How-to: Connect your computer to a sound system

WembleyThere once was a time that we had to use a PC speaker to hear sound effects in games. Some games even offered small digitised voice effects, which we were impressed with at the time. The next stage was adlib soundcards which could handle midi sounds. They were still fairly weak, but they were a huge improvement on what we were once used to.

Since that time, soundcards have evolved into a very important feature in any computer. The sound quality which comes out of even the cheapest cards is good enough to listen to music or to watch a movie. Why not take full advantage of this technology and hook it up to your sound system to get your MP3’s pumping.

Current PC speakers on the market sound quite good, but they will never be able to recreate the awesome sound you can get out of your main sound system. It shouldn’t cost you more than a few dollars to setup. Even if you don’t want to set this up for permanent use, it is worth keeping in mind for parties as it will be appreciated by your guests. I haven’t bothered with PC speakers for years as it is easier for me to connect my computer to my sound system.

This article will show you how to connect your computers soundcard to your sound system. I have already written an article explaining “How-to: Connect your PC to your television and stereo”, but I placed a large emphasis on the video side of things and many of the comments are related to audio. This article will only cover audio. I hope you will be amazed how easy it is.

Pretty much every computer, whether it laptop or a desktop, will have some type of audio out on them. In the case of a desktop computer, it will probably be the same connector as you use to plug in your PC speakers. In a laptop, you may need to use the headphone jack. Both will work well. We just need the correct cables to get the signal from your computers 3.5” plug to the input for the sound system.

Types of plugs and cables

ToslinkcoaxOptical\Toslink\SPDIF\Coaxial: If you have both a digital plug on your computer and on your sound system, this is the way to go if your are setting this up permanently. There are a number of cable types which will send a digital signal. Toslink (Optical) and Coaxial (SPDIF) are shown to the right.

The sound quality should be superior to using any other type of cable. Digital cables are quite sensitive, and don’t like to be treated like I treat my other cables, so I wouldn’t bother with this type of cable for one off parties and the like.

When I was writing this article I thought I should setup my system with a digital cable instead of the traditional cables listed below. I was able to confirm that the sound quality is superior with my Toslink cable in my TV/sound setup. There were other advantages too. If I played a DVD with DTS sound, the receiver would automatically switch to DTS mode. This saves me from having to play with the remote, and I had never experienced the DTS sound in my system before. It is definitely going to stay as part of my system now.

There is one problem with connecting your computer up this way. Most receivers will only have one or two optical ports and there is a good chance your CD or DVD player is connected to this port. You might have to weigh up what is important to you. I have taken the step to use my computer as my sole audio/video source.

35torcaLine Out: This is the port we would normally connect to our PC speakers. It is normally green in colour and they are designed to get the audio signal from our computer to some type of amplifier. This is an analogue signal, but it does the trick and is great for most scenarios. The signal level is not strong enough to drive speakers themselves. This will usually be a 3.5” plug.

Both headphone and line-out should use the same cable as the picture on the right. Alternatively, you can get an adaptor which will convert 3.5” stereo to RCA, which you would then plug an RCA cable into. The result is the same.

Headphone: The headphone jack is normally used to plug in headphones. They are usually pink in colour and are the same size as a line-out. The only difference is that they send out a much stronger signal. For most laptops, this is your only option. It will work fine, but you should be careful to start with your volume low so that you don’t overdrive your amp and speakers. This will usually be a 3.5” plug.

RcaRCA: This is the main type of connector you will find on the back of your receiver. Normally you will have one red and one white input which represent left and right audio. For surround sound you need to use multiple pairs. It starts to become a bit of a nightmare.

Quality of Cables

I have never really felt that cable quality is very important. I have a bog standard sound system, and a fairly bog standard sound card. Using expensive cables will not make my setup noticeably better. It is more important to use the right type of cable.

An expensive sound system, something that you need a loan for, may well sound a bit better with expensive cables. For most people, the sound quality difference is not noticeable, especially if you are playing ripped movies or MP3’s because the quality has already deteriorated a fair bit as part of the compression. It takes a trained ear to really know what you are missing out on.

The moral of the story; If you don’t want it to cost you much, don’t spend much. If you have a fancy sound system, you probably have the money for the expensive cables so why not get them? It really doesn’t matter all that much.

How to connect your computer to a sound system

Below are some various methods for connecting up your computer. They are probably more detailed than they need to be. I suggest to turn off the computer and sound system for precautionary reasons, but if you are careful and do it all at low volume, you should get away with leaving your equipment on. As far as I am concerned, do this with caution, and remember I am trying to help you.

