I had an interesting question come from a reader on Twitter. They purchased one of the sound bars I recommended at The Wirecutter and are happy with it. The problem is that their laptop has poor quality audio output. How could they best stream music to a sound bar?
They are not the first person with this question so I decided to address this issue and what you can do to solve it.
Laptops have poor audio output capabilities. Their only output is usually a headphone jack, which is not ideal for a sound bar. A headphone jack has a variable volume control but you’ll control the sound bar volume on its own. That headphone jack is noisier than a fixed volume line out and produces worse quality audio.
If you want to get audio out from your laptop, or desktop, to an external audio device like a sound bar or receiver, what can you do?
USB Sound Card
The easiest solution is often a USB Sound Card. I have Behringer UCA 202 that I use for bench testing equipment and it works great. It has RCA stereo outputs and an optical digital output. Connecting it to a sound bar is very easy as they almost all have one of those two inputs. The only adapter cable you could need is a 3.5mm to RCA adapter if the sound bar only has a 3.5mm input.
The UCA 202 doesn’t even require a driver disc. Plug it into a Windows or Mac machine and it will work. If a guest wants to play back audio they can simply hook their laptop up and it will work. For $30, it is a simple solution to get higher quality audio from your computer to a sound bar.
This does mean running wires and being tied down to a computer next to the sound bar. What if you want to play back music from across the room, or from your phone? What is the best option for you?
The easiest universal solution is a Bluetooth Receiver. One of these will connect to a sound bar or receiver and then allow you to stream music via Bluetooth to it. Since every smartphone and tablet, as well as most computers now come with Bluetooth, this provides an easy way to stream music wirelessly to your sound bar.
There are many Bluetooth receivers out there right now. The best reviewed model comes from Logitech, and provides both RCA and 3.5mm outputs. This should work with any sound bar that I’ve seen aside from the Sonos Playbar. The high rating at Amazon after over 1,000 reviews indicates very few compatibility problems or other issues.
A cheaper option comes from HomeSpot, and it adds NFC to the features. NFC is Near Field Communication, and is found in more and more smartphones today. By tapping your phone to the HomeSpot, it will automatically pair over Bluetooth and be ready for your music. If you often have friends and guests that like to share music, this feature might be worth it. It only has a 3.5mm output so you may need an adapter cable, but otherwise looks like a solid option.
What if you don’t have Bluetooth on your laptop? You may have a sound bar with integrated Bluetooth but no way to send audio. That is very quick and easy to fix. For only $15, you can add a USB Bluetooth transmitter. It is so small you can leave it in a USB port and not notice it. This model uses the latest version of Bluetooth, version 4.0, so it is compatible with anything. It won’t work with a Mac, but a Mac will have built-in Bluetooth.
An additional Bluetooth feature you will see for audio is called aptX. It’s a special audio codec that can be used with Bluetooth and provides better audio quality than regular Bluetooth. There currently aren’t many sound bars with it built-in, but there are a decent number of headphones that use it.
If you have a Bluetooth device with aptX, you may want to look for an adapter with support. There are a few on Amazon, but people have issues with it and 64-bit versions of Windows 7. Buying from Amazon where you can easily return it if it doesn’t work is a good option. If you don’t have anything that uses aptX, the audio quality difference isn’t worth worrying about.
As you can see there are a number of ways to get music from your computer to your sound bar. The best thing is they’re all very affordable and easy to do. From a simple USB sound card, to going wireless with Bluetooth, you can easily get your music off your computer and into the whole room.