How should I control/setup my external comptuer speakers
November 25, 2004 4:14 PM   Subscribe

I recently acquired some Altec Lansing powered speakers that are loud enough that I don't have to keep my MP3 player and Windows volume settings at maximum in order to be able to hear anything. So what should I set them to? Should I mainly rely on the external speaker volume knob?
posted by grouse to Computers & Internet (14 answers total)
I always keep mine at about 90% max volume and micro-adjust from there using the volume control in the systray.

I have no doubt someone is going to say that's the wrong way to do it, but I don't care.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 4:23 PM on November 25, 2004

i would leave everything going into your stereo set to maximum and only use the volume control on your amplifier. the rationale here is that the volume controls in windows and winamp don't amplify the signal, they control attenuation, and you want the signal reaching your amplifier to be as hot (loud) as possible to mitigate the audibility of any noise which might be introduced in the cables.

of course, if you then don't have enough fine grain control of the volume with your amp, turn either winamp or your windows volume knob down (i would do winamp for convenience, but for fidelity i don't think it makes a difference).

on preview: it really shouldn't make much of a difference, but there are cases where you'll notice. for instance, i used a mixer where the aux input had a hum. regardless of how loud the signal i sent in, the hum was a constant value. thus, sending the loudest signal in, while attenuating the signal on the mixer minimized the nasty other sound.
posted by too many notes at 4:28 PM on November 25, 2004

I should think about thirty seconds of experimentation would allow you to determine how to get the best sound quality from your particular system.

On mine, maxing the media player volume and the laptop volume sound just as good through my stereo as any other setting.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:33 PM on November 25, 2004

It would depend on the quality of your soundcard - if the built-in amplifier has a consistant range regardless of how much power it puts out, then it shouldn't matter; but on cheaper soundcards you'll usually be better off at 50% in Windows, and have your AL's at 75% (or whatever) and use Winamp to fine-tune
posted by PurplePorpoise at 5:00 PM on November 25, 2004

I use this USB-->Stereo device. It eliminates that annoying sound-card hum. IMHO very worth it.

Also, I never max any audio -- it sounds distorted on the highs and lows that way. I leave everything at about 40-80%.
posted by fourstar at 5:33 PM on November 25, 2004

Response by poster: fourstar: Wow, it "bypasses inferior soundcards with advanced USB rendering technology!"
posted by grouse at 5:43 PM on November 25, 2004

fourstar: any links describing the distortion? i couldn't find anything by googling, and i'm can't imagine how this could happen.
posted by too many notes at 6:12 PM on November 25, 2004

Best answer: I DJ, and I've been doing varying levels of sound engineering from live PA stuff, to recording both live and studio, to setting up some pretty large sound installations. (Largest system so far was 60 cabinets, 30,000+ watts.)

Do NOT max out your windows sound controls. If you max the wave output and the master volume control, you end up with totally clipped, blown out and distorted signal. That'll make any advantages over the minimal amount of noise introduced by cables and connections a totally moot point, considering your signal is now totally mangled well before it even hits the output circuits on your soundcard.

Granted, if that's the only way you get acceptable amplitude levels, that's all you can really do unless you want to invest in a preamp or nicer external USB sound device with preamps built in.

The problem is all onboard sound can only draw so much amperage from the system bus or mobo. That lack of power is very limiting to audio amplification circuits. There is no way around this, except to take the sound offboard with it's own power supply and main connection. Then you can actually run some amplifier circuits.

So, to actually answer the question. You'll likely find the best balance between amplitude and clarity at around 50-75% for both the windows master volume and/or wave-out, and then turning up your powered speakers as loud as you need. There may be a magic ratio you need to find with much experimenting, like it might respond better with the waveout volume higher and the master volume below 50%, or vice versa. Also, pay attention to any gimmicky sound processing crap on the sound card or software side, like any 3D audio processors or enhancers or the like. Properly used they can enhance sound, but if ignored or misapplied they'll ruin it even easier.

All of these factors depend on so many things. Your listening environment. The sound card. The speakers. Experimentation is the key.

Also, you want to know the real secret to good audio? Mid-range. Do not crank your bass and treble up. You'll lose all the clarity. For systems - such as most car audio and self-powered desktop speakers - that only have bass and treble controls, turn both of them down. Way down, to like 10-30%. Then increase the volume. Bring the treble up until it's just a finely nuanced icing on the foundation of the bass and mid-range. Then bring the bass up just far enough that it doesn't blow out the mid-range, but you can still feel it.

