Troubleshooting: When a Stereo Receiver Won't Make Sound

Spend less than 30 minutes to get your stereo speaker system working again

A young woman hooking cables to stereo equipment
When your stereo system or speakers won't play, it's time to start checking cables. Mika/Getty Images

The best of us have had it happen at least once or twice in the past. Speakers have been perfectly placed; all the cables have been meticulously connected; each piece of equipment has been switched on. You hit play on the audio source. And then nothing happens. Whether you've installed new components or it's simply your regular system that had been working fine only yesterday, it can feel terribly frustrating.

But don't throw that remote out of anger just yet! This is a great opportunity to practice some troubleshooting skills.

Troubleshooting a stereo system, which is similar to diagnosing why one speaker channel won't work, that is not producing sound begins with isolating the problem. The process can seem a little intimidating, but not if one proceeds carefully and methodically to rule out each possibility. Quite often it can be the simplest, silliest reason (you might get a chuckle out if it later on) as to why the system stopped working or just wasn't from the get-go.

The following steps will help guide through the common problems one can encounter. Just remember to always turn off the power to the system and components before connecting or disconnecting cables and wires. Then turn the power back on after each step to check for correct operation. Don't forget to leave the volume down low, lest you blast your ears once things are working fine again.

Difficulty: Average

Time Required: 30 minutes

Here's How:

  1. Check the power. This could seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised at how often this is the reason why electronics won't work. Make sure that all plugs are firmly seated in their respective sockets – sometimes a plug can slip out halfway and not draw power. Double-check that wall switches operating any outlets are flipped on (it's usually a good idea to connect equipment to outlets not toggled by a switch, whenever possible). Confirm that all units (including any power strips or surge protectors) in the system are able to turn on. If something won't power up, test it with another outlet/socket that you know functions properly. If that also doesn't work, then the equipment in question may require repair/replacement.
  1. Check the speaker/source selection. Many receivers have a Speaker A and Speaker B switch to toggle connected/extra speakers. Make sure that the right one(s) are enabled and check that the correct source has been selected, too. It's easily overlooked, but all it takes is an accidental bump or press of a finger on a remote to mix things up.
  2. Check the speaker wires. Inspect each of the wires leading from the receiver/amplifier to the speakers, paying close attention for damage and/or loose connections. Ensure that the insulation is adequately stripped and that the wires are inserted far enough to make good, firm contact with all speaker connectors.
  3. Check the speakers. If possible, connect the speakers to play from another known-working source in order to test that they still operate properly. This is made simpler if the speaker(s) in question offer 3.5 mm and/or RCA connections (along with a 3.5 mm to RCA stereo audio cable) to plug into something convenient, such as a smartphone. If the speakers still don't play, they may be damaged or defective. If they do play, re-connect them to the system and continue.
  4. Check the source component(s). Whatever you are using (be it CD, DVD, media player, etc.), test it separately from the system to make sure it all works. Then try switching the receiver/system to test each different input source (e.g. AM/FM tuner, 3.5 mm audio cable connected to a smartphone/tablet, digital input, video 1/2/3 inputs, etc) one by one. If the receiver works on some input sources but not others, the problem could be with the cables between the component(s) and the receiver. Replace the suspect cables and try the original component(s) again.
  1. Check the receiver. If all of the steps above do not work, it is likely that the problem is isolated to the receiver. If possible, connect another receiver or amplifier to the system and try again. If the replacement system works, then the problem lies with the original receiver. Now's the time to contact the manufacturer or service center for further advice or repairs and/or shop for a brand new unit.