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In Windows, I have volume controls at the OS level, media software has its own volume control, and my speakers have their own volume control.

  1. When do I use one over the other?
  2. Is their a recommended technique for optimizing playback experience?
  3. Are their drawbacks using one volume control over another?

I see the benefit of media software having separate controls because that enables per-process control...makes sense. But how about the difference in OS volume control versus my speakers? Which one do I fiddle with?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

You use whichever is useful at the time.

If you are trying to balance two applications against each other then you'll want to use the per-application volume controls, I use these when wanting to watch a film at the same time as playing a simple game and don't want one to completely drown out the other.

As for the OS and speaker control use whichever is easier at the time. Generally I leave my OS volume at 50% and let the speaker/headphone volume control do the limiting for quick adjustment. You want a strong enough output from your soundcard so that you get a good full range sweep of the audio waveform but not so strong that it sounds distorted. This is heavily dependant on your system and personal preference.

Depending on just how strong an output your sound card has you may find that at 100% on your OS volume control the audio may be clipping but I would not expect it to happen on many modern systems.

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To clarify, "output from your sound card" = "OS volume control". Your speakers will amplify whatever they get, so you want it high enough that they get everything they need but not so high that it's screwed up. These levels will vary. – Shinrai Jul 31 '12 at 15:08

For optimal sound quality I would run all digtal volume controls at full bore. It's very doubtful that they will clip, though you may experience minimal distortion if there's some cheap parts in there. If you do notice distortion, dial it back a bit. If you don't, then just keep it full blast and turn it down at the hardware level (the dial on your speakers.)

The reason I say this is because the most god-awful part about desktop speakers is the signal to noise ratio. If you're running onboard sound especially, you're probably going to get some line hum from inadequate shielding at the motherboard. When your speakers pick this up in the line, they will amplify it. This noise is going to be present in the output at the same volume regardless of your digital output level, so it's advantageous to try to 'drown out' this noise.

Your desktop speakers also probably have a cheap amp in them, so you want to push this amp as little as possible. It's easier to boost line level sound than output level sound. Keeping the initial input high volume and the amplification low is advantageous all around when it comes to sound quality.

A nice sound card will typically have a high signal to noise ratio, and if you're using one then do whatever works best for you. If you're not running a nice card, I would recommend boosting digital volume controls for optimal sound quality.

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