How to Enable an Audio Output Device

by Jeff Grundy Google

    If you're an audiophile, musician or just a music lover, you may have multiple output devices connected to your computer. If you have a pair of Bluetooth headphones, USB speakers, an audio mixer board or other external sound gadgets connected to your PC, Windows and your installed applications may not be able determine which is the default or the device you want to use. This means you may have to enable a specific device in Windows or an audio application before you can use it.

    Two Drivers, One Device

    When you purchase a new computer, it usually comes with just one audio output device – the sound card. Depending on the manufacturer of the PC, though, the driver used for the device may be from Microsoft rather than the manufacturer of the sound card. If this is the case with your system, installing a new driver for the sound card may cause Windows to display two different audio-output devices in Device Manager – even though they both represent the same physical device. For instance, if your motherboard has a Realtek high-definition audio chipset, the Windows High-Definition Audio Device native driver will work fine, and there's no real need to install the manufacturer's driver unless you need more advanced EQ and configuration settings. If you do install the manufacturer drivers, Windows sets the new device driver as the default, enabling the Realtek version of the sound card.

    Adding Additional Sound Devices

    Unless you open your computer and install a new physical sound card, other audio output devices added to the system will have a USB interface. Common USB devices that output audio are external sound cards, mixer boards, headsets and active speakers with built-in amplifiers. Sometimes, you may need to install a driver from a disc when adding USB audio devices. In many cases, though, USB sound devices include the required drivers on an integrated static flash card or other type of non-volatile memory chip. When you connect the USB audio component, Windows retrieves the needed driver from the device directly and installs it.

    Device Priority

    When installing a new USB audio device, Windows generally sets it as the default. Once you install the driver for the USB device, though, you should not need to install it again. If you install or connect multiple USB audio devices to the computer, Windows will usually set the device connected last as the default. For example, if you use an external sound card with your system and then connect a USB headset with an integrated amplifier, Windows will configure the USB headset as the default and active audio output device. If you attempt to play audio through the external USB sound card while the headset is still the active, default audio device, you won't hear sound from speakers connected to the sound card. If you unplug the headset, though, Windows should begin routing the audio output to the USB sound card automatically.

    Choosing a Default Device

    Although Windows usually sets the last connected or installed audio output device as the default, you can change the active or default audio output device without unplugging or uninstalling the last connected or installed component. To do this, press "Windows-I" and select "Control Panel." Then click "Hardware and Sound" and select "Manage Audio Devices" under the Sound header. After the Sound window opens, click the "Playback" tab and select the audio output device you want to enable. Click "Set Default," "Apply" and "OK" to save the changes and enable the device. After making the selected device the default, it should produce sound from all Windows applications. If the device does not appear in the list of output devices, right-click an open area on the Playback tab and select "Show Disabled Devices." Right-click the device after it appears in the list, select "Enable" and then set it as the default.

    Application-Level Device Switching

    Integrated audio applications such as Windows Sound Recorder or Windows Media Player can use only the default audio output device when producing sound. This also applies to many media player applications you download or that come pre-installed on systems. If you want sound from these applications to play through a specified audio output device, you must ensure that it is active and set as default before launching the program. However, some more advanced audio editing applications such as Audacity, Adobe Audition and Traverso DAW permit you to change the active audio output device on the fly. These programs include an option on the menu bar to select the active recording and playback devices as needed and switch between installed devices at will. The menu options for changing the active devices, though, are just invisible shortcuts leading to the Sound settings in Control Panel. The menu options for selecting active or default output devices in advanced audio editing applications simply provide an easier, faster way of switching between devices without opening Control Panel manually.

    Disabling Integrated Sound Devices

    In most cases, Windows disables any integrated sound card or sound chip automatically when you install an external audio output device. If Windows loads the integrated sound device's driver on startup, the operating system may reset the sound card or chip as the default audio output device. This behavior should not cause many problems if you generally listen to audio through the sound card and only use external output devices occasionally. If you use an external audio device exclusively, though, you may have to disable the integrated sound device. You do this by right-clicking the integrated sound card or chip in Device Manager and selecting "Disable." Disabling the integrated device, rather than uninstalling it, leaves you the option of using the device later by simply selecting "Enable" in Device Manager when you need to do so.

    About the Author

    Jeff Grundy has been writing computer-related articles and tutorials since 1995. Since that time, Grundy has written many guides to using various applications that are published on numerous how-to and tutorial sites. Born and raised in South Georgia, Grundy holds a Master of Science degree in mathematics from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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