When a sound card fails, fixing the problem is usually a matter of simply replacing the card or loading a new driver. Sometimes though, these quick fixes don’t fix the problem. It’s much more difficult to troubleshoot a partial sound card failure than a complete failure because the quick fixes are usually ineffective.

Let’s look at how to deal with partial sound card failures involving things like some sounds playing and others not or sound coming out of only some of your speakers.

New sound card causes system crash
Before I address the more complex partial failures, I’d like to discuss a specific type of complete failure. Over the years, I have seen countless cases in which someone installed a brand new, high-end sound card and after doing so, the system either locked up or crashed when the user attempted to play any sound.

In such cases, you should first check the drivers and other basic issues. However, there are two other factors that I have seen cause such problems.

Many systems have sound integrated into the system board. If your system has an integrated sound card, you can often use a third-party sound card, but you must first go into the system’s BIOS and disable the integrated sound card. Otherwise, the two devices will often conflict. Windows technically allows the use of multiple sound cards, because you can tell Windows which card to use for different functions. Integrated sound cards often have compatibility problems with add-on sound cards, however, so I don’t recommend this option.

Another problem that I have seen is specific to Creative Technology sound cards. In my opinion, Creative sound cards are the best general-purpose sound cards that you can buy. What you have to watch out for is that when you load the Creative drivers, the installation program will attempt to install a couple hundred megabytes of demos and applications. Some of these demos and applications work well, and others don’t.

Most recently, I installed a Creative Sound Blaster Live 5.1 card onto a 2.0-GHz Pentium 4. At first, all appeared normal, but when I tried running the demos, the system crashed. What I later discovered was that some of the demos were placing my PC into graphics modes that were unsupported because of my specific hardware. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but the machine was running an NVIDIA GeForce4 graphics card and a pair of 3D glasses from eDimensional. The 3D glasses were designed to work with the NVIDIA card, but only in specific graphics modes. Some of the Creative demos used older or obscure graphics modes that my hardware couldn’t support, which resulted in the Blue Screen of Death.

No sound from CDs or DVDs
One of the most common sound card problems is that WAV files play fine, but you can’t play a CD or hear the sound from a DVD. There are a couple of different issues that can cause this problem. First, make sure that the audio cable between the CD or DVD drive and the sound card is connected at both ends. You should also check the cable’s polarity. If a sound card is capable of playing WAV files and the audio cable is connected, you should be able to play CD audio.

While this may seem like a no-brainer, I have seen brand new computers with both a DVD-ROM drive and a CD-RW drive and a sound card containing only a single, internal digital audio connection. This means that only one of the two drives may play sound through the sound card. The best solution to this problem is to get a sound card that supports multiple drives.

If you are having trouble with DVD audio, there is one more step to check. To play a DVD movie, computers require a DVD decoder. There are software-based decoders and hardware based decoders that are built into either the drive or the sound card. Whichever type of decoder you’re using, make sure that your computer recognizes it and that its driver is configured correctly.

Volume issues
Another common sound card issue involves low volume, or sound coming from the headphones but not the speakers. First, see if the sound card manufacturer has a known volume issue. I recently purchased a new HP computer, and the HP knowledgebase said that some of the newer HP computers had sound volume issues that required a patch to correct.

You should also check the system’s speakers. Generally, the sound card does not amplify the sound sufficiently for it to be played through unamplified speakers. So verify that your speakers are plugged into the speaker jack (not the headphone or microphone jack), and that they are turned on, receiving power, and the speaker volume is turned up. There is also a Windows volume control in the System Tray. You should check this volume control to make sure it’s turned up and hasn’t been set to mute.

If you’re able to hear sound out of a pair of headphones, but not out of your speakers, it could be that your sound card is configured to use digital speakers. The vast majority of PC speakers are analog. The only time that you would configure a sound card to use digital speakers would be if you were using a fiber optic connection between the sound card and the amplifier, or in cases when the speakers attach to the PC via a USB or FireWire connection.

Sound not coming from every speaker
Another common problem is that sound is playing, but isn’t coming out of all speakers. In this case, verify that the wiring is correct. Don’t just check the malfunctioning speaker; check all speakers. Some of the higher-end PC speakers use some really strange wiring sequences, so you will want to compare the speaker’s wiring against the instruction manual. You’ll also want to make sure each speaker is receiving power. I have seen some PC speakers that require a power connection for one satellite speaker and for the subwoofer. If the subwoofer is unplugged, the rear speakers sometimes won’t produce sound (depending on the make, model, and wiring sequence of the speakers).

After verifying all of your connections, check your sound card configuration. Some sound cards, such as those from Creative Labs, require you to specify the number of speakers you have. If you tell the sound card the incorrect speaker configuration, you could have sound problems.