Under The Microscope

Apple’s Newest Macs Include Better Built-In Audio Devices

Late last month, Apple finally shipped updates to two of the most neglected Macs, the Mac Mini and MacBook Air. While the prices have unfortunately crept up, these are solid updates worthy of consideration by anyone looking for a new desktop or laptop. Better still, they include a nice little surprise when it comes to audio: two distinct audio output devices!

Output Devices on Old Macs vs. New

On older Macs, the headphone jack and the internal speakers are essentially separate ports on a single output device, and only one of these ports is allowed to be active at a time. Because of this, audio can be sent to either the built-in speakers, or the headphone jack, but not to both. As well, if anything is connected to the headphone jack, the OS shuts off the built-in speaker completely.

With these new Macs, there are actually two distinct output devices. The headphone jack and the internal speakers are separate devices, completely independent from one another.

This change means it’s possible to send different audio sources to each outputs. Below, you can see this in action, with Audio Hijack being used to route audio from iTunes to a pair of external headphones while audio from Spotify plays to the built-in speakers.

Send Sound Effects to the Built-In Device

Perhaps the most obvious way to take advantage of these two devices is to send the Mac’s sound effects to the built-in speakers, while using the headphone jack for music and other audio. This way, you’ll never be jarred out of a good listening session by an error message beep blaring over your music.

To split things up, head for the “Sound Effects” tab in the Sound System Preference. There, you can configure the “Play sound effects through” setting to use the the device speakers set the Sound Effects.

Make sure your headphones or speakers are being used for the standard audio output device (as configured in the “Output” tab), and you’ll be all set.

More Powerful Audio Control, With Audio Hijack and Loopback

Both the aforementioned Audio Hijack and our audio routing tool Loopback are useful for working with multiple audio devices at once. With older Macs that effectively only had a single audio output device, however, you needed to have external audio devices to do any sort of routing.1 These new Macs mean powerful audio routing is possible with nothing more than a pair of headphones.

Auto-Switching Still Works

When you plug a pair of headphones or speakers in to the headphone jack on any modern Mac, MacOS automatically switches your output to that new device. Likewise, if you unplug from that port, audio will immediately go back to your built-in speakers. This behavior is still present with these new devices, with the headphone jack still prioritized.

Microphone Capture

While these new Macs don’t have any jacks dedicated to audio input, it is still possible to get audio in to them without any dongles, using headphones with a built-in microphone (TRRS headsets). This includes Apple’s older Ear Pods (with 3.5mm connector), as well as most modern headphones designed for use with smartphones. Just plug in a compatible headset, and your Mac will recognize it as an input device.

Good Housekeeping

Note that if nothing is plugged in to the headphone jack, the OS will hide that output away. This is mostly just good housekeeping, as it prevents you from sending audio to what is effectively a muted device. As soon as a pair of headphones or speakers are plugged in to the new Macs, that second device will appear, ready for use.

iMac Pros and 2018 MacBooks Pro, As Well

In the course of researching this, I asked friends and colleagues to test several other recent Macs. It appears that distinct output devices are also present in both the MacBooks Pro Apple released in July of this year and the iMacs Pro which started shipping at the end of 2017. It looks like this is a function of the new T2 chip Apple is using in their latest Macs.

Hopefully, this trend will continue in all future Macs. Though it’s a small change, it’s nice for users to have the ability to use multiple audio devices built right in.

Conclusion

For years, we’ve heard from folks who had all sorts of reasons for wanting to use their Mac’s built-in speakers separately from the headphone jack. Until now, we had to explain that it simply wasn’t possible. Thankfully, that’s finally changed. We’re eager to hear about the many ways users take advantage of this new functionality.


Footnotes:

  1. Worth a quick mention: simple USB audio adapters are readily available for under $10, in both USB-A and USB-C form factors.

    These devices enable you to quickly add extra audio devices to any Mac. ↩︎

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