Sounds frustrating! There’s an audio problem affecting users of any screen reader on some Windows computers, and it needs to be fixed

Introduction

This post is a written summary of an issue I described at length verbally in The Blind Side Podcast 91.

I’m producing a written version for two reasons. First, someone pointed out to me that the sound driver issue I described in the podcast is important, and of interest to some who are not usually podcast listeners.

Second, it occurred to me that by describing the symptoms of this Realtek driver issue and opening the post up for comments, it might be possible for our community to save a lot of time if we can collect data about machines or drivers to avoid.

As part of this post, I also provide a little feedback about my short-lived, unsatisfactory Microsoft Surface Book 2 experience, but I’ve marked up the post with headings, so you can skip past that background if you wish.

Problems with the Windows 10 April 2018 update

This tech adventure began for me when I installed the Windows April 2018 Update. I don’t run insider builds, because there’s only so much one can test, and I’m so dependent on my primary Windows device for my livelihood that I decided to leave it in the capable hands of others. But I was keen to get the April 2018 update on my system because of some useful changes to audio, such as the ability to assign any application to a specific audio device, even when the application didn’t provide the UI to do this. I installed it on release day and recorded a demonstration for The Blind Side Podcast.

I quickly found that the battery life on my laptop, a Toshiba Z30C which, apart from its atrocious speaker is one of the best laptops I’ve owned, had plummeted. Before the update and depending on the tasks I was performing, I could reach 12 or 13 hours of battery life regularly. With the April 2018 update, battery life was maxing out at about 3.5 hours and the fan was at full speed constantly. Typically, this is a very quiet machine.

I decided to roll back. Windows makes this easy and I’ve never had a problem with the process any time I’ve needed to do it.

I installed it a second time last weekend on 16 June, with the same results.

I don’t have to call Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk often, because I can research how to solve most issues myself. So when I do call them, it’s normally with unusual problems. Even so, I’ve always found the team there to be informed and helpful. This was no exception. The technician spent some time with me trying to resolve the issue, but in the end he felt that the best option would be to reset the device. This would take all my third-party applications with it. I have some good backup strategies in place, but it would still take time to do the job. I decided to roll back to the previous update for now and get on with all the work that needed doing.

I figured that I’d wait until what is likely going to be the October 2018 update in case that resolved the issue, and if it did not, I’d have to take time out, maybe over the summer break, and do the reset.

Surface Book 2 Serendipity

That Saturday evening, 16 June, a website ad caught my attention. One of the stores I shop with frequently was offering around $1,100 off a Microsoft Surface Book 2. There are a few Microsoft products with Surface in the name, so to be clear, this is the full-sized laptop with a button that causes the screen to detach and become a stand-alone tablet. Very clever engineering.

I went to the store, just to look. Even when a demo model is on display in retail mode, you can start Narrator, then run an app like Notepad to do a bit of typing and check basic responsiveness.

I thought about it, and reckoned I might be able to use my Toshiba as an insider build machine, while using the Surface Book as my primary, stable workhorse. After all, I figured that a Microsoft hardware/software combination would be tested extensively together. The biggest sacrifice for me was giving up built-in LTE. My Toshiba has this and it’s been incredibly useful to just power up the laptop and use it from anywhere, without having to be concerned about logging into Wi-Fi, or public Wi-Fi hotspots and their notorious security risks. There’s a Surface Pro tablet with LTE, but not yet a Surface Book.

I purchased the Surface book 2 with 16GB of RAM, 1TB solid state storage and the latest generation I7. Quite a beast.

I never got anything like the battery life that was expected. Despite extensive references in the literature to 17 hours, it was far less for me than the Toshiba I was relegating to insider builds. Initial performance was hellishly slow, until I realised that it had come shipped with the performance slider set all the way down when plugged in.

The Realtek sound problem

I had numerous performance issues and other niggles with the Surface Book 2, some of which I was able to resolve by changing default settings. I may have been able to resolve others had I kept the machine around. But having given you some background as to how I got here, now we get to what for me was the show stopper.

After getting to the point where I had most of my apps installed and configured, it was time to bond with this new toy and I sat down on the couch with it to keep working on my next book. At first, I was perplexed by what I was experiencing.

