It’s a bit out of date now, but Car Talk was once the cornerstone of NPR for many. Two brothers from Boston that could diagnose a car problem from a description of the sounds the operators heard. To the best of our knowledge, a Click and Clack for computers doesn’t exist.
We don’t have the charm of the Tappet Brothers, but we do know that computer noises carry meaning. A computer, much like a car, always makes some sounds when running. That’s the signal of power running through the components and the many moving parts moving.
Not all sounds are business as usual. Some indicate poor seating, loose mounting, or sad cabling. A few sounds indicate the imminent death of your precious computer.
Read on and listen closely to learn what these sounds mean and what you can do to remedy the problems.
A Rogue’s Gallery of Computer Noises
Different components make one sound when operating properly and another when running towards failure. Determining what component is making a certain sound isn’t always easy either.
Like with any other machine, testing individual parts normally requires specialized equipment. Trust your gut and reach out to a repair service if you encounter a worrisome noise you can’t address.
We’ve grouped the sounds together. We’ll list what each sounds like and what it means to your components.
Spoiler alert! the majority of sounds listed come from fans.
Baseline: a computer running well without problems under low load falls in the 30 decibels (dB) or less range. At max load, you aim for 65 dB. That may sound like a small change but decibels work on a power of 10 system, from 30 to 40 is 10x the sound.
Anything above 85 dB hits the harmful noise level range.
Fans make the majority of noise in your computer because the do the most bulk work. They move air and air carries sound waves.
When an object, such as hair or a wire, gets stuck in a fan, it makes a clunk! sound as it stops or skips through the obstruction. Inspect your fans for clearance if you hear repeated clunks.
The biggest worry is the fan chipping away at wires, which will eventually short something. Second to that, the fan is dying from damage to the spoke. Replace the fan to avoid temperature variance.
Clicking noises once represented the majority of bad sounds for a computer. Dying hard drives make clicking sounds as the needle part of the hard disk reader skips about. Normally it’s accompanied by a high-pitched whining sound of the drive spinning extra fast as it endlessly searches for data it can’t read.
With the advent of solid-state drives and m.2 slot drives, the clicking noise seems to be on its way out.
Coil Whine, the other Clicks
A combination of buzzing and clicking that sounds almost like sparks coming from your PC causes shivers of terror. Is the system about to explode in a burst of electricity?
No. The problem here is both better and worse.
This combination of sounds, often heard when gaming at high and ultra settings, comes from the graphics card. Coil whine isn’t an actual problem. It’s a resonance harmonic of the capacitors.
The sound is unnerving and ranges in volume. It’s something that happens sometimes and offers no performance hindrance.
It’s also considered cosmetic damage, so you often can’t get a warranty replacement for it. You can fix some coil whine by adding a GPU support or attaching rubber bits to absorb the harmonic.
Hail of Beeps
A single beep when you power on the system is a good thing. That’s the sound the BIOS makes to alert you it’s loaded. Most motherboards come with a small pin-driven speaker just for this sound in case there is no onboard audio.
A series of beeps, on the other hand, represents a problem. The BIOS beeps multiple times to send an audible error code meant to help a technician diagnose errors when there’s no monitor output available.
If you hear a string of beeps and the BIOS runs, and the system boots, you still want to check for errors. Reverting to a previous BIOS version or checking the manufacturer website for updates are good steps.
Beeps also indicate failing RAM. Run a mdsched.exe to confirm memory errors.
Turbines to speed, old chum. When your system starts sounding like its ready to take you to the mayor’s office for the scoop on what Ceasar Romero’s got up to this week, you have a problem.
This sound comes from your fans ramping up to max rpm to dispel waste heat. If you hear this for just a few seconds, it’s more likely the system fan controls haven’t taken over.
You expect to hear this sound when the computer is under heavy load, depending on your specs. If you do ultra settings gaming and have a blower-style GPU, this sound comes with the territory.
Hearing this for long periods of time without running more than the OS is a sign of thermal problems.
A system should idle at about half the max temp listed for the CPU. If your system often approaches max, it’s time to address your cooling systems. A simple cleaning might be in order or you may need to improve performance with different airflow or new fans.
Speakers, either external or built into the monitor, make popping sounds when the woofers power up. Minimize this sound by turning down the volume during startup. Otherwise, unplug and ground the cables to remove any excess charge.
Rattle and Hum is both an older U2 album and a sign of power supply struggle. The sound comes from the fan inside struggling to move. A bad PSU fan means a failing PSU.
Get the PSU cleaned or replaced sooner than later to avoid cascading failure.
Sounds Like Success
With enough practice and training, your ear becomes a finely tuned diagnostic tool.
Next stop — a prime time drama with the smartest person in the room detective solving crimes through computer noises. Well, probably not that, but you have what you need to address your home PC issues.
Any further questions? Reach out and contact us with questions.