Connecting your computer to your sound system with an Toslink/SPDIF cable

Newer soundcards and audio equipment are sometimes being fitted with digital/optical ports. Not only do they sound better than any other option mentioned in this article, they are easier to setup. All you need is the one cable. This one cable will transport a digital surround sound signal straight into your sound system.

(If you see the port physically on your computer, but it is not in your device manager, you may need to enable it in the BIOS. This is a fairly uncommon scenario.)

Ensure your computer and sound system have an Optical out and then follow these steps.

  1. Make sure that the volume on your computer is turned down.
  2. Turn the volume down on your sound system.
  3. Make sure your sound system is turned off.
  4. Plug one end of the Toslink cable into your computer
  5. Plug the other end of the Toslink cable into your sound system

You will have to play with the sound settings a little to get your programs to use the digital output. Windows will let you change your default audio device to the digital out. Keep in mind that in the settings of most individual programs, you can over-ride the Windows default device. You may want your MP3 player to go out the digital port and your Windows system sounds to come out your PC speakers. This may be an option to keep in mind. Windows sounds generally sound weak through a good sound system.

To configure your system to use the digital out by default, in Vista:

Go into your Control Panel and
Select Sounds
Click the Playback tab
Right click on your optical output (SPDIF)
Select “Set as default”

This is possible in XP also. The settings are very similar to the settings above.

  1. Start playing a song out of your computer.
  2. Turn on your sound system.
  3. Ensure your sound system is on the correct channel

Start adjusting the volume upwards on both your sound system and your computer. If you turn your computer all the way up, you may get a bit of distortion. It is best to turn your computer up to around 80% and let your sound system do the rest. You may want to compare the volume to a CD, and adjust your computer output accordingly.

Have some fun and play a movie. See if you can get some nice surround sound happening.

Connecting a laptop to a sound system with traditional RCA cables

Laptops will almost always have a headphone jack. You will want to get your hands on a 3.5” stereo to dual mono RCA cable as mentioned above and then follow these steps.

  1. Make sure that the volume on your laptop is turned down.
  2. Turn the volume down on your sound system.
  3. Make sure your sound system is turned off.
  4. Plug the 3.5” stereo plug into your headphone jack (pink).
  5. Plug the two RCA plugs into your sound system
  6. Start playing a song out of your computer. You probably will not hear anything out of your laptops speakers as they will be disabled when something is plugged into the headphone port.
  7. Turn on your sound system.
  8. Ensure your sound system is on the correct channel

Start adjusting the volume upwards on both your stereo and laptop. If you turn your laptop all the way up, you may get a bit of distortion. It is best to turn it up half way and let your sound system do the rest. You may want to compare the volume to a CD, and adjust your laptop accordingly.

You should now have your laptops audio coming out your sound systems speakers in wonderful stereo. Can you hear that bass?

It is good to leave the cable connected to your sound system as a permanent fixture, so when you want to attach your laptop on future occasions, all you need to do is plug in the headphone jack and select the channel.

Connecting your desktop computer to a sound system with traditional RCA cables

Desktop computers will almost always have a sound board of some type, either using a sound card or an on board chip. You will want to get your hands on a 3.5” stereo to dual mono RCA cable as mentioned above and then follow these steps.

  1. Make sure that the volume on your computer is turned down.
  2. Turn the volume down on your sound system.
  3. Make sure your sound system is turned off.
  4. Plug the 3.5” stereo plug into your line-out jack (green).
  5. Plug the two RCA plugs into your sound system
  6. Start playing a song out of your computer.
  7. Turn on your sound system.
  8. Ensure your sound system is on the correct channel

Start adjusting the volume upwards on both your sound system and your computer. If you turn your computer all the way up, you may get a bit of distortion. It is best to turn it up to around 80%and let your sound system do the rest. You may want to compare the volume to a CD, and adjust your computer output accordingly.

You should now have your computers audio coming out of your sound systems speakers in wonderful stereo.

Connecting your laptop or desktop computer to your sound system with surround sound

This is also quite easy to achieve. Often, your sound system can convert a stereo or digital signal into a surround system using it’s internal processors. You are probably best to send the signal out of your computer in stereo and letting the receiver do its job.

If you want the computer to do the processing, make sure you have a few spare cables.

The theory is the same as above, just replicated a few times over. Ensure you have a sound card capable of surround sound. The best way to find this out is to look on the back of your computer and see if you have a few spare 3.5” plugs. These will be stereo pairs, one for your rear left and rear right, and the other for your sub and centre speakers. Your sound system will require a surround input. It gets messy, but it is possible.