I’ve been touch-typing since I was eight, and that was a very long time ago now I can tell you. So I don’t have any keyboard echo enabled on my PC. When I need to, I can press keys to read the current line or word, or query the status bar to see how many words I’ve written. What I found was that it would take a little under a second for the screen reader, JAWS in my case, to say anything. My first thought was to wonder if some rogue process was bogging the CPU of this powerful machine down. But subsequent key presses were responded to snappily.

I ultimately worked out that if the audio device wasn’t playing any audio, it would go to sleep after a stunningly short 5 to 10 seconds. When I next pressed a key that required the audio device to play sound, there would be a delay as it woke up from a hibernated state. I didn’t lose any audio, there’d just be this infuriating delay before I heard it.

It’s one of the first things I do on any new machine, but just in case I’d missed anything, I double-checked to ensure all the sound enhancements and other audio gimmicks that can introduce latency into the audio stream were indeed disabled.

I also verified that the problem occurs irrespective of what screen reader is running. No matter what screen reader you choose to use, if your hardware/software combination is set up this way, you’ll be affected.

As part of the purchase of the Surface Book 2, I also purchased a Surface Dock for my office. That offers its own audio device, and when using it, the problem didn’t occur. It was limited only to the on-board sound, and seemed to be worse when something was connected to the headphone jack than when using the speaker.

I then researched the problem online and found others complaining about this same issue on a variety of devices. For some, the resumption delay was much longer than what I was experiencing. I don’t know if the speed of the hardware configuration might be influencing this. Interestingly, some sighted people don’t like this either, although I think you’d have to be a bit of an audio geek to care if you’re not a screen reader user. However, some certainly noticed that after pressing play on a file stored locally, the audio device was taking a while to respond.

The culprit, at least according to many on-line sources, is certain Realtek audio drivers, perhaps in combination with specific hardware. I’m annoyed with myself that because I was so busy trying to get a solution to this, I didn’t keep a record of the driver date and version, although I did try installing the latest drivers from Realtek’s website which resulted in no improvement. The drivers appears to implement a state, which may possibly be tweakable in the Windows registry that hibernates the sound card after a very short period of inactivity. One assumes that this is an energy-saving feature, and one thing I found about the Surface Book 2 in general is that it’s very aggressive about energy-saving techniques.

I then took the problem to Twitter, asking if others had seen anything like this. That unleashed quite the influx of responses, some by Twitter direct message, others in mentions, others through the contact form here on the Mosen Consulting site. People with Dell, Lenovo, HP and some other Microsoft devices all reported the problem.

However, it appears not to be as simple as saying that every device of every manufacturer affected has the issue. Some with other Surface devices couldn’t reproduce it. Some HP and Lenovo machines have it, others don’t.

I don’t have enough data to know whether the problem may be more widespread after the April 2018 update, but some correspondents told me they’d been grappling with this issue for some time.

Work-arounds

It’s not surprising that as screen reader users, most of us are not happy to take the productivity hit that comes from waiting for our audio to respond to a command. So what can you do if you have one of these affected devices? Here are a few options in order of complexity.

Contact Realtek and the manufacturer of your computer

This won’t make the problem go away immediately, but you deserve better than this and it needs to be fixed. In some of my recent speeches and blog posts, I’ve been talking about the concept of equivalency. In other words, would a sighted person put up with this if they had the equivalent problem? To my mind, the equivalent problem isn’t simply waiting for an audio file to play. For us, this problem affects how quickly and reliably we can get at information on the screen. If a sighted person’s screen was taking an age to refresh, and/or flickering, back to the store that PC would go unless there was a very quick fix.

Your money is just as good as anyone else’s, and in fact, given the socio-economic status of the blind community, the sacrifices you may have made to get that computer could have been greater than many others. Don’t settle for an experience that doesn’t meet your needs.

I understand that some blind people have contacted Realtek already, only to receive a generic “thanks for your feedback” message. That’s not a satisfactory response, and if you’ve received a better and more informative one, please let us know. Ask to have the issue escalated. At the very least, we should have an option in the user interface giving us the ability to toggle this hibernation off.

The manufacturer of your device might have more ways to have meaningful dialogue with Realtek than you do as a consumer. And after all, you are the PC manufacturer’s customer, while Realtek is their customer.

