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If you have multiple speakers or playback devices, Windows might guess wrong as to which you want to listen to. We'll set the correct playback device.

I recently bought a USB headset. I have a Windows Vista. My problem/question is: I plugged the headset into one of my front USB ports, followed the instructions that were in package, and the set worked. The speakers on the computer cut off, which is what I wanted. When I wanted to switch back on, I unplugged the headset and it went back to way it was.

But now, I cannot get the headset to work. What can I do?

Windows has to make a guess as to what device you want the sound to play on.

When you first install a new sound device, like a USB headset, Windows might well be saying, "Well, this is new, so I guess we should play though it."

When you remove it, Windows has to choose which of the remaining devices that sound should play through and the speakers are often the one remaining device.

When you plug in that headset again, Windows gets kind of confused and in your case, it guesses wrong. No matter, you can tell it where to play sound.

Output devices

If your computer has more than one output device, and it appears to be playing through the wrong one, you'll need to tell Windows which device to use.

Right-click the speaker icon in the Taskbar notification area:

Right-clicking the sound icon in the notification area

In the menu that pops up, click Playback devices.

Playback devices known to Windows

This dialog lists the devices through which Windows can currently play sound.

There are two interesting "defaults" to be aware of in that list:

  • Default Device: This is the default playback device. If a program that plays sound does not itself explicitly choose one of the other devices, this is where sound will be played.

  • Default Communication Device: This is a new concept and it represents the device that communications programs, such as Skype, would use to play sound by default. Again, if the program itself allows the user to select a different device, this doesn't apply. But if the program simply uses the default communications device, this is where the sound would go.

My experience is that when you have multiple audio devices present, and you're not hearing sound out of the device that you expect, a setting here needs to change.

Selecting the output device

Right-click the device that you want to play sound through.

Set as default device in sound device selector

Click Set as Default Device and Windows will now use that device to play sound by default.

When you remove a device

USB sound devices like headphones are very easy to remove. There's no need for a "safely remove," you simply unplug the device.

If that device was the default playback device, Windows will choose one of the other devices that remain to become the default. If you have more than two playback devices left, I'm not certain if there's really a way to predict which device will become the default. In most cases, there's typically only one device remaining anyway.

When you reconnect your headphones (as you've seen), Windows may not automatically assign it as the default device. That may or may not be what you want. (The first time, it apparently assumes that it is what you want as Windows installs the drivers for what is at that point a new device.)

When that happens, you'll simply need to revisit the Playback Devices control and select what sound device you want to listen through.

Article C5077 - February 14, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Lynn B
February 17, 2012 10:14 AM

First I want to say how much I enjoy reading your newsletters, since the information is both current and beneficial. This article is a case in point. I was having some issues with sound devices playing okay the 1st time they were plugged in, but not the 2nd or 3rd time. I have been switching around with speakers, headphones (USB), microphones (USB) and Skype (voice). Thanks for the tip on how to check sound devices in Windows.

February 17, 2012 2:13 PM

Maybe, if we buy the Windows 8 upgrade, we'll be given an option to "set as default whenever present", and thus have an analogue to plugging the 1/4 inch jack plug into the headphone socket on the amplifier, which seemed so convenient back in the early 1970s. (Oh yes, that jack plug always went straight in, of course; we never had to look to find we'd got the minuscule symbol on the bottom instead of the top, just infinite rotational symmetry.)

February 17, 2012 4:56 PM

I had a similar problem on an XP system I helped setup. The DELL had front and rear speaker ports, not USB. Sound played fine from the rear port and fine when I moved the speakers to the front port. Since then, the rear port doesn't work!? Clicking on the speaker icon does not offer a choice and there isn't one in Control Panel. I expect the front and rear are really the same PORT. It's as if the front jack is stuck 'on'. BTW, it happens on 2 identical Dells. What do you think?

February 18, 2012 7:10 AM

Along with the perplexing issue of USB sound now comes the problem of HDMI sound. Last night I set up my laptop to watch through my home theater AV receiver. I plugged in the HDMI cable to the back of my Dell XPS 15 and set the display to duplicate. Fine, I have a lovely HD picture. What?! There's no sound except that coming out of the laptop speakers. I tried to set up the HD sound codec installed, but it kept telling me that the HD sound was not plugged in. I never did get it to work. Anyone solutions?

Deputy Doofus
February 23, 2012 9:56 PM


I would check out the same menus Leo described relating to the other problem. But if that doesn't work you might want to make sure your laptop is capable of sending audio out the HDMI jack.

It's true that HDMI format can carry audio, but that doesn't guarantee that your laptop can send it. Many video cards can't.

August 6, 2012 1:08 PM

Thanks Leo. What do I do if the sound I'm hearing is supposed to be coming out of a different speaker though? I'm using a 7.1 setup, and only the front 3 speakers (and sub) are being used.

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