Sounding better

Originally published 2004 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


People, in general, are a bunch of cloth-eared gits.

Seriously, they are. There's no other explanation for the overall awfulness of PC audio.

Oh, all right. Maybe there's another reason why so many people tolerate hideously lousy sound. Maybe they just don't tremendously care about sound quality; anything better than the PC speaker will do.

If you're just playing the occasional game, using office applications, maybe playing a bit of random music as mental wallpaper while you do other things, then sure, it'd be fabulous if you had Yahweh's Own Sound System, but those two little plastic boxes that someone paid far too much for at Dick Smith Electronics 15 years ago will do.

OK. I can see that.

If you're considering an upgrade for your PC audio transducers, though, there are ways to get better value for your speaker- or headphone-buying dollar. There are also ways to improve the sound of your existing setup for free.

First up, the same advice you'll get from those Get The Best Sound From Your Crappy Little Mini System pamphlets.

Satellite speakers should be aimed pretty much at your head. If your speakers have ports, those ports shouldn't be hard up against a surface (wall, desk panel, bookshelf). It also pays to experiment with the position and heading of your subwoofer, if you've got one.

And there's the old phase problem, too. If you've got one or more bare-wire connections in your speaker system...

Spring terminals this, for instance, and you've pushed one wire-pair into its spring terminals the wrong way around, everything'll sound quite severely peculiar. You can get a similar effect by not inserting a stereo 1/8 or 1/4 inch plug all the way.

Want big speaker sound for your computer, dirt cheap?

A lot of people have an old stereo of some sort mouldering away in the garage. If not, flea market enthusiasts can easily find one for the price of a very dinky pair of new computer speakers. An elderly wood-sided receiver hooked up to a pair of plaid-grilled speakers that looked cool in 1977 will solidly sonically defeat almost all three-piece "multimedia" speaker systems, provided it works.

That's not so hard to ascertain, even in the middle of a garage sale or op shop. Steer clear of those disastrous Tandy systems with giant masonite speakers that contain one piddly little driver. Check the drivers in other speakers to make sure their rubber cone surrounds haven't perished, and nobody's kid has at some point stuck crayons in the tweeter. Plug receiver into mains, wave cruddy dipole FM antenna around while twiddling tuning knob, listen for sound from both speakers.

Then, acquire a $5 1/8th inch to twin RCA plug lead, and you can connect any PC's sound hardware to the Aux input of the old system's amplifier (or separate pre-amplifier, if it's fancy). The speakers almost certainly won't be magnetically shielded, so don't put 'em next to your CRT monitor. And you're done.

What about headphones? Glad you asked.

A lot of people who listen to their PC through speakers would actually be a lot happier with a decent pair of headphones. Gamers who like positional audio are a case in point, here; it's difficult and expensive to set up a speaker system that can match a mid-range pair of headphones for 3D sound.

If you've got an MP3 player, it probably came with terrible headphones. Even if you need 'phones you can jog with, there are lots of better options that don't cost a fortune. Koss and Sennheiser both make decently priced small ear-clip and headband 'phones that beat every bundled "earbud" tiny-'phone by a mile.

Personally, I like Sennheiser's big over-ear headphones, as much for their comfort as for their sound. There are plenty of other candidates, though, which are best experienced in a proper hi-fi store that'll let you try them on and listen to music you brought with you.

One option that many hi-fi stores don't offer are "in-ear monitors". They're not like the standard little earbuds that you wedge over your ear hole; instead, they plug in like, well, earplugs. This gives them superb acoustic coupling to your eardrum, allowing amazing bass response from such tiny devices. It also gives them massive isolation - blocking of external sound. In-ear 'phones can block noise better than much bigger, and more expensive, active noise reduction 'phones.

Etymotic Research are the big name in this area, but their cheapest model sells for around $AU250. Sony, Shure and Koss have gotten in on the act with cheaper units.

In-ear phones become uncomfortable after extended use, they have problems with sound conducted through their cables if you bump them, and people who can't abide earplugs hate them from the get-go. But if you can stand them, they're great for mobile listening (especially on aeroplanes) and noisy workplaces. Their isolation stats put them in the same noise exclusion class as bigger, more expensive, battery powered noise cancelling 'phones.

So there's that.

But not everyone can be rescued from audio purgatory.

Some people call tech support about "reversed stereo" that's caused by speakers set up on the wrong sides of their monitor.

Other people swear that $US700 is a fair price for a super-exotic power cable for their safe-sized amplifier. Wait, did I say $US700? I meant $US3500. This raises some questions about how expensive a similar upgrade for the rest of the electrical grid would be.

