Music - recommended sound settings
Most common played music today since the dawn of digital audio - from first Audio CDs throughout web files until streaming services like Youtube and Spotify - is saved for playback with these parameters:
Sample Rate: 44100 Hz (44,1 kHz)
Bit Depth: 16-bit
Audio Channels: Stereo
Sometimes you will see higher parameters than those above - especially in recordings marketed as audiophile, though in reality any digital music files saved with higher settings are absolutely not needed and won't give you any increase in audio quality - see this video by Xiph.org Foundation explaining the basics of digital audio, and you will understand why audiophile files are just a waste of disk space for playback.
What will give you a fully objective increase in audio quality, however, are the correct settings in your operating system and audio application to set and use while playing music.
Windows Vista/7/8/10 global audio settings
Windows global audio settings influence your audio playback quality and overall audio experience on your PC in almost all cases. Therefore this is the first and most important step to make. First right-click on the little speaker icon on the lower right of your screen (near the clock) and select Playback Devices:
You should see a window with all your playback devices (sound cards or DACs) installed and enabled on your system:
Your main device used for all playback in Windows as default will have a green tick on it, and the text Default Device under it's name. Click on it once to select it, and then press the Configure button below.
Depending on the audio device you are using, you may have different options to choose here. For music select Stereo in the Audio Channels panel, and then click Next.
To ensure that Windows won't cut out bass frequencies from the audio stream, choose Front left and right for Full-range speakers, and then click Next.
Now when the configuration is completed, click Finish, and you will be back to the Playback Devices panel. Now Double-Click your Default Device (or select it, and press the Properties button). You will be shown this window:
Remember this window, as you will go back here probably a lot of times, if you are really serious about the correct audio settings.
For now lets go to the Levels Tab. Right-click on the number box, and select decibels. Then be sure that your Level is set at 0.0 dB. This is the maximum signal level in digital domain.
Anything above this level and you will hear distortion, and anything below this level will lower the currently played audio file's volume in software. Try to avoid this, if you can, and use built-in potentiometers (knobs) on your DAC or speakers instead. (I'm not talking about cheap analog volume regulations on some cable adapters - avoid them always if you can, as they can really degrade your audio quality)
Warning: Never set your DAC or Speakers' volume levels by potentiometers on maximum (instead only adjusting the volume each time in the system or software) as you will get much additional noise and distortion coming from the hardware's amplifier and power electronics. Not to mention that it can be really dangerous for the ears when the audio level will suddenly jump to 0.0 dB (and it will, believe me).
Now when we are done with Levels, we can go to the next Tab - Enhancements:
Here ensure that you have the option Disable all enhancements selected. Having Enhancements enabled can be sometimes useful for particular needs if you are fine with the additional processing of sound that they add and sometimes even required for some software or games to work properly. For example Forza games on PC require not disabling enhancements, otherwise they will have no sound. But mostly it's really not required. If you really need these options, read about what each of them does, and always de-tick this option if you will have problems with sound in games (Forza is rather an exception so it shouldn't happen mostly).
From here we go to the last and also the most important Tab - Advanced.
Default Format sets a global audio Sample Rate and Bit Depth for everything being played in Windows systems. Windows Audio Engine Mixer doesn't adjust the Sample Rate and Bit Depth of your sound card to match currently played audio automatically - instead, only one format is set as fixed at a time and everything is converted on-the-fly (if needed) to this single unified Default Format.
If needed, it means that if the currently played audio and the currently set Default Format are identical, the audio will not be converted. But if the current audio is of higher Sample Rate than set here, it will be downsampled to match the Default Format. And vice versa - if the current audio is of lower Sample Rate than set here, it will be upsampled to match the Default Format. (FYI: no, upsampling doesn't improve quality at all - rather the opposite, depending on the algorithm used - see note below)
This applies always to Sample Rate. But Bit Depth is a little different. If the current audio file has higher Bit Depth than set here, Windows will convert the file so it will fit into the lower Bit Depth range. But if the current audio file has lower Bit Depth than set here, Windows will leave it as is, because the Bit Depth of the audio file will just fit inside the Bit Depth of the Default Format so no changes are needed.
