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Improving Skype Audio in Windows

Tech Tip 109 - Improving Skype Audio in Windows

By Scott Nesbitt

Sunday, Jan. 14, 2007

ContactsSkype is arguably the most popular Web telephony service out there. Using Skype, you can easily make calls from one PC to another, or from a PC to telephone -- anywhere in the world.

One common complaint about Skype is that the quality of the calls varies widely. If you've used Skype for any length of time, you know what I'm talking about: echoes, sound delays, the sound dropping out, and even calls being dropped. There are a number of simple changes that you can make to both your system settings and the settings of your Skype client software to improve the audio quality of your Skype calls.

Setting Up Audio in Windows

control panelOne of the first steps that you can take is to configure the audio settings in Windows. To do this, click Start > Control Panel and then double click Audio Devices. Make sure that on the Volume tab, the Mute option isn't selected.

Click the Audio tab. If the Sound Playback and Sound Recording options are set to the Windows default device, select a new option from the Default Device dropdown lists.

Next, click the Advanced button below the Sound Playback option. On the Speakers tab, select the kind of device that you're using to listen to Skype calls from the dropdown list. Since I use a headset when making Skype calls, I chose Stereo Headphones from the list.

Audio PropertiesAlso, make sure that your volume settings aren't too high or too low. On the Volume tab, click the Speaker Volume button. This opens the Volume Control panel.

Adjusting the Line In and Volume Control settings to around the mid-point or slightly higher is usually good enough. But you may need to fiddle with the volume settings to get them where they're just right for you.

Setting Up Audio in Skype

VolumeIn Skype, there are a few settings that you can change to improve the quality of the audio. Click Tools > Options > Sound Devices.

If the Audio In and Audio Out options are set to Windows Default Device, select another option from the dropdown lists.

OptionsOn my PC, for example, I selected SoundMax Digital Audio. Also, make sure that the Let Skype adjust my sound settings option isn't selected. While Skype tries to make your sound the best it can be, it doesn't do a great job. You're better off manually tweaking your settings.

Internet and Wireless

Skype requires a high-speed Internet connection. However, not all high-speed connections are created equally. Some Internet Service Providers offer so-called “lite” and “extreme” high speed services. The lite services are somewhat slower and while sufficient for Skype, they're not always the best. If you can, upgrade to a faster high-speed service.

I've also noticed that Skype often works better with a cable Internet connection than with a standard DSL or ADSL connection, which uses your phone line. Phone lines can be quite flaky, and if there's a short in your internal wiring (like the one that forced me to switch to cable), then your Internet connection and Skype calls will be unreliable.

If you're using Skype with a wireless Internet connection, ensure that the signal from the wireless router is strong and reliable. I came to understand the importance of this while my wife was studying in China last summer. She called me using Skype via a wireless node in a Starbucks in Beijing. The wireless signal was poor, which caused sound drop outs and echoes. After a few minutes, the call was dropped entirely. With other wireless connections, including the one in my home, this has not been a problem as long as the computers were within 10 meters (about 33 feet) of the wireless router.

On top of that, you should make sure that your router has the latest drivers and firmware (the software installed on the router that controls it). You'll need to visit the Web site of your router's manufacturer to download the drivers. And check the documentation for information about how to upgrade the firmware.

Firewalls

A firewall running on your PC or wireless network can prevent or hinder Skype from connecting to the Internet. To enable Skype and your firewall to play nicely with each other, you'll need to open all of your computer's ports to allow outgoing TCP connections. An open port is simply a small opening in your firewall that allows data to pass to and from your PC. When opening an outgoing TCP port, you're only allowing data to leave your PC. It will not leave your computer or network more vulnerable to attack.

If that doesn't work, many people suggest opening only port 80 and/or port 443. These ports are commonly used to connect to the Internet using the HTTP protocol (which enables you to browse the Web).

Other Things That You Can Do

Fiddling with your system and Skype client settings isn't the only way to improve the quality of the audio in your Skype calls. There are a number of other things you can try, the first of which is to use a proper Web telephony headset.

Some people try to use a microphone and their PC speakers, or the microphone and speakers built into their laptops, when making calls with Skype. That's not the best thing to so. The sound from the speakers can generate feedback in the form of a painful high-pitched squeal. At the very least, you'll get some echo. You can get a decent headset for under $20 (USD).

You might also want to consider using a USB headset or even a USB phone. There are a number of them available that are designed to work with Skype. A USB headset or phone can give you better quality. How? Using a conventional headset, sound is converted to digital within your PC. A PC can be quite a noisy place, electrically speaking, and this bleeds into your audio. With a USB device, the conversion is done before the sound hits your PC.

Sometimes, other software can steal bandwidth from Skype. When you notice this, try not to make Skype calls while uploading or downloading large files, or visiting Web sites with heavy graphical and multimedia content.

Try to find a quiet place to make your Skype calls. Microphones, regardless of their quality, can pick up a lot of background noise – like your computer's fan, air conditioning, or the washing machine.
When making PC-to-PC calls using Skype, try to get the people to whom you're talking to optimize the settings of their Skype clients and system sound. Point Windows users to this TechTip, or get them to visit the Skype online forums.

Testing Your Audio

Contact WindowThere are a couple of ways to test your connection and audio hardware. One is to make a call using Skype. If you don't have anyone to call, or just want to do a quick test, then use Skype's automated Echo123 service. Echo123 enables you to determine whether or not your audio and hardware -- like headset, speakers and microphone -- are working properly.

To call the service, type echo123 in the address bar at the bottom of your Skype client.

The Echo123 service answers your call. You'll be asked to record a short message, which will be played back to you. You should be able to hear what you said. If not, you'll need to keep tweaking.

Conclusion

The audio quality of your Skype calls depends on a number of factors. With a bit of simple tweaking, you can noticeably improve the way your calls sound. The quality of the sound may never be perfect; this is especially true for PC-to-phone calls using Skype. But you can eliminate much of the echo and background noise, and that goes a long way to making your Skype experience a whole lot better.

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