I’ll be interested to see what Microsoft, who after my description could duplicate the issue as I described it, will do in this regard. It’s a key test for them as far as I’m concerned, because as end-users, we know that accessibility doesn’t always equate to efficiency. This issue doesn’t affect how accessible the system is, but it certainly affects how useable it is out of the box for productivity and efficiency. The present experience delivers second-rate access for blind people on one of the most expensive devices in its class. I hope Microsoft owns that and gives us a fix, even if that involves using their leverage with Realtek.

Install and run Silenzio

Thanks so much to Piotr Machacz who let me know about an enterprising developer who wrote a little application to get around the problem. It’s called Silenzio and has been written by Stefan Kiss. This little app can be set to load at start-up and sends blank audio to your audio device. This keeps the device awake, and your screen reader will respond as you need it to.

You’ll find an icon in the system tray, allowing you to tell the app which audio device to send the blank audio to. It will use your Windows default device by default.

Play some audio

If you have the ability, record a few seconds of silence in a sound editor and play it on repeat in the background.

Use another audio device

Plug in an external audio device, such as a USB-powered audio interface or a USB headset. Bluetooth devices may also be an option, but they often include latency of their own and may turn themselves off quickly as well to save energy.

Power management settings in Device Manager

In some cases, you might find a setting for your audio device in Device Manager relating to power management that may help. I found no such setting, and although I’ve seen this solution suggested in several places, I’ve not seen anyone say they’ve been able to resolve the issue this way.

Install alternative drivers

No other device drivers talked to the Surface Book 2 for me, but on some machines, you may be able to make the problem disappear by installing generic Microsoft audio drivers to replace the dodgy Realtek ones. Some blind people have reported that on their systems, this has traded one problem for another. Specifically, the hibernation goes away, but it introduces some ugly hiss into the audio. As they say, your mileage may vary.

Please, please don’t do this if you don’t have a Braille display or a second audio device, be that a sound card or USB headset, to which you can route your screen reader. You might also obtain sighted help, including Aira with Zoom or Team Viewer. If it goes badly wrong, you could end up with no sound at all, and you need to think carefully about how you’re going to recover from that.

Here are some instructions as to how you might attempt this.

Registry changes

There may be some tweaks you can make to the Windows registry to resolve the issue. I don’t have a definitive set of steps proven to work at this time, so I won’t be irresponsible and link to anything here.

Conclusion

Those of us who’ve been using computers for a long time will remember how careful we once had to be about avoiding certain video cards and even processors. Remember in the old days how Doctor JAWS would examine your system to check for several issues that would impede a screen reader’s ability to function?

With officially-supported means for screen readers to get the information they need; blind people should now be able to have more confidence that a PC they buy will work. This audio issue represents a serious and significant threat to that promise.

Is this happening to you?

Are you experiencing issues with audio going to sleep very quickly and only waking up after a noticeable delay? Let us know in the comments with as much detail as you can manage. What make and model of computer do you have? What’s the name of your audio hardware and what driver is installed? Did you find anything else that resolved the issue for you? Did it start after an upgrade to Windows?

I’d welcome your comments. In the meantime, I returned the Surface Book 2 and am even more grateful for my little Toshiba Z30C with its built-in LTE, even if it isn’t running the latest version of Windows.

10 Comments

  1. Louise Redsull

    Hi Jonathan
    Thanks so much for posting this. Since you mentioned the issues you were having on the podcast I have actually experienced a similar issue in two different circumstances and feel the issue may be a wider issue than first anticipated.
    Firstly, this week I have purchased parts and built a brand new desktop computer. It has realtek drivers installed as standard and so far when using headphones or speakers connected to the rear of the computer there are no issues. However, if I set it so sound comes out of my Sony TV (which is being used as the monitor) the sound is very choppy and appears to cut out after about 2 seconds of use. When the sound does play there is about a second delay and the first part of the speech is cut off. The sound is travelling through a HDMI cable and the drivers being used appear to be Intel rather than the Realtek ones. Changing the driver had no effect. Due to the issues with the sound using the computer linked to the TV was unusable unless other audio was playing. Following your recommendation I have installed Silenzio and this has resolved my issue though I fully agree with you that we should not have to resort to running sound in the background.

