How to Switch Windows Sound Outputs With a Hotkey

By Michael Crider on April 6th, 2017

Windows is great at a lot of things. Handling its sound devices is not one of them. Despite the fact that most desktop PCs come with multiple sound output options (standard stereo, surround, front and rear, and so on), it’s still a pain to actually switch between them. Let’s see if we can change that.

The Old-Fashioned Way

Before you try to switch sound output the easy way, you need to know how to do it the hard way, if only to familiarize yourself with how Windows structures its sound options. From the Windows 7, 8, or 10 desktop, right-click the volume button in the taskbar, then click “playback devices.” If you’re in Tablet Mode, go to the main “Settings” menu, then search for “Sound” and click the result with the speaker icon.

This brings you to the Sound menu with the Playback tab highlighted. Here you’ll see a list of all your available sound outputs—desktop PCs probably have a few, laptop PCs generally have only one, plus any extra sound devices added via USB.

In the image below, you can see my main desktop speakers on the built-in Realtek sound card, and my USB-based Logitech headset. The green checkmark indicates that the Realtek speakers are my current output device, while the Logitech gets a green phone icon because it’s the default communication device.

The Realtek speakers are currently outputting system sounds since they’re set to default. To change over to the Logitech headset, right-click on it, then click “set as default device.” This will make the headset the default for both sound output and communication.

Obviously, opening up this menu and manually changing from the speakers to the headset every time you want to switch is less than efficient, especially if you’re frequently changing for games or conferences. Below are some better alternatives. But before we continue, you might want to rename some of your devices if Windows has given them identical names.

Right-click on a device and click “Properties,” where you can rename it to whatever you like. I’ll change my Logitech headset from “Speakers” (which is less than helpful) to “Headset.”

The Fast Way: Create a Hotkey with SoundSwitch

SoundSwitch is a free program that sits in your Windows taskbar and waits for a command to switch your sound output. It’s perfect for gamers like me, since I frequently switch between the stereo speakers on my desktop and my Logitech headset for multiplayer games. You can download the program from its developer here.

Step One: Install the Program

Simply double-click the installer to begin the process. Follow the on-screen instructions, as usual. At the completion dialog, select “Launch SoundSwitch.”

Step Two: Adjust Sources

SoundSwitch is now running, but it’s not a full windowed program, it’s down in your taskbar notification area. If you don’t see it, expand the notifications, then right-click the new speaker icon and click “Settings.”

On this page, you’ll see the default Playback devices. Select all the ones that you want to switch between by checking them on the list—you can have just two or any amount more. Then put in the hotkey you’d like to use to cycle through them in the field at the bottom. I’ve chosen Ctrl+Alt+F1, but you can have just about any common combination. Click “Close” when you’re done.

Now whenever you press your hotkey, you’ll toggle through your sound outputs (or cycle them if you have more than two). You can set up a separate hotkey in the Recording tab if you have multiple sound inputs as well.

Alternate Method: Set Up Multiple Hotkeys With NirCmd

NirCmd is a freeware tool that allows users to create shortcuts to a lot of common Windows functions, like turning off the monitors or adjusting the volume. Everything is controlled with syntax and expressions, which can be a bit unwieldy, but NirCmd opens up a lot more customization options than SoundSwitch. You can download it here.

Step One: Extract NirCmd

NirCmd is a portable app, so you don’t have to install it, you just have to store the folder somewhere safe. Extract the NirCmd folder somewhere easy to access—put it on the desktop if you’re just testing this method.

Step Two: Create the First Shortcut

In the new NirCmd folder, right-click the nircmd.exe application and then click Send To > Desktop (create shortcut). Go back to the Desktop folder to see it.

Step Three: Modify the Shortcut Command

Right-click the new shortcut and click “Properties.” Now we’re going to append the shortcut with a command for the NirCmd application that tells it to assign one of your sound devices to the default. Open up the Sound menu on the Playback tab (see above) to get the name of the device you’ll need.

Wherever the NirCmd application is, you’ll append its .exe file name with the command for your sound device. The syntax you want is:

setdefaultsounddevice "your sound device name"

So for my computer, with the .exe file in the C:\Users\aggie\Desktop\nircmd-x64\nircmd.exe folder and my first device named “Headset,” the full shortcut and modifier command needs to be:

C:\Users\aggie\Desktop\nircmd-x64\nircmd.exe setdefaultsounddevice Headset

Step Four: Assign the Hotkey

Now in the same Properties screen, we can assign a hotkey to the shortcut. For the purposes of the demonstration, let’s go with Ctrl+Alt+F1. Simply click the Shortcut key field and enter your command.

Now the shortcut and the hotkey are functioning. Test the hotkey and you’ll see the default device change over in the Sound menu (if it’s not set to that device already). Return to the desktop and rename your shortcut something appropriate, like “Headset command.”

Step Five: More Audio Devices

Now go back to the start of this section and create another NirCmd shortcut, this time using the sound name of your second device. In my case, that would be “nircmd.exe setdefaultsounddevice Speakers.” Set a second hotkey that makes sense in context—mine would be Ctrl+Alt+F2.

Repeat this process until you have a set of hotkeys that will activate all of the sound devices you want.

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.

  • Published 04/6/17
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