If I had a nickle for every overblown, high end system some poor low-rider driving bass monkey made worthless through improper tuning, I could afford to buy some real high fidelity gear that'd make any sane, average person weep with joy at the clarity and reproduction, and a dedicated, acoustically balanced listening room.
posted by loquacious at 6:14 PM on November 25, 2004 [1 favorite]

You assume those monkeys wish to have proper tuning. They don't: they just want to annoy everyone with their booming bass.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:43 PM on November 25, 2004

Do NOT max out your windows sound controls. If you max the wave output and the master volume control, you end up with totally clipped, blown out and distorted signal.

i always leave winamp at max, listen to music quite loud, and have never heard any distortion because of it.

if there is actually any amplification by winamp or windows, then you could distort the signal. it's my impression that the winamp volume control and the windows volume control are attenuators, so maxing them out will result in your signal out the soundcard being exactly the same as the source (with acceptance made for the frequency response of the dac on your soundcard).

my soundcard driver implies as much with its interface, which shows the volume sliders going from -128db (min) to 0db (max). setting it to maximum means no amplification or attenuation will take place. of course this might be particular to my soundcard, with other drivers actually doing amplification. in that case it's anyone's guess where the magic value that neither amplifies nor attenuates is. i'd also be interested to know whether winamp's volume control performs amplification (in which case you shouldn't max it out).

The problem is all onboard sound can only draw so much amperage from the system bus or mobo. That lack of power is very limiting to audio amplification circuits. There is no way around this, except to take the sound offboard with it's own power supply and main connection. Then you can actually run some amplifier circuits.

interesting. this makes a lot of sense, but i'd never heard of it being a practical concern.
posted by too many notes at 7:43 PM on November 25, 2004

Okay, I wasn't going to reply to this thread because all I had to add was "too many notes has it about right". Kind of seemed pointless...

All this noise that has followed that post needs a retort though. About the only thing correct in loquacious's statement is "Experimentation is the key." (sorry man, but it is the truth, email me and I will debate it with you politely).

I will do a quick technical explanation of the issue, to the best of my knowledge.

As has already been said, windows volume sliders are really digital attenuation controls. This means that if you reduce the volume using windows you are losing bits in your audio signal, which will degrade the audio signal. You can afford to lose a few bits, if you don't care much, but do it in moderation. (This is my understanding based on lots of reading in forums, not always the most reliable source. There are other ways to do it that would work better, but apparently this is the way it is done. I defer to anyone with sound card design experience.)

With powered external speakers current has virtually nothing to do with the signal, really! The signal from the computer is line-out, the input to the powered speakers is high impedance.

It is true that you can over drive an audio signal and cause clipping. You can't do it in your PC however, at least not unless you really try (Go into a sound editor, apply a 30dB gain to a signal that is already using the full dynamic range of the format and you will get clipping, but this is not something a regular user is going to be doing).

The noise introduced in the analogue signal heading to your speakers is often pretty high (computers are often pretty noisy). So, keeping the levels high on the way to an external amplifier is a good idea.

The real secret of good audio (in this order): learn/experiment, great speakers, learn/experiment, well mastered recordings ala Steve Hoffman, learn/experiment, good speaker placement and room treatment, learn/experiment. (quality amp, cables, etc. also helps a lot, of course)

Generally if you have moderate quality speakers you don't really want to play with the eq at all (keep them all in the neutral position). If the speakers are respectable the recording was balanced the way it is supposed to sound (well, this is pretty debatable, it is the way it should be though).

I am going to stop fuming now...
posted by Chuckles at 8:01 PM on November 25, 2004

Some crapola soundcards (eg: mine) do a lot of poorly done internal EQing which ends up clipping before it even makes it out of the soundcard. Worse than this, some of these cards (mine) really do clip the output at their "loudest" setting. This even happens to me when I use the digital output. I really am too tired to figure out why this ends up happening, but really, this is true.

I have tried and demonstrated this effect across multiple soundcards, computer systems, windows versions (even linux versions), and even on different speakers and stereos.

Another thing: I've noticed the line inputs on my card (and only on the card I'm using now, an nvidia built on soundcard) tend to get maxxed out very easily. Whatever cheap junk they used on the inputs clearly can't handle all but the slightest signal. Oh well.

