How To Connect Speakers To A Computer (All Speaker Types)


Many modern computers come with built-in speakers (think of all the laptops, tablets and smartphones that can play audio) but the sound of all these devices can be improved with higher-quality external speakers. The issue, then, is connecting these speakers to the computer.

How do we connect speakers of all types to our computers? The way in which we connect an external speaker to a computer depends on the type of speaker. Bluetooth speakers are connected wirelessly via Bluetooth; USB speakers connect via USB cables, and typical speakers require some sort of interface (whether internal or external) to connect to a computer.

In this article, we’ll discuss the various methods in which we can effectively connect speakers to computers and have the computer audio be reproduced as sound by the speakers. Not only will we go over the “how to” steps but we’ll also further our understanding of the theory and mechanisms within the connections.


A Primer On Computer Audio & Speaker Audio

Let’s begin this how to article with a brief discussion on computer audio and speaker audio.

Computers are digital devices that store and playback digital audio.

Speakers are inherently analog devices. They require continuously variable analog audio signals on order to function as transducers and produce sound.

Therefore, to properly connect a speaker to a computer, there must be a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) put between the two. As the name suggests, the DAC will convert the computer’s digital audio into analog audio that the speaker can actually produce as sound.

Each of the connection methods in this article has a DAC at some point in the signal path.

To learn more about the analog and digital audio and how it related to speakers, check out my article Are Loudspeakers & Monitors Analog Or Digital Audio Devices?


Selecting The Computer Audio Output

There are instances when the computer is properly connected to its speakers but the audio is not getting sent properly.

In troubleshooting, the most common cause for this is that the computer’s audio output is not sending the audio where it needs to go.

In order to properly send audio from a computer to a speaker (or multiple speakers), the computer’s output audio must be set to the correct device.

This is an important piece of information to mention early in this article. I’ll reference this section as we move along how to connect the various speaker types to computers.

To select the audio output on Mac OS, follow these instructions:

  • System Preferences > Sound > Output
  • Select proper output, play an audio file and turn up the volume of the output device.

To select the audio output on Windows OS, follow these instructions:

  • Control Panel > Sound > Playback
  • Select proper output, play an audio file and turn up the volume of the output device.

For more information on how computers treat speakers as output devices, check out my article Are Speakers (& Studio Monitors) Input Or Output Devices?


A Special Note On Drivers

Throughout this article, I’ll be mentioning drivers.

It’s important, then, to note that the term “driver” applies to two completely separate pieces of the computer-speaker connection. Let’s define each:

Speaker driver: A speaker driver is the transducer element of the speaker responsible for converting electrical energy (analog audio signals) into mechanical wave energy (sound waves).

Computer hardware driver: A computer hardware driver is a group of digital files that enables a piece of computer hardware to communicate with the computer’s operating system.

I’ll do my best to clear any confusion as we go along but just know that I’ll be referencing two different things when using the term “driver.”


The Various Connection Types Between Speakers & Computers

Let’s list out and further describe the various methods that can connect speakers to computers:


Connecting Speakers To Computers Via USB/Digital Connections

Some computer speakers come with USB connections.

These speakers, as their name would suggest, connect digitally to the computer via the USB port.

The instructions for connecting USB speakers to a computer is pretty straight forward:

  • Connect one end of the USB cable into the computer.
  • Connect the other end (if necessary) into the speaker.

USB speakers act as their own interfaces and have built-in digital-to-analog converters.

The digital audio is outputted by the computer via the USB port; travels through the USB cable; enters the DAC of the USB speaker; gets amplified, and drives the speaker.

We may have to install the necessary computer drivers to use the USB speakers. Many will work as plug-and-play without a manual driver install.

Oftentimes the computer will automatically select the USB speaker(s) as its audio output device the moment the connection is made.

However, if the computer is not sending audio to the connected USB speakers, we can manually select the USB speakers as our output devices in System Preferences (Mac OS) or Control Panel (Windows OS).

The iKanoo N12 (link to check the price on Amazon) is an example of a consumer-grade USB speaker.

iKanoo N12 USB Speaker

The same goes for other digital connection.

For example, the Lightning cable is a common digital hardwired connection with Apple iPhones. These connections are very similar to the USB connection described above in terms of connecting the iPhone to a USB/digital speaker.

The Pioneer Rayz Rally Mobile Conference Speaker (link to check the price on Amazon) is one such “Lightning speaker.”