Notwithstanding the existence of various people who may have stumbled across the concept of blind testing, and the extreme ease of fooling yourself, at some point, but then dusted themselves off and continued on their way - you don't have to be a golden-eared religious fanatic audiophile to hear the difference between a bog standard set of plastic multimedia speakers and a nice old stereo system. Or between some bundled MP3 player earbuds and some good headphones.

The computer store's audio section is not the only place where slammin' sound can be found.

Other columns

Learning to love depreciation

Overclockers: Get in early!

Stuff I Hate

Why Macs annoy me

USB: It's worth what you pay

"Great product! Doesn't work!"

The virus I want to see

Lies, damned lies and marketing

Unconventional wisdom

How not to e-mail me

Dan's Quick Guide to Memory Effect, You Idiots

Your computer is not alive

What's the point of robot pets?

Learning from spam

Why it doesn't matter whether censorware works

The price of power

The CPU Cooler Snap Judgement Guide

Avoiding electrocution

Video memory mysteries

New ways to be wrong

Clearing the VR hurdles

Not So Super

Do you have a license for that Athlon?

Cool bananas

Getting rid of the disks

LCDs, CRTs, and geese

Filling up the laptop

IMAX computing

Digital couch potatoes, arise!

Invisible miracles

Those darn wires

Wossit cost, then?

PFC decoded

Cheap high-res TV: Forget it.


Dan Squints At The Future, Again

The programmable matter revolution

Sounding better

Reality Plus™!

I want my Tidy-Bot!

Less go, more show

In search of stupidity

It's SnitchCam time!

Power struggle

Speakers versus headphones

Getting paid to play

Hurdles on the upgrade path

Hatin' on lithium ion

Wanted: Cheap giant bit barrel

The screen you'll be using tomorrow

Cool gadget. Ten bucks.

Open Sesame!

Absolutely accurate predictions

The truth about everything

Burr walnut computing

Nothing new behind the lens

Do it yourself. Almost.

The quest for physicality

Tool time

Pretty PCs - the quest continues

The USB drive time bomb

Closer to quietness

Stuff You Should Want

The modular car

Dumb smart houses

Enough already with the megapixels

Inching toward the NAS of our dreams

Older than dirt

The Synthetics are coming


Game Over is nigh

The Embarrassingly Easy Case Mod

Dumb then, smart now

Fuel cells - are we there yet?

A PC full of magnets

Knowledge is weakness

One Laptop Per Me

The Land of Wind, Ghosts and Minimised Windows

Things that change, things that don't

Water power

Great interface disasters

Doughnut-shaped universes

Grease and hard drive change

Save me!

Impossible antenna, only $50!

I'm ready for my upgrade

The Great Apathetic Revolution

Protect the Wi-Fi wilderness!

Wi-Fi pirate radio

The benign botnet

Meet the new DRM, same as the old DRM

Your laptop is lying to you

Welcome to super-surveillance

Lemon-fresh power supplies


Internet washing machines, and magic rip-off boxes

GPGPU and the Law of New Features

Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

We're all prisoners of game theory

I think I'm turning cyborg-ese, I really think so

Half an ounce of electrons

Next stop, clay tablets

A bold new computer metaphor

Won't someone PLEASE think of the hard drives?!

Alternate history

From aerial torpedoes to RoboCars

How fast is a hard drive? How long is a piece of string?

"In tonight's episode of Fallout 4..."

How hot is too hot?

Nerd Skill Number One

What'll be free next?

Out: Hot rods. In: Robots.

500 gig per second, if we don't get a flat

No spaceship? No sale.

The shifting goalposts of AI

Steal This Education

Next stop: Hardware piracy

A hundred years of EULAs

The triumph of niceness

The daily grind

Speed kings


Game crazy

Five trillion bits flying in loose formation

Cannibalise the corpses!

One-note NPCs

Big Brother is watching you play

Have you wasted enough time today?

The newt hits! You die...

Stuck in the foothills

A modest censorship proposal

In Praise of the Fisheye


The death of the manual

Of magic lanterns, and MMORPGs

When you have eliminated the impossible...

Welcome to dream-land

Welcome to my museum

Stomp, don't sprint!

Grinding myself down

Pathfinding to everywhere

A deadly mouse trap

If it looks random, it probably isn't

Identical voices and phantom swords


Socialised entertainment

Warfare. Aliens. Car crashes. ENTERTAINMENT!

On the h4xx0ring of p4sswordZ

Seeing past the normal

Science versus SoftRAM

Righteous bits

Random... ish... numbers

I get letters

Money for nothing

Of course you'd download a car. Or a gun!

A comforting lie

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)