Improving your sound/audio quality on PC/Windows systems without changing your hardware audio gear
[ Warning! If you are not interested in more details about how the sound system works - you can skip the Prologue directly to concrete advices for specific usage scenarios above. ]
Is it even possible to improve our sound audio quality coming from our PCs [without changing hardware]?
Of course! You just need to keep in mind some basic rules about how the sound system in Windows works when combined with your audio device [sound card, DAC etc. including their drivers] and your audio gear [speakers, headphones].
I know it sounds complicated - but we will get there step by step
Unfortunately, the inner specifics of Windows' audio system, despite being largely improved since Windows Vista, combined with the universality of our PCs/laptops, make them in the end generally not ideal as devices used solely for playing music or generally sound.
Too much universality
Computers are designed to serve as a general purpose device. In other, more simple words: the more some device has capabilities and the more universal it is, the worse it will be for some specific usage cases than a device specifically dedicated to that usage case for the same price. An example of a specific usage case would be playing sound or taking photos.
Battle: Multi-purpose devices vs dedicated devices
If you would buy a smartphone, tablet or laptop for a specific price - you will get a universal multi-purpose device capable of doing many things between very bad to average way [even if some of those things you wouldn't need at all]. They will shoot photos and videos in bad to average quality, they will record sound in bad to average quality and they will also play sound in bad to average quality. They will just be not very good in anything specific. A separate device bought for the same price dedicated specifically for those things would be much, much better than average in doing them - DSLR, video camera, professional microphone and audio interface, dedicated sound card, dedicated mp3 player, CD player or USB DAC, speakers and headphones.
Cost cuts and compromises in universal devices are everywhere
Even ordinary wireless headsets consist of many devices in one: headphones + microphone + Digital->Analog Converter + Analog->Digital Converter + transmitter + reciever + some more electronics so that all these devices can work together. Every one of these devices has its costs, and audio manufacturers often will make cost cuts to all of those devices so that they can offer the whole product in a reasonable price. In practice it will mean that you will buy a device which is of medium to low quality in every aspect that it aims to satisfy. Often because of cost cuts and increased complexity also much more susceptible to fault and interference from other devices. And if only one of these devices will fail in it, you will have to replace or send for repair the whole thing.
Problem: Audio quality in universal devices is never really too great
Something similar is with PCs, laptops or smartphones. The audio section of those devices - often called
Integrated Audio - is generally very small, not really sophisticated and located on their mainboards with many other devices, controllers, processors and other electronics around them on the same board. They drive their power from the main power supply as all those other devices. And also if it fails, you will have to replace/send for repair the whole thing.
Solution: isolate the device responsible for all audio
All this is not really optimal for general audio quality, because if you want some really good sound you will want to isolate the main audio device as much as you can from all these electronics, power noise and interference around it. Most optimally also to provide a separate power source than the main PC or motherboard.
That's why people seriously interested in improving their quality in a specific aspect like to buy devices dedicated to those things. That's logic: if you want better sound, you buy speakers or dedicated headphones, instead of using the built-in cheap solutions, like phone or laptop speakers or in-ear headphones.
Sound cards, DACs, amplifiers
In quality audio for PCs and laptops for example the most popular option today is to have a DAC with built-in amplifier which you can connect into an USB port. They are generally called DAC+AMP, external sound cards, or Combo. You can connect them into any PC or laptop, sometimes even to tablets and phones, and they [mostly] install automatically, don't require any drivers, and will just work without any special configuration or no additional software that would slow down your system startup and increase memory usage. Most of them also support Linux and MacOS out-of-the-box. More expensive models also can come with a dedicated external power supply to even further improve the audio quality through providing much more stable and clean power.
Some examples of the most popular DACs:
- Audiotrak Prodigy Cube
- Aune X1s
Okaay... but you said that your guide is about improving audio quality WITHOUT changing hardware...
I know, and I'm really sorry for the long introduction. But believe me - it was necessary to understand, what I want to show you now.
You see, changing hardware and audio gear for something better is always the simplest solution to have generally better audio quality. But hardware doesn't work properly without the software that is powering it. It won't work properly in an operating system without drivers, proper configuration and proper settings for all our specific usage cases - like playing music, playing games or watching movies.
Hardware and software always work in tandem
Hardware doesn't work properly without proper software. And it will not achieve it's full potential if the configuration for your usage cases will be wrong. You can totally devastate the audio quality of even the most expensive audio hardware by using the totally wrong settings - and by not understanding what you are doing. Therefore it's completely natural, that you can still improve your general audio quality coming from any device - by using the right software, driver and system settings for your specific usage cases.
And that's why I've created this guide...
I wish to help people understand how the sound system in Windows works and the purpose of the software settings and how they affect the audio quality in the end. By understanding these things you will always remember how to set your hardware that you have for your purposes - no matter if it's an Integrated Audio Device, a DAC or a sound card.
Throught all my audio experience and knowledge about how operating systems and programs work, knowledge about programming and the audio stack in Windows, I've collected a series of optimal/recommended audio settings which are suitable for many usage cases - such as playing music, playing games, watching movies, recording sounds/gameplay, uploading videos on youtube or even just general daily usage.
...so that you won't feel so lost again in the audio world
I've aggregated these advices in separate articles, which will quickly and easily show you step by step with screenshots, what and where to change in the system, drivers or programs/games, so that you can have the most optimal sound quality every time in every case.
More specifically - the audio quality the most true to the original [intended by the creators] experience. Without any artificial distortion of the original signal or minimizing it to the lowest level possible.
The "Perfect" Sound
How to define a
perfect sound coming out of your operating system, software and device? There is actually a special term for that - it's called bit-perfect. More about what is bit-perfect and how to achieve it, can be found on the next page:
You can also directly jump into the advices for specific usage cases below:
Most optimal sound settings for music
My recommended Windows settings for playing music can be found here:
Most optimal sound settings for games
My recommended Windows settings for playing games can be found here:
Most optimal sound settings for movies
My recommended Windows settings for watching movies can be found here:
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].
If you like what I'm doing and you feel that I deserve some support I would be honoured if you do it here:
I'm open for any suggestions of improvements in this article: contact information.