Therefore the rule is simple here:
For playing music set the Sample Rate to 44100 Hz and highest available Bit Depth that you have available - usually it's 24-bit.
Very important: Resampling vs Quality
Important: I know that you are totally eager to increase the Sample Rate in the Default Format, hoping for a better quality. But the mathematically logical truth is, setting a higher Sample Rate will not improve the file's quality at all - it will just reconvert the file without any logical and meaningful purpose, adding possible distortion and sound artifacts to their main flavour - and also increasing CPU usage in real-time for this totally unneeded process. The quality of the final result will depend on the quality of the algorithm used for such resampling (different Windows systems as well as different audio players use different resampling algorithms). If you have a feeling that a re-sampled file sounds better for your ears - it means only that your ears enjoy the totally subjective alternation and distortion of the original file by that specific algorithm.
Only set the Sample Rate higher, if you are playing source content released originally in that specific Sample Rate.
Music Player - configuration and Audio API to use
As I wrote in Understanding The Perfect Sound - Step #7, Points 1. and 2. Application and Microsoft API:
Audio application is the first layer in the system in which the original audio file can be changed - often without even user realizing something had been changed.
Just an application is not enough to start playing an audio file in Windows. Windows needs to recieve the audio samples through a special route that was designed specifically for these purposes. These routes in software are APIs - Application Programming Interfaces. Through these API routes - something like highways for audio - a programmer can send an audio file so that Windows then recieves it for playback. They are like a middleman between the program and Windows.
Okay, let's configure our music player then!
On this example I will show you how to do it in a music player that is free for all, very simple to use and which I recommend the most: AIMP4.
Let's start AIMP4. Click on the Menu button at the upper left corner. Then choose Preferences from the list (or press Ctrl+P keyboard shortcut)
At the Preferences window that will open, select Playback on the list on the left, if it's not selected by default:
In this window, in the Parameters section, make sure that you have selected proper values for typical music playback:
Sample Rate: 44100 Hz (44,1 kHz)
Bit Depth: Highest available for your device (should be 24 - 32 bits, depending on the drivers and API)
Audio Channels: Stereo
Selecting Audio API in AIMP4
In the same window, in the Device section at the top, you can select your preferable device for playing music in AIMP4. You will not always have only one audio playback device - sometimes there can be more of them. Here make sure that you selected your main sound card or DAC into which you have connected your audio gear - speakers and/or headphones. In my example the audio device that I'm using is Aune X1S external DAC. If you are not sure what your device is called in the system, look it up on your Windows Playback devices, or just choose Windows Default. It will always use the Default Device set in Windows, so that if you change it in Windows settings, you won't have to do it again here as well.
At the beginning of every entry on the list, in bold font, you will see the Audio API that will be used for playback on that device.
In modern Windows systems, to send the audio stream data directly to the hardware driver, bypassing the whole Windows Audio Engine, you will have to use either ASIO or WaveRT Port Driver. ASIO is much more popular, but it needs special driver support - on most drivers for sound cards it's not available by default. Fortunately it can be very easily enabled on just about any sound card or DAC.
If your drivers support ASIO natively or you have already followed my guide on How to install ASIO for ANY sound card or DAC through ASIO4ALL, select ASIO in AIMP4, just like shown on the screenshot above.
Note: Your Audio Device can be named differently in the ASIO drivers than in the rest of Windows (my Aune X1S is named XMOS USB Audio 2.0 ST 3023 for example).
Try to avoid using other APIs for true-to-source music playback. Especially avoid using Direct Sound and WASAPI. Use them only if you really need to hear other sounds in the system while playing music. If somehow ASIO support doesn't work on your sound card or DAC, you can use WASAPI Exclusive (Event) as a really last resort - in this API audio will still pass through the Windows Audio Engine, but it won't be mixed into other sounds.
Note: Some sound cards or integrated audio don't support WASAPI Exclusive (Event) - if you have some problems while using Event, you will have to switch to WASAPI Exclusive (Push) - it's overall worse than Event, but has more compatibility, therefore it works on all devices.