Anyways, I would personally keep the sound levels at medium. I strongly agree with loquacious on this one.
posted by shepd at 9:04 PM on November 25, 2004

I have Altecs as well. I love 'em for the price and the sound they produce.
I know nothing about the technical reasons but I have to keep my sound level on my computer at lower than 100% (I think I'm at 75-80%). When I play at high volumes there is a signifiant amount of distortion.
*shrug* Maybe I play my music too loud...
posted by thekorruptor at 11:11 AM on November 26, 2004

Chuckles, there's no need to fume. I agree with everything you're saying about audio, even though one of us has to be wrong about the onboard amp thing.

Another way to look at it would be that when it's not being attenuated, the sound device is using too much power from the bus, causing the distortion. Even if the onboard amp isn't actually directly controlled by the windows volume control and the volume control is only attenuating the digital signal pre-soundcard, it's still too hot of a signal. Same difference.

I might be totally wrong about why it distorts, all I know is that it does distort, and it distorts quite horribly.

As far as I recall, though, the Windows master volume control usually does directly control the tiny little on-soundcard amplifier, not just attenuates it. This may be dated information pertaining only to oldschool SoundBlaster/SB Pro compatible sound cards.

I DJ with Traktor DJ studio on a laptop, and as of yet I haven't been able to afford a nice external audio box to run it like one ought to to do it right. (It'd be soooo nice to output balanced XLR outputs instead of mini-phone plug to RCA.)

The problems that arise when plugging a laptop raw into even a basic, smaller 2,000-4,000 watt portable PA rig are formidable.

There *is* a total trade-off between where the 'bed' or baseline of the line noise is in relation to the signal strength and overdriving the signal. If I max everything, I get total mud; above and beyond the fact I'm DJing with MP3s. If I don't turn it up enough, I get totally noticeable background noise, though it's only noticeable when I'm not making it thump. Ambient bits, moments of silence, etc, all allow this noise to come to the foreground.

Now, I totally should have qualified my "The secret to good audio..." paragraph. That should be "The secret to good desktop and/or inexpensive audio", and sometimes "the secret to good car audio...", which is probably the part that set Chuckles off the most.

Most desktop powered speakers/monitors (unless of the near-field studio monitor variety) put out way too much bass, and inferior quality bass at that. They're trying to impress the consumer with punchiness. Loud and bass-heavy doesn't equal good audio or good speakers. Add to that the fact most untrained or unintuitive listeners somehow think that the parabolic EQ setting with heavy bass, totally attenuated mid-range, and heavy treble is what you're supposed to do.

I don't know where that comes from. Maybe it's from movies or something, or there's just some intuitive leap there that makes it seem like it would make sense. I know I used to do it all the time, to both hardware or software EQs. Until a bit over 5 years ago when a friend of mine pointed out I had nearly zero midrange and really poor dynamic range going on. He tweaked the bass/treble controls on my crappy self-amped desktop speakers down, turned up the volume, and next thing I know I'm hearing all this stuff I'm missing.

So, yeah, take it easy on the EQ. Mine is set to nearly flat, like the gentle curve from the top of a loaf of bread. EQs should be used to correct deficiencies in speakers or listening environment, and are subtle beasts. It's really difficult to tune them properly without a feedback circuit of some sort and a reference signal.

Which brings me to my rebuttal to five fresh fish: I'm not talking about Joe-wannabe-lowrider with a Kicker basstube in his trunk, I'm talking about these dorks that spend more money on the audio in their car then their car is worth, claim they're audio wizards, and don't really know what the hell they're talking about.

These are the same folks that'll put 8 12" woofers in a car, slap up a bunch of those painfully twee shrill domes on the dashboard, and call that a pro audio system, relegating the mid-range to the factory stock 3x9" speakers, if at all. I totally loath those tweeter domes.

Chuckles, what're your thoughts on undistorted, clean loud music vs. distorted loud music, in regards to ear fatigue and/or damage? It feels to me like I can listen to a louder signal that's clean with less damage or fatigue for longer periods than I can for a quieter but more distorted signal.

This is one of the reasons I can't stand going to see movies in theaters anymore. If I wanted to listen to blown out speakers at 120+ decibels, I can go hang out at 7-11.
posted by loquacious at 1:04 PM on November 26, 2004

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