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Should I Adjust the Volume by Software or Hardware for Optimum Sound?

You can adjust the your speaker volume in-app, operating system-wide, or by the physical controls on your speaker setup. Which method is best for optimum sound?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-drive grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Qqwy poses the following question:

If music isn’t loud enough, how do I get the best quality (even if the difference is in fact so small it’s negligible)?

  • By making the music louder in my music player, game or other sound-producing software program?
  • By raising the volume at the operating system level (for instance, by clicking the speaker icon in the Windows notification area and turning the volume up)?
  • By turning the volume up on the amplifier or speakers that are attached to your computer, and thus changing the volume on the hardware?

Does programs vs. OS matter? Does software vs. hardware matter?

Let’s get to the bottom of things: is it better to crank up the volume at the speaker or within your computer’s settings?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Indrek jumps in with a definitive answer to the question:

Program vs. OS generally doesn’t matter. What matters is whether you’re adjusting volume in software or in hardware.

Reducing volume in software is basically equivalent to reducing the bit depth. In digital audio, the signal is split up into distinct samples (taken thousands of times per second), and bit depth is the number of bits that are used to describe each sample. Attenuating a signal is done by multiplying each sample by a number less than one, with the result being that you’re no longer using the full resolution to describe the audio, resulting in reduced dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio. Specifically, every 6 dB of attenuation is equivalent to reducing the bit depth by one. If you started with, say, 16-bit audio (standard for audio CDs) and reduced the volume by 12 dB, you’d effectively be listening to 14-bit audio instead. Turn the volume down too much and quality will start to suffer noticeably.

Another issue is that these calculations will often result in rounding errors, due to the original value of the sample not being a multiple of the factor by which you’re dividing the samples. This further degrades the audio quality by introducing what’s basically quantisation noise. Again, this mostly happens at lower volume levels. Different programs might use slightly different algorithms for attenuating the signal and resolving those rounding errors, which means there might be some difference in the resulting audible signal between, say, an audio player and the OS, but that doesn’t change the fact that in all cases you’re still reducing bit depth and essentially wasting a portion of the bandwidth on transmitting zeroes instead of useful information.

This PDF has more information and some excellent illustrations if you’re interested in learning more.

The result of reducing the volume in hardware depends on how the volume control is implemented. If it’s digital, then the effect is much the same as reducing the volume in software, so there’s probably little to no difference in which one you use, in terms of audio quality.

Ideally, you should output audio from your computer at full volume, so as to get the highest resolution (bit depth) possible, and then have an analogue volume control as one of the last things in front of the speakers. Assuming all the devices in your signal path are of more or less comparable quality (i.e. you’re not pairing a cheap low-end amplifier with a high-end digital source and DAC), that should give the best audio quality.

@Joren posted a good question in the comments:

So if I want to set software volume control to max, how do I deal with my analog controls suddenly having a super tiny usable range? (Because even turning the analog volume to half is way too loud.)

This can be a problem when the volume control is part of an amplifier, which is probably the case with most computer setups. Since an amplifier’s job is to, as the name suggests, amplify, this means that the volume control’s gain ranges from 0 to more than 1 (often much more), and by the time you’ve turned the volume control to the halfway point, you’re probably no longer attenuating, but actually amplifying the signal beyond the levels you set in software.

There’s a couple of solutions to this:

  • Get a passive attenuator. Since it doesn’t amplify the signal, its gain ranges from 0 to 1, which gives you a much larger usable range.
  • Have two analogue volume controls. If your power amplifier or speakers have a volume or input trim control, that will work great. Use that to set a master volume level so that your regular volume control’s usable range is maximised.
  • If the previous two aren’t possible or feasible, simply turn down the volume at the OS level, until you’ve reached the best compromise between the usable range on the analogue volume control and audio quality. Keep individual programs at 100% so as to avoid several bit depth reductions in a row. Hopefully there won’t be a noticeable loss in audio quality. Or if there is, then I’d probably start looking at getting a new amplifier that doesn’t have as sensitive inputs, or better yet, has a way to adjust input gain.