The final step is to change the speaker settings on your computer to use a surround setting instead of the default stereo. If you want to try this and are having troubles, leave a comment and I will give you more information. I can’t see it coming up too often (I think).

Conclusion

I hope you have had success in connecting your computer up to your sound system. The next step is to get the video signal of your computer to your television.

Please stick around and check out some other articles at Inspect My Gadget. Thanks for reading.


Related Posts

34 Comments so far »
 

  1. Volk Sawn said, on January 4, 2008 @ 12:36 am

    Nicely written! Your directions mirror my experience; however, one problem I haven’t been able to solve is ground loop feedback. This is a low level hum that is quite distracting. I’ve tried the ground loop filters that are often used in automotive audio setups, but it hasn’t solved the problem. I’m wondering if anyone has solved the problem effectively with other solutions.

    I’m enjoying your website.

    Volk

  2. Rumela Medina said, on January 5, 2008 @ 5:06 am

    Hi there!

    I’ve already read your article on connecting a laptop to the plasma TV and it works a charm! I’ve been using the S-video since thats the only connection between them but now I’m looking into transferring the audio signals since my laptop speakers ain’t really that loud. I read the part about connecting the laptop to a sound system with surround sound, I was wondering if its possible to connect the laptop to my DVD player which has surround sound?

    Rumela

  3. Chris Duckworth said, on January 7, 2008 @ 8:46 am

    Hi Rumela

    I am happy to hear the articles have been helpful to you. Connecting up to your DVD player, will depend on the DVD player itself. If it is a DVD combined with a power amp(speakers run directlyf rom it) then there is a good chance you can use it to decode the audio signal. If it is a Standalone DVD player, there is probably no inputs on it, making it impossible.

    Cheers
    Chris

  4. Nathan Powell said, on March 15, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

    Hello,

    I have been trying to connect my Laptop (Toshiba Satellite) to my rear projection tv, which I connect using VGA port.

    I am able to get video perfectly to my television, my issue is that I am unable to get sound – at all. I am connecting a 3 port RCA jack through the headphones, and have tried connecting it both to my television, which has ports for it, and my stereo, but I am unable to still get any sound from my device.

    I tried hooking up my PC speakers to this headphone jack and I get a very faint sound through the PC speakers, even when they are on maximum volume. Any help would be much appreciated!

  5. Henry Barnett said, on April 9, 2008 @ 6:05 am

    Your “how to” is spot on. BUT I, like Nathan Powell, have a Toshiba Laptop Satellite A 200. I’ve been trailing the ‘Net trying to find a solution to the sound from the laptop which has a lot of hiss or white noise. So far no good. Any ideas?

    Henry

  6. Chris Duckworth said, on April 9, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    Nathan & Henry, a challenging problem to solve without seeing it. A couple of things to try. The headphone jack is a bit louder than a normal line out. Try dropping the volume to around 90% on both your physical volume control and in Windows sound properties. Headphone signals are designed to power headphones, not really designed as a line out. They can work this way though.

    Is there a built in mocrophone in your laptop? The webcam may have one built in. If you open your volume control, ensure that it is muted. This may be the cause of the white noise.

    Programs themself may have sound options. Ensure that they are set to send audio out to the headphones. Ensure that you are not setup to send a digital signal.

    Let me know if this gets you anywhere and we will take it from there.

  7. DEREK said, on August 19, 2008 @ 2:08 am

    I would like to know how to connect a stereo cassette player to my desktop ( Can you identify the line in socket ) I want to convert the tapes to CD recordings.
    Many thanks DEREK

  8. Chris Duckworth said, on August 19, 2008 @ 9:31 am

    Hi Derek.

    Blue is normally line in, pink is microphone. It is best to use blue, but if there is no blue, then pink can be used with volume turned down.

    You would want to use a 3.5 stereo to RCA pair cable. The output of the tape player can go directly into the computer, but it may be worth using tape-out on the power amp(if youa re using one already) so that you can hear what is going on.

    For more soundcard info, checkout this wikipedia article.

    Cheers
    Chris

  9. Keith said, on September 14, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

    Hello,

    I just bought a 5.1 dolby digital surround sound system…is all I have to do is connect the S/PDIF-out on my computer (with an S/PDIF cable of course)to my subwoofers digital-in, to get the whole thing working?

    many thanks.

