Microsoft's Windows 8 Poses Audio Problems

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - We're beginning to hear of some serious problems with Microsoft's ( MSFT) new Surface tablet computers and the just-released Windows 8 operating system.

This morning, The Verge published a story about hardware problems concerning Surface tablets and user reports on Microsoft support forums of splitting Touch Covers (with built-in keyboards). A story in The Guardian reports there are some Touch Cover hardware issues too.

There's also mention of widespread audio problems as well. The Verge calls them "random muting and audio stuttering". But those audio problems are not confined to Surface tablets. They go a lot deeper.

Actually, it's Microsoft's new Windows 8 and Windows RT operating systems that are the culprits. In our testing, TheStreet found major problems with the way the new Windows OSes handle - or in this case mangle - digital audio.

We encountered audio problems as far back as the first Windows 8 beta. Especially when trying to use a number of outboard digital-to-analog music converters or DACs, which improve the audio quality of digital music files. Laptops and digital music players do have built-in DAC circuitry, but it's almost always cheap and of lesser quality than outboard units. DACs which operate on the USB 1.1 standard, such as the Audioquest DragonFly and Audioengine's D1, produced loud clicking sounds after playing for a minute or two.

DACs which utilize the USB 2.0 standard had different problems. Since previous versions of Windows didn't support USB 2.0 audio right out of the box, you always needed to install special drivers. The Windows 8 betas wouldn't run those drivers.

Since I'm aware of all the possible problems trying to make beta software work, I figured Microsoft would fix the audio problems with its official release of the OS. I was only partially correct.

Using the same Lenovo IdeaPad U260, now running a full release version of Windows 8 Pro, and using either USB 1.1 or USB 2.0 DACs, the intermittent clicking - streaming via Spotify or Windows' built-in music software - was still apparent, but its level had been somewhat reduced.

Switching to JRiver's Music Center software reduced the interference even further. Now, the music interruptions were limited to every once in a while. But JRiver did have trouble operating in what is known as the WASAPI-Event mode, which some experts consider the best sounding choice.

Switching back to a trusted computer - one running Windows 7 (64-bit) - we had absolutely no audio problems with any hardware combination we tried.

The worst results came from trying our DACs with Windows RT. We tried getting our DACs to work with a shiny, new Asus VivoTab RT.

Since you can't add second-party software in RT, we couldn't install the drivers needed to run our USB 2.0 DACs. But both new OSes supposedly now support USB 2.0 audio devices. Still, that didn't really make much of a difference. All of our outboard DACs reproduced the loud clicking/stuttering sounds along with the music.

I've turned to the people at Audioquest, along with the man who designed their Dragonfly DAC, Gordon Rankin - considered the Godfather of high-quality DACs. I'm told this might be a problem with overloading software buffers - but since Windows 8 is so new, more time is needed to investigate.

Until then, Audioquest has posted a note on its FAQ page:

"There are some known issues with external USB-Audio devices, including AudioQuest's DragonFly, and Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system on some hardware platforms, as well as tablets running the Windows RT, including occasional and/or consistent clicks and dropouts. Microsoft is aware of these issues and working toward a fix."

Microsoft has not yet responded to TheStreet's request for comment on this story.

--Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

>To submit a news tip, send an email to: tips@thestreet.com.

Gary Krakow is TheStreet's senior technology correspondent.

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