Have you ever been relaxing in the blissful quiet of your home, only to detect an ominous sound coming from somewhere around your computer? At first, you don’t know what’s making the noise, but then you realize: the hissing sound is coming from the speakers! But why are they making that noise even when they’re not playing music?
To make a long and complicated answer more succinct — the issue is most likely with the wiring. You may have come to the same conclusion if you tried to get to the bottom of this problem on your own before looking up the answer. But in case you couldn’t crack the case, let’s talk about why many speakers make this hissing sound in the first place.
Why Is There a Hissing Sound Coming From Your Speakers When They’re Not Playing Music?
Speakers can make a wide variety of unwanted sounds that aren’t always easy to describe. Sure, tapping and clicking are easy enough to detect, but buzzing and hissing sounds are fairly similar. With that in mind, I can only encourage you to read my explanation of why some speakers buzz if you don’t find your answers here.
In any case, you already know the short and admittedly vague answer to your question today. But let’s clarify how wiring can cause speakers to act out like this. If the hissing sound has a structural cause, it’ll be in:
- The electronic circuit in the speaker’s amplifier
- Unbalanced audio input cables
- Grounding issues in the power supply cord
If your speakers have built-in amplifiers, you probably won’t be able to get rid of the hissing sound. Thermal noise is a fairly standard occurrence that you’ll have to live with. It’s somewhat of a non-issue, though you may be able to eliminate the sound with minimal intervention.
As for the other two potential causes, you’ll be happy to learn that the cords in question are easy to replace. You just need speakers that have individual ports for different kinds of cables. If yours don’t have that, you’ll have to upgrade to pricier audio monitors. Alternatively, you could downgrade to a cheap speaker set that probably won’t make the detestable hissing sound.
If the unbalanced audio cables are the underlying problem here, the issue may be exacerbated by electromagnetic interference. That means that the hissing sound would become worse when you approach your speakers. It’s not because of you, though — more likely, the culprit is the phone in your pocket.
Of course, phones aren’t the only things around that might have a magnetic field that’s strong enough to cause interference. Electronic devices like computers and Wi-Fi modems could have the same effect. In fact, different unbalanced cables could even trigger each other. So if you have a bunch of them lying around, you might want to separate them.
If the sound volume decreases after you’ve eliminated these variables, your speakers are probably using unbalanced cords. You can always perform a visual inspection to confirm these findings.
If you have professional audio monitors (which are more susceptible to this kind of noise), you’ll find several ports in the back of the speaker. If the audio input cable is connected to an RCA port, it’s probably unbalanced — those red and white audio cables usually are.
Quarter-inch instrument cables and 3.5 mm aux cords can also be unbalanced. Once again, you should be able to tell by simply looking at the jack. If it only has one black ring, it’s unbalanced. If it has two rings (like a TRS cable), it’ll have a balanced signal. But what does that mean?
Well, unbalanced cables only have two wires inside them — one carries the audio signal while the other is a ground wire that protects against interference. Balanced cables have an additional wire that carries the signal with a negative polarity, canceling out background noise and interference.
Potential Contributing Factors
At this point, you know everything that might cause speakers to produce a low hissing sound when they’re not playing music. However, there are other factors that could be making the noise worse. Namely, physical damage could make the hissing louder when the speakers are in use. Moreover, they might conceal the underlying cause of the noise you hear when the music isn’t playing.
For example, a blown speaker typically wouldn’t cause noise without audio input. If there’s a crack in one of the external parts of the speaker, such as the dust cap, the diaphragm, or the rubber surround, playing music would make the speakers produce a hissing noise. That could make troubleshooting the problem you’re currently dealing with more difficult than it needs to be.
So if you’re continuously hearing a hissing sound whether the speakers are playing music or not, consider that there are multiple issues you need to address. Hearing a hissing sound when your speakers aren’t playing music shouldn’t affect audio reproduction, but a blown speaker will. Therefore, taking care of visible physical damage on the speaker should take precedence.
On the other hand, if your only problem is with the wiring of the amplifier or unsuitable cables, the hissing should all but disappear when you use them to play music.
Should You Worry if Your Speakers Are Making a Hissing Sound?
Some speakers make that low hissing noise when they’re not playing music simply because they’re incredibly sensitive. When you do use them to play audio, that same feature will provide you with a rich listening experience. But that begs the question: should you even try to fix the noise?
You might have noticed that the potential causes I’ve mentioned above aren’t serious concerns. Unbalanced cables have enough benefits that we continue to use them. Similarly, the grounding pin in the power plug is there to keep your home or studio from burning to the ground. So even though these things may cause a hissing noise, they’re not bad or dangerous.
In fact, that hissing sound is often an indicator that the speakers in question are highly efficient. For example, high fidelity speakers, which can reproduce audio without noticeable distortions, tend to emit that subtle hissing sound when not in use. In contrast, cheaper, less sensitive speakers usually have quieter or even imperceptible levels of background noise. However, they also have much less interesting and, frankly, limited sound reproduction.