    Secondly, I found the same issue has occurred when using a new bluetooth headset with both the new desktop and my IPhone. Again, it appears the sound card or headphone powers down after about 1 or 2 seconds of having no sound going throughit and whilst powering back up again the first bit of speech is cut off. I am hopeful use of Selenzio wil resolve this issue on the PC but this does not help if I wish to use the headset with apple IOS devices.

    Thanks again for drawing attention to this very important issue.

  2. Frank

    Things get old and stop working.
    Yes, that is what I originally thought about my old laptop. It is an aser that has served me as a multimedia playback device mostly due to the fact that it is a huge 17 inch screen beast.

    IT Originally came with vista, and has been upgraded to windows7.

    So when windows10 came out boasting of speed and better hardware performance enhancements I jumped on the wagon immediately.
    Only to discover that the sound which happens to be real tech suddenly came out sounding like a robot with a sore throat.
    Mind you, this was sort of happening with the windows7 upgrade, but I could use the generic Microsoft drivers and things were peachy after that.
    However, anything provided by the Real Tech web site in regards to my hardware specs was awful sounding.

    And windows10 did not disappoint.
    First thing I did was allow windows to check for Real Tech drivers, and the problem came back, this time, pops and snaps and crackles were added to the distortion in the audio.

    I figured I’d go back to generics, but guess what, they were broken too. This time the generics did not stay selected, and kept trying to reinstall the Real Tech each time I rebooted.
    Not only this, while they sounded somewhat acceptable for running a screen reader, music playback was atrocious. There were random pops, and millisecond cut outs that made the experience worst than listening to an old scratched record.

    Granted this is an old machine, and drivers have not been updated for the bios since 2010, but still given that many machines are still floating around and windows10 was supposed to economize on footprints, it was indeed a disappointing time for me.
    My only solution was to go to the Amazon machine and buy me an USB external sound card for about 7 bucks.
    This makes it so that the laptop always has to have it attached if I want any decent sound.
    In my case this is fine since the laptop sits at home plugged into the big speakers, and won’t go places. But just the same, even though it is old, and having heard account after account from people about sound drivers I feel a bit underserved.
    Also a bit surprised that more people have not complained about this all around considering we are in pretty much a digital music world, and Real Tech is not a small player by any means.
    But given the lack of ease getting around the web site, which seems to be in none US English with their own variations, I think I will call it a day.

    My biggest concern at this point is that if I do buy a new laptop, it might have the same issues as my old on the sound age notwithstanding.
    In that is not at all acceptable.
    For now, add me to the distorted Real Tech audio club.

  3. Arianna

    I’ve not been having this problem with my Realtech sound card, but I have been having another weird audio issue. Whenever a sound plays on my computer, particularly a Windows sound, such as the one that plays when you’ve reached the bottom of a document, I suddenly have speech cut off; this only happens at the start of my screen reader speaking the beginning of a line. For a three-sylibol word, the first two sylibols will be cut off; if it’s a one-sylibol word–forget it. I’ve solved this issue somewhat by turning down the sampling rate of the card, and of course I’ve disabled the Dolby audio, which always made things sound extremely echoy, which drives me nuts. This didn’t completely eliminate the issue, however, so I bought an $8.00 USD USB Technet sound card which works beautifully. I wonder if the two issues are related in some way.

    Thanks,
    The Midwife app hAri

  4. Colton Hill

    All the Realtek drivers these days will not let you uninstall them, you can attempt to uninstall them via device manager, uninstall the program, roll back to Microsoft generic, but when you reboot, there it is. I have been using USB audio being output from my microphone which happens to have a headphone jack for years, due to physical benefits. But on the computer, if I wish to use the headphone jack, one of two things may happen. Either the first 5-800 milliseconds of the audio is plain chopped off, making screen readers unusable mostly, or it has a delay/fade in effect. It’s similar to what you were describing, except a t sounds like an s and an f sounds like a v, at least with Eloquence. Due to my general USB audio, I haven’t had to deal with this problem too much, though I had to give up plugging it into my USB hub because it was causing rather bad pops/clicks and glitches in the sound, I figured out this is a byproduct of the hub being USB3 and the mic being USB2. Somehow plugging it directly into the computer fixes it, but this computer only has two USB ports! This is a Lenovo idea pad 320, it comes with dolby audio, didn’t have the echo stuff on it and actually has an accessible control, we’re making some progress there! Much better than that dell audio shit I have to deal with at school, I have to get sighted assistance to turn off the stupid room echo and autoleveling and bass boost on my speech when I plug in my NVDA flash drive.