@Lyman Enders Knowles pointed out in the comments that the issue of bit depth reduction does not apply to modern operating systems. Specifically, starting with Vista, Windows automatically upsamples all audio streams to 32-bit floating point before doing any attenuation. This means that, however low you turn the volume, there should be no effective loss of resolution. Still, eventually the audio has to be downconverted (to 16-bit, or 24-bit if the DAC supports that), which will introduce some quantisation errors. Also, attenuating first and amplifying later will increase the noise floor, so the advice to keep software levels at 100% and attenuate in hardware, as close to the end of your audio chain as possible, still stands.

 


Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 12/4/12

Comments (16)

  1. Broz

    In addition, external analog control allows you to turn the volume off with software not knowing it, which is critical for software trying to force you to listen to ads by freezing them until you set the volume on (free Spotify for instance)

  2. Jim Grot

    I have the new windows 8 and after I installed the factory final version, I have been having trouble getting the volume to be high enough to hear such things as Netflick’s movies and other video type options. I have adjusted the speaker volume at the lower right corner and the mixer part to max and the software on user programs to max and they still are not high enough without adding earphones which works, but is a bother. Any ideas. I have a 17 inch Dell with the five processor, and when I had the beta version of windows 8 it worked fine.

  3. nt0xik8ed

    i found “loud” and “off” to be very suffice also

  4. RA

    My speakers have fallen off the desk a few times to many, so you have to fine tune the dial to get stereo sound, so hardware control isn’t really an option.

  5. dt

    @Jim Grot I had the same issue with my laptop, reinstalling the audio driver fixed it for me.

  6. Ron

    What I’d like to know is how to stop embedded video players in web pages from all defaulting to full volume. This is particularly annoying on youtube, as the volume goes back up to full with each video I play, even though they are in the same browser window and tab. I think they are all using flash player. I did a search for an answer to this problem, but all the results I got were instructions for how web page designers can set the volume for flash, nothing for the end user.

  7. bobro

    as long as it is set to 11 ;)

  8. Erik

    Great article!, i always wondered what ins better. Turn Software Ort Hardware down.
    I have a Roland ua25ex dac.

  9. Michael

    I have been using MP#Gain, but I’m search for better & EASY program that does this. Bit Rate I just now realized is better at 320, but most music if not from a cd is at 128. So converting it that bit rate is time consuming. With all these great headphones on the market, its a day’s worth of shopping and trying to fine the right match for your audio player AND my pockets.

  10. Steven

    If you’re using a laptop and want to conserve your battery (while watching a movie on the bus, for example), which method uses the least amount of battery, hardware or software? (Or would it matter?)

  11. tomko44

    @Jim Grot check for new drivers on Dell’s website. If not, check the hardware settings and see how the speakers are configured. I found that Win8 didn’t have my Speakers configured correctly and the playback defaulted to a much lower level than they should have been.

  12. mikmik


    Jim Grot

    I have the new windows 8 and after I installed the factory final version, I have been having trouble getting the volume to be high enough to hear such things as Netflick’s movies and other video type options. I have adjusted the speaker volume at the lower right corner and the mixer part to max and the software on user programs to max and they still are not high enough without adding earphones which works, but is a bother. Any ideas. I have a 17 inch Dell with the five processor, and when I had the beta version of windows 8 it worked fine.”
    I use the equalizer to raise every frequency range up. Also, on Realtek chipsets, there is an excellent number of ways to raise volume, and VLC, for instance, allows you to set…. well now I can’t find where, Realtek or VLC, but you can adjust preamp volume or something as well.

  13. Phil manley

    I don’t think he’s right. Number of sample bits defines resolution, not volume.

  14. Chris Jones

    JRiver Media Center pads all data out to 64 bits, thus enabling the software volume control to operate without affecting the “real” bit depth.

  15. Vaidya

    The reference to PDF file is just the cover page. Is there any wat to access the full file.

  16. Phil

    My computer speaker system consists of a 1200 watt subwoofer that also powered the desktop speakers(left & right) however it has seperate power amps for each speaker(Mid & Tweeter& Sub. It sounds amazing. You would not believe it!

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