Windows Audio Profiles Considered Harmful

After 2.5 years of neglect and intending to do so, a couple of weeks ago I finally got round to reinstalling my PC at home. No major problems, but after installing the latest soundcard drivers and winamp I thought the sound coming from my PC sounded a bit wooly. I

I've got a pair of Sennheiser HD580 headphones that are currently plugged straight into a Soundblaster Live! card - it's hardly audiophile level, but I do like things to sound good, and these headphones really do point out the flaws in a lot of music. Try listening to a modern "pop" CD through a decent CD player on decent headphones and you'll see what I mean.

After some investigation[1] and beating my head against the desk (and wondering if I was going mad), it turned out to be Windows that was to blame. In Control Panel -> Sounds and Audio Devices there's a "Speaker Settings" configuration option to "optimise" the sound for the kind of device you have attached. I'm not convinced it's of any real value, but people with 5.1 or 7.1 speakers playing stereo tracks may disagree with me.

I'd set the Speaker Setup to "stereo headphones", which seemed reasonable, but it appears out this can mangle the sound, causing it to suffer from clipping and sounding muffled. Changing this back to "Desktop Stereo Speakers" restored things to the normal clean crisp sound that it should be.

[1] Some of my favourite test tracks include: Queen - I Want to Break Free, Dave Brubeck Quartet - Castillian Drums, The Verve - Drugs Don't Work, Kruder & Dorfmeister - (Count Basic) - Speechless, Mendelssohn - Fingal's Cave, Richard Shindell - Transit, Barenaked Ladies - Break Your Heart, Matchbox 20 - Hang, The Pretenders - Hymn to Her, The Prodigy - Climbatize, and Gomez - Tijuana Lady.