  5. Ibrahim Gucukoglu

    Hi. I recently begun to experience this very same issue on a tablet computer I use when out and about, the Linx 12X64 which is a budget option rather like the Surface but without the fancy specs, however it gets the job done, or rather did get the job done until I installed the April 2018 update for Windows 10. I started noticing choppy audio quality when using any screen reader and like yourself, I did explore what power management settings might be in place that could be affecting the audio quality and I disabled any audio enhancing functions to try to minimise the problem which was becoming something of a distraction. Because I use Microsoft office on this machine, I decided that rather than trying to mess about with drivers, I would enable the Microsoft clicking and blipping sounds you get when performing certain operations. I also have sounds enabled when I am typing rapidly and Word is automatically correcting my spelling for me, something I find necessary when typing on the compact keyboard of this tablet. This prevented the sound card from going to sleep to conserve power but it’s not a solution if you don’t happen to use office unless your office suite has similar functionality. I have also reached out to Linx to try to get a resolution on this; they posted an updated driver file but this only corrected a problem with the Microphone. I hope this can help someone out there experiencing the same problem, incidentally my most excellent Dell Inspiron laptop which has a realtek chip doesn’t experience any audio clipping at all, which leads me to suggest that this is a product of over aggressive power management tweeks made by either Microsoft, Realtek or the manufacturer of the device. Installing the drivers from Realtek doesn’t help either because each manufacturers customisations are built directly into the Realtek driver install package, so oft times it’s just not worth the hassle.

  6. Chris

    Jonathan,
    For what it is worth I think this problem is a logical extension of the damage MS already did in the April 2017 release.
    In order to improve, in quotes, the sound experience somebody at MS has decided that filtering clicks when audio is first activated helps.
    What this does is change crisp beeps and other sounds to start muted and fade in. The fade time is in the nature of mili-seconds but it does make beeps in to weeps.
    If the channel remains open the effect is lessened but the gate closes so quickly it is almost impossible to do fine audio editing.
    On Windows7 it was possible to cheat and leave the channel open with the listen to option set to your device of choice with level 0.
    The April 2017 release of W10 took that option away by somehow closing the channel based on input source.
    So even with the listen to activated the channel still opened and closed based on wav out from the audio editor.
    I have tried to open tickets but the accessibility team doesn’t understand the problem.
    I have to run a separate computer just to do audio editing running W7.
    Audio is such an important part of how we all use our devices I just don’t understand why we are denied the tools and methods to solve silly problems like these.
    Speaking of the muting and fade note Apple did the same thing on IOS and now clicks when they are the first thing in a stream are almost silent.
    Note how audio fades in unless the stream is constantly active.
    Power and clicks be damned, I want audio instantly without smoothing to somebody else’s idea of an good audio quality experience.

  7. Shawn Thiel

    Hello,
    prior to mid April, when my Asus computer’s sound card would wake up, it would make a sharp pop, as if someone was being shocked with static electricity. I would play some brown noise that I used to block tinnitus, even though I was not wearing headphones,. Windows update then put me on some generic drivers which have fixed that issue thank goodness. I have a very slight delay when the card wakes up now, but no audio is lost and it is not severe enough that I feel it cuts into my productivity. However, I have not heard of anyone else having that particular issue. I should also note that I have the exact same laptop at work, with the same configuration, and they both had that particular problem.

  8. Kevin

    Hey Jonathan! I’ve experienced the same audio problem to which you’ve described. I bought this new Dell 2-in-1, it was so adorible looking, I love the 13 inch screen too. It came with this thing called max audio, which sounds really disgusting. I tried to replace the realtec drivers with the generic microsoft ones, and I couldn’t use a headset mic that I have properly. The headset portion would work, but since I was using generic drivers, max audio didn’t ask me what device I was plugging in, so it couldn’t choose the headset/mic instead of just a headset. Today, I sadly returned the Dell and got an HP, and was dealing with the same thing, so I had tried reverting to the generic drivers, and everything works great. I’m gonna miss that Dell, and it’s a shame that this one problem made me return the computer.

