Now Hear This


Even with modern Linux distributions, the inconsistency with onboard audio devices makes using headphones and microphones a hit-or-miss venture. When things work, they work great, but when things don’t work, it’s generally tough to get them going.

Thankfully, there is an audio standard that seems to work pretty consistently across operating systems: USB. Although the thought of purchasing additional hardware to get sound into or out of your Linux machine might seem a bit frustrating, USB audio devices tend to have better sound quality than the cheap onboard audio devices that come with most laptops and desktops.

Now, because I’ve given you this tip, you’ll probably never need to use it. Still, it’s good to know USB audio is very supported under Linux, and the devices are fairly standard. Plus, it’s easy to add multiple audio devices with USB audio, which makes things like podcasting much easier!


Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.


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USB audio adapter to work in Ubuntu

Mauricio.Mora's picture

Please, suggest a good surround 5.1 or 7.1 USB audio adapter to work in Ubuntu Karmic or Lynx.


Tech question: USB and ALSA (or OSS)

El Perro Loco's picture

1) From a purely technical point of view, what would be right to say about USB sound: is it a "module", a "sub-system", a "driver" or what?

And then:

2) What is its relationship with ALSA (or good, ol' OSS, if that's what is installed)? Won't USB sound depend on ALSA? And if so why should it be easier to get working?

I've been an eternal Linux newbie for some ten years now (yeah, that's right), and sound is the second (*) most confusing topic for me. Why is it so difficult, sometimes, to get working properly?

I'll appreciate if somebody can point me in the right direction (some especially useful link). Or, you know, if Linux Journal runs an article about it. ;-)

(*) Just in case you are wondering: the first one is making a reverse VPN tunnel over SSH from behind a firewall using the command line for using VNC. I think I can't even phrase it right...

Indeed, USB sound typically

Arnout Engelen's picture

Indeed, USB sound typically depends on ALSA, using the generic 'snd-usb-audio' driver.

Say again?

smpratz's picture

Sorry, Shawn, but what does your post mean? Are you recommending headphones and mics that plug into my USB port, or soundcards with USB out? Yes, I'm totally serious (and laughingly uninformed if the latter isn't even an option).

Is something like the USB -> audio jack adapter mentioned above a viable option if I really-really-really love my current headphones?

As things stand I have no audio problems with my hardware and Ubuntu. I'm just curious about the current state of the art.

you've got to be kidding...

Anonymous's picture

Do you seriously want the author to explain himself to you personally because you have a problem with reading comprehension, and not your audio hardware? I've always heard that the *buntu freeloaders only want something for free, but gimme a break!

Relief for an old laptop

OtakuN3rd's picture

Its a relief to know that USB sound is supported, I have an old Compaq Armada that runs Xubuntu quite nicely, but the onboard sound is shot (though it is a supported chipset)... but then again, so is the one and only USB port, though I do have a CardBus USB adapter...

Music Hall

davidc's picture

I was a little worried when I went USB but was happy with how easy it all worked out. I got a Music Hall "DAC 25.2" (see here) and it works like a champ. For input, I have an old griffin imic (usb) which has also been flawless.

I've since ripped all my CDs to flac and now have a hard time listening to low quality sources. It has made me a bit of a snob I guess.

USB audio has certainly

waparmley's picture

USB audio has certainly bailed me out on a couple of laptops. As Ubuntu has evolved so has support for the on-board sound in those computers (thank goodness, since I blew out one input channel on my external USB sound box while experimenting with a software defined radio receiver).

My current desktop has an unsupported sound card that I have gotten working with OSS, but if it's still not supported in Lucid I think I will just pick up another USB sound card. I guess I could just wear my Logitec USB headset all the time, but that seems rather extreme!

USB Headphones....

zak89's picture

I have also had success with USB headphones; they usually use USB 1.x, and are supported with little effort.

Just be very careful about USB audio devices that support more than 2x2 channels.

What you might check into is

D. Taylor's picture

What you might check into is a USB -> audio jack adapter like the StarTech ICUSBAUDIO USB 2.0 to Audio Adapter. It's $15 at Tiger Direct...

Sort of....

zak89's picture

This tip is true to an extent. USB audio devices < 2.0 are almost all supported natively in Linux, since the vast majority of USB 1.0/1.1 audio devices are standards complient. However, the USB 2.0 gen of audio devices is a disaster as far as standards go; it is almost impossible to get most popular USB 2.0 audio cards to work on Linux; all require proprietary drivers that are only available on Windows or OS X.

However, most simple 2-channel (stereo) USB audio boxes are still on USB 1.1 (less expensive); these work almost without exception. As a rule of thumb, these pre-2.0 devices don't require drivers on any OS (this will usually be advertised ont eh package) and because of the bandwidth restrictions of USB 1.x, they are usually only two channel (2 in; 2 out). In linux they show up as a generic stereo USB Audio device and work perfectly. I use the Behringer U-Control UCA202; simple, small, works like a charm in any OS.

An external unit's ound quality will almost always exceed built-in hardware, particularly when recording, where the signal is vulnerable to interfereance from the innards of the computer.

Have a lot of fun!


Mervaka's picture

"USB audio devices tend to have better sound quality than the cheap onboard audio devices that come with most laptops and desktops."

Citation needed, seems quite an unfounded comment. Single chip USB audio devices exist (such as the TI PCM2901) as well as the breakout boxes. Some are better, some aren't. All depends on the device.

Good Point

Shawn Powers's picture

When I wrote that, I was actually thinking about individual USB devices, like USB microphones. Using such devices over the traditional cheap onboard mic jacks (even with nice analog mics) tends to be nicer.

And it was a generalization. Since I'm not an audiophile in the least, my opinion is certainly not gospel. :)

Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.

to be honest, there are much

Mervaka's picture

to be honest, there are much weaker links in the chain than your audio interface. the worst problems you'd experience as a result are SnR, jitter and perhaps quantisation distortion, but while most pc users have terrible 2-3in speakers, that would be the least of their worries.

those single chip devices are leaps and bounds ahead of their predecessors in terms of suppression of the above symptoms. the SnR of the PCM2901 is 96/89dB out/in respectively, which is about as good as it gets for 16 bit resolutions (96dB is the biggest dynamic range achievable for 16bit PCM audio)