  10. Chris Duckworth said, on September 14, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

    Hi Keith, that should be all you need to do, as long as both your computer and sound system have digital inputs and outputs. The only extra step may be to change your default sound device on your computer to the SPDIF output.

  11. Amrit said, on October 25, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    Hi Chris

    Thank you so much for an excellent article. I have one question – I have a laptop with both a headphone jack and a spdif out jack. Can I connect it to a 5.1 system surround system like the Logitech x-530
    What type of cable would I need? Sorry I read through your article and was slightly confused, but I’m a luddite.

    Thanks in advance
    Amrit

  12. Chris Duckworth said, on October 28, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

    Amrit, there is a good chance that spdif wil be supported. You can use a normal RCA cable for this. As your laptop doesn’t have optical, try to stay away froma speaker set that uses optical.

  13. Brandon said, on November 5, 2008 @ 1:38 am

    Hi Chris,

    Great effort on this article.
    I have try the same way using 3.5mm jsck to RCA cable for the pc to LCD TV connection. Yet I can’t hear any sound from the TV. FYI, I using the HDMI cable for the video output to TV. I also tune in to the correct channel. I can see the exact desktop display on the TV but when I play a music from the pc, there is no sound. Please help.

  14. Amin said, on November 8, 2008 @ 7:54 pm

    Hi Chris!

    Thanks for offering great help here.

    First here’s my environment.

    HDMI LCD 42″ JVC TV
    HP Laptop with a HDMI interface
    JVC Home Theatre System.

    OK! As far as picture is concerned through HDMI, its working like a charm. Sound is also coming using this connection but only through TV.

    I need to connect this Home Theatre System for Sound only. What do you think should be the best solution in this scenario keeping in view HDMI connectivity?

    How do I do connect the Home Theatre, Chris?

    Thanks in advance…

    Regards,
    Amin

  15. Chris Duckworth said, on November 13, 2008 @ 9:28 am

    I have very limited experience with HDMI. I can;t afford such fancy gadgetry :( . If I was int he same situation though, I would try to run audio through a different connection to the amp. It’s a work around which should not be necessary, but it should solve the problem.

  16. Henry Barnett said, on December 19, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

    The answer to “Why is the sound from my laptop so poor” is that the sound from my laptop is poor! I was taking the feed to my amplifier from the headphone output. There is no other direct way. After I complained Toshiba changed, free of charge, the motherboard and with it the built in sound card but with no difference. There was always a fuzz in the background (white noise actually). Finally I purchased a Creative X-Fi wirless unit that connects via the USB port. The sound is much, much better. No white noise etc. and it streams via wi-fi around the house. The only gripe I have is that the distance that wi-fi can operate is not as great as most people think. Still it works well.

  17. Terry said, on February 13, 2009 @ 2:20 am

    Hi Chris,
    I am a singer and have just bought myself a sound system for functions etc. I am wondering the best way to play my music from my Toshiba laptop to my mixer.
    I have bought a Soundcraft Gigrac 1000st powered mixer to run my EV speakers. My problem is I am getting a hum when I turn up the volume .I am running out of the headphone jack into the mixer with an RCA cable.
    I don’t have this problem when I use the same cable with my ipod or mini disc player. Only when I use my laptop! Any suggestions where I maybe going wrong?
    Cheers….Terry

  18. Chris Duckworth said, on February 26, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    Hi Terry, sorry about the late reply. I connect my laptop up at functions just as you have described, but without the hum problems you are getting. I used to get hum using a similar method in my car and I resolved it using a ground loop isolator. They are fairly cheap and easy to setup. It is just like an adaptor which would go at the end of your mixing desk. They all seem to be dual channel RCA setups so you may been to use an adaptor or two.

  19. COLIN said, on April 11, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    I HAVE AN EXTRA SET OF CREATIVE GIGA WORK SPEAKERS, IS IT POSSIBLE IF I CAN HAVE TWO SETS OF GIGA WORK SPEAKERS CONNECTED TO MY PC 4 EXTRA POWER

  20. Chris Duckworth said, on April 24, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    I don’t think it would work Colin. You could install another soundcard, but you would have all types of problems syncing them up. You could also use splitter cables to send the signal to the two speaker sets, but you will be reducing the signal and the quality won’t be as good. You might be able to find a powered audio splitter somehwere to keep the signal intact, but I haven’t seen them around. I only see source selecters.

  21. Hammer said, on November 19, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    Hi Chris,

    Interesting website! I’m wondering, I have a Pioneer DVD with the THZ 181 surround sound (5.1)…though this system does NOT have an optical output. I wanted to use the TOSlink, but unfortunately I can’t.