If your source audio files have different Sample Rate...
... you will have to change the Sample Rate manually in AIMP4 (while using ASIO and WASAPI Exclusive) and also additionally in Windows (only while using Direct Sound or WASAPI) every time you want to play files with different Sample Rates. Auto Sample Rate adjustment in AIMP4 for ASIO and WASAPI Exclusive is not yet supported - in Windows systems this depends on the particular application implementation (if the programmer decides to use this built-in Windows feature in his program), not on the hardware or drivers. If you need Auto Sample Rate adjustment then you will have to search for some other audio player, which supports it.
Transform options - Resampling quality and mixing
While still being in the preferences window, click on the Transform options directly beneath Playback. There ensure that everything is set exactly like on this screen:
Resampling - set for highest quality. Useful option if you're too lazy to change the Sample Rate manually each time for different files, while still maintaining acceptable Sample Rate conversion quality.
Allow channels mixing - keep it checked only for the playback of mono and multi-channel files. For normal stereo files keep unchecked.
Dithering - works only if you set a lower Bit Depth for playback than the file currently being played has.
Anticlipping - will apply sound compression when the signal will exceed maximum digital signal level (0 dBFS) - happens most often when using Equalizer incorrectly.
DSP - Digital Signal Processing
While being in the same Transform options tab, click on the DSP Manager button:
DSP Manager holds settings for Sound Effects, Equalizer, Volume normalization and Mixing options. All these will distort your original audio file, so it's optimal to turn off as many of these DSP effects as possible.
Usually just pressing Reset to Defaults is enough for most users:
You don't have to do this if you just freshly installed AIMP - the settings then will be already at default. Personally - additionally to the default values - I also disable these DSP options, but they are generally not too invasive, and they only work in very short moments, so it depends on you:
- Sound fading - on pause and navigation
- Smooth volume changing
- Manual track switching
- Automatic track switching
Closing thoughts - audio gear, equalizer
I know you are very eager to use the wizardry of Equalizer. Those magic sliders just lure you to play with them. Many people do this, unfortunately, without understanding how it works, or how to use them properly. The problem with equalizers is that they are not relative to what you actually wish to hear as a result. They work only as a linear addition to the current audio track being played. And all audio tracks are recorded, mixed and mastered differently from each other, therefore each time the final result will be different - just as each track is different.
How to use Equalizers correctly
Therefore using an Equalizer properly should involve only correcting the drawbacks of your current audio gear (headphones/speakers). You should not use them to expect any increases in audio quality. This will not happen - rather the opposite. And definitively don't try to boost the frequencies. The most optimal usage is to lower the frequencies, that you would like to hear less, not to boost the frequencies, that you would like to hear more - to avoid clipping (exceeding maximum 0.0 dBfs signal in digital audio) and/or sound volume compression.
This might appear at first very unintuitive, but believe me, it will serve you much better in the end, if you only allow yourself to change your point of view a bit. By looking for drawbacks in your audio equipment and understanding them you will then know which audio gear to buy next time, that will suit your hearing taste more.
Try the headphones/speakers on your ears always before buying them
Because people who have selected the proper gear for themselves - which means trying before buying - don't use any corrections or Equalizers at all. It's just not needed, if the equipment you have suits all your listening taste and needs. Because you've chosen it specifically for your ears and usage.
By choosing the right sound equipment suitable for your taste you applied the equalizer already naturally on your audio gear, instead of altering and distorting the file being played through some software filters.
And with this last closing thought, I wish you all to choose the best equipment suitable for your ears and taste! Leave the Equalizers to others, you really don't need them.
Happy and pleasant music listening to all audio lovers!
Links and useful resources
Useful links and resources used in conjunction with sound, software and programming experience to create this guide:
- Microsoft's official developer references for Windows audio stack
- Old article in polish about improving audio quality in Windows systems
- Creative's official manuals (really more people should read them)
- ...and maaaany years of testing sound cards in games/movies/music on various headphones, DACs and sound cards.
Thank you for reading
Feel free to share a link to this information page to help more people in having the best sound experience possible.
Written by rezno[R].
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