Pioneer Rayz Rally Lightning Speaker

It’s important to note that these USB speakers should typically have a built-in amplifier since computers do not output speaker level signals.


Connecting Speakers To Computers Via Internal Audio Interfaces

Computer sound cards act as internal audio interfaces. If the computer has a headphone output, its sound card will even have a DAC.

Note that the speakers connected this way should either have internal amplifiers or there should be an amplifier put in line. Computers generally output line/headphone level signals which are typically too low to drive speakers properly.

To connect to the internal audio interface of the computer, we must locate an analog output. This, again, is typically the 3.5 mm headphone jack.

Using a 3.5 mm male-to-male TRS cable, we can connect the computer to its speaker. Plug one end of the cable into the computer and the other end into the speaker.

The Bose Companion 2 Series III (link to compare prices on Amazon and other online retailers) is one such example of a pair of computer speakers with a 3.5 mm PC input (as well as an aux input).

Bose Companion 2 Series III

Bose is also featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 11 Best Home Speaker Brands You Should Know And Use
Top 11 Best PA Loudspeaker Brands You Should Know And Use
Top 10 Best Loudspeaker Brands (Overall) On The Market Today

As an aside, the Bose Companion 2 Series III also boasts a headphone output jack. For more info on headphone jacks, check out my articles How Do Headphone Jacks And Plugs Work? (+ Wiring Diagrams), Are AUX (Auxiliary) Connectors & Headphone Jacks The Same? and Differences Between 2.5mm, 3.5mm & 6.35mm Headphone Jacks.

Sometimes the speaker with have a difference size plug and a size adapter will be required to properly connect to the speaker.

It’s important to stress that just because the 3.5 mm headphone jack is the most common audio output in computers, it is not the only one. Other audio outputs can be used to connect computers to speakers via the internal audio interface.

The audio input may be different on the speaker as well (XLR, RCA, etc.).

With this type of connection, the signal flow is as follows: the computer plays a digital audio signal; the signal is converted into analog audio by the internal DAC; this analog signal is sent out the headphone jack and through the audio cable to the connected speaker. The speaker then amplifies the signal and uses it to drive its driver(s).


Connecting Speakers & Computers Via External Audio Interfaces

The external audio interface is very common in professional and project studios. It acts as a single input and output device for the computer and allows for multiple inputs and outputs in one device.

Even a small audio interface like the popular Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 has 2 combo inputs (XLR and 6.35 mm phono); a 6.35 mm headphone jack, and 2 line outputs (left and right channels). This interface connects via USB.

These interfaces connect to the computer digitally via USB, Thunderbolt, FireWire and other digital connections.

Connecting speakers to the interface is then a matter of running audio cables from the interface monitor or line outputs to the speakers.

Ensure that the proper hardware drivers are installed to allow communication between the interface and the computer. Once installed, the audio interface must be selected to be the computer’s output device.

Note that, generally speaking, these interfaces are meant to connect to active studio monitors.

Active studio monitors have built-in amplifiers and are designed to accept line level audio signals.

Sending line level audio from the audio interface to a pair of passive speakers (which do not have built-in amps) is likely to yield poor results unless there is an external amplifier in line between the two.

In this setup, the signal flow happens like this:

The computer plays digital audio and sends it through the digital connector to the audio interface. The audio interface’s DAC converts this digital audio into analog audio and sends it out its outputs.

Through the outputs, the audio signal travels to the speaker/monitor via an audio cable (TRS, XLR, etc.) and through the crossover network and amplifier(s). Once amplified and crossed over, the signal can effectively drive the drivers of the speaker to produce sound.

The Focusrite Scarlett Solo (link to compare prices on Amazon and other online retailers) is a popular single-input audio interface that has two balanced 1/4″ (6.35mm) line outputs to connect active/powered speakers/monitors (left and right channels).

Focusrite is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Audio Interface Brands In The World.

Audio interfaces get much more complex and involved as we add more inputs and outputs. There are plenty of excellent professional-grade interfaces on the market.

To learn more about audio interfaces, check out the following related articles by My New Microphone:
What Are Audio Interfaces & Why Would A Microphone Need One?
Best Audio Interfaces For Microphones

Because interfaces output line level signals, the audio must be amplified before it can properly drive the connected speaker(s).

An audio interface, then, can connect to a stereo, or otherwise standalone, amplifier that would amplify the signal and send it to passive speakers/monitors. Alternatively, the audio could be sent directly to active speakers/monitors which have built-in amplifiers.