So if you want to escape that hissing noise, you might have to sacrifice audio quality. The volume of the background noise will decrease if you get speakers that have a lower decibel output. So there’s the first possible solution to your troubles — get speakers that are about 10 decibels quieter than the ones you have.
But really, if the background noise doesn’t bother you while you’re listening to music, you shouldn’t do anything about it. Ultimately, the hissing sound often disappears when the speakers get audio input. You could hear it for yourself by playing an empty FLAC file you’ll find online. If the hissing tone goes away, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
How to Eliminate Hissing Sounds Coming From Speakers
Of course, if you still find the background noise annoying and you’re unwilling to replace your high fidelity speakers with cheap ones, you could try some of the following solutions.
Turn off or Unplug the Speakers When You’re Not Using Them
If your speakers have a built-in amplifier, they may be consuming power even when they’re not getting an audio input. If that’s the case, you can avoid background noise by cutting their power when they’re not in use. Many speakers have an off switch in the back, but if yours don’t, you could simply unplug them.
But how do you know if your speakers have a built-in amplifier? Well, traditional, cheap speakers don’t consume power when they’re not receiving audio input. So they wouldn’t be able to produce the hissing noise you’re hearing even if they were loud enough.
Conversely, most studio monitors and higher-end speakers have individual power cords. That indicates that they have built-in amplifiers as well. Unlike regular computer speakers, these kinds of monitors don’t get their power through a subwoofer.
Rather, they have a direct line to a power outlet, allowing them to receive a constant supply of electricity. That’s precisely what makes them produce the low-level hissing sound we’ve been talking about. Nevertheless, the solution to this problem is fairly simple.
Most speakers with built-in amplifiers and individual power supplies also have power switches in the back. So if you just keep them turned off when you’re not using them, you won’t have to put up with any noise whatsoever. If your speakers don’t have that switch, you could either unplug them or flip the switch on the power strip they’re connected to.
Even without taking background noise into consideration, it’s best to keep these speakers turned off when they’re not in use. After all, they may overheat and become a potential safety hazard, which is the last thing anyone would want! Additionally, keeping them on increases the risk that they’ll be damaged by power outages or surges.
Use Balanced Cables
As you already know, using unbalanced cables can make your speakers more susceptible to electromagnetic interference. If that’s what’s causing your speakers to make a hissing sound even when they’re not playing music, you should avoid RCA and TS cables. Instead, opt for balanced TRS ones and shielded auxiliary cords.
If your speakers have a balanced quarter-inch port, use a TRS instrument cable. The acronym stands for Tip, Ring, and Sleeve, meaning that:
- The tip of the jack transmits the positive signal
- The ring of metal between two black lines is the negative signal that cancels out the interference
- And the sleeve part is the ground wire conductor, though that one also exists in TS cables
But what if your speakers only have the basic 3.5 mm jack port, as unlikely as that is? In that case, a shielded aux cable might prevent the possibility of electromagnetic interference. However, instrument cables tend to transmit better audio quality. So if you can choose between the two, go for the TRS cable.
On the other hand, if you don’t want to buy all new cables for any reason — after all, there are some benefits to sticking with unbalanced cables — there are other options you might try. Attaching your 3.5 mm aux cord to an audio ground loop isolator before sticking that into your speakers would eliminate most signal interference. Similarly, a DI box might make your unbalanced instrument cables less susceptible to noise.
Try the Power Cable Into a Two-Prong Adapter
We haven’t spent much time explaining how power plugs can cause the kind of sound we’ve been trying to prevent. It all has to do with the three-pronged plug on the male end of your speaker’s power supply cable.
If you’re using regular type B plugs and outlets, the flat pins will be your standard AC power conductors. However, the third, round prong, is the one you should be paying attention to. Its main mission is to provide grounding and, ideally, prevent your home from bursting into flames in the event of an electrical accident. Unfortunately, grounding pins can also be the cause of the high-pitched sounds you might interpret as hissing.
Because of that, many people take it upon themselves to rip that prong out, as shown in this video. And to be fair, that method is effective, in that it eliminates any kind of excess noise. But as much as I hate to admit it, noise isn’t the only issue we have here. As we have established, that third pin is by no means an extraneous part of this setup!
So instead of ripping out the only thing that’s standing between you and an electrical fire, get a grounding adaptor. These add-ons allow you to convert your three-pronged type B power cable plug into a two-pronged type A one. However, you should still make sure they’ll be compatible with the kind of power outlets you have in your home before making your purchase.
Enjoy High-Quality Sound Without Background Noise
If you can hear a hissing sound coming from your speakers when they’re not playing music, it’s probably a matter of magnetic interference. The two things that could make your speakers more susceptible to that kind of thing are unbalanced cables and grounding issues with the power cable. Fortunately, both items are easy enough to replace. Even if your speakers don’t have separate ports for different kinds of cables, you could get new ones that do.
But ultimately, unless the noise is interfering with your listening experience, you may not have to fix it at all. Just turn off or unplug the speakers when you’re not using them and you won’t have to hear the hiss. Remember: hearing that background noise when the speakers aren’t playing music is probably an indicator that they are highly sensitive. So enjoy your listening experience when you can and keep the speakers off when you’re not in the mood.