to be plug-and-play, shut down and unplug, remove all the other adapters except the video card from the system, reboot and let the BIOS and operating system adjust. Then shut down and unplug again, add the sound card, and see if you can get it going. If this works, you might still have problems when you add the other adapters back in, but if you do it one at a time, at least you'll find out for sure where the conflict lies.
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