For an in-depth write-up on active and passive speakers, check out my article What Are The Differences Between Passive & Active Speakers?


Connecting Speakers & Computers Via Bluetooth

Bluetooth devices have exploded in popularity along with the rise of the smartphone. There are plenty of options for Bluetooth speakers on the market today that can connect wirelessly to computers.

The term “pairing” is used when connecting Bluetooth devices together. Let’s describe, then, how to pair a computer with a Bluetooth speaker.

First, the computer must be Bluetooth compatible. This is the case with nearly all modern computers, tablets and smartphones.

Let’s go through pairing Bluetooth speakers with computers running Mac OS first:

Ensure the computer is discoverable by going to System Preferences > Bluetooth and clicking “Turn Bluetooth On”.

The next step is to make the speaker discoverable by turning it on and disconnecting it from any other devices.

To pair the Mac OS computer to the speaker, go to System Preferences > Bluetooth and click the Pair button next to the speaker’s name under the Devices section.

The speakers and computer and now paired. The next step is to select the speaker as the computer’s output audio device as we would with the other speaker types.

Now let’s go through the steps to connect a Bluetooth speaker with a computer running Windows OS:

Again, we start by making the computer discoverable. Do so by going to Settings > Devices > Bluetooth > Manage Bluetooth Devices and click “Turn Bluetooth On”.

Ensure the speaker is also discoverable by disconnecting it from any other devices.

Pair the Windows OS computer to the Bluetooth speaker by going to Settings App > Devices >Bluetooth & Other Devices; clicking “Add Bluetooth Or Other Device” and then clicking on the speaker’s name.

Once paired, ensure the speaker is selected as the computer’s output audio device.

The JBL Charge 4 (link to compare prices on Amazon and other online retailers) is an excellent example of a Bluetooth speaker. It’s also waterproof!

JBL Charge 4 Bluetooth Speaker

JBL is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 11 Best Home Speaker Brands You Should Know And Use
Top 11 Best Subwoofer Brands (Car, PA, Home & Studio)
Top 11 Best PA Loudspeaker Brands You Should Know And Use
Top 10 Best Loudspeaker Brands (Overall) On The Market Today

The Charge 4 also has a 3.5mm input. It is also JBL Connect compatible, allowing it to be connected to other JBL speakers via the Connect App to increase volume, make stereo pairs and have multiple speakers around different rooms.

Check out the JBL Connect App on the App Store.

Smartphones and tablets can also be connected to Bluetooth Speakers in a similar fashion.

Related article: How Bluetooth Headphones Work & How To Pair Them To Devices


Connecting Speakers & Computers Via Other Wireless Protocols

Bluetooth is the most popular wireless protocol for wireless speakers but there are other ways to connect computers and speakers wirelessly that we should be aware of.

Some speakers, like select models from Sonos, connect via Wifi. This allows a much longer transmission range more speakers to be connected at once.

In this case, we typically connect the speaker to Wifi, download an app to our computer and/or mobile device and easily connect the speaker and computer.

The Sonos One (link to compare prices on Amazon and other online retailers) is an excellent wireless speaker that works on WiFi.

Sonos One

Sonos is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Home Speaker Brands You Should Know And Use.

Some other wireless speakers use the classic RF (radio frequency) transmission to send audio wirelessly.

In this case, we would need a hardwired transmitter connected to the computer.

The transmitter would encode the audio signal on an RF carrier signal and transmit it wirelessly.

The receiver (typically built into or connected to the speaker) would receive this modulated RF signal; decode the audio signal; convert the audio to analog if need be; crossover and amplify the audio and use it to drive its drivers to produce sound.

Related articles:
How Do Wireless Headphones Work? + Bluetooth & True Wireless
How Do Wireless Microphones Work?


How do I connect speakers to my monitor? In order to properly connect speakers to a computer monitor, the monitor must be capable of outputting audio. Then it is a matter of sending the audio from the monitor to an amplifier (if necessary) and then to the speakers, using adapters if need be.

How do I activate the sound on my computer? To active the sound on your Mac OS or Windows OS computer, follow these steps, respectively:

Activating sound on Mac OS:

  • System Preferences > Sound > Output
  • Select proper output, play an audio file and turn up the volume of the output device.

Activating sound on Windows OS:

  • Control Panel > Sound > Playback
  • Select proper output, play an audio file and turn up the volume of the output device.

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