How can I get better sound from my PC?

What are the best, reasonably inexpensive hardware and/or software solutions to improve a PC’s crappy sound? We find the audio of TV programmes hard on our ears, bass too loud, and the high notes are several db lower than normal due to our age. We use our PCs to listen to classical music as well.

Our operating system is Microsoft Windows 7, default device: Realtek speakers. Our speakers are cheap Creative MF 0055 2.0 Series. Are the standard sound boards that come with most PCs suitable or is a better one required? (We live in Canada and subscribe to the Guardian.) Mario

A PC is a poor source for hi-fi, but that probably doesn’t matter if you mainly want to change the sound to suit your ears. In the long term, I expect you will have to buy better speakers. However, you can start by experimenting with Windows’ settings and, perhaps, some audio utilities.

Sound software

It seems your PC has a Realtek audio chipset on the motherboard – actual sound cards are rare nowadays. You should therefore have Realtek software bundled with Windows 7. To run it, click the Start button and type Realtek in the search box. When Realtek HD Audio Manager comes up, click the name to run it.

When Realtek starts, check that the speaker configuration is set to stereo, then select the tab marked “Sound Effects”. The bottom half of this page offers an equalizer to adjust the different frequencies in the sound, though it will probably be set to “<None&gt;”. Look to the right of this box, skip the Reset button, and click on the rectangular button that shows a tiny screen. This is the command to “Change to graphic EQ”.

You should now see a set of sliders that change the loudness at different frequency ranges. To start with, all the sliders will be level, but you can move them to reduce the bass and increase the treble. Click “Save” and “OK” then enter a filename (eg trebletest) to keep the settings, and see how the changes affect the sound. You can fine-tune the settings later, or turn off EQ.

You can also change your PC’s sound by installing a program, such as DFX Audio Enhancer 11.4, which provides a lot of effects. The free version is unbelievably annoying, and doesn’t give you full control of the sliders. However, even if you don’t change any of the pre-sets, it does make a significant difference to the sound. Click to turn off Hyperbass and it may solve your problem with TV programmes. If so, it might be worth paying $29.99 or $39.99 (US dollars) for the full DFX Plus version.

Claesson Edwards Audio’s Breakaway Audio Enhancer is an alternative commercial program ($29.95) with a fully functional trial version. The company serves the professional audio market with much more expensive software, and it doesn’t have versions for Windows 8 or 10.

Active speakers

I think you are using Creative SBS 260 speakers at the moment. These were one of the cheapest on the market ($10 to $20 per pair), and have front-facing base ports to make them sound bigger than they are. You can do a lot better, but choosing a pair depends on what’s available in Canada.

You don’t need lots of bass, so I’d suggest a traditional pair of wired speakers, with no subwoofer to provide deep bass. For example, consider the Creative GigaWorks T20 Series II 2.0 ($90) or the T40 ($110). These have more powerful amplifiers than the SBS 260, dedicated tweeters for treble performance, and their own volume, bass, and treble controls.

Powered bookshelf speakers are the next step up in quality. Examples include the M-Audio AV30 ($76) and AV32 ($99), Mackie CR Series CR3 ($100), and Cerwin Vega XD3 ($119). These are bigger and can provide better quality sound, but usually lack tone controls.

If you buy powered bookshelf speakers, put them on stands, or cones, or at least use four small balls of Blu-Tack to lift them off the desk.

For more information, see TechHive’s Buying Guide: Find the best speakers.

You could probably get an increase in sound quality by installing a dedicated Creative Sound Blaster card, but I think the built-in Realtek chips are good enough for your purposes. This has been debated endlessly online (see realtek vs soundblaster). However, I think you’d be better off spending your cash on better speakers or a small hi-fi system.

Feed a micro

The last alternative is to feed your PC’s sound output to a small (mini or micro) hi-fi system. I like the Sony, Onkyo and especially the Denon models, but Pioneer and Yamaha also make good systems. All of them include an amplifier with tone controls, FM radio, and usually a CD player in one box, plus a pair of bookshelf speakers. The amplifier should be much better than the ones fitted inside computer speakers.

Something like a Sony Micro CMT-S20 ($120) will do the job, but it lacks two useful features: RCA and S/PDIF input ports. The Sony’s only “audio in” is a 3.5mm jack plug. Better but pricier systems should have more inputs, including RCA phono sockets and one or two optical ports, plus Bluetooth and/or a phone dock.

There are several ways to transfer the sound signal from your PC to the amplifier. The simplest is to use a 3.5mm jack-to-jack cable, or a Y-cable (3.5mm jack-to-twin RCA phono plugs). S/PDIF (from Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format) does the job better, via an electrical or an optical cable.

Check your PC’s manual (online if necessary) to locate the S/PDIF socket on the back panel. You may well find there’s a black plastic plug sticking out. Pull the plug, and if you can see a glowing red socket, then you need an optical cable. Your chosen micro system will also need an optical port.

If you make the connection via a 3.5mm-jack plug, use the green socket on the back of your PC, rather than the headphone socket. Sound levels vary, so make sure the sound is turned down before you play anything.

The micro hi-fi will enable you to play MP3 files and listen to video and TV sound from your PC, with the benefit of physical tone controls. These should help you cope with modern TV directors who drown out dialogue with overblown background music. You will also be able to listen to the radio and play CDs without having your PC turned on.

Finally, micro hi-fis have passed their peak, in terms of popularity, so you can often pick up good systems second hand for little or no money.