How to instantly switch audio sources in OS X

If you have your Mac connected to different audio input and output sources, having to switch between them can be a process: You have to open up System Preferences, click on the Sound preference, and toggle the Input and Output tabs to find the right source. Or do you? Here's a much faster way to do it.

The Mac is well-designed for audio media management. Whether you're just listening to music and podcasts, or whether you're a professional musician, the Mac has abilities (and complicated software tools and workflows) to suit you.

So it's easy to get your Mac set up with audio inputs ranging from USB interfaces to the digital audio input, output including Bluetooth speakers, AirPlay and more. And keeping track of what audio is routing through which device can get to be a bit much to manage, at least if you're doing it all through the Sound system preference.

How to add volume to the menu bar

You're probably familiar with the volume level manager in the menu bar. If not, let's get that out of the way first. Here's how to turn it on:

  1. Click on the menu.
  2. Select System Preferences.
  3. Select Sound.
  4. Check Show volume in menu bar.

Yosemite sound preference

Now click on the sound icon in the menu bar. You can adjust the volume of whatever speaker is selected for output at present.

How to get more volume menu bar options

If you hold down the option button on the keyboard and then click on the sound icon in the menu bar, you'll see a different menu appear. Now you can select whichever sound input method you'd like, and if you do it again, you can select whatever sound output method you'd like.

Obviously this has its limits: If you have really complicated audio workflows, you may not see all of your options listed here. And if you're trying to manage multiple devices at once — let's say AirPlay speakers throughout the house, for example — you may have to resort to iTunes or whatever app you're using to control audio instead.

But this offers a quick and easy way to redirect audio into and out of your Mac without having to deal with the Sound system preference, so that's something.

Any questions?

Any trouble with this? Or have any questions, comments or thoughts to add? Let me know!

Peter Cohen
16 Comments
  • Thank you! awesome shortcut that I will use frequently.
  • Do you have any idea how to do this when using VoiceOver? Sent from the iMore App
  • Thanks imore! I was doing it wrong the whole time Sent from the iMore App
  • The fact that the new iMacs only have one connector for both audio input and output is what is keeping me from buying a new model to replace this one. I use both jacks. Connected to the input is my XM-PCR radio, yes it's been around for ages and streaming can replace it, but it still works, sounds better than streaming and doesn't use up bandwidth. The audio output jack is connected via fiber optic to my Logitec 5.1 speaker system. I'm not even sure that I could have this setup at all with one of the new iMacs. Not having separate audio input and output is ridiculous. If this is not the case, or if there is a solution to this, someone please let me know.
  • You can use USB for audio input, like for a USB mic or audio interface (My Korg Kronos keyboard outputs both MIDI and audio through USB). I have more than one audio input, each going to a USB hub. Lightening can work the same way at least for interfaces. It can be best to select the audio source from within the app you are using, such as Logic. Still, this option-key method is actually pretty handy.
  • Yeah, I have a Griffin iMic and can use that. I'm not a real fan of having to have all sorts of dongles attached, but that will have to do if I ever decide to upgrade.
  • amazingly simple haha
  • Is there a way to do audio output based on application? When I answer a call on my Mac Mini, I am getting an echo because my USB speaker phone is picking up the sound from my external speakers. I would like it to auto switch to the speaker phone for audio output while on a call, but play out of my external speakers for other computer applications. I can manually switch but would prefer to not take that extra step. Thanks!
  • Awesome! For some reason AirPlay began working for me yesterday for the first time to allow audio (not iTunes) output from my mini, running Mavericks, to play on the amp/speakers I have connected to my AirPort Express. I was happy about that, but it was still cumbersome to go into System Preferences to switch outputs. But now, here comes this article explaining a quick easy way to switch the audio I/O. Cool. Thanks!
  • I'll try this, but my friend who has a Macbook Pro is having issues switching his audio to come out of an HDMI TV. We try to hook it up but all the audio still comes out of the macbook speakers. I plugged in my SP3 using the same adapter and my tablet pushed the audio through the TV with no problem. Could someone maybe clarify this problem for me? There is no other output options in the system preferences> sound menu. Thanks. Sony Z3, Nexus 5, or Surface Pro 3
  • I know on my apple tv I have to set the sound output to the apple tv first before mirroring the display. Try that :)
  • Hi, I have a problem which is driving me crazy, and it would really save my day (or several months), if someone know a solution.
    I use the mini DisplayPort on my MacBook Pro (2010) to send both picture and sound to my Sony HDTV (2013) via HDMI. I have done this for a very long time with great succes, great picture and great 5.1 sorround sound. But suddenly my reciever only recieves a 2.0 signal from my mac/tv, and I cant figure out why or how to get the 5.1 sound back. My setup is the following:
    MacBook Pro --> (mini display port) --> tv --> optical cable --> reciever.
    I have the precise same setup with my Apple tv, and it works perfectly with delivering 5.1 sound through HDMI to the tv, and then through optical to the reciever. But why cant I get it to with my MacBook anymore?
  • Check Audio MIDI Setup in the Utilities folder and check the audio output settings.
  • Thanks for the quick reply. I have already tried that, but I only have a option for stereo sound. The 5.1 option is "greyed out".
  • It's possible to design more complicated outputs; although not necessarily to AirPlay speakers. This tells you how to specify aggregated audio sources, so, in theory, you can click an option to send audio to an external sound card as well as bluetooth headphones, for example - http://music.tutsplus.com/tutorials/quick-tip-use-multiple-audio-interfa... These aggregate 'sound cards' will then show up under the audio settings alongside the stock outputs. I've used it myself to send audio to a Numark Mixtrack Pro, while the monitor audio goes to my bluetooth Sennheisers.
  • Wowww ! Option key & hitting Volume slider great option. I use volume slider daily but never came across this.