  9. Hope Williamson

    I had different sound issues with the 1803 update. There was an incessant clicking sound whenever I attempted to use a screen reader. I went back to 1709 and turned off the Windows update service. I still get random clicks every few minutes but it’s not every second like it was.
    This may be because I’m using one of those cheap USb audio adapters off Amazon. Apparently the speaker plug on the back of my tower is broken so it caused lots of strange issues, including speakers not working for a while and then working again lol. I’m not sure if switching drivers would help the situation,.

  10. Eric gonzales

    I’ve been experiencing this problem for a year now, so I can assure you that it’s been happening since before the Windows 10 1803 update.

    I bought an AlienWare 17 R4 in July of 2017 to replace an HP machine that bit the dust after 4 years. The AlienWare was a massive upgrade in terms of hardware and I was thrilled with it except for the one little problem of the audio.

    On my machine, the audio takes a full second to kick in, but cuts out in the same amount of time after the audio ceases. Worse, I can hear a faint audible “click” when it kicks off; as if it’s mocking me.

    The offending audio device is, indeed, Realtek Audio.

    After trying to update all drivers, chipsets, and anything else that might have been even slightly out of date, I was still faced witht he problem.
    I reached out to the manufacturers and got the designated perfunctory responses that equate to “Thanks for reaching out to us. We appreciate it. Go away now.”
    I knew I wouldn’t receive any sort of helpful info back as I’m sure these companies are only tangentially aware of what screen readers were, if at all.

    I tried the Microsoft Disability Answer desk route also. The first level agent proceeded to make sure everything was up to do, all audio enhancements were off, etc… All of the things I had already done. At a loss, she informed me that she didn’t quite understand the problem as described. Indeed it is a hard problem to describe when you can’t hear it and haven’t come across it. Even harder to describe is why it is such a big deal to a screen reader user.
    So, with no options left, I held the microphone of my phone to the speaker of my headphone so that she could hear it for herself. To my surprise, she actually could hear it and could also hear it kick off. She decided to look at my power plan options to see if that was where the problem was since it does seem to be a power saving “feature.” I had had this thought as well prior to the call and had maximized performance which she scaled back to the “balanced” option. Not only did this not help, but it reset some of the options I deliberately turn off on all computers. She wrote up my problem and kicked it up to a second level technician who would call me in a few days.

    In the meantime, I made a backup of my system and registry and tried the mentioned registry change that I also found online. No luck. It seems that Realtek goes through and changes the values back during startup. I was thoroughly annoyed and experiencing severe buyer’s remorse by this point.
    A friend suggested that I try using a USB headset to completely take Realtek out of the mix. I did, and what do you know, it worked. Yay!!!–except… Now I need to buy a USB C hub to expand my USB A port options. Then, I need to find and purchase a decent quality audio headset using USB for the input. I’m looking at another $200-$300 purchase. This laptop was already $2000. I simply shouldn’t have to continue spending money to use something that I paid so much money for effectively. “How is this right???” I screamed to the technology gods.

    I didn’t know about Silenzio until this post. It has dramatically improved my experience on this machine.
    Prior to this, I had decided to search YouTube for a video which was labeled “10 hours of Absolute Silence” which did the same thing that Silenzio does, but I needed to have a browser open at all times. I accepted my fate, set my browsers to open the window in a secondary tab on startup, and went about my days waiting for the 10 hours to silently expire at which point I would be blasted with audio from whatever YouTube deemed next in line for autoplay.
    This was particularly annoying and terror inducing when i would indulge myself in reading creepy pasta late at night. What can I say? There’s no defending yourself when you’ve spent hours combing through creepy stories, declaring that nothing is scary anymore, only to be left in a heap because the silent spectre of one of those stories has just been given a voice courtesy of Youtube providing an ad for the latest car on the market.

    Anecdotes aside, I’m happy to have Silenzio now and it has proven to be my only helpful option in this odyssey.
    Hopefully this issue can be solved in the future, but I’m going to keep Silenzio on a flashdrive tucked away for the future: just in case.

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