    I want to connect my PC to this system,…how do I achieve 5.1? =(

  22. mario said, on January 18, 2010 @ 2:24 am

    Hello I did a Line Out conection from my PC to my philips sound system but only 2 spearkes and the subwofer is working?

    What can I do?

  23. Bud Andrews said, on January 28, 2010 @ 1:47 am

    I’ve read over your tutorial & it’s definitely spot on. I’ve been trying to connect my iLive 2.1-Channel Speaker Bar, which hooks up to my ipod and does the radio, to my computer. and I’ve been kinda stumped. wondered if you had any advice for this particular device, or, would it be the same deal as with your how to stuff above?

  24. Sammy said, on February 8, 2010 @ 9:12 am

    Ok, so I have a surround sound system but only the subwoofer and speakers. Not the onctrol box thingy. Is there anyway to connect this to my desktop? there are no RCA plugs etc just the speaker wire thingys in the back of the sub and speakers.. thanks

  25. Pat said, on March 17, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

    The set up for 3.5″ to RCA coming out of the line out sounds great coming playing of the big system. But the issue I’m having is there’s a rumble (reminds me of the rumble you used to get when your turntable wasn’t grounded to your amp). I do not get this rumble when I plug my computer speakers in to the sound card line out jack or when I use the headphone jack for headphones. But the second I run it through the amp there it is. No other device I’ve run through this amp produces this effect and it doesn’t happen if I jack into my portable MP3 player using the same 3.5″ to RCA Cable. Thinking old school, could this be some kind of grounding issue? Any suggestions?

    Thanks in advance

  26. Chris Duckworth said, on March 18, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    Hi Pat, No wonder it is causing you greif if most devices are working fine. I don’t know what to suggest. I might be sending you down the wrong path, but I had weird noises when I plugged my phone into my car. I needed to put in a ground loop osolator. They are around $20. It worked perfectly for me. I am just not sure if you are experiencing the same problem I was.

  27. franco dutoit said, on June 8, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

    can somebody help please. whenever i play my laptop through the soundmixer, the mixer trips.

  28. Alfreda Walker said, on August 27, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    Hello,
    Thank You for taking time to try to help me however I bought a Insignia surround ssound system for my computer I hooked all the speakers to the sub but what do I use to connect the surround sound to the computer. the headphone part on the desktop is there but regular RCA jacks don’t fit what jacks do i use to connect the surround sound to the computer? I have a HP computer and the program I’m running is windows XP. Any help you can give me will be very much appreciated Thank You Again!

  29. painter brisbane said, on March 13, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    so if i was to have inbuilt ceiling speakers connecting to a amp, ill just have to plug the soundcard into the amp ? easy as

  30. Chris Duckworth said, on March 13, 2011 @ 11:23 pm

    Yep, that’s right. With the right cable, it’s is normally pretty straight forward.

  31. Devaney said, on September 16, 2011 @ 3:51 am

    I need help setting up my laptop to play music from it into a sound system at a wedding reception. I have a fairly new Toshiba, but a 30-yr old Philips receiver. Is it possible to use the Philips? I’ve read your article very carefully, but I’m a very “beginner” tech person. Can you help me?

  32. Chris Duckworth said, on September 20, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

    Hi Devaney, I see no reason why it won’t work. You won’t hurt anything by trying it out. Just try plugging stuff in as the article explains and I can’t think of any real reason why it won’t work.

  33. Titus Fox said, on March 13, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    I am connecting pc audio to soundboard and can’t figure out why a stereo 3.5mm to stereo 1/4 cable won’t work. It carries no bottom end. The only working setup is a stereo 3.5mm to split mono 1/4 (insert cable)with 1 of the 1/4 mono ends left open ended. All of my study/research/common sense says this shouldn’t work. anyone know why this works and the “correct” cable doesn’t?

  34. Doug C. said, on April 4, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

    I’d like to connect my PC to both a set of externally powered speakers and also to my stereo system (integrated amp and speakers). I would like to be able to use the externally powered speakers sometimes, and at other times use the stereo system to achieve greater fidelity.

    My PC has six 3.5mm ports on the back and two on the front. They include: line in, line out, c/sub, side, rear, headphones, and two mics.

    I’d like to know how to connect the wires, and also how to switch between the two types of audio sound.

    Thanks,

    Doug





Leave a Comment

Name: (Required)

E-mail: (Required but will not be published)

Website:

Comment: